More than Its Parts

“The whole not only becomes more than but very different from the sum of its parts.”
– P. W. Anderson

It was a brainstorming meeting. We went from referencing a melodramatic viral Thai video to P. W. Anderson’s famous paper, “More is Different” to a vote-splitting internally produced Caltech video to the idea of extracting an edit out of existing video we already had from prior IQIM-Parveen Shah Productions’ shoots. And just like that, stepping from one idea to the next, hopping along, I pitched a theorist vs experimentalist “interrogation”. They must have liked it because the opinion in the room hushed for a few seconds. It seemed plausibly exciting and dangerously perhaps…fresh. But what I witnessed in the room was exactly the idea of collaboration and the “storm” of the brain. This wasn’t a conclusion we could likely have arrived to if all of us were sitting alone. There was a sense of the dust settling around the chaotic storm of the collective brain(s). John Preskill, Crystal Dilworth, Spiros Michalakis and I finally agreed on a plan of action going forward. And mind you, this of course was very far from the first meeting or email we had had about the video.

Capitalizing on the instant excitement, the emails started going around. Who will be the partners in crime? A combination of personality, representation, willingness and profile were balanced to decide the participants. We reached out to Gil Refael, David Hsieh, Nai-Chang Yeh, Xie Chen and Oskar Painter. They all said “yes”! It seemed deceivingly easy. And alas it came. Once the idea of the interrogation was unleashed; pitting them against one another or should I say “with” one another, brought about a bit of anxiety and confusion at first. “Wait, we’re supposed to fight on camera?” “But, our fields don’t match necessarily.” “No, no, it just doesn’t make sense.” I was prepared for the paranoia. It was natural and a bit less than what we got back when we pitched the high-fashion shoot for geeks video. I was taking them out of their comfort zone. It was natural. I abated the fears. I told them it was not going to be that controversial.

But I had to prep it to a certain level of “conflict” or “drama” so that what we got on camera, was at least some remnant of the initial emotional intention. The questions, the “tone” had to be set. Then we realized that it wasn’t just the meeting of the professorial brains but also the other researchers of the Institute that needed to be represented. And so, we also added some post docs and graduate students. Johannes Pollanen (now already an Assistant Professor at Michigan State University), Chandni Usha and Shaun Maguire. The idea of a nebulous conversation about theory vs practical or theory and practical seemed like a literal experiment of the very idea of the formation of the IQIM: putting the best brains in the field, in a sandbox, shaking them around to see the entangled interactions produced. It seemed too perfect.

The resulting video might not have produced the exact linear narrative I desired…but it was indeed “more than the sum of its parts”. It showed the excitement, the constant interaction, the curious conversations and the anxiety of being at the forefront, the cutting edge, where one is sometimes limited by another and sometimes enabled by the other, but most importantly, constantly growing and evolving. IQIM to me signifies that community.

Being accepted and integrated as a filmmaker itself is a virtue of that forced and encouraged collaboration and interaction.

And so we began. Before we filmed, I spent time with each duo, discussing and requesting a narrative and answers to some proposed questions.

Cinematographer, Anthony C. Kuhnz, and I were excited to shoot in Keith Schwab’s spacious lab, that had produced the memorable shot of Emma Wollman for our initial promo video. It’s space and background was exactly what we needed for the blurred backgrounds of this “brain space” we were hoping to create.

The lighting was certainly inspired by an interrogation scene but dampened for the dream state. We wanted to bring people into a behind the scenes discussion of some of the most brilliant minds in quantum physics, seeing the issues and challenges that face them; the exciting possibilities that they predict. The handheld camera and the dynamic pans from one to another were also inspired to communicate that transitional and collaborative “ball toss” energy. Once you feel that tangible creativity, then we go into the depths of what IQIM really is, how it creates its community within and without, the latter by focusing on the outreach and the educational efforts to spread the magic and sparkle of Physics.

I’m proud of this video. When I watch it, whether or not I understand everything being said, I do certainly want to be engaged with IQIM and that is the hope for others who watch it.

Nature is subtle and so is the effect of this video…as in, we hope that…we gotcha!

Nothing has been done yet. The world is your oyster…still.

The three things that come to mind when I watch Simon’s video are: travel, perspective and discomfort. They remind me of some of the things I also said in my TEDx talk titled “Get Uncomfortable Now”.

Simon’s video exemplifies a lot of what I feel is true in filmmaking as well. He goes running to clear his mind and get more creative, I take long walks when I’m stuck at a point in my screenplays or edits. He travels to learn more about what’s out there, I travel to absorb culture as well, he tries diversity of experiences to enrich his mind, so do I in a selfish desire to enrich every character I write or direct; all with the ultimate goal of growth & transience: emotional, physical, mental.

Simon also says something very exciting in the film, “there’s so much left to do out there”, a thought that isn’t expressed that often, the idea that “I can do something novel right here in the lab” makes the chance of innovation, success and achievement very tangible; achievable. That honesty, excitement and drive is important to be repeated in an otherwise very jaded and intimidated world. The belief in the power of the individual driving forward and having the potential to change the status quo, in the lab and outside, is critical.

It was hard to get Simon to narrow it down to the one hobby that drove him. After Debaleena’s video being internal and about family, we knew we wanted something more external. Filming in Griffith park is usually a nightmare but that early morning, we got everything we wanted minus possibly a clearer view of downtown LA, thanks to Marcia Brown’s usual detailed planning.

The shoot was complete with a steadicam operator, running videos and even the spotting of a snake!

The most memorable thing for me are Simon’s slow motion shots that highlight the sound of foot steps, of pushing forward, step by step, one ahead of the other; that basic contact that lunges us into the future. There was something very “grounding” about watching that, no pun intended.

Without further ado, here’s the video:

IQIM Presents …”my father”

Debaleena Nandi at Caltech

Debaleena Nandi at Caltech

Following the IQIM teaser, which was made with the intent of creating a wider perspective of the scientist, to highlight the normalcy behind the perception of brilliance and to celebrate the common human struggles to achieve greatness, we decided to do individual vignettes of some of the characters you saw in the video.

We start with Debaleena Nandi, a grad student in Prof Jim Eisenstein’s lab, whose journey from Jadavpur University in West Bengal, India to the graduate school and research facility at the Indian institute of Science, Bangalore, to Caltech has seen many obstacles. We focus on the essentials of an environment needed to manifest the quest for “the truth” as Debaleena says. We start with her days as a child when her double-shift working father sat by her through the days and nights that she pursued her homework.

She highlights what she feels is the only way to growth; working on what is lacking, to develop that missing tool in your skill set, that asset that others might have by birth but you need to inspire by hard work.

Debaleena’s motto: to realize and face your shortcomings is the only way to achievement.

As we build Debaleena up, we also build up the identity of Caltech through its breathtaking architecture that oscillates from Spanish to Goth to modern. Both Debaleena and Caltech are revealed slowly, bit by bit.

This series is about dissecting high achievers, seeing the day to day steps, the bit by bit that adds up to the more often than not, overwhelming, impressive presence of Caltech’s science. We attempt to break it down in smaller vignettes that help us appreciate the amount of discipline, intent and passion that goes into making cutting edge researchers.

Presenting the emotional alongside the rational is something this series aspires to achieve. It honors and celebrates human limitations surrounding limitless boundaries, discoveries and possibilities.

Stay tuned for more vignettes in the IQIM Presents “My _______” Series.

But for now, here is the video. Watch, like and share!

(C) Parveen Shah Production 2014


That’s right, I did say, “A High Fashion Shoot for Geeks”!

Of course they aren’t geeks! That was it…the whole purpose was to crack the image of the so-called “geek”. Having known that, since I was a Caltech alum turned filmmaker, I would get the stereotype and know the culture, Spiros came up to me 6 months ago and asked me if I could create a set of videos for outreach. These would be targeted towards getting high school kids more interested in science. Another facet of the videos would be to celebrate what we do here at Caltech and present it to be as “cool” as it really is. That began the talk of how many American kids these days stereotype science to be nerdy and “uncool”. With the recent advent of shows like Numb3rs and The Big Bang Theory, it is becoming more hip and popular to be a quintessential “nerd” or “geek”, but still a lot more work needs to be done to translate this effect into increasing the numbers of enrollment in science degrees. In a world where cultural slang is spoken more than language, we just can’t escape those titles of “nerd” or “geek”. Those terms often have negative connotations, but if we really look them up in a dictionary, this is what we get for “geek”: an enthusiast, or expert, especially in a technological field or activity. Now that isn’t so bad, is it?

So, we began with touring some of the labs of the agreeing advisors in the IQIM division, who were fine with a huge camera, a dolly track for movement and a couple of non-science strangers, namely our film crew, in their sensitive, experiment-running labs. I started meeting with the postdocs and grad students and not surprisingly, they inspired me. We realized that we wanted to celebrate the people behind the science and not the science, in this video.  The science is known and celebrated in so many other avenues. It was about the scientists and how they did all these amazing things in addition to their scientific pursuits and oh, by the way, they did do some serious science too. To me, it was about making a more 3-D vision of the “nerdspace” out there in media for science and engineers. Breaking the identity that if you are a scientist, you are boring and all you do is work in the lab. What could have been the most risqué representation I thought… bingo: High Fashion! And then came the convincing…

Emma Wollman, with her drill and black gown.

Emma Wollman, with her drill and black gown.

We had a meeting where we asked people to wear tuxes and gowns and pick the one item that they would take with them if Earth was to be evacuated; the one hobby, the one piece of identity. Initially there was paranoia, nerves and resistance, but then I cut a pitch tape to give an idea of my theme and style. They were getting convinced, but still not too sold on being so high fashion. So we met halfway. It was not the initial black, formal event attire, but it was still clean cut whilst being real, and frankly, a lot more personal in the end. People came up with very interesting stuff, whether it was Emma Wollman who held a drill and wore a gorgeous draped black gown she made herself (!), or Chen-Lung Hung, who played a violin in the Kimble lab, or Erik Henriksen with his long, lightsaber-looking device, or John Preskill with his baseball glove!


John Preskill really likes baseball.

By putting them in the labs and their environments of science, but having a fashionable look, where they were lit especially to create distance from their environment thanks to the talented cinematography of Anthony C. Kuhnz, the shots became about the person more than the science in the labs, without completely separating them. It was their identity, but not all of it.

Another segment of the video that celebrates the power of “imagination and inspiration” is the inter-cutting of archival imagery of nature and science. Whether it is a ballerina’s spin bringing to life the spin of an atom, the probabilistic nature of the casino roulette metaphorizing the inherent indeterminism of nature, or water waves moving like a sine wave display in an oscilloscope, making the viewer aware that Physics is around us in ways that we might not even notice, is important. These juxtapositions with work that is being done here at Caltech may capture the eye of a new viewer who would initially react and say, “wait a minute…what does this have to do with science?” The video is supposed to be the hook, to  intrigue and confuse and question and answer and I hope it does all this and, maybe, a little more.


A ballerina swiftly turns, hinting at quantum “spin”.

Of course, the punch to it all is the incredibly exciting and goose-bumping score by British composer, Andrew T. Mackay, part of the award-winning duo of Bombay Dub Orchestra, who, within a week, scored the video remotely from his Sunshine Desserts studio in London. Having worked with him on my feature film, we had developed a short-hand of what I like and it worked, within 9 days.

And all this crazy coordination and handling was thanks to Mrs. Marcia Brown who was always far too understanding and giving. She knows how to get us absent minded scientists and artists with our quirky moods and creative withdrawals, in line and on time to get the job done.

Lastly, I leave you with a few highlights of the video to urge you to click and watch and share. My favorite part of the video now, apart from Emma Wollman’s unbelievably attractive drill shot, is the beginning text that was a complete collaboration between me, Spiros and John Preskill with emails back and forth over a Wednesday in sunny Pasadena. Preskill’s genius tagline “nature is subtle” completely summarized my vision and the vision of IQIM and its scientists. The genius, the inspiration, the movement is all too important, yet subtle…and just purely “hot” in whatever sense of the word you want to take it!


Chen-Lung Hung with his violin. The text written in collaboration with John Preskill.

Here is the intro text in the video:

There is mind
There is matter
There is motion
There is interaction
There is the universe
To understand
To change
There is you…and your imagination.


Nature is subtle.

And now, without further ado, I present to you, the IQIM Promotional Film. Sit back, relax, enjoy and share!

Editor’s Note: Pakistani filmmaker, Iram Parveen Bilal is the CEO and Founder of Parveen Shah Productions, a film production company with offices in Pakistan and Los Angeles. Having made and distributed a few short films, she is currently touring with her noted first feature length film, JOSH (English title: Against the Grain). Bilal is a Caltech alum, BS ’04 with honors, in Environmental Science Engineering and has an MFA from the USC School of Cinematic Arts in Filmmaking. Recent awards and fellowships include the 2012 Women In Film Award, the USC Stark Special Project Award, the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, the Paul Studenski Fellowship, the Caltech Mabel Beckman Leadership Award and the Caltech Dean’s Cup.