Event Recap: A Night of Total Destruction

Written by: admin

Bringing about the apocalypse is easier than you think.

On April 4, The Exchange hosted A Night of Total Destruction at the Directors Guild of America in Los Angeles. The event brought together four leading experts and a packed audience of filmmakers to discuss a variety of exciting (but very real) ways to trigger the end of our civilization. Of course, for filmmaking purposes only.

Jon Spaihts (writer of The Darkest Hour and Ridley Scott’s Prometheus) led an evening of lively, entertaining, yet thoroughly unnerving, discussions on topics ranging from neuro-weapons that can influence the human brain to the imminent danger we face with natural disasters.

 If you have been searching for new ways to manipulate the cognitive and decision-making abilities of an arch nemesis, look no further. James Giordano (Director of the Center for Neurotechnology Studies at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies) started the night with a fascinating look into the use of pharmacological agents and organic toxins as weapons to target the human brain. But it was his presentation of neuro-nanobots – tiny (smaller than a single cell) machines that can be inhaled and act as a radio-frequency transmitter inside the unsuspecting host – that truly captivated the attention of filmmakers in the audience.

Next, Philip Plait (author and host of Discovery Channel’s “Phil Plait’s Bad Universe”) upped the ante, proposing that we should think beyond attacks merely at the individual level and consider ways in which the entire planet could be a target. As an expert in astronomy, he presented interesting scenarios in which our own sun, in its cyclical activity, could modify the magnetic field of Earth and ultimately destroy it (and a lot sooner than you might think). Other phenomena, such as supernovae and gamma ray bursts, are also threats to our planet that he believes have yet to be fully explored in the movies.

Then, Tom Jordan (Director of the Southern California Earthquake Center) generated the most nervous laughter from the audience with four ominous words: “It’s been too quiet.” In Tom’s talk, he explained how massive earthquakes occur in intervals of about 150 years. In the case of the famed San Andreas fault line, this means it is currently “locked and loaded.” Once initiated, it could trigger an even larger chain reaction, as the San Andreas is actually part of a broader network of faults. A computer simulation of the event helped to illustrate the potentially devastating and widespread consequences.

By this point in the evening, the audience reached what screenwriters call the “all is lost” moment. Even Jerry Zucker, Vice Chair of The Exchange, later joked that, “after this, everyone here is going to be rushing out to buy water and food supplies.” But, in true Hollywood fashion, there came a ray of hope in the form of the final speaker’s topic. Patrick Dolan is a Technology Evangelist from Esri, a privately held company that develops geographic information systems (or GIS). These are disaster response tools that help integrate information from a variety of sources to map problems and find solutions.

Despite an increased awareness of these threats, which will undoubtedly induce nightmares for days to come, the audience had a great time. What made this event so successful is that the presenters are not only experts in their respective fields, but are also fans of motion pictures. As such, each of their talks showcased how strong, narrative stories can emerge from real scientific concepts. Events such as these can help writers and scientists become collaborators to deliver authentic science in an entertaining format. As Corinne Marrinan (an Academy Award–winning writer and producer) said of the event, “What I love most about tonight is that it allows me to embrace my inner geek.”

Erica Lang is currently a graduate student studying at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. Her background is in Biology and Pharmacology, and she has worked in both the academic and industry settings. Erica believes that her past experiences and appreciation for the field will help her to champion for more science-themed projects in film and television.

The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.