National Geographic Channel Series “Breakthrough” provides a thought-provoking and imaginative perspective on scientific discovery as it unfolds. Each episode follows scientific explorers working on cutting-edge projects with breakthrough potential. Here is our converstion with Kurt Sayenga, Executive Producer, Asylum Entertainment.
The series tells a lot of stories behind the science rather than just going deep into the science. Why did you take that approach?
Kurt: To me, seeing the process of science — the intelligence, hard work and emotion behind every breakthrough — is just as interesting as the science itself. Transformative science is usually the result of someone finding an unusual solution to a seemingly intractable problem. For instance, can we find a way to treat epileptic seizures that doesn’t involve drugs or cutting out parts of the brain? In Decoding the Brain, Dr. Mohamad Koubeissi finds a way. He implants a tiny electrode near the hippocampus that sends out an electric pulse, inhibiting seizures. It’s an experimental procedure that couldn’t have been attempted before we had precision GPS systems and brain scanning tools. It took years to get the operation approved, but it paid off.
People like Dr. Koubeissi, a Zen Buddhist, are motivated by scientific curiosity and a deep compassion for humanity. These doctors, scientists and engineers are trying to change the world for the better, and I think it’s important to acknowledge what they do and why they do it. The world is filled with countless examples of the terrible things humans do to themselves and to the planet; the stories in BREAKTHROUGH focus on people who are trying to make things better.
Many of the scientists seem to be renegades or rebels, pushing their fields forward in different ways. How do you see science challenging conventions? What kind of personal determination did you experience in these scientists?
Kurt: Science at its best is punk rock. For this reason, I maintain Albert Einstein was the most punk rock human who ever walked the planet. He was aware of orthodox interpretations of the universe, but he found the flaws in those interpretations and saw the world in a radical new way. Einstein’s revolutionary insights into the nature of time came to him as he rode the train to work and began to wonder if time passed differently for the people on the train than for people standing still. These idle thoughts led directly to work that transformed the world and brought us computers and space travel. Will there be another Einstein? Probably. The next Einstein could be a team of people working together for a common goal. The men and women who figure out quantum gravity or fusion energy may be out there right now. They will not be afraid to take risks and challenge convention, because the better we understand how the universe works, the more we can do to improve life for everyone and everything on the planet.
You seem to shatter some of the stereotypes of scientists — as being somewhat cold and dispassionate — by showing scientists with real passion for the reasons they do their work. Can you comment on that?
Kurt: I have met, interviewed and worked with thousands of men and women over the years, including world-famous actors, test pilots, rock stars, presidents and kings. Out of all of them, scientists are easily the most interesting, diverse and passionate people I know. I have met far colder and more dispassionate people working in television than I have in laboratories. Scientists see the natural world in all of its beauty, majesty and terror, and they have a burning curiosity to know how and why it came to be and how we can put our findings to work for the betterment of mankind. Science requires rational minds, but those minds must also be open; a good scientist is willing to accept new information rather than clinging to old prejudices. In my experience, people with open minds are a lot more fun to hang out with than people with closed minds.
What do you think the series can communicate to students with an interest in science?
Kurt: Several things.
First: Smart people can change the world. Smart people with a strong sense of ethics can change the world for the better.
Second: Be persistent and understand that failure is part of the scientific process. If an experiment fails, that is a valid result, and it could tell us just as much as a success. Dr. Maria Croyle, the pharmacist who developed an inhalant Ebola vaccine, developed and tested more than a thousand variants of her vaccine until she found one that worked. Understanding why the others did NOT work was just as important to medical research as finding an effective vaccine.
Third: Come up with something brilliant in grad school, and you can get your own lab right out of the gate.
How do you think students can explore the ways that science connects to their passions, and to solving what they consider to be real-life problems (as opposed to the common complaint, “I’ll never have to use this in real life.”)?
Kurt: All of the stories we follow in BREAKTHROUGH are attempts to solve “real-life problems,” ranging from the energy crisis to pandemic disease. Research into the workings of the brain and cyborg technology also have clear and immediate connections to real life. But forms of scientific exploration that may not seem immediately connected to real-life problems can have a huge impact on humanity. For instance, when the theory of quantum mechanics was developed a century ago, it seemed like arcane nonsense of interest to only a handful of physicists and mathematicians. How could the subatomic world answer to different set of rules than the macroscopic world? How could that be of any practical benefit? But as we developed the means to manipulate things at the molecular level, we discovered that quantum theory works. We still don’t know exactly WHY, but it works. This opened a door to the high-tech world that now surrounds us.
Virtually every day, we are developing revolutionary tools that enable us to explore the universe and manipulate matter in fantastic new ways. A theory or hypothesis that may seem outlandish today could hold the key to changing the world tomorrow.
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About Kurt Sayenga
Kurt Sayenga is the Executive Producer and Show Runner for National Geographic’s “Breakthrough.” In addition to supervising the series, he wrote and produced the episodes “Fighting Pandemics” and “The Brain: The Final Frontier.” Kurt has a long and extensive history making science-based films and series. Prior to “Breakthrough,” he wrote, directed and produced 15 episodes of “Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman.” He has six Emmy nominations and one win.
Asylum Entertainment has produced a diverse slate of event miniseries, feature films, gritty documentaries and provocative unscripted series — thousands of hours of programming in its 12-year history. Notable productions include the miniseries “The Kennedys,” which won four of the 10 Emmy awards for which it was nominated, and “Ring of Fire,” which garnered four more Emmy nods. Last year, Asylum received glowing reviews for its feature documentary “Happy Valley,” about the Penn State sex scandal, as well as for a coming-of-age feature film titled “Small Time.” Asylum’s event miniseries about Marilyn Monroe’s turbulent relationship with her schizophrenic mother (starring Susan Sarandon, Emily Watson, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Kelli Garner) will air in May, and a film about the young devotees of Charles Manson is now in pre-production. Asylum’s factual series include ESPN’s Emmy-winning series “30 for 30,” “Beverly Hills Pawn,” “Addicted,” “Being Mike Tyson” and “American Gangster.” Asylum Entertainment is owned by Legendary Entertainment, a leading media company with film (Legendary Pictures), television and digital (Legendary Television and Digital Media) and comics (Legendary Comics) divisions dedicated to owning, producing and delivering content to mainstream audiences with a targeted focus on the powerful fandom demographic.
(Interview and photo courtesy of Different Drummer)