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Me & Isaac Newton

"Uncharted territory is the only one worth going into." That credo is at the heart of Me & Isaac Newton, a prize-winning 1999 documentary focusing on the personal, creative, intellectual, and at times spiritual drives behind seven scientists working in fields as diverse as artificial intelligence, the nature of space and time, the mysteries of the mind, and wildlife in the Peruvian rainforest. This could so easily have been dry, dull stuff, the "Science: Our Super Friend" sort of thing we were made to watch in seventh grade. Instead, this is a deeply personal, almost voyeuristic look at seven men and women who are pushing out the scientific frontiers. It was directed by Michael Apted, most familiar for his groundbreaking documentary series that began with 7 Up and continued most recently with 42 Up, in addition to a companion piece focusing on seven artists, Inspirations. Apted also directs feature films: Coal Miner's Daughter, Gorillas in the Mist, Gorky Park, and the James Bond entry The World Is Not Enough. While he may have told Agent 007 where to point his gun, it's Apted's sure hand at the art of the documentary that keeps Me & Isaac Newton from crumbling under the weight of its heady material. His attention is on the people here, individuals who may know much more about cosmic forces or biological systems than we do, but who are also as human and real as we are. Me & Isaac Newton offers a conversational, often poetic, combination of interviews, on-location footage, and personal photos and film of its subjects, emphasizing their influences, motivations, private epiphanies and obsessions, their childhood experiences, tragedies, dreams, and fears.

Take Michio Kaku, for instance. Continuing Einstein's work, this theoretical physicist and co-discoverer of string theory began the journey to his exploration of hyperspace and parallel universes at age 17, when he built an atom smasher in his mom's garage (Flash Gordon serials on TV helped too). Well-spoken and passionate — qualities shared among all seven subjects — Kaku believes the meaning of life lies within ourselves and he finds inspiration in the subway and ice-skating rink ("When Iím out there on the ice," he says, "itís just me and Isaac Newton"). Maja Mataric, after emigrating from Yugoslavia as a teenager, blended her interest in art with a talent for computer science and now makes robots for a living. Gertrude Elion, 81, one of only 10 women to receive the Nobel Prize in Medicine, had her greatest ideas after age 60. "Science to me is almost like a religion," she says. "To me science is truth and truth is beautiful."

Others here include a cancer specialist who's a pioneer in gene therapy; an MIT cognitive scientist fascinated by language and the infinite complexities of the brain; a Brooklyn housewife who, without a degree, took her family to study monkeys in South America and never left, instead starting a lemur preserve and saving a rainforest; and an Indian environmental scientist, intrigued by a spinning top as a child, now creating accessible solutions to problems afflicting third-world countries. They speak of the toil and triumphs of their work, the importance of luck and persistence and of taking risks, and that moment when "the light goes on," when they were forever changed by a passionate love affair with discovery. Through them Apted demonstrates that what inspires scientists is very similar to the creative forces behind artists, writers, musicians, or anyone else with a "calling."

Apted's vision and skill as a filmmaker provide Me & Isaac Newton with lush cinematography, mindful editing, and effective musical scoring. The pace gets to be a problem toward the final third — once the film hits its relaxed cruising speed it stays there a bit too long — but the quality of the content outweighs that subjective nit. What these seven individuals have in common isn't only that they're hard-working professionals. They share a driving sense of wonder about nature's mysteries, plus a compulsion to transform that curiosity into social responsibility, into ways of improving the condition of humanity (and other species) on this planet. After all, they say with humility and awe, science is what's going to save the world, and who wouldn't want to be part of that?

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Home Vision's DVD offers a clean letterboxed transfer (1.85:1) from a flawless print, while audio is strong and clean in DD 2.0 stereo. There are no extras other than a summary slipsheet. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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