2001: A Space Odyssey

December 28, 2008


Once or twice a year, I watch 2001, my favorite movie, although I don’t always watch it straight through.  I have seen it so many times!

2001:  A Space Odyssey is Kubrick’s masterpiece, and, I believe, one of the greatest movies of all time.  It is a poetic statement in movement and music, almost a ballet, of ideas and fantasies about the nature of man in the universe.

The brilliance of this movie is apparent in so many ways, but I will list a few of them that always strike me:

  • The special effects are stunning, imaginative, and convincing.  No other science-fiction film has produced imagined futures that continue to look so credible after forty years!  The technology he presents is not flashy, sometimes it even seems dull, but it always looks real.
  • There are several profound themes at play in this movie:  the nature and source of intelligence; man’s condition as a special sort of animal; man’s relation to his machines and the danger of dehumanization in technological society.
  • Kubrick has succeeded in distilling the poetic essence of the story that Arthur C. Clarke produced, and he has jettisoned the adolescent and simplistic element that Clarke’s writing always has.  [See my post.]  In much of sci-fi writing, a good idea is given a poor treatment.  Kubrick takes Clarke’s idea, and turns it into an epic meditation on human consciousness, and he avoids the literalness that torpedoes Clarke’s writing.  The story ends up ambiguous, provocative, puzzling, and engrossing the more you allow yourself to be teased by it.
  • The pacing of the film is wonderful – slow and stately, with minimal dialog.  The images and the music tell the story at a level below the consciousness of speech.

Take a look…

At the “dawn of man,” a mysterious slab appears and excites the ape pre-men.  They act as if they worship it.  What would you expect them to do in such a situation?  Is this the nature of religion?  What is this slab?  We never know, except that it is clearly sent by a superior intelligence.  This idea, fundamentally absurd, was seriously believed by Clarke, and is championed today by Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA.  What was the origin of that life, I wonder? Kubrick isn’t fazed – he grabs the essential weirdness of the idea, the feel of wonder about how we got here that is at the center of it.

Contact with the slab sets off a spark in the ape’s mind.  The notion of a tool is born.  Tools to hunt with, to get meat, to make the group stronger.  The entire clan must know of them.  And tools for defense, or offense against rival clans!

Ape men excited      Hmm..tool.  Good idea.   Visions of meat!

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Power!  Culture…teach the kids  Power for life or death!

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The ape roars and throws his bone tool in the air – it rises, rises, falls, rises and falls into the most breathtaking cut in history, leaping across four million years into the Space Age.  It’s such an outrageous edit, it demands that we accept it as artifice (Imagine a caption…”Four million years later…”) yet it astonishes and delights.

Exaltation: the power of life, and the power to bring death!

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A space shuttle and an orbiting station dance to the Blue Danube’s waltz.  A man dozes, alone in the passenger cabin while a pedestrian romance plays on the screen in front of him.  Of course, it’s a man and a woman in a car – a machine had to be there!  The shuttle lands on the station in a choreographed rotation, the first of many images of penetration acted out by machines. [A Kubrick trope:  Recall the opening refueling sequence in Dr. Strangelove.]  Machines that have human traits, humans that seem devoid of human traits, machines pulsating with sexual imagery – it’s a strange Kubrick world.

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Leaving the space station, a pod takes the traveler to the moon base.  The seed-like capsule is accepted into the interior of the moon through an enormous set of mechanical petals.  The interior is bathed in red light evoking the womb.

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After a briefing, the traveler flies with his colleagues to a secret excavation on the moon where the slab has been uncovered.  The men eat sandwiches and drink coffee, seemingly uncaring or incapable of absorbing the enormity of what they have found – clear and irrefutable evidence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.  They know nothing of the slab, except “that it was deliberately buried two million years ago.”

“Hmm…deliberately buried…Well, you fellas have certainly found something.”  “More coffee?”

At the site, the men pose for a group photo, as would any tourist.  Once again, Kubrick captures the cliche and the mundane, and puts it to work.  While they pose, the slab emits a piercing signal directed at Jupiter.

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A mysterious space mission to Jupiter is launched to get to the root of all this slab nonsense – the Odyssey begins.  Odyssey, a mythic, epic journey.  Also, let us not forget, a homecoming.  Odysseus was going home to his wife and son – is the crew going home to Jupiter, returning to the origin of their intelligence?

The ship looks like a giant phallus, or a mechanical sperm.  The all seeing eye of the on-board computer, HAL9000 is everywhere.  He speaks with a casual, flat, almost cloying warmth.  His ‘eye’ looks to me like an egg or a growth in a petrie dish – biologico/mechanico.

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Hal has his problems.  Only he knows what the mission is about, and he’s not sure that the men, i.e., the non-machines are up to it.  It seems to go to his head, and he makes an erroneous prediction that a component is going to fail.  Or was it all a clever stratagem to get the crew off the ship together?  Frank and Dave realize that HAL is kaput, so they retreat to secluded spot to plan their next move.  HAL, however, can follow their conversation by watching their mouths move.  Some say we will know we have developed intelligent machines not when they can speak, but when they can read our lips.

HAL kills Frank, and Dave goes out to get his body.  On returning, HAL refuses to acknowledge the command, “Open the pod bay, HAL.”  An awkward conversation ensues across empty space; HAL on the giant ship, Dave in the pod.  The mechanico-genital imagery is in evidence.  HAL tells Dave the obvious – “This conversation can no longer serve any purpose.”

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I offer the image below – Dave cradling Frank’s body with the mechanical arms of the pod – as an example of the only scientific “error” I have noticed in the film.  The lamps of the space pods and of the lights around the excavation on the moon are always shown with a corona glare – there is no such thing in space where there is no atmosphere to diffuse the light rays.  Was this an accident or poetic license?  (Kubrick never gives us sounds in deep space, unless we are meant to understand that they are heard by humans inside their suits or vehicles.)


Here we have it, the epic struggle.  Man vs. his monstrous antagonist.  Man vs. machine.  Man vs. himself, his own creations?  Dave, in his haste to retrieve his comrade, Frank, left the Mother Ship without his space helmet.  He resolves to re-enter the ship through the emergency airlock, something that HAL cooly observes “will be rather difficult without your helmet, Dave.”

Dave is, however, our Odysseus, and Odysseus was always called “The wily Odysseus.”  He is clever, and never at a loss for an idea.  The essence of man the tool-maker triumphs over his own super-computer.  Dave blasts himself into the vacuum of space inside the airlock in the climactic moment of the struggle, and manages to activate the mechanism to close the door.  The abrupt transition from dead silence to the defeaning roar of life-giving air rushing into the sealed lock signals his sucess.

Dave moves resolutely to wreak havoc on the brain of the one-eyed cyclops, HAL, disconnecting his “higher functions” while the repentant computer pleads piteously with him to stop.  Are not these higher functions, the same ones that sent man on his trajectory to meat eating and war?

HAL reaches his second childhood and asks if Dave wants to hear him sing a song.  “Yes, HAL, sing it,” replies Dave.  Dave, too, will get to his second childhood.

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With HAL shut down, the rest of the crew killed by the computer while in their coma-cacoons, Dave learns from an auto-activated recording the purpose of the mission, and sets off in his pod to Jupiter, led on by the slab that mysteriously appears  in front of him.  In a tour-de-force of special effects beloved of potheads and acid-freaks everywhere, Dave goes to “Jupiter and beyond the infinite.”  What that means, we don’t know exactly, but we don’t care.  Dazzling sights, weird sounds, and frightening stop-action imagery, derange our sense of time and space as we join Dave for his, and humanity’s last voyage.

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The cold, airless, and lifeless reaches of interstellar space reveal themselves as strangely organic in yet another metaphoric transformation by Kubrick.  The mineral shall be made flesh – is that not what we ourselves are, living, thinking matter, all of a piece with the elements of the universe?  We are mostly hydrogen and oxygen, i.e. water…

There is a hint of the birth to come in an image that resembles the star child at the end, and the purpose of Dave’s journey is made clear in the interstellar spermatazoa shown at the lower right below.  He is the seed.

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The mind-bending sequence that follows goes way beyond surrealism.  It succeeds in totally disorienting the viewer in his conceptions of narrative, time, space, and location, without resorting to easy avante garde tricks.  The music by Georgy Ligeti is wonderful.

Where am I?  Where is where?  When am I?  Where am I going?

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Why am I here?  What was that noise?  Oh, there I am.  On my deathbed.

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The slab returns once more.  Dave knows what he must do, he must touch it.

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Something new is born.


A pair of pictures related to this final image:  Christmas & Christmas

The enigmatic blogger, Pancime, commented in an exchange begun  on the esteemed blogger Jahsonic’s pages (He thought 2001 was boring!) that he thought the story of  David Bowie’s  Man Who Fell to Earth might be the tale of what happened to 2001’s starchild once he actually landed back “home.”  An excellent observation, as that film is clearly influenced by and a comment on 2001.



SETI – Are We Alone?

November 9, 2007


Nobody talks about Fontenelle these days, but his Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds is a wonderful book. He was a vastly popular author, he lived for a century (1657-1757) and was a best seller for… centuries – how many authors can say that! His Conversations were written in 1686, and provide a popularized discussion of cosmic issues, e.g., man’s place in the universe; the Copernican System; the possibility of life on other planets. One of the arguments he advances through these dialogs is that there probably is life on other planets – it stands to reason with the universe being so large.

Almost as remarkable in this work as the assertion of the likelihood of extraterrestrial life is the fact that the dialog is between a learned gentleman and a woman, a woman who holds her own in the conversation! This was certainly not the usual style of such works, and they don’t even flirt (except, of course, at the most elevated intellectual level.) As for ET, it was simply one more piece of evidence for the essential unimportance of humanity and the earth from the cosmic point of view. We are just beings on a speck of dirt, probably one among millions of such agglomerations of life, so it is nonsense to think we are the center of the universe, ruled over by God or not. Fontenelle even deals with the problem of what we would now call existential angst:

“But,” she replied, “here’s a universe so large that I’m lost, I no longer know where I am, I’m nothing. What, is everything to be divided into vortices…Each star will be the center of a vortex, perhaps as large as ours.? All this immense space which holds our sun and our planets will be merely a small piece of the universe? As many spaces as there are fixed stars? This confounds me — troubles me — terrifies me.”

“And as for me,” I answered, “this puts me at my ease.”

Well, in his day, this assertion of the existence of ET was a radical thrust against the old way of thinking, with the God-Earth-Man at the center of everything, but today, it has become a notion that strikes me as faintly ridiculous and religious. We have the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), a program of scientists that links together computers all over the world to search for patterns in the radiowave radiation that reaches the earth. Perhaps, in all of this, there is a detectable structure that would indicate that some intelligent life, somewhere, is producing the signals.

I beg to differ. The great biologist, Ernst Mayr, in his superb book What Evolution Is dispatches this point of view rather neatly.

  • The conditions for life to arise on a planet are rather special, and not met by most bodies in space.
  • Still, there are billions of stars, so it’s likely that some of them have planet systems that contain a planet or two with the right conditions, atmosphere, distance from the central star, etc. to support life.
  • So, we can conclude that it is quite probable that life does exist elsewhere in the universe, however, after the simplest life did appear on earth, there was nothing by prokaryotes for one billion years. “Highly intelligent life originated about 300,000 years ago, in only a single one of the more than 1 billion species that had arisen on Earth. These are indeed long odds.” [emphasis added]
  • Even if such life has arisen somewhere else in the universe, we must consider the chance that we will be able to communicate with it as virtually zero.

I might add that the chances of it being near enough to Earth to make it practical to communicate are also virtually zero. You can fantasize all you like about how these ET might have developed a way around space and time, but the chances are still virtually zero.

Design De-Signed

February 7, 2005

The intellectual confusion that is at the core of the so-called Intelligent Design Theory was on display once again in this mornings’ NYTimes in the opinion piece, “Design for Living” by Michael J. Behe. Let’s do him the favor of assuming he’s honest, and not some stooge for the religious right, and examine his ‘arguments’ such as they are.Okay, so according to him, the proponents of ID do not doubt that evolution and natural selection occur, simply that they are not sufficient to explain the organisms we see. Lets say right off that that ends the argument. If they can show that current theories are inadequate, and they can propose a new one that can be proved to fill in the gaps, good for them! But what does that have to do with ID? Asserting that complexity theory or the permutations of cellular automata may be a crucial element in explaining evolution does not contradict Darwin’s theory (if the assertions are ever proved) any more than Mendellian genetics did. And it certainly does not support the notion of ID.

At the core of his position is a deep prejudice which he makes clear with his statement, “…we often recognize the effects of design in nature.” NO! That was precisely what Darwin showed to be false. Are we back in the 18th century when we must listen to pontificating natural theologians rambling on…”Notice, we have two feet, perfect for shoes, and noses, perfect to hold our glasses…” I suggest that an alien visiting earth from another galaxy (where are those guys when you need them?) might have difficulty recognizing Mt. Rushmore as ‘designed’, especially if their life forms were radically different from ours. Anthropologists often have trouble distinguishing ancient tools from randomly chipped shards found in their digs – is design really so obvious? I think not, unless you have already decided it is prevalent.

Mr. Behe never explains what design is, because he doesn’t know or care. It just explains everything he can’t easily explain now. Sounds like a religious idea to me. If you stop assuming design is present everywhere, you stop seeing it…if you have another explanation, which we do have.

I truly enjoyed his comment that scientists are probably gritting their teeth and muttering, “It wasn’t designed, not really,” despite their ‘common sense’ knowledge that it ‘obviously’ is designed. Yes, reminds me of a Polish astronomer I once knew who looked at the heavens and said, “It’s not really spinning around the earth, not really. It goes around the Sun.” He said that even though his eyes suggested that the solar system did revolve around the earth. Hadn’t people noticed it for centuries? We have to believe our eyes, but we also have to know that sometimes we just don’t know what we’re looking at. Alas, the world may look like the toy ground on the lathe of the Great Toymaker in the sky, but it ain’t.

Some of Behe’s arguments are simply rehashes of anti-Darwin screeds from the 19th century, such as his claim that “no research studies indcate that Darwinian processes can make molecular machines of the complexity we find in the cell.” Seems to me that the entire thrust of biological research over the last hundred years, including micro-biology and physiology, all of which employ Darwin as a foundation element, are just that. There is nothing so far that CANNOT be explained with Darwinian mechanisms. We are back, once again, to the Bishop Wilberforce pseudo-arguments about the eye being too complex for it to be the product of ‘random’ evolution. (Of course, we know that evolution is not random.)

The circular arguments of this pathetic exposition are capped by his fourth argument in which Behe asserts that the “strong appearance of design” is a simple and strong argument in favor of ID. That which we desire to prove is the proof of what we desire to prove. Great logic! And I have to disagree that Darwin was “laboring to explain” the profound appearance of design in biological life. He was working to explain how species came about, and the resolution of the false appearance of design is simply an after affect. And how do species come about, Mr. Behe?

Finally he appeals to a vox populi argument: most people don’t accept Darwin’s theory, therefore it’s justified to discard it. We won’t settle the issue by arguing over definitions – especially when he won’t define any of his terms. And science should “keep looking for another explanation in case one is out there.” Yup, go to it, Mr. Behe. Do your theorizing, publish your experimental results, and good luck to you. If you can disprove Darwin, you will be hailed as a great man, but the fact that you are on your quixotic quest for ID does not prove that it is valid.

Mr. Behe says it doesn’t seem useful to search for non-design explanations of Mt. Rushmore. He takes the humanly created and the natural world to be all of a piece, no distinctions. Ah, yes, those Alps, so beautifully designed, surely there must be a supreme artist…The marvelous thing about culture is that it is created by us, the thinking ones. Do we have evidence that the raw material of the world was similarly created, other than an intellectual weakness to assume that what’s good for the goose is always good for the gander?

But, you know, I’m tired of this. I give up. Let’s grant Mr. Behe his argument. Intelligent Design rules! Yahooo! Now, please explain to me: who or what is the intelligent designer; if it’s not a superhuman god, then how is it different from unintelligent design? If you don’t know, what on earth does your theory add to our knowledge of the world?

Much of the confusion and delusion of this piece stems from one basic idea. ID advocates think that because Darwinians have not explained every element of every complex organism of interest, they cannot explain anything. But when they do attempt to explain organisms’ evolution, they succeed. But to explain the details of complex organisms that have evolved over tremendous reaches of time…that’s a work in progress. But there is only one path to the end as of now, and each small step it takes is solid. This explains the confusion, but it doesn’t excuse it. Fact is, Newton’s laws of gravitational attraction are pretty simple and straighforward, but last I heard, it still isn’t possible to accurately solve for the motion of three bodies that are mutually attracting one another simultaneously. It’s too difficult for us now. Does that mean Newton was wrong?