Intelligent Briefing

In 'Nobelity,' nine Nobel laureates offer straight talk on the planet's future

Turk Pipkin (l) and Wangari Maathai
Turk Pipkin (l) and Wangari Maathai

If all you want is spin, you can get it six ways from Sunday on any subject, any day of the week. Op-ed columnists, administration apologists, bloggers, PR flacks, chat-show talking heads – they're part of the army of agenda-pushers out there generating more spin than a platoon of whirling dervishes. But where can you go to hear straight talk on the state of the world today and, perhaps more significantly, the world our children will inherit?

As Austin writer/actor/filmmaker Turk Pipkin was pondering that question a few years back, he happened upon his then-preteen daughter Katie having a conversation with Steven Weinberg, the Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist. "She was probably about 10 years old at the time," he recalls. "They met at a party and started talking about Texas fossils, and Katie was able to date these fossils, and they started talking about geology."

From that discussion came the spark for Nobelity (,, Pipkin's documentary featuring conversations with nine Nobel laureates about what's in store for our planet over the next 50 years. The title, he says, springs from the idea that "they're like our intellectual nobility." Their agenda is not drawn from some point along the political spectrum or underwritten by some multinational corporation, "it's knowledge."

As he was a fellow Austinite, Weinberg (Physics, 1979) naturally became the first Nobelist to be interviewed, From there, Pipkin traveled the world to talk to who he calls "the smartest people in the world." The film follows him to Houston; Los Angeles; Washington, D.C.; New York; England; France; India; South Africa; and Kenya as he speaks to nanotechnology pioneer Rick Smalley (Chemistry, 1996); femtochemistry pioneer Ahmed Zewail (Chemistry, 1999); Sloan Kettering Cancer Center Director Harold Varmus (Physiology or Medicine, 1989); anti-land-mines activist Jody Williams (Peace, 1997); nuclear physicist and disarmament activist Sir Joseph Rotblat (Peace, 1995); Green Belt Movement founder Wangari Maathai (Peace, 2004); economist Amartya Sen (Economics, 1998); and head of South African Reconciliation, Desmond Tutu (Peace, 1984).

Pipkin spent years boning up on such subjects as cosmology, femtochemistry, nanotechnology, and global politics to prepare for these interviews, but the filmed conversations aren't pitched above the audience's heads. Nor do they assault the viewer with visions of the apocalypse. "When you say a movie is a look at world problems, the first thing you think is, 'Oh, man, this is gonna be a bummer. This is gonna be such a drag,'" Pipkin allows. "And it's not. In my opinion, and what I hear from people that see it, is that it's a very inspiring and kind of uplifting film. When you see the movie in a community setting, there's kind of a group response to it that's really visceral."

The film's inspirational quality and social consciousness make it a natural for folks active in social and political causes, which has led Nobelity's distributors, monterey media and FFM Entertainment, to employ a grassroots distribution strategy: Nonprofits and churches are being encouraged to sponsor screenings as an activity for Earth Day. These screenings serve not only to raise awareness of the film, but to raise funds for the organizations themselves. Part of the proceeds generated by the screenings they host benefits them, and part benefits the Nobelity Project, a nonprofit established by Pipkin to fund endeavors that will make the world a better place. Its first is the construction of a water system for St. Joseph's Mahiga Primary School, a site in Kenya that Pipkin visited during filming.

If the words of these Nobel laureates are indeed affecting people, you can count Pipkin among them. They've led him, an unapologetic old lefty, to look beyond his personal political persuasion, and he wants that to come through for Nobelity's audience. "I worked very hard to make it not a partisan film," he insists. "Truthfully, if we're going to address these problems – and we have to address these problems because our kids are screwed if we don't, and their kids are really screwed – we have to take a long-term view of this decision-making process. People on the left cannot solve the world's problems. People in America cannot solve the world's problems. And that's basically what the Nobel laureates are all saying. These problems are huge, and the solutions are there, but it's going to take nations working together and cultures working together." end story


Thursday, March 16, 7:30pm, Paramount

World Premiere; Nobel laureates Steven Weinberg and Ahmed Zewail will be in attendance

From the Archives:

Master of the Improbable

When they say something can't be done, trust Turk Pipkin to say, 'Wanna bet?'


Flimflam experts (and old pals) Harry Anderson and Turk Pipkin reunite sans Celine

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SXSW Film 06, Nobelity, Turk Pipkin, Steven Weinberg, Rick Smalley, Ahmed Zewail, Harold Varmus, Jody Williams, Sir Joseph Rotblat, Wangari Maathai, Amartya Sen, Desmond Tutu

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