Monday, 18 August 2014

Spoiler: Gravity always wins

I haven't posted for one month. I've told everyone that I've been on research trips, and on holiday, but that's not completely true. Strange things happened after my last blog post. I'm not quite ready to talk about them -- the story isn't yet over, and, besides, there are a few legal things I need to get clear. But hopefully I can start to tell you about it in a few weeks.

In the mean time, I can tell you that I took up a long-standing offer to visit a colleague in India. I think I can safely talk about that until I'm ready to tell the rest. And the best place to start is with the first of the two flights, from Heathrow to Dubai. This inevitably meant, following a gin'n'tonic, an Indian meal (non-veg, please), a couple of glasses of throat-sanding red wine, and no sleep in sight, a chance to catch up on some movies.

People will tell you that a little screen on the back of an airline economy seat that intermittently reclines back and jerks forward, with a pair of headphones that only work on the right-hand side, and have a dicky connection, is not an ideal environment in which to appreciate a piece of motion picture art. Particularly one on which tens of millions of dollars were spent to provide a cinematic experience that can only truly be appreciated in IMAX 3D.

I beg to differ. At high altitude my emotional responses are dramatically heightened. I can be brought to tears by the pre-film commercial for designer wrist-watches. I am overwhelmed by the crushing weight of human experience, suffering and perseverance that have culminated in the heartbreaking understatement of the sentence, "This film has been modified for your screen."

I even wept during the first hour of Monuments Men, although admittedly that was over the incomprehensible waste of talent and effort. What were they thinking? Imagine writing that script, and daring to show it to someone. Imagine reading that script and agreeing to be in the movie. Couldn't George Clooney, Bill Murray, Matt Damon and the rest of them afford to hang out together in Europe for a few months, but not make a movie? Imagine making the film, and then having to show your face in public and promote the damn thing, like it was the greatest work you'd ever done. Filmmaking is certainly an odd business.

I abandoned Monuments Men at the bottom of a mine, where the original footage belongs, and put on Gravity. I had not yet seen Gravity, despite being told that it was exactly the sort of film a physicist would appreciate. That was reason enough not to watch it.


But will you look at that -- it's good old George Clooney again. And he's being so much his jolly loveable self that I've immediately forgiven him for Monuments Men. And boy is my hanky sopping when he floats off into space. Come back, George! It's not so bad! I'm sure one day someone will finance another pointless bloated buddy-movie vanity project. Isn't there some way he can work out how to float back? A flatulence release valve? I was so swept up with emotion that I was completely fooled when he returned in that hallucination sequence. Oh thank God, he didn't die after all! But no, it was just a cruel manipulation of my exposed and vulnerable feelings. Other passengers had to console me. But it wasn't over. Sandra Bullock delivered a motivational speech to the memory of her dead daughter. Bloody hell. There was no more gin left on the plane, and the steward had to put me on a morphine drip.

"Perhaps you should turn off the film, sir, and try to sleep?"

"No! She's just worked out how to operate the incomprehensible Chinese landing module by sheer force of dramatic necessity. I've got to see what happens!"

I was so swept up in the film that I forgot how irritatingly it has been trumpeted by other physicists. The true hero of the film is the title character! The true villain is orbital mechanics! Euuuwwch! I dare not think how many unfortunate school students have been presented with worksheets that contain questions like, "Identify each of Newton's laws of motion in the first ten minutes." Or: "If it took 90 minutes for the debris to orbit the Earth, travelling at 1500m/s, then what was its height above sea level?" Remember kids, you won't get full points unless you include the units.

It's easy for me to be cynical back down here on Earth, but up closer to the film's location, hurtling on my own jet-powered semi-orbit, sealed in a capsule with several hundred other well-dressed animals drugged out on altitude, it really did make me sob nostalgic tears for simple physics, and cheer at the sight of text-book effects.

"Hurrah for conservation of angular momentum!"

"Woohoo, an inelastic collision!"

"Oh yeah! Another rocket effect! Bring 'em on!"

"Sir, could you please keep your voice down?"

More than the adherence to the laws of physics, I marvelled at the flagrant flouting of hitherto unbreakable laws of action sequences. The distraught astronauts float towards each other, or towards a shuttle or a space station or a satellite that they need to grab hold of to save themselves, and of course they are going to stick like glue. That's how action sequences work. The heroes make death-defying leaps, and it works every time, and we not only don't mind, we expect it. But not here. Blump, crash, oops we're floating off in the other direction now. What a strange shock it is to see that. What a testament to how much our intuition about basic physical reality has been distorted by movies. It's as amazing to see as Road Runner zooming off the edge of a cliff and disappearing immediately out of sight, and never coming back. Sorry, he fell off a cliff, and he's dead. Didn't you know that's how it works?

And guess what? You can make fantastic, gripping human drama, which includes our most advanced technology and uses basic science as the driving plot engine, without producing a shallow caricature of a flubbed reality. The genuine universe that we live in is an incredible place, and a fine imagination working within its constraints will always produce something better than the sloppy sham-artist who presumes that their fantasy world is more interesting than what actually exists around them. Boo to the arrogance of their little minds, and hurray for rigour of the true artist!

Yes, I admit I was getting a little carried away. So you can imagine how I reacted, then, when I turned from Gravity to Life of Pi, from which I guessed that the central point of the film's conclusion was that the fiction of religion is a better story than the drudgery of truth. I was shaking and quivering with fury at the astounding wrong-headedness of such a fumblingly dopey idea.

In my passion I undid my seat belt and rose to my feet, but a steward, who had been posted specifically to watch me, stepped up and announced that we were about to land.

"Can't I have five minutes to deliver a screaming irrational vitriolic rant on the stupidity of religion and all who follow it?"

"Sir, we are about to land in Dubai, the largest city in the United Arab Emirates. Are you sure you want to do that?"

I quietly sat down again, and found a Marx Brothers film.

I was only at the beginning of my travels, and it seemed best to avoiding getting into even more trouble.