The Gonzo Scientist

Do Scientists Like Green Porno?

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Science  25 Sep 2009:
Vol. 325, Issue 5948, pp. 1620
DOI: 10.1126/science.325_1620b

Two weeks ago, at the Toronto International Film Festival, I introduced the actress Isabella Rossellini to a group of scientists dressed as reproductive organs. "I'm a marmoset penis," said Miriam Diamond, an environmental chemist at the University of Toronto wrapped head to toe in flesh-colored felt and capped with a tall, conical phallus. She was followed by Sian Gramates, a fruit fly geneticist at Harvard University whose face was obscured behind a manifold of shiny black plastic covered in coarse bristles. "These are the genital plates of the male fruit fly," Gramates explained with a slight Tennessee drawl. "I also have the fruit fly penis," she added, extending a bright yellow stuffed hand puppet from beneath her black frock. Rossellini later asked her how such tiny structures were studied. Gramates described the needles and surgical scissors used to dissect fruit flies under the microscope. Rossellini was fascinated. I should note that I made these introductions while suffocating beneath a thick mantle of white feathers and a long, helical mallard phallus sprouting from the top of my head.

This all began in April when I first encountered Green Porno. Like millions of other people, a scientist friend e-mailed me a link to the Web site with the subject line, "You have to see this!"

What I saw was a series of very short films--between 1 and 2 minutes long--featuring Rossellini dressed in elaborate animal costumes. In each, she paints a miniportrait of an organism, describing key features of its physiology and behavior, in particular its reproductive biology. "If I were a snail, ..." says Rossellini to the camera in this episode, "I could withdraw my entire body." In a full-body leotard, she slides on slime into a giant paper mock-up of a snail shell. "I could hide both my vagina and my penis. I have both," she adds with an impish smile. A few seconds later, she and another snail are mating, stabbing each other with "love darts"--the hormone-laced lances used by some species to initiate courtship. "Sadomasochism excites me," she says, sighing with pleasure.

"Green Porno began as an experiment," says Rossellini. Fellow film icon Robert Redford challenged her to create a series of online shorts for the Sundance Channel. The constraints: "It had to work on a small screen, it had to be brief, and it had to be cheap," she says, because she was given a tiny budget. "It also had to be about the natural environment in some way." Her solution: Green Porno, a series of cartoonlike vignettes about the sex life of animals. "I want to give people a sense of wonder about the natural world," she says, "to make them fall in love with it and want to protect it." The first season's episodes were all about backyard invertebrates. For the second season, she teamed up with conservation biologist Claudio Campagna and focused on marine creatures. (Watch a video of my interview with Rossellini and Campagna at www.gonzolabs.org/greenporno.)

The question of whether the public at large likes Green Porno is settled. Since it debuted online in January last year, Green Porno has gained a cumulative audience of some 5 million unique viewers. The series won two of the coveted Webby awards. Its popularity has been driven by the sort of viral spread that brought it to my attention, each fan infecting the next through blogs and e-mail. The combination of biology with Rossellini’s charisma--as well as the naive charm of Rick Gilbert and Andy Byer’s arts-and-crafty set and costume design--seems to have hit a cultural nerve.

But what about scientists? Do they like seeing their discoveries transformed into sexy art? Following up on Rossellini’s experiment, I undertook one of my own to find out.

What's Ahead

All Illustrations: Katrien Kolenberg

Materials & Methods

Isabella Rossellini donated a dozen free tickets for scientists to attend the 11 September 2009 debut of Green Porno season 3 at the Toronto International Film Festival. Subjects were recruited from a broad range of scientific fields, including astrophysics, zoology, molecular biology, and chemistry. All but three subjects had not been exposed previously to Green Porno, so all were instructed to watch seasons 1 and 2 online. Two nonscientists were included as a control group. The gender ratio of subjects was 50% male, 50% female.

The film debut was to include an onstage conversation between Rossellini and her marine biologist consultant, Claudio Campagna, followed by a public Q&A about environmental conservation. Rossellini said she hoped that the invited scientists in the audience would enrich the public discussion. To enhance their visibility, the author suggested that the scientists could attend the debut in costume. "We could represent the biological diversity of reproductive biology, arriving to the theater as a penis parade," he offered. Rossellini expressed surprise that scientists might be so "eccentric."

Subjects were informed that they could attend the debut in costume. Five volunteered. A member of the control group, clothing designer Roberta Bielak, assisted in costume design. For a gallery of scientists and their organismic costumes, see supplementary material at www.gonzolabs.org/greenporno.

Results

The scientists arrived at the Green Porno debut in biological promenade. Front-row seats were reserved for them, providing the subjects with an unobstructed view. After an introductory talk by Rossellini, the films were shown.

Season 3 is distinctly different from the previous Green Porno. The first three of the films--grouped under the title "Bon Appétit!"--are twice as long as before, clocking in at 2 to 3 minutes. Rossellini has used the extra time to mix biological puppetry with scenes of cooking in a kitchen and also documentary footage of the fishing industry. And this is the major change. The new Green Porno films now carry an explicit environmental message.

"Fried calamari. ... Yum!" says Rossellini at the start of this film, cooking paper seafood on a paper stovetop. "If I were a calamari, I would be a squid," she says, launching into a reverie that features Rossellini in squid costume. Here we’re back in classic Green Porno territory, learning that squid use black ink as an escape trick and that they communicate not only with bodily gestures but also with bioluminescence. Then we see real footage of squid being pulled onto industrial fishing vessels on hooked lines--with Rossellini providing screams of pain. Cut back to the kitchen. "I lost my appetite! What to do?" she says. "Ask biologist Claudio Campagna!" The film ends with a minilecture. "We’re taking much, much more than what the oceans can offer us," says Campagna. He shows satellite images of the squid fishery fleet off the coast of South America, clearly visible from outer space, giving a sense of its scale. The other two films of this group focus on the anchovy and shrimp fisheries.

Rossellini introduced the fourth film as an "experiment within the experiment" of Green Porno. This one, called " Harem on the Beach," is epic by comparison--at nearly 7 minutes long--and features documentary footage of Rossellini with Campagna at his elephant seal research site on the Patagonian coast of Argentina. She uses a mixture of paper puppetry and animation to explain the animals’ complex polygamous lifestyle. Again, the film ends on a somber environmental note: images of seals strangled in discarded fishing nets.

After seeing the new films, the subjects were asked to score Green Porno on a 5-point scale in response to the following questions. (A score of 5 was best, 3 was neutral, and 1 was worst.)

"Given its medium, how well does Green Porno convey scientific content?" Average score: 4.3

"How well does Green Porno fulfill its mission of inspiring a ‘sense of wonder’ about the natural world?" Average score: 4.3

"How well do you think a ‘sense of wonder’ can actually translate to environmental protection or conservation?" Average score: 3.6

"Overall, how much do you like Green Porno?" Average score: 4.7

There was a high degree of consensus for the first and last question (standard deviation of 0.4 for both), and a moderate spread for the middle two questions (standard deviation of 0.7 and 0.8, respectively). Scores from the nonscientists fell within the same ranges as those of the scientists.

Conclusions

Scientists clearly do like Green Porno. But they differ in what they like about it.

For some, the explicit conservation theme of the new films is a big improvement. "The longer format produces a much stronger message," says Nick Collins, a marine ecologist at the University of Toronto in Canada. "I enjoyed all the films as entertainment," he says, but the shorter season 1 and 2 films failed to fill him with "a sense of wonder" because they were "too sparse" on conservation-related information.

Video Feature

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See video and photos of, among other things, scientists in Green Porno costume, at Gonzo Labs.

By contrast, the snappiness of the earlier films was preferred by Jaymie Matthews, an astrophysicist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. Matthews declares himself a die-hard Green Porno fan but says that 'Bon Appétit!' "suffers from too structured a format," making it harder "to snack on one webisode after another, as I do with the first two seasons." (The nonscientists gave similarly mixed verdicts on season 3, ranging from "too preachy" to "brilliant.") Subjects disagreed sharply about whether a "sense of wonder" about the natural world can translate to conservation.

One thing the scientists agreed on was that Rossellini does an impressive job as an actress of bringing the organisms to life. Her performance was "inspired and inspiring," says Alex Bielak, a salmon biologist who works with environmental policy for the Canadian government. Ironically, such anthropomorphism is considered a cardinal sin by those who study animal behavior. "Animals are not little people whose mental processes match those of humans," says Glenn Morris, a zoologist at the University of Toronto. Making that mistake "can mislead your research." But Morris says this shouldn’t apply to Green Porno. "When you are trying to persuade laypeople to care about an animal's existence, turning them into little people is very, very effective. And of course that is what Isabella is doing so very well."

Morris was dressed as the reproductive organs of a damselfly at the event. He and the other scientists were asked to take the mic and introduce themselves and their species to the audience. Like a real-life episode of Green Porno, the biologically costumed researchers described their natural histories as ultrashort vignettes. The audience ate it up. (See video and photos of the scientists in costume at the GonzoLabs.

Rossellini then invited all the scientists to her Green Porno after-party at a fancy rooftop restaurant. In spite of their costumes--or perhaps because of them--the scientists seem to fit right in with the film festival glitterati. Martinis in hand, they fielded science questions well into the night.

But it wasn’t a one-way exchange. "I’ve got to get that Green Porno DVD," said Helen Rodd, a University of Toronto biologist who specializes in the mating behaviors of guppies. "I’m going to use it for my teaching."

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