“The Most Beautiful Moment in Science” Captured on Film

Christopher Mims gets an exclusive preview of the documentary Naturally Obsessed: The Making of a Scientist, and interviews its co-creator

Naturally Obsessed: The Making of a Scientist is the best film ever to depict what goes on inside a real science lab — period.

Above is one of the first scenes in the movie. It introduces one of the protagonists, a graduate student named Robert Townley. Go ahead — watch it.

Now, keep in mind that that what you just watched is a documentary.

Naturally Obsessed tracks a handful of scientists in training for three years — three frustrating, professionally grueling, personally taxing, and ultimately triumphant years in the lab. If you are not punching the air with glee by the end of this film, you are an automaton.

All this wonderfulness (did I mention that the film is also funny?) is no doubt due to the exceptional circumstances of the making of this documentary — but before we get into that, let’s let the film speak for itself.

Here’s another clip. This one is a snippet of a conversation with Lawrence Shapiro, the principle investigator of the lab recorded in this documentary. Look him up: he’s a bigshot.

(I should at this point thank the filmmakers for giving me so many of the best moments from their film. As enjoyable as these are, I promise I held back and left the very best for those who see the film itself.)

Here’s the last one. This depicts, as one panelist put it at the panel that followed a screening of this film at the City University of New York, “the most beautiful moment in science.”

One of the reasons Naturally Obsessed is so good is that it was produced by a pair of legends in their own fields, now retired. One is a scientist, and the other a educator for whom filmmaking is life’s second act: Richard and Carole Rifkind.

In other words, the only sort of people who could, or would, dedicate themselves to three years of documenting the saga of three graduate students and their mentor, followed by another year of editing.

Unfortunately, Naturally Obsessed is only showing at festivals — I believe the next one is the Atlanta Film Festival, but you can check the Naturally Obsessed blog for more up-to-date news.

For anyone still reading, I had a chance to interview Dr. Richard Rifkin, who in a previous career has accrued hundreds of publications to his name and is responsible for at least one key anti-cancer drug. Here are a couple of tidbits from our conversation:

What inspired this film?

I saw it as a kind of an experiment — that’s what I’ve been doing my whole life. You think of a question and then you think of a technology to answer that question.

During my entire career I had the feeling that ppl don’t know what goes on in science. They know the products — they like their computers and medicines — but they don’t know how anybody got there.

It’s been such a rewarding career for me that the issue was how to share that.

It seemed to me the democratic technology for sharing now is documentary film — so I set myself the task as I’ve done with other techniques in the lab — learn the technology and do it.

I think the advantage we had is that we were prepared to spend as much time as it took to do it.

How is the film being received?

The most exciting thing to me right now is that I see — we’ve had a couple of screenings — two or three of them for an audience of scientists, and [the audience] was very emotional.

But last night we showed it at [City University of New York] to a totally diverse audience — it was really a lay audience — and they actually got it just as well as the scientists got it. They were enthusiastic, they got the jokes — that was the real success — I wasn’t trying to capture scientists but lay people.