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Scientist Dan Siegal-Gaskins and writer/director Mike CahillOn a cool, mid-summer Los Angeles evening just after sunset, filmmakers and film lovers gathered in an intimate theater on the 20th Century Fox Studios lot for a night of wonder, beauty, and science. Organized by The Science & Entertainment Exchange and the Sundance Institute, the event kicked off with a screening of Mike Cahill’s new science-fiction feature film I Origins. The film was winner of this year’s Sundance Institute’s Alfred P. Sloan Prize, an award presented to outstanding films that focus on science or technology as a theme, or depict a scientist as a major character.

The film follows the lives and loves of two molecular biologists as they unravel an earth-shaking discovery that could alter the foundation of humanity, challenging both faith and science. In the film, much attention is paid to the human eye, both in its stunning photographic beauty, but also in its science and evolution. After the screening, a biologist from Caltech, Dan Siegal-Gaskins, joined writer/director Cahill for a Q&A discussion of the film, its themes, and its portrayal of science.

Together they illuminated the room, driving thought-provoking discussion on the life of a scientist in the lab, the battle between science and spirituality, different kinds of love, Siegal-Gaskin’s research in synthetic biology, and today’s fascinating and strange cutting-edge research into the biological evolution of the eye. Dan Siegal-Gaskins, Mike Cahill, and moderator Anne Lai Of particular note was a real experiment referenced in the film wherein blind worms are genetically modified to develop eyes and the ability to see. The discussion kept the entire audience rapt with its power and mystery and truly deepened the meaning of the film itself, serving as a reminder that sometimes fact really is stranger than fiction.

Photo credit: Emil Chang

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.