Inaugural Roger Ebert Symposium Set for October 1st in Urbana

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When my late husband Roger reviewed Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” upon its release 50 years ago, he bookended his four-star rave with the poetry of e.e. cummings, who once wrote, “listen—there’s a hell of a good universe next door; let’s go.” Roger’s tireless excitement for exploring other worlds through the portal of cinema will be celebrated at the first Roger Ebert Symposium, “Empathy for the Universe: Storytelling and Data Visualization,” held Monday, October 1st, at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, 1205 W. Clark St., in Urbana, Illinois. The symposium, which is free and open to the public, will kick off at 9am and feature three interactive panel discussions assembling a diverse collection of visualization experts, journalists, scientists, media experts, artists, designers—and—an astronaut. We will end the day bedazzled by the majesty of the universe in a film at the IMAX theater in Savoy. 


Roger was a brilliant film critic and philosopher, and that is reflected in the film festival that has beared his name at the Virginia Theater for the last twenty years. But the emphasis he placed on empathizing with those who share this journey with us is part of his legacy that resonates even with those who are not movie lovers, and is something that I nurture studiously in my lectures on empathy, kindness, compassion and forgiveness. Roger also had the vision to see that cinema and science were not incompatible, and used properly could both foster better relations among people. He noted that some of the greatest achievements in science and technology took place at his alma mater, the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, and it is there at his Ebert Center with the assistance of Dr. Donna Cox, and alumni Dr. Brand Fortner and Dr. Nate Kohn, that we will focus specifically on the cinematic presentation of science and related subjects. 

The day’s first panel discussion, “Science on the Screen,” will include former NASA astronaut Terry Virts, a cinematographer for the IMAX film “A Beautiful Planet,” who spent 200 days aboard the International Space Station and shot much of the footage. He will be joined by Toni Myers, the writer/director of the movie as well as other NASA-related IMAX pictures. Jennifer Lawrence served as the narrator, while NCSA’s Advanced Visualization Laboratory collaborated on the opening and closing virtual scenes of flight through intergalactic space, based on scientific data. At 4:30pm, “A Beautiful Planet” will be screened for free at the Goodrich Savoy 16 IMAX theater, 232 Burwash Avenue in Savoy, Illinois. The theater is co-sponsoring the event.

As a collaboration between the College of Media, the Ebert Center and NCSA, the symposium draws from Roger’s belief that movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts. The scheduled panels aim to embody the principles Roger stood for, including empathy, compassion and inclusion, whether we are talking about the earth, the cosmos or our oceans. It is our hope to illustrate how cinema can bring a deeper understanding of nature, society and the universe. We will show in an emphatic way that science and the arts are not mutually exclusive, but share a bond that results in greater benefits to humanity.


Joining me as fellow panel participants at the symposium are Donna J. Cox, Illinois professor of art and design, director of the Advanced Visualization Laboratory and co-organizer of the event; Anita Chan, Illinois professor of media and cinema studies specializing in global imaginaries around new information technologies; Brand Fortner, Illinois alumnus, professor of physics at North Carolina State University and an expert on accessible scientific visualization. They will be joined by Brant Houston, Illinois professor of journalism who specializes in investigative and computer-assisted reporting; Karrie Karahalios, Illinois professor of computer science specializing in computer-mediated communication and online community building and Nate Kohn, Ebertfest director, film producer and director of the MFA screenwriting program at the University of Georgia. 

I am happy to announce that other panels will be led by the illustrious Katie Mack, professor of physics at North Carolina State University known for her public science outreach through the @AstroKatie Twitter account; Stacey Robinson, Illinois professor of graphic design whose graphic novels and other work explore ideas of Afrofuturism and black utopias; Rachel Switzky, the inaugural director of the Siebel Center for Design at Illinois and former executive at the global design firm IDEO.

We will be presenting an award to Doron Weber, vice president at the Sloan Foundation who runs a program to advance public understanding of science, technology and economics and to bridge the cultures of science and the humanities. Participating remotely in the symposium will be Temple Grandin, Illinois alumna and professor of animal science at Colorado State University known for her work on the humane treatment of livestock. (Claire Danes portrayed Temple Grandin in the acclaimed HBO movie.)

It will be a day that Roger would have been thrilled to participate in. I hope you will join us.

Tickets for the film and the symposium are not required, but preference will be given to individuals who pre-register online. Online registration is now open on the Ebert Symposium website

The full schedule and additional information on participants can be found at

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