Tag Archives: science

How Christopher Nolan Broke My Heart and Punched My Brain


“There’s a new name for fatuous, unforgivably ignorant, misguided and arrogant film making: Interstellar. Never has my intelligence been more acutely insulted. Christopher Nolan continues the tradition of schlock he began with Inception and carried through The Dark Night Rises. Hey, Nolan, news flash – we’re not all idiots.” – Signed, Clawing My Eyes Out

Okay. Maybe the above Facebook post was a little… heartfelt. But in my defence, my heart actually felt wounded. Like I’d been jilted, three times in a row. By the same person. Maybe I was angry at myself for expecting more. But damn it, I wanted there to be more. I thought he could change.

Don’t get me wrong. Nolan’s style is breathtaking. He really likes to show us things upside down, but still. His ideas and concepts, equally laudable. And Inception wasn’t so bad, really, which is why I say his descent merely began there. But for me, there were little things in that film which heralded the coming of what I see as Nolan’s disregard for his audience – like how he states as a central point of fact early on that jostling a subject while they are ‘dreaming’ will wake them up. Makes sense. I’ll buy that. But then, in the film’s pivotal scene, he has a van full of subjects sleep soundly through a wild high speed car chase and stay sleeping as they GO FLYING OFF A BRIDGE. Apparently, he doesn’t even have the respect to suggest that maybe they’re not being jostled too badly, an obvious, if suspicious, out – instead, he repeatedly shows their heads being yanked back and forth in slow motion closeups while remaining blissfully asleep. This is ignoring the logic he has already set up, all in service of an action scene with memorable visuals. Not cool, Chris. Not cool.

Tumbling

But that’s not enough to indict the whole enterprise, and to be fair, I don’t. I leave that to others. However, I do feel that Inception tries to get all ‘deep’ while failing to muster anything more interesting or insightful than any high school kid might manage after smoking a couple of bowls. One big missed opportunity there, Nolan, and not enough for me. If I want a mind f**k with some art and intelligence, I’ll watch David Lynch. He never leaves me wanting. Confused, but never wanting.

Nolan’s disregard for both basic physics and the intelligence of his audience continues in the Dark Night Rises, but he takes it up several notches. I won’t even bother listing the problems with that movie here. Although I especially love that criminal mastermind Bane sacrifices a flunky to insure that the right amount of bodies will be found in the wreckage, but he doesn’t seem to think finding the plane’s wings kilometres from it’s fuselage might raise an eyebrow or two.

dark-knight-rises-trailer-full-plane-heistNo, I’ll save the bulk of my energy here for nolan’s self-proclaimed ‘scientifically precise’ Interstellar (which should first of all actually be called ‘Intergalactic’ since all of the travel is between planets and between galaxies, but NOT between stars). I would need far more time than you’re probably willing to invest right now to really get into it, but good lord. It’s hard to even choose between highlights. Or lowlights. Let’s set science aside for a moment and deal with some very basic problems. Like how many times does cowboy pilot Cooper ‘switch to manual’ during this movie? How stupid is that? And why does the NASA appointed astronaut (and an engineer, by the way) and instrument of humanity’s only hope not bother to ask how wormholes work until he’s just about to fly into one? And seriously, a folded piece of paper? Ok, now he gets it [face palm].

This is a Wormhole

I guess this makes sense to a filmmaker who gives us a world where scientists can send hibernating scientists and robots with strong AI to Saturn and through an Einstein-Rosen Bridge ten years ago but when it comes to plant biology, well, if the corn stops growing, humanity will simply starve (what’s the beer they’re drinking made from, by the way? Just curious. No, really).

Drinking a Bottle of Corn Liquer-1I mean, if they’ve figured out how to feed the world’s population on nothing but corn, surely they know enough to fix the ‘blight’ problem.

Maybe the engineers could’ve put aside some money for biological research (they can freeze people, for god’s sake. And why do that? So that the scientists don’t get bored on the way to Saturn?) by not building a centrifugal spacecraft completely unsuited for interplanetary travel just so that the scientists in hyper-sleep could have the illusion of gravity. Why? Because a centrifugal ship is gimmicky and saves the filmmakers a bucket load of money in production doing all the weightless effects of a serious movie like Gravity (which had its own issues, but still). And because then the All American farmer/pilot can once again ‘switch to manual’ and execute an impressive maneuver in an obligatory action sequence. Of course, the centrifuge design isn’t just expensive and completely unnecessary for the mission, it’s also problematic, as the astronauts discover once they’re already in space. 

Dramamine?

“I think we have some dramamine.” You think? And Dramamine? Really? What is this, the 1940’s? No. It’s some time in the second half of the 21st Century. Maybe that lady scientist has some in her purse.

Of course, the motion sickness problem, the one that apparently wasn’t dealt with in the simulations they obviously didn’t bother to train on as a matter of course for any trip into space by anybody, won’t be too bad as long as they don’t design the spacecraft with an absolute shipload of goddamn windows for absolutely no reason.

Windows 2

Oh, and how about transmitting GPS coordinates via a smattering of binary lines on a floor? Does anyone involved in the making of this film know how either GPS coordinates or binary code work? Apparently not. In which case it seems perfectly reasonable to take the ‘quantum information’ from the interior of a black hole and translate it into Morse Code. What!?!

Here Are the Coordinates in Binary

Then there’s the question of ‘Them’. A bewildered Cooper asks, understandably, who ‘They’ are. No idea? Alrighty, then! Let’s go! Not only is this pretty important question not answered, given much weight or even, as far as we know, investigated by the scientists… it’s hardly even mentioned again. Sure, ‘They’ offer a handshake upon arrival which no one seems particularly concerned about. But what’s the deal? What have ‘They’ done to even warrant their mention in the first place? Put the wormhole in place? What’s the compelling reason to assume that? Because an Einstein-Rosen Bridge (none of the scientists call it that because we’re too stupid as an audience to handle it, I guess) can’t exist naturally? Oh, I guess all of a sudden everyone understands what is and is not possible on the very fringes of speculative physics. So therefore ‘they’ did it, but we don’t try to contact them or figure out what their deal is as we face species annihilation. Of course, the bigger question is… why would you build the launch pad twenty feet from your boardroom?

Engines in the Boardroom

Do I even bother, now with the science? Like the simple fact that planets don’t (can’t) orbit black holes without a star? That without a star this little planet would be anything but ‘earth-like’. That any planetary object close enough to a black hole to experience meaningful time dilation would be torn apart in an instant by gravitational forces? That the accretion disk (so beautifully rendered in 3-D!) is a result of every bit of mass in the vicinity being pulled right through the planet into the black hole? That this would include enough X-rays and other forms of radiation to be instantly fatal to any form of life, space suit or no?

Whiteboard

“See, if we land on the sun at night…”

How about that waves hundreds of metres high can’t exist in less than a metre of water because they would need a trough of equal depth (forgetting what havoc the gravitational attraction implied to pull these waves in the first place would wreak on anyone on the surface) to exist at all? I could go on and on. And on (and on) without even getting into the terrible dialogue, the ridiculous characters…

Brilliant Scientist

“I am totally convincing as a brilliant scientist. And I am so terribly lonely that I am going to kill the only three people in the galaxy. Oh, wait.”

…or the ploddingly obvious plot ‘twists’, but I’ll stop.

Not before I ask one more question, though: Ok, Nolan, so ‘love’ travels across time. Then, uh… doesn’t ‘hate’?

I know that many people simply like the movie and don’t care about any of the things I’ve touched on here. And that’s valid. I guess I’m just not that forgiving. Maybe it’s because I can’t help picturing a scene like this one: Consulting physicist Kip Thorn clears his throat, nervously. “Excuse me, Mr. Nolan, but it, uh, just doesn’t work like that.” Nolan turns to his accountant. “How much am I making for this?” The accountant whispers something into the director’s ear. “That’s what I thought,” he says. Looking the physicist in the eye, he shrugs. “Fuck ’em.”

Hear no Evil good

If you want big ideas that are handled properly, do yourself a huge favour and watch Sunshine, 2001 A Space Odyssey (again, I hope), Coherence (NOT Divergent or Convergence, for the love of god) or Timecrimes, just for starters. You’ll see, I hope, that while it’s not easy, it can be done.

I’m incensed, clearly, that someone with the power and resources of Christoper Nolan chooses not to make the effort, or simply doesn’t care. I don’t like being talked down to. Actual good ideas, well thought out and presented, can not be replaced by throwing out words like ‘quantum’ and ‘relativity”, nor by the endless repetition of a Dylan Thomas poem.

Frozen Cloud

“What was that?”

“Frozen cloud…”

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Neanderthal: Religious or Pragmatic?


3712130-military-graveyard-of-heroes-of-the-first-world-war--france-alsace-vosges

It’s widely believed that the first documented religious behaviour was that of Neanderthal, as archaeological evidence suggests they were the first hominid, and therefore creature of any kind, to bury their dead. The quasi, or perhaps proto-, religious mindset has been inferred from further evidence that the fallen had flowers placed ‘ceremoneously’ near the body.

What if this is a case of retro-projection of our own, far more advanced, mindset? Could there be a simpler explanation?

In exploring this question, I began with another question: what would earlier hominids have done with their dead? The answer seems clear cut. Probably nothing. Yet if one presumes that the hominid lifestyle around this time and somewhat previous to it was tending toward encampment vs continual wandering (hunt/gather, move on, repeat), the problem of the doing nothing with the dead would have presented itself as one to be solved.

We can look at this problem in at least two ways. The first is from an evolutionary point of view. The group’s elders die and lie where they fall, as do the children, the post-childbirth mothers, the sick, the wounded and the hungry. Mortality rates in these hominid groups was unimaginable and would have resulted in bodies everywhere around the camp or cave, in various stages of decomposition. One unfortunate trait among the dead is that they don’t move. It’s easy to imagine that having countless fetid corpses in the same area where the group eats and sleeps is a significant further health risk to an already dangerous existence. Not only is the spectre of disease an obvious threat, but so would be the ever present likelihood of unwanted carnivores encouraged by the intoxicating smell of death. One expects that after relatively short periods of homesteading, the group would be forced to move on, even if they were lucky enough to have found a perfect place to live. The dead would eventually and certainly have rendered even the most idyllic location unhealthy. Those who did not move, or at least move quickly enough, would have been less likely to survive, as would their offspring. This survival feature would clearly leave an evolutionary stamp.

The second point of view is somewhat more immediately pragmatic. Living among the rotting dead, especially for a social creature with strong feelings of kinship which hominids evidently possessed, would have been less than pleasant. First of all, there would be the smell. There’s little evidence and no reason to believe that the dying would have had the foresight or physical ability to drag themselves away from the fire or their sleeping spot to expire. Imagine how much worse this environment would have been for cave dwellers. The urge to move on would have been palpable.

_53638745_jomo_erectus_bbc_640It should be pointed out that this situation would only have occurred and presented a problem for a very particular type of creature: one which was social and lived in groups; one which had enough biomass for the average corpse to be inviting for bacteria and large carnivores; one which lived and slept on the ground (as opposed to, say, in trees); one which lived in an environment relatively free of heavy undergrowth and humidity which would quickly compost the offending relative (sub-Saharan Africa, say); one which required a relatively long and healthy life to reproduce, and, most importantly; one infused with a powerful sense of territorialism and which had developed the technology (fire, organized perimeter enforcement) to enforce it, thus both encouraging and enabling the encampment lifestyle. I would suggest hominids as the only group of species ever evolved which meet all of these criteria.

So there, briefly outlined, is what I call the Dead Hominid Problem. Dealing with the DHP by any other means than packing up one’s sticks and stones and setting out for new ‘digs’, for any but the most contemplative and inventive species would have been, quite literally, unthinkable and likely was for a very long time. For you or I, the solution is obvious. Two solutions actually. Bury ’em or burn ’em. Done deal, problem solved. Bacteria: dealt with. Smell: dealt with. Hungry carnivores: dealt with. As a bonus, one which would likely have had little value for our cognitively challenged ancestors but would be incredibly important for most of us, not having to watch day after day as the face of our loved one decomposes: priceless.

Model of a Neanderthal man, Neanderthal Museum, Mettmann, Germany

Enter Homo Neanderthalensis. Religious? Hard to say. But smart? No doubt. Smart enough to figure out that if you throw the ‘un-movers’ into a pit and cover them up, things get a lot more pleasant around the camp? Quite possibly. Of course, like all great discoveries, it may have been an accidental one. The discovery that relatives who die in a mud slide don’t smell as bad or attract as many predators might have gotten them to thinking. And since Neanderthals are believed to have had at least rudimentary language skills, an important discovery like this could easily have been communicated both laterally (to others, which would spread quickly) and linearly, through time. Once something of this magnitude and with this degree of general interest were to take hold, you could never go back. Those who somehow missed the news or were disinclined to utilize it, would have been supplanted through the miracle of natural selection. Adapt or die, in this case, would have been more than just a powerful metaphor.

Is there anything to suggest that burial of the dead had a religious component? Well, there is the flower issue.

images

But it may be worth noting that flowers smell good and the idea of covering up stinky (or soon to be stinky) things with good-smelling things is a pretty common and easily cognated behaviour, if a somewhat ineffective one in the case of a corpse. Nonetheless, it may have been a practice which had gone on for millennia as a weak solution to the DHP which would have left scant archaeological trace until combined with the practice of burial, which would have effectively entombed the practice with the body. In fact, an intermediary step on the road to the effective solution of putting corpses in holes would logically have been to leave the dead where they lie (or move them) and covering them up, with material like dirt, rocks… and foliage.

A different proto-religious impulse within the prototypical hominid mind might arguably be surmised by the adoption of kin burial by Neanderthals beyond something as ambiguous as flower arranging, however. It’s conceivable that a growing understanding of “as you go, so go I” which would seem an emergent step closely related, and necessarily subsequent, to “I am”, would have made decomposition and other indignities visited upon members of their own tribe less and less easy to bear. This, perhaps, was the beginning of the concept of a soul, or at least of a concrete belief that there is, indeed, someone “in there”, and that that “someone” could one day be me. And that, one could further surmise, could indeed be the first incarnation of a religious impulse.

neand

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On Dogs and Churches: Are There Hard Limits to Human Understanding?


dog-in-church

I’ve been thinking lately about a particularly instructive image, that of a dog walking the aisles of a cathedral during mass. It’s instructive in that one can consider how much of its reality the dog, or more particularly the dog’s brain, can understand. The smartest dog in the world will know that there are people all around it, perhaps that some of them are familiar, that the room is warm and dry, that there are many sounds of different frequencies about and that the people are curiously still… but not much more. The dog can ever understand what is really going on.

Humans have brains, too. Are there truths, perhaps great sweeping truths, about reality that we simply can never hope to understand, even when the evidence is as abundant as it is in that church?

This is by its nature an extremely difficult question to answer. The dog doesn’t know what it doesn’t know, after all. And it doesn’t know that, either. We, of course, have considerable advantages over the canine brain. But these advantages are by no means infinite.

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term “Middle World” to refer to the sphere of our experience. Our brains evolved in the world of medium-sized objects, medium velocities, and so on. As a result we don’t intuitively understand that rocks and people are made up almost entirely of empty space because, as Dawkins points out, when we punch a rock we experience a very real solidity. And it’s helpful that our brains don’t see objects for what they really are. If they did, we might spend our lives throwing ourselves at walls the way that moths throw themselves at a lightbulb. Moths, of course, evolved in the absence of light bulbs.

Lamp_Test_Render_Closeup

It’s humbling to realize that lepidopteran lightbulbs are everywhere for us. Forget that every atom in our body is switched out many times during our lives, so that we are at this moment merely approximate copies of ourselves from even a year ago. Surprise! Or that each of us spent an eternity in a state of non-existance before the incalculably unlikely event of our birth, with the logical implication that we will return to that same “normal” state in a few years. Yay? We can probably grasp those realities. Others are not so easy.

Cosmological distances are notoriously difficult for our minds to comprehend. Many methods have been proposed to help us, but beyond a certain point they lapse into meaninglessness. The distance to the Sun might be easier to contemplate in relation to the distance to a nearer object like the Moon, for instance. The Sun lies at a distance from us roughly 400 times that of the Moon. But the concept of multiplying any great distance by a factor of 400 strains our brains considerably (other than as just a number) and when you couple that with the fact that we are hard-pressed to wrap our heads around even the distance between ourselves and the Moon, a relatively nearby rock that we can easily see, the whole exercise reaches the periphery of usefulness. What about geological time? The Rocky Mountains were formed after the extinction of the dinosaurs. Does that help? I doubt it very much.

But we can see the Sun and the Moon and we can experience the passage of time. These are, at least in some ways, still a part of our “Middle World”. What about the square root of -1? We can use this concept easily by plugging it into an equation. We understand perfectly how it “works”, but what is it? What is Pi? What is mathematical infinity? For that matter, what is the number 8?

The answer to this last query may seem self-evident at first, but consider these troubling questions: Is ‘8’ a construct or is it real? It has no mass or volume and it presumably exists outside of time, if it exists at all. If intelligent life had never evolved, would the concept of ‘8’ have any meaning, or exist? [Probably, since if you take four objects and group them together with four separate objects, you will likely always end up with an additive number equivalent to their sum, whether anyone is around to notice or not] Nonetheless, my assertion is that we can never know for sure because we simply don’t know what ‘8’ is. If you’re still not convinced of the elusive quality of the ostensibly pedestrian concept we call ‘8’, it may be helpful to consider one last question: If the Big Bang had never occurred, if universes had never existed and never were to exist, if matter and time and space had never come into being… where would that leave the number 8? I personally feel that as a non-physical entity outside of time, it would likely still exist. So if that is indeed the case, I ask a final time, WTF IS IT? Discuss.

8ball2

In anticipation of a barrage of well-meaning and very wound up mathematical theorists rushing to their keyboards to expose my puny understanding of the discipline, I would like to remind my readers that the ‘Waxing Upon the Number Eight’ portion of this little exploration is by no means an element central to it. I merely present it as an example of how complicated even the most familiar and accepted concepts can be when examined closely, and how easily we accept what we don’t really understand at all and move on.

Despite my brash suggestion that its most basic elements are not and probably never can be fully understood, Mathematical Theory itself is, in the academic sense at least. So let’s get weirder. Quantum Theory. String Theory. Quantum Gravity. The Higgs Boson. Spooky Action at a Distance. Quantum Tunnelling. The Uncertainty Principle. Dark Energy. Dark Matter. Eleven dimensions. Some of these are measurable and predictable, some are fairly well understood, many can be used to elicit very consistent results like microwaves and cell phones. But we’re pushing it, and while all of these game-changing concepts were discovered or postulated in just the past hundred years, many of them were unimaginable even a couple of decades ago.

I invite you to extrapolate.exp1

Can our ‘Middle World’ brains ever really understand what it means for a particle to exist not as an object in space but as a probability wave, regardless of how much evidence we amass? How about every particle? Can we wrap our heads around the undeniable fact that in 4 billion years the Andromeda Galaxy will collide and fuse with our own Milky Way? Keep in mind that our Earth has been here longer than that. What will that look like? Something like  this.

Can we ever viscerally feel that something as familiar as gravity, the attractive force which keeps you on the ground is likely not a force at all, attractive or otherwise, but results naturally from the fact that space-time curves around massive objects? How about that only a minuscule 4% of the universe is made up of anything we understand as matter (the rest, by the way, is not empty space. It’s something else. Empty space doesn’t exist), and that if you took all of the planets, stars and galaxies away, and just threw them out, the universe would remain essentially unchanged?

That matter

pops

in and out of

existence

rain-2

with the ease and frequency

of raindrops?

Or that most of the matter in the universe isn’t matter at all and most of the energy isn’t energy at all as we know them, but that both are far and away the most important factors driving…

darkenergy_what_is_piechart

 everything?

All of these are likely true, and fit to wear the crown of “Miss Uncomprehensionality”, or be voted Most Likely to Succeed in Messing You Up. But let’s not forget the very real possibility that other universes, some perhaps where the number 8 does not exist, many perhaps where all of the strange things mentioned above don’t exist either but are replaced by other, stranger things, are all around us. Maybe even woven into our own.

So where am I going with this? Am I just trying to bum everybody out? Partially. But I would like to explore the possibility in Part 2 of this post that these things are only unfathomable to us as creatures whose brains have evolved through natural selection to understand rabbits and what it feels like to be hungry or to fall from a tree. That when the exogenous tools we rely on to bring reality into sharper focus like Hubble Telescopes, Particle Accelerators and Advanced Mathematics bring us to the end of what even the most brilliant among us can actually comprehend, there may indeed be a way for those limits to be exceeded. I will look at whether an intelligence created by a different kind of process can loose the surly bounds of the Middle World and, in the most complete sense possible, touch the face of God.

dog 1

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Cryogenics’ Big Problem, or: How Not to Become a Zombie


I was inserting freshly charged batteries into my wireless keyboard this morning, and naturally my thoughts turned to the current state of cryogenic technologies. How close are we to actually being able to bring the dead back to life?

Cryogenics, or cryopreservation, is the practice of “freezing” the recently deceased with the intention of bringing him or her back to life at some future time, when medical science has advanced sufficiently to deal with what killed them in the first place.

Mention cryogenics to the average person today, of course, and the first image to pop into their head is likely to be that of the corpse formerly known as Walt Disney.

Although he’s inadvertently become the poster boy for the process, truth, in this case at least, is unfortunately less strange than fiction. The surrogate father of Mickey Mouse was cremated in 1966 and his ashes interred at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. I say ‘unfortunately’, because there is a certain appeal to the idea that the creator of an animation empire would be in line for reanimation himself.

But he didn’t miss the deadline by much.The first known human cryogenic freezing did occur in January 1967, just a month after Disney’s death. Missing the opportunity may not have been such a bad thing, as it turns out. Early attempts were little more than experiments, and although the body of University of California psychology professorHiram Bedford remains cryopreserved in a “dewar” (basically a really fancy thermos) at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation facility in Scottsdale, Arizona, expectations for his successful resurrection are guarded, at best. The reason is a little thing called crystallization, and even if your dead, it’s nasty.

That, my friends, is the Big Problem. Freezing any material involves changing its state. And in the case of cryogenics, it means changing it back as well. Otherwise, what’s the point? The problem with changing liquid to solid is that tiny crystals are formed, a process which is catastrophic to biological tissue. It’s worth mentioning that a sickening “popping sound” reportedly emanates from the corpse as it descends to preservation temperatures. That can’t be good.

So when you’re dead, you’re dead, right? Not necessarily. A lot has been learned since 1967. Although not, arguably, in the Middle East. Alcor Life Extension Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to solving the Big Problem. And they’re getting close. Maybe. The key, I’ll call it the Big Answer, is “vitrification”, or ice-free preservation. No popping sound. Yay.

Vitrification is achieved through the injection of cryoprotectants (think anti-freeze) prior to cooling. This lowers the freezing temperature and increases the viscosity. Rather than changing state, the syrupy solution becomes an amorphous ice, a “solid liquid”. Now for my favourite term of all: a “glass transition temperature” is reached. [NOTE: My supply of quotation marks for this post has officially been depleted]

There are some Small Problems to be worked out, however. Cryoprotectants like dimethyl sulfoxide are toxic (of course they are), especially in the high concentrations required to bring about the necessary effects. So there needs to be a way to lessen the damage caused by the solution to the damage problem. Enter ice blockers. Adding them to the mix means lessening the concentration of cryoprotectants. The result? Very recently California cryobiological research company Twenty-First Century Medicine successfully froze a rabbit kidney to -135 degrees Celsius using a cryoprotectant/ice blocker vitrification cocktail. And get this: the kidney was rewarmed and transplanted into a rabbit with full functionality and viability restored. The rabbit lived.

Now I get to talk about zombies. A kidney is not a brain. And the Really Big Problem in cryogenics is how to avoid something called Information-Theoretic Death. The brain is such an intricate and delicate organ that it may not be possible to preserve it without damage at the finest level. I’m no cryogenicist. Partially because I’m not sure if that word even exists, but mostly because I’m just not. But to me, a re-animated corpse without a mind, let alone memories and a fully functioning consciousness, is pretty much a zombie. Not good. Cool, arguably, but definitely not good.

So, dying is still serious business. My advice is to continue avoiding it where possible. Although the research is promising, we’re still some time away from installation of the elusive “snooze” button [quotation marks borrowed from a future post].

Brains…!

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