The jury may be out on whether a leopard can change its spots or not, but a Snowy Owl certainly can and will! It used to be believed that the male Snowy is white with little barring and gets whiter with age, and the female has more barring and gets darker with age. But, in reality, Snowies cannot be aged or sexed with certainty. The darkest males and the lightest females are selfsame to the human eye. Also, no two owls are identical, and even throughout an individual’s lifetime, Snowies may choose to increase or decrease their coloration based on the environment and their physiological condition.
The female’s barring serves as a camouflage to help her hide herself and her chicks in the nest, but not in the way that we automatically reason. Animals don’t see colors like humans do. For example, several animals see our black power lines as glowing and flashing bands. We are also not always who they display to or hide from! So their visual appearance is tailored specifically to their needs, keeping in mind their primary ‘ultra-awesome’ predators and prey.
Several of the owl’s prey have UV vision. So while the white plumage of the Snowy may seem to humans as allowing it to camouflage itself against the snow, it is in fact highly UV absorbing, making the owl conspicuous to its prey! To the prey, neither the Snowy Owl’s white plumage nor its dark parts reflect in UV or near UV. In fact its dark parts peak in the near infrared part of the spectrum. So the Snowy Owl appears starkly grey against the white background of the snow. Moreover, Snowies breed in the open tundra, where they can be seen from great distances both in white winter and in colorful summer. They are the largest avian predators on the tundra and can protect themselves from intruders. Having said that, they spend as much time fighting competitors and bullies as it do minding their own business, because every predator in the Arctic is plucky; Pluckiness is a prerequisite to survival in inhospitable terrains (unless you are a lemming, in which case, good luck, and hope the Snowy shines!).
In fact, the males that do all the hunting during the breeding season, reflect significantly more light than the females, so their white color is not an adaptation to camouflage the bird, but is an impairment during hunting! But, this is the sacrifice that the birds make, because pigmentation production costs energy that is better used to minimize energy expenditure during the moult, when all Snowies loose one or two primaries on both wings (the moult intensity is higher for non-breeding Snowies). At no point during the moult do the birds lose their ability to fly.
Because the white of the Snowies is an impediment, it is only the best hunters that can pass on their genes to further generations. In fact, a female might be mighty pleased to know that the male can hunt even without pigmentation!
While their preys have UV vision, Snowy Owls themselves don’t. To Snowies, white is white. On sunny days, they orient themselves toward the sun so that the snow’s albedo enhances their visual display. This is how they broadcast their territorial claims, prey information, and show-off to conspecifics. The lighter Snowies display longer than the darker ones.
Even though Snowies are not UV-sensitive, their vision is one of the most highly developed of any owl, and can track distant objects in all variations of ambient light! Unlike other owls, the Snowy Owls are diurnal (active during the day). Some believe this is the case because they have adapted themselves to the long nights and days in the Arctic! In fact, their multifocal tubular eyes are one of the most ecologically adapted of any bird. The species eyes are roughly 1.5 times more sensitive than those of humans, but with lower limited field view, and increased ability to see in low light levels. Like all owls, the Snowy can turn its head 135 degrees in either direction giving it a total of 270 degrees “field of view”. It can even turn its head almost upside down.
Interestingly enough, the primary reason for the eyes being set at the front of the head is not to give them binocular vision as much as to accommodate large ears. The Snowy Owl is distinct from the other avian predators in taking prey from under the snow. It even prefers to hunt through the snow than over thawed surfaces. Such hunting is clearly done using sound, as much as vision.
And even though their pupils maintain an unchanging diameter of 12mm giving them a small depth of field, they have well-developed rictal bristles around the eyes and beak that help them feel for their newborns, and assess their well-being, or detect the shape and softness of the captured prey.
(This is an uber-long post, because Potapov and Sale's book is fascinating. If you've made it this far, you will enjoy reading the rest of this post. So read on, and do read the book!)
Imagine if you unexpectedly came upon a Polar Bear, an Arctic Fox or a Snowy Owl casually moseying down your street. One might assume it’s also the day when the sun decides to remain under the horizon! But, the sun came out, and a female Snowy Owl, found herself nestled cosily on the ledge of The Washington Post building (fortuitously, a few floors down from the Capital Weather Gang’s workspace) in DC. But sadly, her fate was sealed! She was hit by a bus, and is now being cared for at the zoo.
Birds don’t usually draw the same brouhaha as animals! Hedwig may be more popular than Iorek, but in the human circles, Polar bears outclass Snowies all the time. No one made a fuss about Hedwig being played by male Snowy Owls in the movie because Harry “Daniel Radcliffe” Potter can’t handle a heavy female. The popularity of animals over birds has nothing to do with their beauty, rareness, fearsomeness or intelligence. This is how we have come to size things up. But, this year the Snowies are attracting a deluge of onlookers, because of the unlikely places they are being sighted in.
Snowy Owls are one of very few avian species who have the audacity to wait out the winter season in the Arctic. It is usually the full grown adults wanting to breed that stick around in these unmerciful areas. The Snowies that choose to skip the breeding season, and the young ones who are less equipped to survive up there, fly southward where the weather is less extreme. Still, it nearly never happens that south-flying Snowies fly all the way to the Mid-Atlantic, and as far south as Florida, as we witnessed this year. One curious Snowy even made it all the way to Bermuda!
For years, scientists cerebrated over these on and off massive irruptions, and have not been able to make sense of them. In order to do a systematic study of Snowies, scientists need to understand how the owl’s live in their main domicile, as well as what motivates them to travel to places with extremely different ecologies, especially since they don’t migrate every year but sporadically, and for a limited amount of time. The hypothermic weather in the Arctic makes observing the owls there impracticable. Added to that, Snowies are extremely nomadic even in the Tundra. They not only follow the cyclical nature of lemmings, that are abundant one year and scare another, and move around a lot, but also go after bigger lemmings, and therefore an abundant population of those that breed less! So scientists have been limited to compiling information about the the owls that migrate to the south, where are more easily observable, and have been doing so since the early 19th century!
What they’ve found so far is that Snowies are both individualistic and collectivistic. Every owl follows a different trajectory of living, hunting and breeding, making it difficult to make broad generalizations about the species. At the same time, they also choose to travel in boids (loose groups), so that one’s fate is tied to another’s. It seems as if being a part of a boid to them is a choice and not a given, making boids fundamentally different from flocks.
The magic of the Snowy Owl is not in how they survive in a pitiless landscape, but how they transform themselves physically, and make the impossible possible. But, magicians never reveal their secrets, not even if you put them under a knife. If you saw them in half, they won’t tell you anything at all, and you won’t be able to put them back together, because you are not a magician. I consciously share this analogy to underscore a sad piece of information that I learnt from the Snowy Owl book. Up until the 1940s (and perhaps even later), biologists who wanted to understand the diet of Snowy Owls would cut them open to examine their stomachs’ contents. One particular scientist examined 205 stomachs, meaning 205 Snowy Owls were killed; 78 of them had empty stomachs, which means they were cheated out of life for nothing! This is in spite of the fact that one scientist in the 1930s made popular how owls’ regurgitated pellets could be used to understand their diets, so that owls don’t have to be autopsied to understand their diets! Snowy Owls are one of the most delicate bone digesters in the world. They preserve more bones of prey in their pellets than most other birds and make ‘little’ modification to the bones in their pellets.
Pellet analysis can reveal not only what an Owl ate, but also how many species and the size and weight of each! Moreover, Pellets of owls take as much as 10 years to decompose, because of the cold weather in their chosen habitats, so the information is in tact for a long time! In fact, the Owl too routinely tastes its chicks’ pellets to assess their wellbeing and hunger levels. For instance, the absence of bones in the chicks’ pellets would mean the chicks didn’t get enough food, so the digestion sucked every last calorie from their meal. Fortunately, today, scientists don’t cut open Snowy Owls! They capture, examine, band and release them!
This year Snowies migrated southward is unusually high numbers! This kind of irruption hasn’t been seen in may never happen again (even though a long-term look at irruption patterns point to more and more Snowies migrating over the years!). Over two dozen researchers, including the Pulitzer nominated author Scott Weidensaul have come together to work on Project Snowstorm to understand this anomaly, and other physical and behavioral characteristics of the owl! They are using new methods of tracking the birds, such as solar-powered GPS-GSM transmitters, and also performing DNA and feather analyses, among other things.
The transmitters weigh 40 grams, which is the size of one lemming, and about 1.5-3% of the owl’s weight. This makes me uncomfortable, as owls determine what they eat and what they feed their chicks based on the weight of the hunted prey and their energy budget! The transmitters that are attached to their wings using a backpack harness should make flying inconvenient and cost them some energy on top of their usual expenditure.
That being said, scientists are already recording many differences in hunting strategies and invalidating many commonly held notions about their migratory motivations and their movements. One such myth is that the Snowies are here due to a shortage of lemmings in the Arctic. In fact, the abundance of lemmings in summer, led to a successful breeding season, and the current bumper crop of Snowies!
It has been believed for a few years now, that the mass irruption is the result of complex stochastic processes having to do with the availability of prey, winter snow thickness, but more importantly, the relationship between individual owls in their boids. Snowy Owls tend to travel to wintering grounds and breeding grounds in groups. It’s a loose structure where individuals keep safe distance from each other while also monitoring each others movements to get to places with rich food sources. Sometimes, this strategy works very well, and they hit a lemming bonanza, and pair up and start breeding. But, in some other years, they find themselves in an infertile area deficient in lemmings or alternate prey, but are too weak to move elsewhere and leads to mass deaths!
Snowies' most-preferred urban habitats are airports, because they offer vast open spaces with few trees and limited human access, and noise pollution. The noise factor gives the Snowies an advantage over other owls that use their ears and hunt in the dark close to dawn and dusk! Even though the Snowy Owls are diurnal, in the airports, they become very active when the sun begins to set. Here, they capture everything from tiny insects to large raptors, and even the Great Blue Heron and other Snowy Owls. While some airport owls are very healthy, others, especially the adults are exhausted and underweight.
Some years there are as many as fifty owls in one airport, which makes them all the more susceptible to being hit by planes. FAA recorded over 120,000 wildlife strikes (the vast majority were birds) in a 10-year period, and 11,000 strikes last year alone. Bird strikes have caused up to $700 million a year damage to civilian and military aircraft. At least five snowy owls were hit by planes in the US this winter season! A few States have “shoot-to-kill” orders, but most prefer to trap and relocate them.
But, in the early 1980s, research of 385 owls at Logan Airport revealed that the presence of owls in airports discourage flocking birds from roosting in the area. And attempting to disperse the owls only created a greater risk of a bird strike than just leaving them alone.
I recently watched the Magic of the Snowy Owl, which documents the life of one Snowy Owl pair raising their young in a very bleak part of the Alaska North Slope, where food seems scarce and there is little relief from cold winds, rainstorms and freezing fogs. It’s a story of struggle and triumph with all the deflating and elevating elements of reality-melodrama. There is this sense that you are furtively observing The Addams Family of Snowy Owls. The narrator suggests that everything the family are doing is unusual and never been recorded before; like one kawaii scene of owlets daring to cross the river. It was the first time that this behavior was ever recorded or filmed.
In reality, a lot of what the movie thinks is unusual has in fact been observed many times before. The Snowy Owl book by Eugene Potapov and Richard Sale that I mention a few times in this post, provides both scientific and anecdotal evidence from all over the world to this effect. If you’ve enjoyed the movie, I recommend the book to contemplate the bird’s stunning and peculiar ways and facets.
In a different post, I share insights from the book, and clarify some of what the movie thinks is unusual. But mainly, I intend to share how the owl magically transforms itself physically and does amazing non-birdlike things; such as how it changes its spots, manipulates the sex-ratio of its offspring, and enjoys recreational sex, among other things!
I won't be asking for much if I said he should make it with recycled paper, no? *that's called putting magic on and under the microscope* *don't beat me*.
David Attenborough is one of the most consummate storytellers of our time. What makes him endearing are things that make him curious and the lengths he will go to satisfy that curiosity. And his things are in the uncharted hinterlands teeming with invisible and mysterious energies; where everything is fluid and transforming; and where humans are one small blip in a more diversely inhabited world.
And because he gives the air of being the most unlikely person one would find whispering from inside a toxic bat-cave or sitting snug next to a gorilla (even though he may be the first person or the only person to have done a lot of what he’s done); because the technology he uses is always groundbreaking; and because the world he reveals is unfailingly awe-inspiring, you are left both amused and astonished. And so, he goes about fossicking in the boonies and presenting us with many banquets of wonder, and letting us know that there is more wonder than we’d ever dream of wondering.
In this series, which is a mix of memoir and science, he meticulously chronicles sixty years of his adventures in the wild. It serves as an unbeatable testament to one man, and his bid to make the stunning complexity of nature’s superior design known to everyone.
He begins in a time much different from our own; when we were still taken with the boundlessness of nature; and everything was waiting to be discovered or seduced into revealing itself. Collectors hungered to own the rarest birds and beasts from the farthest corners of the world. Wild animal dealers, private and traveling menageries and zoo gardens were ubiquitous all over Britain.
Then, he saw wildlife diminish over time, and succumb to its own lavish generosity and our insatiable appetite for everything it has to offer. Extinction became a reality, and he became one of the many voices for conservation. He spent the next half of his professional life, not collecting, but being a diligent observer, translating the wonders of the natural world into exquisite words and visuals.
When he narrates this story, he paints a vivid picture of a revolution in thought, and displays a sapient inwardness, like a Once-ler reuniting with his inner-Lorax; and we take his wistful rumination, his hopes and questions, and make it our own.
There is something marvelous about the wisdom and knowledge he has amassed over time. He always seems unburdened by the scientific prose or activist rhetoric, while somehow striking the elusive balance between the two and oozing erudition. He embraces the science of scientists and the subjectivity of conservationists as being dogged pursuits towards a common ideal. He presents them as the warps and woofs of the natural world, who work to understand, protect and grow their environments, sometimes without heed to personal consequences.
Naturalists, more than any other kind of science maven, display an exceptional ability to observe! There is nothing purely rational about their line of work. Nothing in their world is mechanistic. No two beasts of the same kind are alike; and the interconnectedness of nature, and the complicated symbiotic relationships between flora, fauna and the natural forces, make the process of revelation labyrinthine. And still, researchers show their tremendous skill in taking in all the sights, smells, sounds, and other sensory information around them, and filtering them through scientific thought processes and making deductions on behavior and their consequences. It is a delicate dance between astute observation and skilful intervention; like rearranging all the pieces in a salad back to their respective whole fruits.
In that sense, Attenborough, is not a naturalist-scientist or naturalist-activist. His job is to passively extend his senses to the natural world and make us see what we wouldn’t see without his help. But, having done this for sixty years, he has the unique privilege of sharing impressions about our world over a long passage of time and constructing implications. And because these implications are not just scientific, but moral and emotional, he serves as a calm light of reason, a new door-opener, who leaves us with a questing belief in the future. His life is evidence of how our triumphs, uncertainties and errors recycle into new hopes and anxieties over time.
One, perhaps bonus benefit of this series is the stories of some remarkable women who put themselves in physical harm's way, as they work intimately with wild animals, in hostile regions full of poachers and angry locals. They have single-handedly saved whole species from extinction. And in them, as in the 87 year old Attenborough, and many other naturalists featured in this series, I find personal inspiration; it is clear that there is nothing one cannot do, and certainly not because of somatic reasons.
Sometimes I am able to sit through an entire film and take pleasure in it without following much of the storyline. This is because, the story is only one part of any film; it's the bowl in which the noodles is served. But as I'm relishing my noodles, should the bowl disappear suddenly and completely, I would still continue to slurp up the noodles by eating it off the table, while hopelessly managing the running soup. It maybe highly inconvenient, and arguably insalubrious (provided the table is unclean), but I am not the type to give up good noodles for the lack of a bowl!
This is one such film. Still and all, I was feeling like the character in the movie, as she was experiencing her consciousness displaced outside her body, and her life slip away from her. I felt what she was feeling because the story is bathed in the abstract and unfolds in fragments like a disjointed puzzle. It felt just like when you try to push many opposing magnets together; the more you push, the more they resist each other. And yet, you assign each bit its proper bearing, and create a whole with the help of the bonds that come out of the characters who share the same experiences.
A few weeks ago, I watched Trance, where too a man's reality is manipulated through conversational hypnosis, and he willingly lives in an altered state of consciousness. The hypnotist puts him there by stacking many layers of "alternate" realities and repeated suggestions on top of each other until he goes so deep that he can’t get out, and doesn’t know what reality is anymore.
This brings me to contemplate how hypnosis is similar to storytelling, especially when the standard ‘beginning, middle and end’ format is broken down either in a nested fashion as in Trance, or in a parallel fashion as in Upstream Color. In both, the visual imagery, the background score, and the voice of the hypnotist create a tone of exaggerated mystery. They free up the characters unconscious and stimulate them to connect with new experiences and go on a journey of discovery. Like the characters, we too tap into own repository of associations and meanings to meet with the story! In Trance we see the hypnotized man becoming the creator of the story using his internal thoughts and memories. Soon, just as he loses his reality to the simulated world, we begin to bring in our experiences to bridge his two states, until we too get lost in them.
When listening to a story, our mind is constantly looking to close plot loops as we navigate our way from the story’s beginning to its end. And every time a new story is nested into a story, this loop is broken and a new loop is created. As more and more stories are nested into one another and more and more loops are broken, we go deeper and deeper into a state of trance, until time becomes relative and loops begin to lose meaning, and our reality is ultimately the suggested world that the storyteller wants us to believe!
Upstream Color has no nested loops, but it has parallel connected realities that seem to merge and feed off of each other, until the characters real memories are lost and they are left with new implanted memories and a substitute reality that is controlled by the suggestions implanted by the hypnotist (among other things). As a result, the characters begin to behave in odd and unpredictable ways and struggle with piecing their lives together. As viewers of this, when we experience the hypnosis that the characters are being put through, it feels as if the hypnotist is manipulating our rationality too, because
our intense sensations are improvised from the characters network of associations, inside our heads.
Both films satisfy two intentions; one, of telling stories with the intention of putting the characters in a trance, and another, of putting us in a trance with the intention of telling a story. The less things add up, the more the classical unities of time, place and action become blurred; we suspend our disbelief and stop questioning when things are off kilter. We break down our logical thought process and create a gateway into our unconscious mind to search for resolutions. The unconscious is also more receptive to suggestions by the storyteller, so we begin to assume those suggestions as the resolutions we are seeking. It’s only when the movie is over, and we are out of our state of trance that we logically workout its meaning in a way that makes sense for our reality! That is why, this story has many interpretations, none that is final.
Here's a really nice review of the movie in the New Yorker. As you will see, there is more to it than hypnosis. Do read it whether you've watched the movie or not. This isn't the kind of movie where one can give away the plot and kill the suspense. The story is nicely spelled out, although there can be many interpretations (as pointed out even in the review). I know at least one other, which is just as compelling!
The movie disintegrated way before that underwear scene! If you have watched the movie, here's a rib-tickling summary that you might enjoy.
Lately I have been reading books about how humans have been obsessed with genetic engineering since 12,000 BC, when plants and animals were domesticated through selective and deliberate breeding. Back then, we were preoccupied with converting wild rye to more domestic varieties, or grey wolves to dogs; Now, we have come as far as being able to accurately predict the whole genome of an unborn baby by sequencing the DNA from the mother’s blood and the father’s saliva; It won’t be much longer before we are able to manipulate our genetic makeup, and correct mutations which cause diseases.
When Star Trek was created in the mid-1960s, we had just come out of a very dark age that coincided with the two world wars; when scientists and politicians in several countries began targeting humans with ‘unfit’ traits, and forbidding them from marrying or procreating. The American Eugenics Society encouraged the creation of a superior human race through selective breeding. They organized public lectures, brought out publications, conducted “fitter family contests” among other things to educate people on the laws of inheritance. Here’s an example of a chart displayed at the 1929 Kansas Free Fair!
Many eugenics policies and programs, such as genetic screening, racial segregation, segregation of 'degenerate' and 'unfit' humans, compulsory sterilization, forced abortions and euthanasia were implemented in several countries, such as America, Brazil, Canada and several European countries (the reasons for and the methods of implementation were different in each country).
32 States in the US had eugenics programs. In North Carolina alone, more than 7600 men, women and children were sterilized, oftentimes against their will, even for reasons such as being 'feebleminded', 'troubled' or 'poor'; and this went on till the mid-1970s! Part of the reason for the sterilization was that abortion was illegal, birth control was not easily available in some places, and giving birth to an unfit child was just not an option! It was not until 2002 that the Governor of North Carolina formerly apologised to the victims, repealed the involuntary sterilization law, and ruled out sterilization for reasons of 'hygiene' and 'convenience'. Even today, a proposal to compensate the victims ($50,000 per person) is being debated, and only a few hundred victims were willing to reveal themselves because of the continuing stigma of being sterilized. Victims in other countries too were reluctant to come forward for the same reason.
Star Trek exemplifies one train of thought on what might have happened if we had continued on that path of racial cleansing. It is a fictional account, but one that has tremendous significance, especially given what was happening in real life during the time the story was conceived. If you watch the TV series, you will realize that every episode touches on one or more contentious real-life issues of that time that are relevant even today; and gives you a lot to reflect on!
Now to put ourselves and the movie in the context of its timeline:
According to the Star Trek timeline, we are somewhere between the Eugenics War of the early 1990s and World War III of the 2050s; The movie takes place 300 years from the Eugenics war, by which times humans have put their savage past behind them and moved on.
Prior to the 1990s, human scientists had been working on improving their race through selective breeding and genetic engineering. In the process, they created superhumans called Augments, with superior physical and mental abilities. What was unanticipated was that the Augments would want to dominate the world. Khan, the most powerful of his kind, appointed himself "absolute ruler" and ruled a quarter of the Earth, and close to 40 countries. His reign was mostly admired, because he was a man of peace, and there were no wars or violence under him, that is, until the humans rose up against the Augments. A huge war broke out, nearly devastating Earth. Most of the Augments were killed, except Khan and 84 others who managed to escape Earth in a sleeper ship, where they remained cryogenically frozen for three hundred years, until the crew of Enterprise discovered them in 2267. The current movie is set in this time period.
Soon after the Augments were deposed, not all was peaceful on Earth. By the 2050s, World War III broke out between various factions still in conflict on earth about genetic engineering, governments controlling military with narcotics and issues of ecoterrorism. All this led to World War III and the resulting nuclear exchange killed 37 million humans, leaving Earth mostly uninhabitable because of radioactivity, supply shortages, and the collapse of most of the major governments. Hundreds and thousands of humans were also mercilessly killed by evil troops to eliminate the spread of radiation sickness, impurities and mutations to future generations.
It took two generations of peace attempts for the post-atomic horror to give way to unified world alliances and end poverty and disease. During the 2060s, a team of engineers built Earth's first warp ship, which drew the attention of a Vulcan ship passing near Earth, who made their first contact with humans, and ushered us into a more peaceful era.
By the early 2100s, Earth was finally rid of poverty, disease, war and hunger. A United Earth Government was formed in 2150; A non-profit economy was developed, and replicators were used to satisfy material needs; although people were no longer obsessed with the accumulation of wealth or possessions. Humans were mostly focussed on enriching themselves in a secular, non-religious environment free of superstitions. A great deal of emphasis was placed on the importance of continued social and personal development, and the rest as we know is history!
Now… in the Reality meets Sci-fi spirit … here's a Spock talks to Spock Prime type video:
A few years ago, Aardman Studios, the guys who made the Wallace and Gromit films, made a film called Dot, with a tiny 9mm character playing the lead. The character, Dot, was created using a 3D printer, and the film was shot using a Nokia smart phone and a CellScope that is used by doctors to take blood samples of patients in remote places using a cell phone. This Making of video explains the process.
More recently, scientists at IBM made a film called A Boy And His Atom by moving and rearranging individual atoms on a magnetized copper plate viewed through a two-ton scanning tunnelling microscope that can magnify atoms a 100 million times. The boy in this film is 1/25,000,000 of an inch big and cannot be seen with a regular microscope. The film project is an aside of IBM's larger research to create the smallest and fastest possible memory chip for data storage. It demonstrates that one bit of information can be stored using 12 atoms, as opposed to 100 million atoms that our current magnets use in existing technologies. This Making of video explains the process.
From the time of the pinhole camera in the early 5th century, to our era of 3D and microscopic films, Film and Technology have crossed paths several times in their evolution and changed each other forever, while pretending to be orbiting different stars. The evolution of technology is as organic as that of life on earth, and our bond with them is irrevocable and one of mutual dependence; The fictional stories of films have enabled us to assimilate this fact into our real life, as naturally as possible. For instance, when we see a video of bots slipping into our world, it's less unnatural because we have been acclimatized to it by years of consuming science-fiction. It is as if we are experiencing fiction seeping into our reality! Now, I'd be just as unsurprised but excited (or terrified) if I inadvertently came upon a real tiger or a robot in the wild, or found myself flying to Neverland with Peter Pan one night to fight Pirates.
That's about the size of it!
IBM's Official page about the movie.
Writeup about about the movie by the filmmaker, Nico Casavecchia
Wired's article "The Star Trek Fan Art That IBM Scientists Created Out of Atoms"
NPR's article "Don't Miss The Premiere Of The World's Smallest Movie"
The Wiki page about the movie
Nokia also made the world's largest stop-motion animation called Gulp, using the same Nokia Smart Phone that they used to create Dot!
The animated video above served as a backdrop for Karen Eve Johnson's play about Maria Sibylla Merian, a European naturalist explorer; and Jacoba, an African slave woman in Suriname who is deeply knowledgeable about the jungles of Suriname. I haven't seen the play, and I am not even sure if it is touring, but the trailer was enough to make me giddy, and imagine all of Merian's splendid botanical artwork in movement.
Today is Maria Sibylla Merian's 366th birthday. A few days ago, I wrote about how her art and scientific explorations changed how we see nature. Getty Museum has a beautiful write-up and slideshow (with commentary) about her work. I particularly like the slideshow because it reveals how a young teenager scooped out insects from the mud and observed where they lived and what they ate, and then rendered the whole choreography of the ecosystem for us to see in delightful and visually articulate paintings.
I mentioned in my earlier post that women at that time were banned from pursuing both art and science; science primarily because it required working with nude bodies and corpses. Moreover, working with insects and reptiles was associated with witchcraft; and Merian was born during the peak years of witch-hunt. But, what I also forgot to mention as far as art is concerned is that, this was also a time when women were categorically forbidden from working with oil paints in most of Europe; and were restricted to watercolors because it was a limiting medium, and was associated with amateur work. Materials were therefore gendered, and informed what each work of art meant from a sociological point of view. Employing it the way Merian did however requires a great deal of mastery and virtuosity, which was clearly a skill she honed over many years of training from a real master, her stepfather, Jacob Marrel, a still-life painter of the Dutch Golden Age, who encouraged her to pursue art.
Merian broke every rule in the book when she became an artist and a scientist, and travelled to places farther than most men did to study insects (e.g.: she learnt from tribal people in the jungles of Surniname, which you can imagine wasn't a place many were familiar with at that time); that too as a middle-aged divorced woman with two young daughters. In spite of having no access to formal scientific education, she brought into being the whole study of ecology that deals with the relationship of organisms with their physical surroundings, and transformed science (especially botany and zoology, and within it entymology, or the study of insects) into the structured and disciplined field that it is today. She elevated the quality of botanical illustrations with her exquisite and accurate three-dimensional artwork. What is also fascinating is that she literally changed the language of science, from Latin to vernacular. The result of this was that she wasn't taken seriously by the scientific community during her time, but unconsciously transformed the rules of scientific writing for later decades.
She inspired her own daughters to become artists, publishers and business women. Although, she was married, she later separated from her husband and lived with her mother and two daughters in Amsterdam, and the four women together set up a botanical art studio, and published several artworks, and art and science books. Unfortunately, many of the books that survive today are heavily-used or damaged copies. What is particularly interesting is that she also took interest in teaching silk embroiderers and cabinet makers how to limn flowers. She exquisitely combined fine art with natural philosophy, scientific knowledge, and commerce.
I have lost count of all her exploits; but what is clear is that she had rule-breaking down to a fine art.
I recommend Kim's Todd's Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis, about Merian's life, and her contribution to the metamorphosis of science, an age, and a society.
Here's another slideshow describing her artwork as part of the Royal Collection's Amazing Rare Things. The exhibition was collaborated with David Attenborough, and showcases artists who portrayed natural work with scientific interest from the 15th century onwards. There is also a beautiful coffee table book by the same name.
Here's a youtube video of a lot of her works set to Georg Friedrich Händel's music.
Wired has a three-part interview with William Gibson where he talks about a whole lot of things, from how sci-fi speculations about reality are almost always wrong (and how that's a good thing); to the pointless pleasure of learning how to fix antique watches; and the global spread of punk rock in the pre-internet era. Every time I read his interviews (here's another), he kindles my enthusiasm to pursue a hobby, and know a lot about one thing (anything), and at least something about everything. His conversations are always fascinating and can sustain in many living rooms.
In some ways, he shapes some of what I appreciate in popular and counter culture. Like him, I see science-fiction as being rooted in reality; and even when it is not, I like working out at what point it veers off from reality and takes an imaginary, somewhat realistic alternate path; and then I wonder what our lives might have been like if we had taken that path. Sometimes, we correctly speculate a future phenomenon (example 1, example 2), but may not be able to accurately predict the means we used to arrive at that phenomenon, because they don't always follow a linear path or happen by intention. It's like we choose a different right, from many possible rights! And then, even if some of the rights ultimately lead to the same end, the manner in which they do it becomes important and critical to determining the course of the future. It's like how Acetaminophen (paracetamol) and Ibuprofen both relieve pain, but they have two very different mechanisms of action, where in one sends a message to our hypothalamus and increases our threshold to pain, and the other inhibits the release of hormones (prostaglandins) that trigger pain, and encourages endorphins to flow freely and relieve pain. They therefore come with different side effects, which you want to keep in mind when you decide which one might suit your physical makeup. Likewise, the means to arriving at a phenomenon comes with its set of contingent properties, and they in turn trigger other actions, thereby unfolding many new paths that the future can possibly take off in.
Science fiction writers don't usually look to be accurate in their speculation, as much as imagine another reality, with a willingness to entertain the possibility of the impossible (eg: time travel, parallel universes, gene therapy, advanced AI, etc). However, nine times out of ten, my quest to figure out what is real, what will be real, what is speculative, and what is completely made up, ends up revealing how much more outlandish our reality is in comparison with some of the most outlandish science fiction there is! Few authors manage to break away from what has already been done and create new imaginary worlds. On the flip side, few outlandish things in reality seldom reveal themselves to us immediately, and when they do, they don't seem far out anymore. One such example in our real life is virtual reality, our more intangible counterpart-reality, which has allowed us to experience many realistic interactions and other benefits, and sometimes more realistic than in our physical world, but, it still ceases to be considered palpably real. It has a non-real, fictional component to it that is dependent on our imagination, and is therefore cheated of legitimacy. At the same time, it is so useful that we just can't wish it away.
I think of the virtual world's palpability as being analogous to Aerogel, or frozen smoke; the ultralight solid that is 96% air, and so light that if you hold it in your hand, you can barely see it or feel it. When you put a flower on top of the aerogel, the flower appears to have levitated; and if you suspend the aerogel over burner, with the flower on top of it, the flower won't go up in smoke and appears to defy nature! It supports 4000 times its weight, can withstand a direct blast from two pounds of dynamite;
There were online communities, and virtual worlds forty years before people began to reckon with Facebook and Second Life, and speculate how virtual worlds are affecting our lives. Even in the 1970s, people interacted with each other in fictitious worlds, each with their own subculture driven by both players' imaginations and evolving conventions that became solidified as more worlds evolved and more people became invested in them. But, before the mass of millions caught on to it and it was only limited to a mass of thousands, it became more popular in science fiction, so much that many believed it to be a speculation of the future. Even today, we think of virtual worlds as a present-day phenomenon that's still in its early stages, and are trying to understand how it might impact our life. And now this is reality because we don't know any other reality, and because it is a multiple-reality that we don't fully understand, we have extended our existentialist philosophies and world views to it.
In real life, there is a line between work and play that is clearly defined. Unless you are a sportsperson or an entertainer, and in fact, even if you are a sportsperson or an entertainer, a game is not the centre of your existence. However, in the virtual world the line between work and play is imaginary. Notwithstanding our biological needs, we can do almost everything in the virtual world that we can in the physical world, except here all real life implications happen under the pretext of a game, but can impact our lives just as they do in the physical world! We can run businesses that can make or break our economy, enroll in school, join a religious cult, socialize and play. The metaphorical game of life in the physical world is literally the game of life in the virtual world.
Summer Wars depicts how seamlessly integrated the virtual and real worlds have become. It is a visually explosive fictional drama based on reality. Every frame is like a spectacular painting, and it is only in that that it differs from reality; Such eye-candy is unfortunately in short supply in both our real and virtual worlds, but I can speculate that this caliber of aesthetic will soon take over at least our virtual world, for real.
Until the Renaissance period, women were not allowed to become artists. Art was mainly a man's vocation, and in fact, women were rarely even depicted in paintings, except as angels or other divine beings.
But even as some women attempted to enter the 'artist's guild' in the Renaissance period, artists were considered respectable only if they were knowledgeable in mathematics and biological sciences; and women were unequivocally barred from learning biological sciences, since the study of the human body required working with male and female nudes and corpses; and also women working with animals and insects was associated with witchcraft! It was a frustrating conundrum, which did not fully get resolved until the late 19th century, although with each passing decade women inched closer and closer to full freedom: first painting still life, then depicting historical and mythological scenes, and then portraits of draped people (In fact nudes had to wait till the 20th century)! The few women who did manage to somehow break this quandary during the Renaissance were nuns or aristocrats who were able to gyp the system. Needless to say, few were willing to risk everything for a trifling chance to paint!
In the 1600s, a time when both art and science were inaccessible to women, a woman called Maria Sibylla Merian broke every rule in the book, and became one of the greatest naturalists and scientific illustrators of all time! At the age of 13, she was the first person to observe the metamorphosis of a silkworm, and her account of this pre-dated published accounts of scientists by almost ten years! She was also one of the first few scientists to venture out of Europe and travel all the way to Surinam to study insects with the help of local tribes; and eventually became the first to study the relationship between insects and their host plants, which changed the way naturalists thought about symbiosis; and gave birth to a whole branch in science called ecology. Until Merian drew insects with the food they ate, scientists believed that they reproduced spontaneously from decaying matter. Moreover, her aesthetic detail and the stunning quality of her work raised the standards of scientific illustration.
It convinces me that some of the best work in science happens outside of the strict parameters of scientific approaches. Maria's work was uninhibited by predetermined rules, and was a result of her own unfettered curiosity and imagination. You see this holds true even in other areas of Science. Several amateur astronomers even today contribute significantly to the study of astronomy, not only with finding comets and novae, and data collection, but also with inventing telescopic devices.
But even after two hundred fifty years since Maria Sibylla Merian, not all was fine for women artists and scientists. In the Victorian era (late 1800s), Edith Holden showed every sign of greatness, but her vast knowledge of her local ecology went completely unnoticed for fifty years after her death, and seventy years after she wrote The Country Diary and The Nature Notes!
Unlike Maria Sybilla Merian, Edith Holden did not actively pursue her calling as a naturalist. Her nature notes were never meant to be published, although she meant to share them with her students at the girls' school. She was just a young artist, exploring her countryside on her bicycle and discovering nature, admiring everyone and everything around her, while being blissfully unaware of how exceptional she herself was. Her diaries have simple hand-written notes about her everyday adventures arranged by date; interspersed with her exquisite water color paintings of flowers, plants, animals, birds and insects. When you read her notes, you see yourself in Birmingham in the Edwardian Period. 107 years ago, exact to this date, on a dull and grey day, she was watching birds building nests, carrying a bicycle half a mile down a thorny lane to picnic on a fence, and wondering why the white Periwinkles have five petals and the blue ones have four.
And while she painted the scenes of the West Midlands countryside, and illustrated various species in graphic detail, she had to make do with finding recognition only as an artist for children's books, as women were not otherwise taken seriously as proper artists or scientists. But to Merian and Holden, the pursuit of nature was mostly one of curiosity! They were just full of wonder and amazement; You saw that in Merian because all her writings were presented not as facts, but in sentences that began with "perhaps" "maybe" "probably". And Holden shares not only her thoughts about nature, but poetry written by all her favorite poets. Evidently, there was a poem for every season and every 'naturey' thing; and everyone knew their physical surroundings like the palm of their hand! I am not surprised how much nature was a subject of contemplation by poets, but just the level of knowledge about the wonders that seasonal changes brought to their places! But, I mostly wonder what would have become of Maria Sibylla Merian and Edith Holden if they were in fact allowed full freedom to pursue their dreams.
There are very few male and female naturalist writers in this era who are also painters; This was a lot more common up until the Victorian era. Just as women are beginning to experience professional equality today, we are beginning to lose this ability!
Ever since I pre-ordered Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death, I have been on a Bernd Heinrich-athon. I feel this uncharacteristic need to finish reading his books that have been staring me in the face for months, before reaching for his new one. The plan is to check each book off from this list after reading it, and share some overarching thoughts when I am done with the whole pile.
A Year in the Maine Woods ✔
The Trees in my Forest ✔
Summer World: A Season of Bounty ✔
Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival
Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds
The Geese of Beaver Bog
Speaking of Bernd Heinrich-athon, the man also writes a lot about running: humans running, animals running; Apparently, a lot of living species are built for distance. I am steering clear of those for now, and will save them for when I reach for a treadmill!
In the mean time, I present Anna Raff's bird paintings that have been keeping me entertained for over three years. After 576 paintings, I am amazed that she hasn't run out of ideas, and her birds continue to make me laugh.
One way to experience the beauty of a chemical element is to make it manifest somehow; like when you strike a match and see phosphorus ignite, or add mercury to a neon tube to make it shine blue, or fill a balloon with helium and release it to the sky.
In The Red Balloon, the balloon has a life of its own; bobbing behind a little Parisian boy who is as enchanted by it as the rest of us. It's a simple story that is narrated with a poetic spareness that is as light, and as rare as helium itself.
There is a shortage of helium on our planet. It is the second most abundant element in the observable universe, but not here. Here, in our neck of the woods, it makes up 0.00052% of the atmosphere, not including some in underground gas pockets, a good chunk of which we pack into our party balloons and ship off to the outer space! It is predicted that all helium on Earth may be depleted in about 40 years. To let that happen would be a betrayal of innocence, just like in the story. The price of helium has already increased 300% in the last few years, and is unavailable in some places (although in some other places, like in Calcutta, helium rides are the things to watch out for)! Some stores have begun to impose a helium balloon limit here, meaning you can buy only six balloons at a time.
As kids, we were each allowed to buy one small pear-shaped helium balloon once a year. It was also the only day that I could most pretend to defy gravity. I could ride the roller coasters and ferris wheels, and sit on dad's shoulders as we strolled through the various stalls and sampled treats. Later in the evening we would let our balloons go and watch them get tinier and tinier till they disappeared out of sight, with the exception of one, whose helium would serve to distort our voices!
Helium to me is about the wonders of childhood, now kept alive through cinema - like the unwavering red sphere in The Red Balloon, the twenty thousand colorful blimps that lifted Carl's house off the ground in Up, the hot air balloon that
Francesca and Casanova used to oppose "the gravitational force of witchcraft" in Casanova, the wizard's balloon that "almost" transported Dorothy back home in The Wizard of Oz! Soon, cinema might be the only way to experience the magic of helium balloons.
I came across a humorous project by an independent director who took scenes from classic films and added little balloon props to them. They are something of an homage to The Red Balloon. Enjoy!
Of course, there is more to Helium than balloons.
Here are some recent articles about the crisis (and its effects on scientific research among other things):
• A ballooning problem: the great helium shortage
• Stop the Parade! Should we be wasting our dwindling supply of helium on floating cartoon characters?
• A Helium Shortage Leads to Fewer Balloons in the Sky
… and a link to a related cause: Balloons Blow… Don't Let Them Go!
I wonder what Henri Bergson would have to say about today’s cinema. He had nothing to do with cinema, but even as early as 1906 he anticipated it would influence new ways of thinking about movement. Do you think he could have imagined the likes of Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World when he said that?
I am reminded of a book that I once read on quantum physics called Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of The Universe’s Hidden Dimensions. In that, the author Lisa Randall who is a theoretical physicist speculates that there may be 10 or 11 space-time dimensions in the universe (and for all you know fewer or many more)… and that we experience only four because we are not physiologically designed to see those other dimensions.
Should she be right about there being many more dimensions in the world – and should parallel universes, warped geometry and three-dimensional sinkholes be real – it could change everything! Emboldened by our knowledge, we may even be able to impinge on these hidden dimensions and find ways to experience them. In some ways films like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World attempt (even if unintentionally) to do that! But if it was that easy to imagine and simulate a different world, wouldn’t it be that much easier to also realize it?
In fact, what we are doing in quantum physics now is seeing our world the same way Bergson saw cinema in 1906. We are seeing it with wonder, and even wondering hopelessly about that which cannot be imagined, and then wondering more about what it means that we cannot imagine what we wondered about.
But, unlike my kind of loosey-goosey wondering, Bergson’s speculation about cinema turned out to be more than accurate. In fact more so than I think he could have ever imagined. Moreover, if you think of his speculation in conjunction with his other philosophies on reality and intuition, and creativity and laughter… you have what I think is the perfect fodder for a discussion on Scott Pilgrim vs. the World… or any other nested-fantasy film for that matter.
The film has a lot of merit and is brilliant beyond words can express in just the way the plot unfolded and was visually presented. But, leaving that aside, if you consider the random chain of thoughts it triggers in our mind about the nature of reality alone, it still is a treasure trove of delightful reveries.
The other more obvious conversation that the film provokes is about Fantasy. Now that Fantasy has emerged into its own genre of film, one has to wonder if the word has lost its meaning or at least changed to mean something else. Is Fantasy fantasy if we know what to expect? Is fantasy not the expression of our unconscious that reflects subliminal realms of our minds that have been suppressed or repressed? Can we translate the form, structure and rationality of the world of dreams to the world of reality? And can we fantasize with films, the way we can fantasize in our minds?
Lacan would have us believe that fantasy is our conscious articulation of desire through images and stories… but, I wonder if by giving it a standard structure, we are interfering with the process of narrating our unconscious desire the way it wants to be narrated…
He addresses this dilemma by taking into account the many layers of fantasies between filmmakers and spectators that inadvertently cross-feed each other. For instance… the filmmaker perceives fantasy in a certain way, which may be different from the fantasy he creates for the spectators, which each spectator then perceives and fantasizes in their own way, and feed back to the filmmaker, who then re-interprets the spectators’ fantasies only to find that they may be entirely different from his own… but here too the filmmaker’s interpretation of the spectators’ fantasies may be maligned by his own subconscious desires, so he may never really know what the spectators had imagined… just as the spectators may never know what the filmmaker imagined…
To add to this, imagining is an ongoing process that we have little control over, and happens in our mind alongside other activities (including getting lost in the film and become one with it). Our imagination too changes all the time, which means we may all be fantasizing about the same thing differently at different points in time, and even have several fantasies about the same thing running simultaneously in our minds at once, making it impossible for us to articulate them! Moreover, we tend put ourselves in the minds of several people (the filmmaker, the protagonists, the spectators and so on) while also viewing the film as observers or protagonists, making it impossible to know how our various observations overlap or communicate with each other…
This means each spectator has millions of fantasies and there are millions of spectators for each film, making the number of fantasies as numerous as the number of atoms in the air, which again points back to the analogy about quantum physics.
And still everyone is together in this orgy of fantasies on account of a common pursuit, which is the viewing of the film and exploring our subconscious desires through it (and trying to explore the desires of others). We each speak to our own innermost fantasies and feed it to others who interpret it to satisfy their fantasies and so on and so forth. We can’t tell how our fantasies are triggered and how they translate to others desires, since it all happens within the unconscious mind.
That’s where I began and ended with Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World. I saw myself as the voyeur of the story unfolding in front of me, as well as the voyeur of my own fantasy. And what a colorful and spectacular world it was, and how much there was in it to see and be entertained by.