Pras on WorldFilms: INTERSTELLAR

InterstellarAn online piece written by a friend brought back to life thoughts long filed-away in the recesses of my memory. His mention of a poem written a long time ago by India’s poet laureate Rabindranath Tagore “Ekla Cholo Re” (Walk The Road Alone).

Tagore wrote the poem back in 1905, and went on to win the country’s first ever Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913.

It is a curious coincidence that I am thinking about this poem now, more than any other day.

This weekend I watched Christopher Nolan’s magnum opus INTERSTELLAR. Being a huge and longtime Chris Nolan fan since I watched his ground-breaking films (MEMENTO, INSOMNIA, THE DARK KNIGHT, INCEPTION, others), it was merely a matter of time that I would show up to watch his latest. (PS: No Spoilers Here !).

Its been a while since I watched a Sci-fi film that wrapped physics and the sheer power of story-telling around a core built on poetic sentiment. Read on.

Nolan has an unconventional style of creating his narrative & visuals in films he directs, or writes or produces. There are always deeper undercurrents flowing beneath the actual story playing out on the surface. Much like the century-old sewers that crisscross deep underneath the City of London where Nolan resides, moving huge volumes of waste totally oblivious to most Londoners living on its solid-surface. He also loves to challenge the audience with a cerebral, non-linear storytelling style, often provoking them to keep up with him.

Interstellar proved no different. But this time he had the advantage of added access to a formidable array of conceptual tools with which to weave all his complexity in the story. At the heart of, the film is a story of pioneers who chose to venture out into the ultimate unknown mankind has ever known – intergalactic space. But this attempt was prompted not by a sense of adventure (as most films would like to depict), but by an urgent need. Earth is close to its last gasps,food is running out, mankind is on the verge of doom.

But Nolan had the use of Time, Space and multiple other dimensions to transport our protagonists through. His non-linear style was made surprisingly easier this time around by the knowledge that theoretical physicists often use the concept of bending space & time around certain galactic objects. Something scientists have known a long time (thanks, Albert Einstein), observed in surrogate forms, but have never ever experienced directly. A group of brave scientists & engineers were being asked to now take a journey into that unknown aided only by a theoretical notion that still has many “holes” by way of proof.

Galactic Pioneers The protagonists were pioneers in every sense of the word. They were stepping into uncharted territory. They were surely scared. They were also terribly conflicted about leaving their closest human connections (family, friends, the familiarity of things around them), and to have to make an uncertain promise that they would ultimately return back to them.

THE SCIENCE OF INTERSTELLAR

Christopher Nolan clearly had a lot to draw from in the area of theoretical physics and astrophysics concepts. Kip Thorne ( a renowned physicist) who was also an adviser on the Interstellar project. One of the main themes in Interstellar is that characters can age at different speeds depending on where they are in the universe.

Interstellar Dimensions In 1912 Einstein predicted that gravity is a product of huge bodies, like Earth, bending space-time. What is even more extraordinary is that space is bending into a different dimension. On Earth the effect is minimal, adding just a few microseconds a day to the time of space. Consequently GPS satellites orbiting the Earth need to be adjusted to take into account that they are moving through time slightly more quickly – 40 microseconds a day – compared to a person with a SatNav on earth.

Bending Space The crew of Interstellar’s Endurance spaceship faced a headache when trying to get to Miller’s planet because it is trapped within the control of the huge black hole Gargantua. To avoid being sucked into the black hole, the spaceship had to be travelling at high speed to escape the huge gravitational and centrifugal forces.

“Wormholes” In Interstellar, the crew overcame the vast distances between galaxies by jumping through a “wormhole”. If you imagine the universe is a flat sheet of paper you could travel between two points by moving in a straight line. However if you bend the paper so that the points touch through it, and then make a hole, you can reach that point much quicker. Essentially, a wormhole is where space and time are being bent so that points are now closer together.But Prof Thorne hastens to add: “I doubt the laws of physics permit traversable wormholes. If they can exist, I doubt very much they can form naturally in the astrophysical universe.

THE POETRY OF INTERSTELLAR

We have come to expect science fiction films to create representations that challenge assumptions we have grown accustomed to living in. In that broader sense, Interstellar is no different. What brought out the core sentiment of Interstellar was really a few lines from a Dylan Thomas poem (see below), that were repeated several times in the film. In a way its also the core of what we know as the “pioneering spirit”.

Interstellar

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Its what led Steve Fosset to attempt the risky balloon-ride across the globe. It inspired Felix Baumgartner to attempt the highest ever jump from a balloon hovering 39-miles up at the edge-of-space. It inspired James Cameron to take that perilous submersible trip 7-miles deep to observe and film the Marianas Trench (the world deepest point in the ocean). It inspired Amelia Earhart to attempt her transatlantic flight back in 1928. It also inspired an intrepid 14-year old Dutch girl Janice Dekker to sail solo around the world in an old unpowered yatch her sailor-dad restored for her. (Her filmed-footage was turned into an amazing documentary MAIDENTRIP). And it keeps people like Richard Branson ticking restlessly with a vision of commercial space travel. Damn the celebrity, full steam ahead.

The poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) was published in 1951-52, but couldn’t be more true for these pioneers. Here’s how it goes.

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

Dylan Thomas, 19141953

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

From The Poems of Dylan Thomas, published by New Directions. Copyright © 1952, 1953 Dylan Thomas. Copyright © 1937, 1945, 1955, 1962, 1966, 1967 the Trustees for the Copyrights of Dylan Thomas. Copyright © 1938, 1939, 1943, 1946, 1971 New Directions Publishing

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Pras on WorldFilms: HAWKING

Hawking is the extraordinary story of the planet’s most famous living scientist, told for the first time in his own words and by those closest to him. Made with unique access to Hawking’s private life, this is an intimate and moving journey into Stephen’s world, both past and present. Hawking relates his incredible personal journey from boyhood underachiever, to Ph.D. genius, to being diagnosed with ALS (or Lou Gehrig’s disease) and given just two years to live.

Despite the constant threat of death, Hawking makes amazing scientific discoveries and rises to fame and superstardom.

cropped-HawkingA58001Stephen Finnigan’s film about Prof. Stephen Stephen Hawking is a heartfelt tribute to the most famous scientist of our times. Hawking’s remarkable career is well summarised too: the brilliant young Oxford academic who was struck down with a degenerative disease in his early 20s. His severe case of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, has trapped his bold mind in an uncooperative body, a circumstance that’s an inseparable part of his fame. Told he only had a few years to live, he survived as a legendary wheelchair-user to develop new theories of the universe and to write a bestselling popular study of theoretical physics: “A Brief History of Time”, now enjoying its 25th anniversary. Now 71, he’s the rare scientific luminary who’s also a celebrity, thanks to his best-selling book, and appearances on comedies like “The Simpsons” and “The Big Bang Theory.”

Hawking IndiewireWhile there is little left about him that has not been written about, the winning approach of this film was that it allowed the movie to be told in Mr. Hawking’s own voice, at least his computer-generated one. “Welcome to my world,” he says.  In an early sequence from the film, interaction design engineers from Intel huddle with Mr. Hawking to give him a faster means of communicating (based on facial tics, mostly).

He tells us about his childhood and his Oxford student days, when his illness was diagnosed; about his first marriage; about his students; about his science. We see him in daily tasks like eating, assisted by caretakers patiently lifting food to his misshapen, passive face.

Among several interesting vignettes from the film about his life are a few of the following.

1.  “I was close to death after bout of pneumonia in 1980s. I was rushed to hospital and put on a ventilator. The doctor said they thought I was so far gone they offered to turn off the ventilator.

Stephen Hawking talks to Royal College of Surgeons

Stephen Hawking tells the Royal College of Surgeons about his near-death experience following pneumonia.

Stephen Hawking had a tube inserted into his windpipe 30 years ago after he had developed motor neuron disease. The physicist, once  became very ill during a bout of pneumonia during the 1980s while visiting Switzerland.  He was considered to be “so far gone” that medics weighed up disconnecting his ventilator. Doctors later agreed Hawking, should be flown back from Switzerland, to England for further treatment. There he was able to lead close to a full and active life. The 72-year-old told the Royal College of Surgeons: “I was rushed to hospital and put on a ventilator. The doctor said they thought I was so far gone they offered to turn off the ventilator. But I was flown back to Cambridge. The doctors there tried hard to get me back to how I was before.” He was speaking at the launch of the European Global Tracheostomy Collaborative (GTC) in central London, where he was given a standing ovation by more than 200 delegates. He said: For the last three years I have been on full-time ventilation but this has not prevented me from leading a full and active life.

Stephen-Hawking-008

Stephen Hawking dismisses belief in God in an exclusive interview with the Guardian.

2. “We should seek the greatest value of our action.” “There is no heaven; it’s a fairy story. I think the conventional afterlife is a fairy tale for people afraid of the dark.”   He rejected the notion of life beyond death and emphasized the need to fulfill our potential on Earth by making good use of our lives.  He says there was nothing beyond the moment when the brain flickers for the final time.”I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark“. Hawking’s comments go beyond those laid out in his 2010 book, The Grand Design, in which he asserted that there is no need for a creator to explain the existence of the universe. The book provoked a backlash from some religious leaders, including the chief rabbi, Lord Sacks, who accused Hawking of committing an “elementary fallacy” of logic. The physicist’s remarks draw a stark line between the use of God as a metaphor and the belief in an omniscient creator whose hands guide the workings of the cosmos.

3. ” It’s theoretically possible to copy the brain on to a computer,..”

Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking with his sister Mary at the premiere of the documentary Hawking in Cambridge.

Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking with his sister Mary at the premiere of the documentary Hawking in Cambridge.

Stephen Hawking said he believes brains could exist independently of the body, but that the idea of a conventional afterlife is a fairy tale. Speaking at the premiere of a documentary film about his life, the theoretical physicist said: “I think the brain is like a program in the mind, which is like a computer, so it’s theoretically possible to copy the brain on to a computer and so provide a form of life after death. “However, this is way beyond our present capabilities. I think the conventional afterlife is a fairy tale for people afraid of the dark.”

4. All my life I have lived with the threat of an early death, so I hate wasting time.”  The incurable illness was expected to kill Hawking within a few years of its symptoms arising, an outlook that turned the young scientist to Wagner, but ultimately led him to enjoy life more, he has said, despite the cloud hanging over his future.  The 71-year-old physicist also backs the right for the terminally ill to end their lives as long as safeguards were in place, was diagnosed with motor neurone disease at the age of 21 and given two to three years to live.

Pras on WorldFilms: PARTICLE FEVER

PARTICLE FEVER

PosterDirector Mark Levinson’s documentary focuses on the most elaborate and costly science experiment ever conducted.

The subject of the film is the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, a massive, miles-long particle accelerator designed to detect the Higgs boson by replicating, in miniature, the Big Bang. It works by smashing together two high-energy proton beams aimed directly at each other. Comprised of liquid-helium-cooled magnets and complex microelectronics that one scientist compares to a “five-story Swiss watch,” the LHC is the world’s largest crash-test laboratory.
The film follows six physicists from the scheduled startup of the CERN Large Hadron Collider to the discovery of the elusive Higgs boson (or “God particle”), the infinitesimal, hitherto-hypothetical cornerstone of the whole field of particle physics, and a key ingredient in the creation of the universe. 
Three of the film’s six protagonists are theorists, armed with chalkboards, and three are experimentalists in hard hats. Two are women, giving the lie to the enduring cliche about the absence of female scientists. Monica Dunford, an American, is one of the youngest and most enthusiastic participants; Savas Dimopoulos, a veteran Greek physicist, who Murch calls the Yoda of the group, worries that he won’t live long enough to witness the breakthrough; and Nima Arkani-Hamed, whose family escaped from Iran during the revolution of ’79, also has a lot riding on the experiment. (See the interesting profiles of the physicists below)
 ParticleFever2Director Mark Levinson earned a doctoral degree in particle physics from Berkeley before veering into film, and producer David Kaplan, a professor of theoretical particle physics at Johns Hopkins, has also been active on History Channel and National Geographic science programs. They’re able to simplify and synthesize without dumbing down the material and put non-science-oriented viewers at ease by drawing a smart parallel between science and art.
The Nobel Prizes for Physics just announced for two of the central figures in Particle Fever – Peter Higgs was half the duo of theoretical physicists who first predicted in 1964, the existence of the so-called God particle that was the ultimate glue to the universe: The Higgs-Boson particle.  The Nobel Prize in physics ultimately went to Peter W. Higgs and Francois Englert.
 ParticleFever3
The film succeeds in making the normally intimidating and arcane world of genius-level physics at least conceptually comprehensible and even friendly to the lay viewer. This unexpected look at the long run-up to and successful completion of the most elaborate and costly science experiment ever conducted — the use of the Large Hadron Collider to attempt to find the Higgs boson — is not only fascinating, but also humanizes the field in a way that will inspire practitioners and provoke the curiosity of non-specialists. 

“THE CREATOR & THE DESTROYER” : Statue Depicting A Dancing Shiva (Nataraj) In Front Of The CERN Large Hadron Collider.

It also doesn’t hurt that both the metaphysical and the (literally) physical backdrop for the film is enormous. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is the biggest machine ever built. Buried underground in Switzerland, it resembles but dwarfs any set ever built for a James Bond film, measuring seven stories tall and consisting of a 17-mile ring through which protons, powered by seven-ton super-conducting magnetos, will be sent to collide with each other at a speed aimed to reproduce conditions such as those just after the Big Bang.

The Atlas Experiment, which was initiated in the 1980s, involves 10,000 people from 100 countries and the use of 100,000 computers to deal with all the data. An even bigger such machine was started in the United States but was canceled by Congress after a few years because there were no specific military or commercial applications for the experiment. ( so much for shortsightedness).

In addition to its impressive size and scope (it’s the largest machine ever built by man), the LHC unites 10,000 scientists from 100 countries in excited, collaborative harmony.

What is its reason for existence? 

ParticleFever4This is described in many ways: To try to understand the basic laws of nature, to discover the key particle that holds everything together (which is what the Higgs boson describes), to identify particles scientists know are out there but haven’t been seen and, in the simplest terms, to learn which group of theorists is correct — those who believe in the “super-symmetry” of one universe or the adherents of an ever-expanding “multi-verse” based on randomness and chaos.

Apparently the weight of the mysterious particle will determine which of two contrasting theories will hold sway: “supersymmetry,” which posits a harmonious, stable, knowable world, or “multiverse,” which proposes a more chaotic, unstable one — and might well annihilate well-established concepts underlying scientists’ lifelong endeavors. Kaplan and long-haired lookalike physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed cheerfully debate supersymmetry vs. multiverse during the course of a friendly game of table tennis.

ParticleFever5Nothing can put a damper on the enthusiasm of the savants. When LHC finally achieves collision, the film offers a closeup of young postdoc Monica Dunford exclaiming “We have data!” as billions of bits of raw knowledge streaming into linked-up computers around the world. Shut out of the breathlessly anticipated announcement of the discovery of the Higgs boson because he arrived late, Savas Dimopoulos, a major figure in the experiment and the movie, philosophically sits down, opens his computer and watches, enthralled.

ParticleFever6But if cooperation and coordination are the joyous order of the day, all is not smooth sailing. The media hoopla that greets the first one-way circling of the collider proves premature as the project is plagued by delays and malfunctions, providing the filmmakers with a wide range of emotional ups and downs, as well as plenty of “Houston we have a problem”-style suspense. The huge cost of LHC and the nonstop media buildup place additional pressure on the scientists to produce results, particularly since the collider offers no immediate military or commercial payoff.

Kaplan and Levinson began production in 2008 and, while the center of action remains the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland, the net is cast wide to encompass the perspectives of scientists as they gather there, as well as those following events with computer links elsewhere. The project leader is an Italian woman, Fabiola Gianotti; an American woman, Monica Dunford, provides an emotionally excitable take; a veteran Greek physicist, Savas Dimopoulos, is concerned that he’s too old to be able to take part in what he’s sure will be the exciting next phase of research; while Nima Arkani-Hamed, whose family escaped from revolutionary Iran after 1979, has a great deal riding on the experiment, about which he says, “The hype is approximately accurate.”

Particle Fever imparts a great deal of information while bringing to light a rarefied world defined by intense mutual interests and great camaraderie coupled with inevitable competitiveness. The big split among physicists is between the theorists and the experimentalists.

One key line also manages to summarizes the long quest that scientists have gone through in events leading up to the Large Hadron Collider. “Jumping from failure to failure with undiminished enthusiasm lies the keys to success.”

On July 4, 2012, the results are finally obtained, to the joy of those assembled at CERN and in other smaller gatherings around the world. Among the crowd packed into the auditorium is aged British physicist Peter Higgs, for whom the elusive particle was named and who is seen removing his glasses and dabbing his eyes. It’s a well-earned moving climax to the film, as it’s evident that a major frontier has been conquered and new horizons opened up. A clip from Werner Herzog’s cave art documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams is used to again invoke the link between art and science in the search for coherence and meaning.

And the story will continue as the Collider gets retooled and made stronger for the next phase in two years, pitting the “super-symmetry” of order against the randomness of “multi-verse.” So far the Higgs has not provided a definitive answer, which makes for great storytelling, if not definitive science.

ABOUT THE PARTICLE PHYSICISTS STARRING IN “PARTICLE FEVER”

MonicaMonica Dunford:  Awarded a prestigious Enrico Fermi Fellowship from the University of Chicago, Monica’s gung ho, adventurous spirit has led her not only to the frontiers of science, but to the boundaries of human endurance. Her “leisure” activities of marathoning, cycling, rowing and mountain climbing have provided useful conditioning for the 16-hour days she regularly spends working on the ATLAS detector. As a young American post-doc, she is excited to be at the center of the physics universe and anxious to make her mark during her stint in Geneva.
FabiolaFabiola Gianotti :  In 1982, Fabiola received a piano diploma at the Conservatorio Giuseppe Verdi in Milan, Italy. In 1989, she received her Ph.D. in Particle Physics from the University of Milan. She has devoted the last 20 years to the development of the ATLAS detector, the largest detector at the LHC. She became the leader of the experiment just as the LHC began operation, supervising nearly 3,000 physicists and engineers around the world. Like her Italian ancestor, Columbus, Fabiola’s fervent dream for the LHC is to discover an entirely unexpected “new world.”
NimaNima Arkani-Hamed :  An intense, outspoken young theorist, Nima’s father was also a physicist, who spoke openly against the Iranian Revolutionary Guard after the revolution in 1979. In fear for their lives, the family fled into Turkey on horseback. Nima now treats physics with the same life and death imperative. Snatched up by Harvard with a full professorship before he was 30, Nima moved in 2008 to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. With many of his ideas poised to be tested at the LHC, Nima hopes to make the impact his colleagues think he is capable of. He bet several years salary that the elusive Higgs boson would finally reveal itself at the LHC.
MikeMike Lamont :  Trained as a physicist in England, Mike migrated to the engineering side of the actual collider machine in Geneva. As Beam Operation Leader, he feels a personal responsibility to “deliver beams” of protons to the experiments. His dry wit has been a welcome relief in the adrenalin-charged, high-pressure environment of the CERN Control Center.
MartinMartin Aleksa :  Arriving from Austria over 12 years ago, Martin now has a coveted permanent position at CERN. He was one of the original designers of one of the central components of the ATLAS detector, the Liquid Argon Calorimeter. Elected to the position of ATLAS Run Control Coordinator in 2011, Martin was handed overall responsibility for the collection of data from the ATLAS detector just as the LHC began to produce its first new results.
SavasSavas Dimopoulus:  A Greek immigrant who now occupies an endowed chair at Stanford University, Savas has been on an odyssey for 30 years to find the true theory of nature. Many consider him the most likely to have a theory confirmed by the LHC, potentially winning the Nobel Prize. A mentor to many in the field, Savas has recently begun to feel the pangs of age, and worries if he’ll be an active participant in the next revolution.
Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory explains particle physics in Particle Adventure.    http://www.particleadventure.org

Berkeley

With: Martin Aleksa, Nima Arkani-Hamed, Savas Dimopolos, Monica Dunford, Fabiola Gianotti, Mike Lamont

Director: Mark A. Levinson

Producers: David E. Kaplan, Mark A. Levinson, Andrea Miller, Carla Solomon

Executive producers: Thomas Campbell Jackson, Gerry Ohrstrom

Directors of photography: Claudia Raschke-Robinson, Wolfgang Held

Editor: Walter Murch

Music: Robert Miller