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In more theaters soon: science and cinema

Grant lets Coolidge Corner’s idea grow

The Coolidge Corner Theatre has paired talks by scientific experts with films since 2005. The Coolidge Corner Theatre has paired talks by scientific experts with films since 2005. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)
By Beth Teitell
Globe Staff / January 17, 2012
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The director of MIT’s Center for Theoretical Physics does not usually prepare for a lecture by watching a Keanu Reeves film. Then again, he doesn’t usually speak about “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.’’

But unusual preparation is required for Edward Farhi’s Jan. 30 talk at the Coolidge Corner Theatre as part of its Science on Screen series. The independent Brookline movie house will show the 1989 film about two slackers who go back in history, and Farhi will discuss the feasibility of time travel.

“The laws of physics allow it,’’ the professor said in a preview, “but the movie isn’t technically accurate. You can go forward in time, but not backward.’’

The Coolidge has been pairing talks by scientific experts with films since 2005 - and now the theater is poised to have its own starring moment. With the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, it will announce a two-year, $463,426 grant to continue expanding its science series nationally.

The grant to the Coolidge comes at a time when getting people to leave their homes to see a movie can be a challenge - and as science and technology play an increasingly larger role in daily life, said Doron Weber, vice president of programs at the Sloan Foundation.

“It’s an effort to give people a deeper understanding of the way the world works,’’ he said. “Sometimes science and technology can be intimidating, but it’s not like some aliens came down and imposed science and technology on us. It’s us.’’

The Coolidge and the New York-based foundation will select 20 independent nonprofit cinemas in 2012 and another 20 in 2013 to receive $7,000 grants to develop their own Science on Screen programs.

Last year, through a pilot grant, eight art house theaters were awarded grants to bring Science on Screen to their communities.

Winners decide how to spend the grant money, but common costs include renting films, staff time, promotion and advertising, or speaker honoraria.

Recipients will be required to host at least three Science on Screen programs, and one movie must feature a past recipient of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Feature Film Prize or a Sloan Screenplay Development grant.

“This program is not about overloading you with knowledge,’’ Weber said. “It’s about stimulating you. It’s not homework. It’s recess. It’s meant to be fun.’’

And what fun it’s been. Audiences have heard Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, author of “Stumbling on Happiness,’’ talk about the nature of happiness before watching “American Beauty,’’ the 1999 film about a depressed suburban father.

A state epidemiologist discussed science’s ability to handle new biological threats, an issue brought up by the 1971 film “The Andromeda Strain.’’ The executive director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute discussed advances in stem cell research in conjunction with “Sleeper,’’ the 1973 movie in which Woody Allen plays a health food store owner who ends up being frozen after an ulcer operation and wakes up 200 years later.

Moviegoer Rachel Greene, 29, a marketing executive from Brookline, said hearing a biologist talk about animal mobbing behavior before watching “The Birds’’ gave her an appreciation she would not have otherwise had for the 1963 Alfred Hitchcock film.

“When you are watching the movie you are thinking about the way that birds really do flock and it’s not complete science fiction,’’ she said. “You are kind of laughing because it’s an old movie, and it’s kind of ridiculous, but it still makes you think that this isn’t a completely unbelievable notion.’’

Aimee DuPont, 34, a tech support specialist from Worcester, heard Carl Zimmer, the award-winning science writer, talk about “12 Monkeys,’’ Terry Gilliam’s 1995 film about a future world ravaged by a virus outbreak. “I didn’t know viruses could be so interesting,’’ she said.

Attendees aren’t the only ones who are interested in the series, which gets promotional support from the Museum of Science. The scientists like it, too, said Richard Anders, a Brookline scientist and film buff who helped conceive the program and provided seed funding.

“You might have difficulty getting world-class scientists to come out during the week to speak to a lay audience’’ said Anders, co-managing director of Rubin/Anders Scientific and founder of Mass Medical Angels, an investor group, “but when you give them a chance to connect their work to the movies, it’s a new experience for them.’’

Steven Schlozman, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, loved talking about the theoretical neurobiology of zombies in conjunction with a screening of the 1968cult favorite “Night of the Living Dead.’’

In preparation for the 2009 talk, Schlozman wrote a fake medical paper for himself, and at the Coolidge discussed explanations for zombies’ signature behavior traits.

“Why are they always hungry? It could be a tapeworm, but if we’re talking the brain, then the hypothalamus must be messed up in zombies. Why are they not walking well? Their cerebellum must be off.’’

The talk led to a friendship with George A. Romero, the zombie film director, and a novel, “The Zombie Autopsies,’’ which Romero is making into a movie.

With its grants, the Sloan Foundation hopes to broaden people’s interests, but in at least one case, it was the speaker who had his universe expanded.

“I don’t think I’d be exaggerating to say [the talk] changed my life,’’ Schlozman said.

Beth Teitell can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.

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