The Most Unknown

Watch the Trailer for 'The Most Unknown,' Motherboard's First Feature Documentary

We sent nine scientists across the world on a quest to explore the biggest questions in science, all to find out what drives discovery.

ByDerek MeadandThobey Campion

In a world where the knowledge we gain from basic research faces a variety of threats ranging from apathy to outright antagonism, how do we make people care about science? For one, we can start with asking scientists why they're doing the work in the first place.

We're pleased to share the first trailer for Motherboard's first feature-length documentary, titled The Most Unknown, which explores some of the biggest questions in science: What is dark matter? What is consciousness? Where did life come from? Is there life elsewhere in the universe?

Directed by Ian Cheney, who you may recognize from such films as The Search for General Tso and King Corn, the film features nine scientists from multiple disciplines meeting each other for the first time in a series of encounters rooted in their work. The film is an experiment, one in which we posited that by tossing scientists who'd never met into a petri dish of our own design, we'd learn something about what it means to dedicate one's life to questions we're not yet sure we can answer.

We're also pleased that the The Most Unknown's world premiere will be March 16 at the CPH:DOX film festival, where it was selected as the opening film for the festival's CPH:SCIENCE program. This is a good time to shout out our incredible cast and crew, including Ian, our co-producers Lindsay Blatt and Xavier Aaronson, editor Daniel Quintanilla, researcher Erik Franco, supervising producer Elliot Kirschner, and our fellow executive producer Greg Boustead. And yes, Werner Herzog himself advised on the film.

We're aiming for spring for a full release of the The Most Unknown, which means it will be available in one form or another via online streaming services, a theatrical and screening run, right here on Motherboard, and YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and wherever else we can spread the good word of discovery.

Basically, there's a lot more to come. But since this is the first time we've gotten to talk about a film that we've been working on for close to two years and which we've very much come to love, indulge us in talking a little bit about where it came from. One thing we knew we didn't want to do was to create a science film focused more on a result than the process itself.

In 2016, when we first started discussing making some sort of film, we couldn't stop talking about this transactional nature of how many people view research: If you're not solving MY problem, why are my tax dollars funding it? All the way in 2018, it feels even more necessary, when this transactional view of science underpins a number of threats to basic research—from federal budget cuts, from institutions tasked with supporting science, from the fact deniers and so-called "intuitionists,"

We asked Ian why he wanted to make a film structured as a chain of meetings around the world, versus the more common format of big question → incredible search → hardship → amazing result, and he was, as usual, the eloquent one:

"Making a science film without focusing on the results of particular scientific experiments was an experiment unto itself, but it seemed like a powerful entry point into what excites scientists about science: the process. The not knowing. The wondering," he said. "Perhaps putting aside the usual questions—What’s the answer? What does this mean for me?—provides a strange new window into what propels scientists so deep into the unknown."

The common focus on the end product versus the line of questioning—planting a flag in a known versus trying to solve an unknown—runs counter to the entire process of science. But this misperception is embedded in many of the forces hampering support for scientific research.

The Trump White House has slashed federal funding for basic research, a dramatic acceleration of a decades-long shift away from federal funding of basic and applied research towards larger-scale private funding for the development side of R&D. Funding cuts tend to affect young scientists the most; the Trump cuts are enough to cause, as the Atlantic put it, a "lost generation" in science research.

"The question of how much of the universe is understood is very much a moving target."

And whether it's something as concerted as climate change denial, or the passive apathy caused by average people reading a dozen blog posts about whether or not red wine is good for your health and throwing up their hands, it's become too easy to dismiss empirical evidence—the result of years of hard work—as little more than politically motivated from a bunch of elitist eggheads.

Results obviously matter in research. But breakthrough results, the information that changes the world, start with smart lines of questioning. If finding dark matter were as simple as saying "go find dark matter," we'd have found it by now. The hard part is in figuring out the right way to ask the question in the first place.

Showing science in its true light, as a product of many smart people dedicating themselves to the process of discovery, is the best way to understand why we search for answers in the first place. And the best way to focus on the process, versus the results, is to look at the work of researchers trying to answer questions we're not yet sure we have solutions for.

Expect to see a lot more of The Most Unknown on Motherboard, so for now we'd love to leave you with a quote from the film, courtesy the geomicrobiologist Jenn Macalady, who took us deep into some Italian caves as she searched for evidence that can shed light on very early life.

"The question of how much of the universe is understood is very much a moving target," she said. "When we stand in a new place because we learned something new, we're able to then see other wonders that were not even visible to us before."

The Most Unknown was supported by a grant from Science Sandbox, a Simons Foundation initiative dedicated to engaging everyone with the process of science.