Film Review: Face cachée de la lune (Far Side of the Moon) by Robert Lepage

The Far Side of Moon Film JacketThe 2003 Québécois film, “La Face Cachée de la Lune,” — or “Far Side of the Moon” — by Robert Lepage (ingenuously written, directed, produced and headlined with dual lead roles) is a fabulous film that I highly recommend. Having just watched this film in the wake of the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Mission, I thought I’d try to incite you to go out and rent it/download it…

Things I loved about this film:

  • the at-time very Gary Larson-like “far side” humour.
  • a reminder of the serendipitous nature of life and the many paths and voyages resident in one’s life.
  • how it showed the importance of your childhood in forming who you are.
  • the allegories played out by the different professions of the two brothers (Philippe and André): selling the Sun on the one hand and selling the weather on the other, all the while focused on the US-Russian race to the moon. Also notable: the links between the baby in the womb, the child in the washing machine, the goldfish in the bowl, and the astronaut floating outside in space attached by a technological umbilical chord.
  • the film within the film as Philippe, the missed Mad Scientist, records life on Earth for Extraterrestrials.
  • last, and probably least, the credits written with trompe l’oeil Russian Cyrillic characters (as in the jacket).

I found the text brilliant (I must own up that I watched the film in v.o. which actually means the version française) in the way that it treats the challenges of life and parallel universe of our thoughts. The film dances in and out of reality, playing with gravity and gravitas, Lilliputians and hallucinations.

Robert Lepage is a man of many talents, not least of which is that he also created the Cirque de Soleil permanent production of KA at Las Vegas. Here is a fittingly positive review of the film by Culture Vulture.

My final commentary on the film regards the “thesis” that Philippe develops in the film to explain why the Russians wanted to get to the moon. Philippe’s theory posits that narcissism was the driving force. The character Philippe says, “Before Galileo turned his telescope toward the heavens, we believed that the moon was a polished mirror whose darks scars and mysterious outline were in fact the reflections of the mountains and seas on Earth” [in French: “Avant que Galilée ne tourne son télescope vers le ciel, on croyait que la Lune était un miroir poli dont les sombres cicatrices et contours mystérieux étaient en fait le reflet des montagnes et des mers de la Terre.”]. In his foiled thesis, Philippe explains how the brilliant Russian scientist Constantin Tsiolkovsky came up with the concept in 1895 of an enormous elevator building — inspired by the Eiffel Tower — which would take people up into space and where the cost would be $40/floor rather than $400 billion for each person to go into space. Tsiolkovsky was a remarkable man and, despite being closed off from the advancements outside Russia, came up with much ground breaking work including the multi-stage rocket and air cushion vehicle.

For me, however, the film sent me back to my days at Yale, when my wonderful Russian lit teacher, Professor Victor Ehrlich (1914-2007), justified that the evident jumpstart the Russians had in the race for the moon. Mr Ehrlich’s thesis was anchored in the “enlightened” thinking, promoted in the middle of the 19th century by Russia’s intelligentsia, surrounding the Philosophy of the Common Good (всеобщее благо). Initially introduced into Russia in the early 18th century, the cause of the Common Good stimulated the 19th century intelligentsia to galvanise scientific research and to dedicate themselves to finding a way to bring back to life their much respected ancestors. Ehrlich recounted how Alexander Bogdanov, the physicist, philosopher, economist and revolutionary, came up with a pioneering blood transfusion theory which, put into practice by himself, gave life to one of his own terminally sick students and subsequently caused his own death. In paralllel to this research to unlock the miracle of bringing back the dead to life, another branch of Russian thinkers considered the challenge of where to put all the resuscitated ancestors, should such a solution be found. The logical lebensraum was the moon. Consequently, a number of Russian scientists began to theorise on how to propel a man-inhabited rocket into space. Prior to the work done by Tsiolkovsky, Ehrlich refered to the pioneering work of the ill-fated Nikolai Kibalchich, who was an explosives ‘expert’ and, just before being hanged in1881 for his part in the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, wrote a letter in which he described in some detail a rocket propelled aeronautical system for the transport of men. It was not until 1918, however, that Kibalchich’s letter was published. His 1881 theory predated by 10 years the “groundbreaking” research of a similar nature by the German engineer, Hermann Ganswindt. Between Kibalchich and Tsiolkovsky, to mention but two, clearly the Russian scientists were truly ahead of the times in figuring out how to get man into space. [Incidentally, Alexander Bogdanov also wrote an utopian novel, Red Star, in 1908, in which the protagonist travels to Mars.]

Sputnik Space ProgrammeThus, Ehrlich’s thesis was that Sputnik and Soyuz were merely the logical conclusion to the century long obsession of how to get man (albeit in the form of resuscitated ancestors) onto the moon. Without doubt, we owe much of our knowledge of the Moon to the Russians. So, even if La Face Cachée de la Lune (Far Side of the Moon) did not refer to Kibalchich and Bogdanov, it is a very worthy film, especially for those of you who enjoy astronomy and astrophysics.

Mosquitoes – At last, a possible eradication plan?

For those of you following this blog, you may know that among my interests is Astrophysics, with a focus on the String Theory, smoothly vulgarized in Brian Greene’s “The Elegant Universe.”  (Here is Greene’s Faculty page at Columbia; and PBS NOVA provides excerpts of the eponymous documentary).  On an ongoing basis, my interest in astrophysics does not play a large part in my daily life.  Other than in lively dinner conversations, as an explanation for the random things that happen in life or as the founding principle for creating a whole new philosophy of life (based on the unifying String Theory), astrophysics has been, at best, an elegant support system in my life.

Mosquito PerilNot until recently, however, have I heard of a truly useful and practical application for astrophysics.  And, in a two-for-the-price-of-one mentality, so in vogue in today’s economic climate, astrophysics and star wars technology bring a truly unique (if not unifying) value with a singular objective: the demise the mosquito. You can read here about this extraordinary invention in this CNN Report.

My exceptional and visionary wife, founder of the ERACE ‘EM Campaign, the Eternal Radical and Complete Extermination of Every Mosquito, is in full support, “this [potential eradication] would truly be a stellar reward after years of struggle against the mighty mosquito.”  Mosquitoes serve no grand purpose in the eco-system.  As Dr Jordin Kare indicates, no animal feeds exclusively on the mosquito and no one would miss them if they disappeared.  They are responsible for having killed many millions of people over the years and I would hate to think about the aggregate lost sleep caused by that very dear little shrill buzzzzzzzzzzzzz sound they make.  In place of donations to the ERACE ‘EM campaign, we are gladly accepting comments on this blog.

Wolfram Alpha Search Engine to be launched May 2009

Wolfram Alpha Search Engine Screen Capture

To read the author’s pre-released blog post (written March 5, 2009), Wolfram Alpha, the new search engine due out in May 2009, is a kind of combination of the Theory of Everything meets Enstein’s Google.  The author, Stephen Wolfram, is the father of two other ambitious projects, Mathematica and A New Kind of Science and has a flair for the big ideas.  Wolfram clearly has a high regard for himself, plastering his name over each of the inventions or concepts and stating in his book, NKS, “I have come to view [my discovery] as one of the more important single discoveries in the whole history of theoretical science.”  If you are mathematically inclined, you can download his NKS book for free here.  On the other hand, from what I have read, Mathematica is clearly highly regarded — some say the reference — in its domain.  If nothing else, for the layman, you might enjoy some of the images that you can find on his Mathematica Graphics Gallery (a sample below).

So, what is interesting about Wolfram Alpha?  It may yet be the next Google, or it may fizzle out much like NKS.   If it were truly the next Google, I personally would not have hesitated to name it Wolfram.com rather than WolframAlpha.com…  Almost seems like he is hedging his bets.  All the same, the very concept of Wolfram Alpha is fascinating, so I can only applaud the size of the ambition.  Based on the purposefully sketchy information available, it would seem that WolframAlpha goes a step [or two] beyond semantic tagging, to use the vast array of information and intelligence available on the Internet to create the optimal solution for a particular query.  In his own words, the idea is that “one would be able to ask a computer any factual question, and have it compute the answer.”  Rather than focus on the search criteria, the Wolfram Alpha engine uses complex algorithms, heuristics, linguistic discovery and curation to compute and/or perfect the answer, seeking to improve on the existing information.  My description of what Wolfram is attempting to do:  Take a 3rd dimension view of all the 2D information, outstretched on a worldwide web, and theoretically makes it organic and artificially intelligent.

Anyway, watch this [virtual] space as they say.

Curvature of Constitutional Space – Spacious if not Specious

Curvature of Spacetime

Here’s a juicy title for a thesis: “Curvature of Constitutional Space.” Is this thesis for a student of the law? Or Is it for a student of astrophysics? As I happen to be an amateur of astrophysics, the title certainly caught my attention.

The full title of the 39-page article, authored by Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard, Laurence Tribe, was “Curvature of Constitutional Space. What lawyers can learn from modern physics.” With credits given to five people including Professor Gerard Holton of Harvard and four Research Assistants, the paper was published in Harvard Law Review 1 Volume #130 (1989). Obama was the editor-in-chief of the HLR and became president for volume #131. Obama was, of course, also one of the four RAs.

The fundamental premise of Tribe’s paper is apparently that the Constitution is impacted by the legal and social context in the same way that space and time is impacted and curved by objects. Having been able to find and read only the article’s first page on the net, it seems that the premise is reversible to the extent that decisions in the court house certainly have an impact on society and law…and that seems rather obvious. For starters, the law is to help bind and protect society. It all seems to be much ado about nothing as far I can understand. Much as I enjoy reading about quantum physics and do my best to keep up with the changes in law (as best a layman can), I do not see much relevancy in this paper. Personally, the idea that the Constitution should be a curving set of principles does not sit very well. Meanwhile, articles have been written attempting to understand better Obama’s sentiment about the Constitution and, based on this 1989 piece, are looking for insights as to how Obama might choose the next Supreme Court justice.
The impact of this 1989 paper, well prior (i.e. as of March 2007) to Obama’s Presidency, is cited in The Sun:

“Nearly 200 law review and periodicals have cited the article since its publication, including ones with titles such as “The Algebra of Pluralism: Subjective Experience as a Constitutional Variable” and another involving Asian American legal scholarship and “narrative space.” Four courts have cited the piece. The U.S. Appeals District court’s second circuit, in One was in a patent dispute over telemarketing equipment, where it was cited in discussing the uncertainty that results regarding how attorneys can influence expert opinions by deciding what to disclose to them about the case. The judge in Perkins v. Londonderry Basketball Club, a court of appeals case in the 1st Circuit, likewise cited the article. That case involved the question of whether the 14th Amendment was violated by barring a girl player from a basketball tournament.”

Here are some of the sources I read: Gary Shapiro of the NY Sun wrote this article (which I quoted above) in March 2007, “Obama’s view of the Constitution…” You can read some surrounding colour on the NY Sun story with PowerLineBlog (Mar 2007) and again the Faculty Lounge (Oct 2008). At the end of last year, a Tulane professor, Frank Tipler, wrote a counter paper, dismissing Tribe’s paper as “crackpot physics.” Also, a Frank Warner blog post (Sep 2008) that comments quite animatedly the debate.

Personally, I am glad that no one has dug up my university thesis (on the relative impact of time, religion and death as they relate to the success of revolutionary protagonists) to gauge how I will better sell a shampoo.

International Year of Astronomy 2009

The Universe 2009: The Year of AstronomyIt is the International Year of Astronomy 2009 (and from Wikipedia), a collaboration between UNESCO and the International Astronomical Union.  Thanks to an interview on Europe1 this morning of Hubert Reeves, the brilliant Canadian astronomer and philosopher, I learned about this celebration and the inter connection between astrophysics/astronomy (the history of our universe) and ecology (the future of our universe).  And, nodding my head, I thought about how I have become a student/acolyte of both as well. 

Of course, I was also perplexed as to how one goes about creating a year of Anything… and whether astronomers around the world are, as a result, going to come up with the big one this year (i.e. proof that life exists on other planets).  I’d love to be on the UNESCO committee that comes up with which topic area will be attributed the “Year of” status.  How many subjects can be given in a year?  It is the year of how many other things?  The year of Obama?  The year of Facebook?  The year that peace broke out somewhere?  I note that there is a branding guideline for this Year of Astronomy which you can read here (serious business).

Meanwhile, I also was contemplating the link, in a prior post, between sustainable development and web 2.0.  Now I am left wondering about the link between astrophysics and web 2.0, to close the circle.  The ever expanding universe, the interconnectability of everything, the virtual life (secondlife and more)…  It makes me wonder.  What are your thoughts?

A new neutron star in our midst

Picked this story up from the BBC. Is it amazing that, just 250+ light years away, we can still be finding oddities? For my part, I think it’s amazing that we can have the gall to think that we know so much about space to be surprised to be discovering something in space.

The article says, “The authors estimate that the object is 250 to 1,000 light-years away. This would make Calvera one of the closest neutron stars to Earth – and possibly the closest.”

And, you have to love the name Calvera, picked from one of the villains (played by Wallach) in the Magnificent Seven… As if such a star were evil? Or is it just magnificent?

ps the star attached in the article and dropped into this post is NOT Calvera.