Current times require scientists to clearly communicate complex concepts to the general public. Christopher Riley, a planetary scientist by education, has mastered the art of telling a scientific story with his films and books. In our interview he tells us about his motivations and beliefs, and explains how he manages to convey scientific concepts to the general public.
Especially in the current era of misinformation and conspiracy theories, it is of utmost importance that scientists convey scientific concepts to the general public in an understandable manner. However, this is not necessarily an easy task. Christopher Riley is a scientist who has mastered the art of scientific storytelling with his documentaries and books. Coming from a PhD in planetary science, he became a successful Bafta and Emmy nominated writer and filmmaker. In the following interview, he tells us about his motivations for telling a scientific story, difficulties he needs to overcome when doing so, and shares insights into his recent project where he mapped Martian landing sites on Earth.
Q: What brought you from being a scientist to being a filmmaker and writer?
A: Growing up, as a child, I’d always been attracted to science documentaries on TV. I loved the stories that they told, and the characters they featured. They gave me a real love for science, which was further nurtured by my mother and father. My mother was a teacher and my father was a professional chemist, and an amateur naturalist and astronomer. It was their encouragement which propelled me initially into science.
But I soon realised that what I loved even more than science was seeking out and telling other people’s stories. So, after my first degree in geology, I chose a University to do my Ph.D. where I could also start to write for the student newspaper, and learn how to make radio programmes.
I wrote and broadcasted prolifically during those years of my doctoral research, and made good friends with other students who went on to join the BBC. This got me my first breaks into the media at BBC radio, when I finally finished the Ph.D., and those freelance jobs eventually led to BBC television and a dream job as a series researcher for a big landmark factual series that the BBC’s science department made in the late 1990s called The Planets.
I absolutely adored this job, and would work late into the night speaking to planetary scientists and even the odd Apollo astronaut, in the quest to find the right stories to tell. I spent almost 3 years doing that job, and it taught me a lot about documentary filmmaking. I stayed with the BBC almost 10 years before moving on to work for a host of other production companies and broadcasters around the world.
These days I spend most of the time writing books or making documentary films. Writing books can be quite a lonely job, so I try not to do it exclusively. When I’m working on a book I like to try and work on other things at the same time. Making films is also mostly about writing too – but films are complex multi-faceted projects that involve teams of people, and so that’s a great antidote to the isolation of writing books! It’s nice to be part of a team.
Q: What are your motivations and inspirations? How does your passion for science reflect in your work?
A: I’m motivated by the process of science, as a human endeavour. It’s possibly the greatest ethos we’ve cultivated as a species. When applied properly it has such power to reveal truths about the world and the Universe.
I’m a firm believer in rational evidence-based decision making. Such an approach to life is increasingly vital to shape and steer our interconnected lives. My films often try and hold up a magnifying glass to those who practise science in this way, to further our knowledge.
Q: How important is the proper communication of science to the general public in your opinion? How do you approach the communication of complex concepts in your documentaries?
A: For democracies to be healthy its citizens must be informed and engaged in matters of science, technology and medicine and free to openly discuss and debate it in an informed and accurate way.
So part of the job of science communication is to try and nurture an appreciation of the science that affects all our lives. When science isn’t communicated well, citizens, and therefore nations, often make poor decisions; as we are seeing in some countries whose populations are rejecting the COVID-19 vaccines, or those whose governments have been slow to accept the reality of the climate crisis.
In this age of noise and misinformation, the task of the science communicator is more important than ever. But it’s also a lot harder, as facts become easy to dismiss as mere opinions; even when you have hard data to back them up. I still live in hope that for most people, if you can get them to understand a topic, and then you show them the data, they can come to their own, more informed conclusions. Good storytelling can help to do this. Maybe that approach can serve to arm them against those who seek to mislead the masses with untruths.
The other thing I think good science communication has the potential to do is to convey the sense of wonder about the natural world, and the magnificence of how cosmic and planetary forces and the physics of evolution have given rise to and shaped life. Furthermore, when you consider the chemistry of DNA, and the random twists and turns of sexual reproduction, it’s utterly incredible that you exist at all, here in the Cosmos, as a sentient being. The chances of YOU existing, as you are right now, are vanishingly small. That thought often raises my spirits and makes me get out of bed in the morning, to make the most of my brief time here. I believe this thought is one of the greatest gifts that well communicated science has to offer.
Q: Given the broad reach of your work, do you consider yourself an educator? What are the implications of your work?
A: I’ve always tried to pass on my experience in storytelling and filmmaking to the next generation of filmmakers, by teaching and lecturing whenever I can. So in that respect I guess I’m an educator – but I think the best way to learn about filmmaking is just to do it. What I really love to do is to nurture the confidence in someone to just pick up a camera and make their first film. Anyone fortunate enough to be making a film is one of the luckiest people on the planet at that moment.
Q: Please tell us about your latest project “Worlds Apart” for which you mapped Martian landing sites to locations on Earth. What are the key takeaways?
A: Worlds Apart is a photographic project, which attempts to juxtapose the landscapes of all our Martian landing sites with the equivalent views of these same locations here on Earth, in terms of latitude and longitude.
The original reason I started this project was to draw attention to the fact that Mars is an entire world, with lots of different geographies and regions just like Earth. Often the way it’s reported on the news makes it feel like Mars is just a single place called Mars, and I thought this would be a way to convey that it’s an entire planet like Earth.
The other thing, that people often seem to think, is that every new view from the surface of Mars looks the same as the last one. So I thought that by comparing these spots visually side by side, we might see the differences. There might even be as much variety in Mars’ landscapes as there is here on Earth.
Surprisingly what I discovered from these comparisons is that Earth feels less varied than Mars in some places (although of course much wetter). What shocked me was that there wasn’t much evidence of life visible at these sites on Earth, and because these locations are so remote, there was no evidence of humans!
Even the recent Perseverance landing site, which maps onto a more inhabited spot near Telangana, north of Hyderabad, is still quite rural with little sign of humans. And China’s Tianwen-1 landing site is equally remote, mapping onto a site in Yangshuo, rural China.
Since NASA’s latest landing in Jezero crater in February, I’ve been trying to find someone who can travel to the spot near Telangana, in Southern India, to take a photograph of it for me. But so far, partly due to the restrictions of the pandemic, it’s proved impossible. Amusingly it feels harder to get a picture of this spot on Earth than it was to get a picture of the same spot on Mars! If anyone has any ideas about this, do drop me a line. I’d love to hear from you.
Overall though, I think the message of Worlds Apart is an environmental one. Earth has not always been as habitable as it is at the moment. In contrast, the barren, dusty red Mars of today was wetter in the past – and probably quite habitable. Every new view we get from the Martian surface is a reminder of just what we have to lose on Earth.
Q: What other projects are you currently involved in and what are your future plans?
A: I’ve just finished a new film for Disney and National Geographic in the series Drain the Oceans, which will be out later this year. And I’ve just started making a new film for the BBC. But I can’t talk about either just yet. Sorry!
In our interview, Christopher Riley, scientist by training and filmmaker and writer by profession, described how his work is motivated by the process of science as a human endeavour. In the current era of misinformation, Christopher hopes that – with the help of good storytelling – he can bring people to come to informed conclusions by helping them to understand a topic. But he also has a more romantic goal he follows with his work: conveying the sense of wonder about our world and life. Whatever goal his work has, Christopher’s stories are engaging and informative, and we are looking forward to seeing more of his work in the future!
Interview: Anna K. Stelling-Germani and Christopher Riley