I didn’t know there was a film about Neil Armstrong coming until I saw the trailer for First Man today. Ryan Gosling is playing my boyhood hero Armstrong, and I can see him being a good fit: Neil was famously cool, calm, quiet, even when almost out of fuel hovering over the surface of the Moon, and Gosling really has a quality of quiet and stillness. First Man is due out in the autumn.
Taken on this day in 1967, from the unmanned test of Apollo 4 on November 9th, paving the way for the soon-to-follow manned lunar Apollo missions which would put a human being on the moon by 1969, a view of our world that until that point no human eyes had ever seen in all of history, taken at an altitude of 9, 544 miles above our world.
This was taken not long before I was born. By the following Christmas of 1968 Apollo 8 would take the remarkable “Earthrise” photograph as they came around from the dark side of the Moon, the farthest any human being had ever been from home, the very first to see the entire globe of our world, and see it rising above the Lunar horizon. The following year Armstrong and Aldrin would land on the Moon’s surface. I was born into the height of the Space Age and as a boy I dreamed of being an astronaut when I grew up.
Sometimes looking at these images I still dream
Now here is one of 2017’s UK graphic novel releases that I’ve been eagerly awaiting. Quite a few years ago Darryl Cunningham was our cartoonist in virtual residence on the blog, before going on to be one of the first wave of creators from then-new Blank Slate Press, with the deeply moving, well thought-out Psychiatric Tales. Since then he has, with an industrial level of research to accompany his cartooning, carved out a fine reputation on both sides of the Atlantic for some fascinating factual comics works, such as Science Tales and Supercrash (both also published by Myriad Editions), frequently sharing glimpses of works in progress on his blog.
With Graphic Science Darryl brings us a book that isn’t just about scientific development and breakthroughs, this is as much about history and the society these seven subjects lived in, and the influence of the prevailing societal and academic norms of their time, the challenges of race, of gender. Giving us a book which explored important breakthroughs which, outside of academic science circles, are not as well known to the general public and putting them into some context, giving the discoveries and the discoverers their due respect for adding to the sum of knowledge, for helping shape the world we live in now, that would be an achievement in itself. But Darryl doesn’t just craft an accessible view into research which changed our understanding of our world, in Graphic Science Darryl gives us seven tales that are remarkably, warmly human experiences. This is as much about the people as the science, and that makes Graphic Science not just intellectually fascinating, but emotionally compelling and rewarding.
“He was all too human, with flaws and idiosyncrasies. We should appreciate the man, not the myth.” Darryl on Nikola Tesla
The book takes in seven different scientists from across the last couple of centuries: Antoine Lavoisier, Mary Anning, George Washington Carver, Alfred Wegener, Nikola Tesla, Jocelyn Bell-Burnell and Fred Hoyle. Some of those names may be familiar to you already, others not so much, perhaps. Darryl has, from a wide possible array of influential scientists selected this group of seven as much for the personal interest in their lives and times, which proves as fascinating as their scientific discoveries. Born into the last generation to be enslaved before the end of the US Civil War, George Washington Carver overcomes racial prejudice (indeed, sometimes outright hatred), Mary Anning fights sexism and poverty in 19th century Britain, while even in the middle of the 20th century that gender gap still has to be faced by a new generation of scientists like Jocelyn Bell-Burnell. For German scientist Wegener the dogmatic, entrenched position of the established view stands in the path of his theory.
Darryl looks at the science, such as Lavoisier experimenting with chemicals, unlocking the secrets of the air we breathe, but he also pays attention to the world around Lavoisier. We see pre and post-revolutionary France, we we the interaction with the findings and debates with other scientists, the politics of the time (which would have a terrible price for Lavoisier), but also the domestic – home life, marriage. And rather nicely he pays attention to Marie-Anne, who not only becomes Lavoisier’s wife, she becomes an important part of his work. Intelligent, witty and social, she holds salons where scientific and artistic guests meet regularly, feeding each other’s thoughts and ideas (she even charmed Benjamin Franklin, painting his portrait). And she uses her intelligence and her skill with languages to help her husband, translating scientific papers from other countries for him, recording his own work with the meticulous detail that is the bedrock of scientific research, her contribution to helping her husband’s work given its due respect. In the chapter on Carver there’s a lovely moment, in stark contrast to the hideous racism of 19th century America, when his fellow students, impressed by his intellect and gentleness, get together to buy furniture for this young student’s rooms, or leave small gifts of money.
There isn’t room here to go into all seven chapters, but each shares this rather lovely approach – putting the human face on these events, people and discoveries. These aren’t cold facts, or distant historical figures, these are real people, people we can relate to. And while that makes the book more engaging emotionally, it also, for me, enhances the thrill of the discovery, of invention – these are not works by some remote, isolated genius, they are by genuine people, a reminder of our shared human connections, and by extension a reminder that scientific discovery is not just the domain of well-heeled, upper class white males, that all sorts of people from all sorts of origins have – and still do – contribute massively to our shared pool of human knowledge.
The art retains that nice, cartoony feel of previous works by Darryl, a style which I’ve become very fond of over the years, and which he uses well to denote emotional moments, or to illustrate and explain a complicated point. Each chapter has a limited but different colour palette for the most part, giving each its own look. There are some nice little moments of humour sneaked in their too ( for example, an explorer falls down a crevasse in a glacier, the image shows the hole and a “help!” speech bubble, which made me giggle). While many pages stock to a six-panel layout, some, for good effect, change this, such as a facing pair of two small and one large panel pages as Fred Hoyle’s mind considers the birth and death of stars, or showing the ancient land-mass of Pangea from Wegener’s thoughts on continental drift, one large panel of that long-gone supercontinent, two smaller panels showing the movement towards today, a span of billions of years covered in three panels, a pillar of modern scientific understanding, one we have all grown up with and taken for granted, illustrated as the powerful, divisive, controversial idea it once was (a reminder that our knowledge is not always fixed, that some people can give us an entire new perspective on the world, also that it is no bad thing to ask questions and explore ideas).
I’ve always had a deep interest in science, a side-effect of a lifetime of reading science fiction, no doubt, and I did actually know each of the people highlighted in Graphic Science, some only a little, others, like Bell-Burnell I knew much more about. But even with the scientists I was familiar with I learned new aspects to their work, to the person themselves, and, crucially, the social, historical and personal context, giving me a much rounder view of them, and a deeper appreciation the discoveries they made. Graphic Science is a rich, rewarding, fascinating and warmly personable view into some of those who, often against the odds, have added fuel to the shining beacon of learning and knowledge which has helped defined our species, our place in the world, our understanding of that world and the vast cosmos around us. A wonderful read.
This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog. You can read a guest Director’s Commentary by Darryl talking about Graphic Science here on the FP blog
Directed by Emer Reynolds
Another of my slate of screenings at the recent Edinburgh International Film Festival was this gem of a science documentary from Irish director Emer Reynolds, on one of the greatest feats of exploration – the Voyager missions. I’ve been a space geek for as long as I’ve been a science fiction fan, the two interests often cross-feeding one another (the great Arthur C Clarke incorporated new knowledge gleaned from Voyager and other missions into some of his science fiction writing). And I grew up with Voyager, launched in 1977 when I was just a kid, I followed the missions, in those long ago, pre-internet days through the old fashioned media of documentaries on the BBC, the Sky at Night and journals like New Scientist, right through to my teens and early adulthood as this long, long mission progressed, taking us on a “grand tour” of the outer planets and showing sights no human had ever seen before.
The history and the science will be familiar to many who have an interest in space exploration, but this is a story that is well worth revisiting, because it is a magnificent triumph of ideas made real by clever engineering, and that human urge to explore pushing us further than ever before; our ancestors, be they European seaman or the great Polynesian navigators on wood and reed rafts, sailed vast oceans of the Earth, exploring, and with Voyager we sailed a sea of stars to the distant planets… And then beyond.
The two Voyagers took in giant worlds, including a couple we didn’t even know existed until a couple of centuries ago and revealed more complexity and wonder than anyone dared hope for, from the searing radiation around mighty Jupiter and its moons, those wonderful rings around Saturn, those cold, remote outer giants of Neptune and Uranus. It showed us volcanic eruptions on a world other than our own for the first time, and these probes traveled billions of miles from our home, reprogrammed from the increasingly distant Earth for each mission, clever maths taking them on a course not just to worlds, but using the gravity of those worlds to “slingshot” onto their next trajectory (receiving a speed boost into the process). Kepler and Newtown would have approved. All this with 1970s technology…
NASA and JPL opened their archives to the film-makers, and while anyone with an interest will have seen some of this, there is much here that has rarely, or never, been shown. A small amount of CG compliments the real Voyager footage to give us views of the craft themselves, but the images Voyagers 1 and 2 brought us are the main visual focus here; a beautiful scene shows a time-lapse montage of a planetary approach by Voyager, from its perspective, from distant disc to close-up details, even clouds. The clouds scudding across the skies of another world. Astonishing.
But the real heart here – as with The Last Man on the Moon, which I reviewed here last year – is the human element. The people who worked on Voyager. The engineers who designed them, the scientists who worked on the missions, the people who conceived of and executed the famous Gold Disc both craft carry, with two hours of music from different eras and cultures on Earth, and greetings in many languages, including one by a young Nick Sagan, Carl Sagan’s wee boy: “hello from the children of Planet Earth”. A message in a bottle, afloat on a galactic sea. Coming through all of this film, Emer Reynolds draws out the science team, and brings genuine emotion to the film. There’s huge pride at what they accomplished, taking advantage of a rare alignment of the planets for this astounding mission, and how they made new discoveries and saw things for the very first time that no human had even known about, let alone seen.
There’s even a lovely bit of archive footage of a party after the final fly-by, when a special guest arrives to play music to the team – Chuck Berry. Of course he played Johnny B Goode, which is on the Gold Disc, and there among the celebrating science team is dear Carl Sagan, dancing happily to Chuck Berry. It’s unlikely any alien intelligence will ever find Voyager and get to play that disc, but as one scientist noted, it’s not impossible. And the very inclusion of it was a mark of enormous optimism, a reaching out, here we are, we’re just learning our first steps out of the cradle, but look what we have achieved already, please contact us. If it isn’t discovered by some other species in the future, the craft will continue on, possibly outlasting the Earth itself, a slice of human culture preserved among the stars.
And as the film notes, these remarkable wee craft are still working, forty years after launch. Their last encounter with the planets was long ago, but they still send daily data back home – one engineer commented that when they were launched back in 1977 the technology to receive signals from such a distant source didn’t exist, they made it while the probes flew on, to listen into a whisper in the cosmos. After the remarkable planetary encounters there was still science and wonder to be had, from the Sagan-inspired “family portrait” of the solar system (when he argued for turning the cameras back towards Earth, now not even a pixel wide to Voyager’s lenses, the “pale blue dot”), to seeking out the heliopause, the point where the influence of our sun ends, marking the boundary of the solar system. In 2012 Voyager 1, the fastest moving of the pair, finally detected the end of this influence; it officially crossed the boundary, leaving our solar system, the first human-created object into interstellar deep space. No wonder those scientists were so proud of what they accomplished.
And one day, when the power finally fades, and those last reports dwindle into static, Voyagers will still have one mission as they continue on to the stars: the gold disc, humanity’s message in a bottle, that wonderful optimism that permeated the Voyager missions, that Reynolds brings out in her interviews with the science team in the film, will power that final mission, perhaps forever. This is a remarkable documentary, celebrating the ingenuity, the science, glorying in the wonders discovered, but above all it is about the people behind it, who built a dream and sailed it across the worlds. For anyone interested in science and space exploration this is unmissable.
This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog; The Farthest will be released in Irish cinemas on July 28th
Taken by NASA’s Cassini probe earlier this month, the planet Earth is a bright pinpoint of distant light, viewed through the magnificent rings of mighty Saturn. Stunning.
This reminds me very much of one of my favourite photographs from space exploration, the famous “pale blue dot” image taken almost three decades ago by the Voyager craft, when the late and much-missed Carl Sagan argued for the probes, now passed the outer worlds, to be turned around and take a perspective of our world and our solar system, a “family portrait” as Carl put it, giving us a view that no human had ever seen before in all the ages of the world. In that image our world was even smaller, not even a full pixel. It gave a vastly different perspective on human affairs – those who consider themselves so important because they are rich, powerful, connected, from this distance – a small one in astronomical terms, vast in human terms – they mean less than nothing. Perhaps world leaders should all take a moment to look at such images and think about them for a moment… (via BoingBoing)
It’s Yuri’s Night, a world space party being marked around our little, blue marble to celebrate the great Yuri Gagarin, the very first human who really did go where no man has gone before, riding a column of fire into orbit on this day in 1961. A rocket, leaving the surly bonds of Earth and out into space, launched by the then Soviet Union, a remarkable achievement which came only six decades from the first fluttering powered flight of the Wright Brothers. Six decades from a few seconds in the air, only feet off the ground to a human being thundering into space and orbiting our planet.
There’s something wonderfully, romantically heroic about that first Space Age – engineers, programmers, designers, cosmonauts and astronauts, none of them truly knew exactly what they were getting into. It was all new – building on work that had gone before, of course, but now at a level never tried, at a level where some really did wonder if it would work, and if it did work as they hoped, could a human being travel in it? Could they survive? Nobody even knew if a human body could function in the microgravity environment – would your heart and lungs still function? How do you eat? Does it affect your vision? What about radiation? And how about getting home again safely? The inferno of re-entry, could their frail, basic craft really stand up to the intense heat? And what about the cosmonaut within, the re-entry blocking all communications so for those few moments they would be truly alone, unable to speak to ground control, ground control anxiously waiting for the interference to clear to hear their voice, to hear if they had survived the blaze of re-entry, a few moments which must have been an eternity
None of this had been tried, they simply didn’t know, it was all new, making those first pioneers like Gagarin, Tershkova, Leonov, Glenn, Armstrong all the more heroic in my eyes. Imagine being willing to train for this, to risk your life to push that envelope and achieve something which had only ever been a dream. So much optimism then, onwards, outwards, faster, further! Space awaited, orbit, then the Moon, maybe Mars and beyond… So different to our downbeat present when we have a new generation of spacecraft, but only for the super-rich, and Mars, let alone any further, is still decades off. The promises of my comics annuals that by the time I was an adult space would be in reach of everyone, we would take holidays there! Those promises never materialised, to my eternal regret – now approaching the big five-oh at the end of this year it looks like that’s something I will never get the chance to do.
Yuri became the most famous man on the planet on his return. Dragging his chute and suit from his landing in a field he smiled on his return to Earth and told them not to be alarmed, he was one of them, he was a comrade, a friend. One looked at his capsule and suit and asked if he had come from outer space. Yuri reportedly laughed and said as a matter of fact, yes! Suddenly an idea which had been science fiction, space flight, was now science fact. Sadly Yuri died young, killed, of all things, in a normal aircraft training flight, after having survived the rigours of the space programme tests and that history-making first manned mission. Years ago I read a joint autobiography on both sides of the space race by Alexei Leonov (first man to attempt a space walk) and David Scott; in Leonov’s memoirs of the Soviet effort the affection he and his fellow cosmonauts had for Yuri was still strong, even decades on.
Yuri flew before I was born, he died when I was just a baby, but he’s been one of my heroes all my life.
This gorgeous video shows you the journey of a photon from the sun (well, the surface of the sun, I imagine – the journey from core to surface of the sun takes far, far, far longer), out into the solar system and all the way past the inner, rocky worlds until it reaches mighty Jupiter, king of the planets, all taken in real time. The speed of light is fast – the fastest thing we know of (so far, not counting possible existence of supralight particles). So fast, as one writer observed, that most civilisations take millennia to realise light even travels at all. But when you move out into the vast distances of space even the speed of light seems tardy by comparison. It’s some eight minutes and twenty seconds just to reach us on Earth, and we’re only the third rock from the sun. “Riding Light” takes us out beyond the terrestrial worlds – Mercury, Venus, Mars, Earth – then on, avoiding the tumbling asteroid belt, until it reaches magnificent Jupiter, some forty five minutes later:
Directed by Mark Craig,
Featuring Eugene Cernan, Alan Bean, Dick Gordon, Jim Lovell
“That whole time, that’s the time I call ‘sitting on God’s front porch.”
Those are the words of Gene Cernan, naval aviator, engineer and NASA astronaut, on his three days on the Moon as commander of Apollo 17. The last of the spectacular lunar Apollo missions. Gene was, quite literally, the last man on the Moon. Astronauts, cosmonauts, taikonauts, they’re a select cadre, a group who even now, more than fifty years after the first manned space flight by Gagarin, are composed of only a tiny group of people, the few who have flown above the clouds, above the very air we breathe, to enter space, to float around our glowingly blue world and see it as no-one else in the history of the world could have before space flight.
But among that select group the trailblazers of that first era of manned space flight stand out – Gagarin, Glenn, Shepherd, Leonov. These men really did go where no-one has gone before. Spaceflight is incredibly dangerous – you ride into orbit at vast velocity atop what is basically a carefully controlled series of explosions with a thousand things that can go wrong, to enter an environment Earthbound life was never meant to survive in, where a small mistake or fault can lead to death. And in the first years it was all entirely new – nobody even knew for sure if humans could live in space, could you even eat and digest while weightless in your orbiting capsule? Would cosmic rays kill you or fry your electronics leaving you adrift before you could do anything? Could you survive re-entry?
(Above: Cernan poses for an official portrait in his spacesuit; below: Cerna in a less formal pose with his young daughter)
Cernan was there right in the earliest days, one of those elite pilots recruited for the astronaut corps, starting with the Gemini programme, and this film draws principally on his autobiography. Cernan starts as the reserve crewmember but after an awful flying accident to the main crew he is moved up to the mission – rather mixed feelings, to say the least, getting his dream tickets, a chance to soar into space, but getting that first chance because his friend and fellow flyer died tragically. And that part covering the early years of Cernan’s life at NASA , sets the tone for this entire film – this isn’t just about those first astronauts, about the setbacks and the triumphs. Those have been documented many times – deservedly – but here we have a much more personal and importantly a much more emotional film. This is still about those gloriously heady days, pushing to be the first to reach the Moon, but it is just as much about the emotional and psychological cost for the astronauts and their families.
“If you think going to the Moon is hard, you ought to try staying home” – Cernan’s wife on hearing of a flight mishap during Apollo 10.
Cernan, to his credit, does not try to paint himself or his fellow Apollo astronauts who take part in this film as the simple, heroic figures history likes to portray. Which is not to downplay in any way the risks they faced, the amazing science and engineering it involved, the boundaries they pushed, the new frontier they charted. It was heroic. And like most things heroic it is too easy to forget behind those stories there is just a normal person – doing the extraordinary, to be sure, but still a person, like any of us. A person with loved ones around them who have to share that dream with them, who also have to sacrifice, who suffer emotionally. Not just the obvious worry over whether husband/dad/brother will come home safely. We’ve all seen those prim, seemingly serene NASA wives of the period watching the mission on TV with their kids and projecting the expected image of pride and confidence when really they were terrified of what could happen, but would never show it in front of the camera.
Cernan pulls no punches on that front – he comments that in many ways the astronauts were quite simply selfish; oriented totally on their goal, the mission, the training. Meanwhile real life was rolling on and it was the wives who had to make sure the kids were looked after, got to school on time, the bills were paid, household chores and repairs were done. Wives essentially had largely absentee husbands, children absentee fathers; they couldn’t stop training or being focused on the mission, there were only a few flight slots and only the best of the best would get that chance. And so they sacrificed – on the job, Cernan paying his dues flying Gemini then Apollo 10, the last flight before Armstrong’s historic landing, so close he could almost touch the Moon but knowing that first landing was not to be his (his respect for Neil shines through any disappointment at that). And it was a vital part of proving they could get men there and fly home, critical to the success of Apollo 11. As Cernan notes of those preparatory missions – “Not many people remember Apollo 10, but I do. And I’ll tell you someone else who did – Neil Armstrong.”
And later he gets his ultimate reward – and what a reward, what the calls his “personal moment of reckoning”, command of Apollo 17. With cutbacks looming after several successive lunar missions, it will be the final one leaving some who trained and were ready for their mission to never reach that goal. Where Armstrong and Aldarin have a short time on the surface the later missions had several days and the remarkable Lunar Rover, a hi-tech, Space-Age dune buddy for the Moon, so they could travel further and explore more, pick up more diverse samples to study back on Earth. And in an incredibly touching moment Cernan recounts how he parked the Lunar Rover for the last time, a little away from the landing module (LEM) so it could remotely film their take off.
(Cernan on the Moon, by the Lunar Rover, the red commander’s stripes marking this out as his suit; below, the view from the trip round the Moon, the Apollo missions the very first time any human being had been far enough away to see the entire disc of our world, and to to share that image with all of us. We’ve grown up knowing what our entire globe looks like hanging in space, something all the thousands of generations before the late 60s never got to see)
And as he dismounted to walk back to the ship for the final time he paused. And there in the ancient, dusty surface of the Moon he wrote his young daughter’s initials. Which, like Armstrong’s footprints will, in that airless vacuum, essentially remain there forever. As far from home as any humans have ever been, sacrificed so much home and family life to be there, to land on the Moon, and suddenly all he can think of is home and his wee girl. It’s beautifully touching. If any future mission – and who knew back then that almost four decades on we’d still not have returned – lands and visit the Rover, those initials will still be there.
“Walking up the ladder was probably one of the most memorable moments for me, because I looked down at my footprints and I knew I wasn’t coming this way again. Why were we here, what did it mean? I looked over my shoulder: there’s the Earth, there’s reality, there’s home. I wanted to press the freeze button, I wanted to stop time, I really wanted to reach out, take it in my hand, stick it in my spacesuit and bring it home to show to everybody, this is what it looks like, this is what it feels like.”
And the last man to walk on a surface not of our Earth climbed the ladder to the LEM and Apollo 17 headed home. But it still wasn’t over, not really. Hard to recall now, but the early astronauts were global figures, international celebrities in a way the preening media darlings of today could never dream of, with tens of thousands lining routes to wave to them on visit. From Gagarin through to the Apollo crews, they travelled the world – presidents, celebrities, scientists, millions of ordinary people, all wanted to see them, to hear them speak, the glare of media followed them, and as Cernan’s then wife notes it becomes too much. They sacrificed for years for his training and the mission, and now it is over, but still they are in the spotlight – when do they get to be a regular family, have an ordinary life again? Too much for many – some sixty percent of the Apollo astronauts, including Cernan, would end up divorced due to the stresses and strains. The physical return to Plane Earth was relatively gentle, a splashdown in the ocean, but the emotional and psychological effects of having to come back to Planet Earth, to real, daily life, was far bumpier.
(tired and covered in Lunar dust – making history can be dirty)
This emotional core is absolutely central to director Craig’s film here, and it gives a much more satisfyingly rounded and human insight into some of the most remarkable moments in recent human history, and those who made them happen. He doesn’t stint on the astonishing nature of the Moon missions or the glories of Apollo – period film, both NASA and family home movies and photos, all create visuals for both the missions and the families dealing with the effects of training for those historic flights, while some very well-done CG effects are added to the visuals, giving us a view we otherwise simply couldn’t have. But he balances this constantly with what it cost in terms of emotional and family life to do what they did.
And there are some wonderfully emotional scenes from the present day – Cernan returning to the Cape, to the old Apollo launch pad. It looks like the sort of thing any good film-maker would shoot – the subject returning to the scene of their greatest triumphs, where it all happened, where the roar of the awesomely powerful Saturn V rockets lifted men not just into space but all the way to the Moon and back. Except towards the end it is clear Cernan has not entirely enjoyed this stroll down memory lane, looking at the now empty, unused Apollo launch areas and thinking that he really doesn’t like seeing it like this, that perhaps he should not have come back to see it this way.
(Cernan as he is today, re-visiting the Apollo launch pad, where world-changing history was made, now all silent – a bittersweet moment for the astronaut)
And in another immensely touching scene we see Cernan visit the Johnson Space Center, Houston. And there is the capsule from Apollo 17, from that defining, historic mission, the peak of his astronaut career. And it’s a museum piece, viewed by school children not born until decades after he flew in it. He looks at the capsule, still showing the raging fires of re-entry on the shell, and the dummy astronauts inside. Did we really do it, he muses, did we really reach out and do what humans have dreamed of forever, to touch the Moon? What was it all about? How do young people today see this item in a museum and the old man standing by it, looking just like anyone’s grandfather (and indeed he is). Was it all a dream? Did he really once fly in that small spaceship? What will people in another forty years or a hundred or a thousand think looking back at the Apollo days?
I’ve been in love with the idea of spaceflight since I was a very small boy, born at the height of the Space Age; I’ve read and watched so much of the history of those times and those world-changing events. Despite all the documentaries I’ve watched, the books I’ve read, this film still stood out, largely because of that very emotional core, giving a hugely satisfying new insight into those remarkable Apollo days, the human side to the heroic giants who rode fire into the heavens. For fellow space geeks like me this is essential viewing, but for those who just enjoy seeing epic history being presented at a very human level, this is also a remarkable film.
The Last Man on the Moon opens in the UK on April 8th, and there is a special screening with live link up for a Q&A with Gene Cernan on April 11th in many cinemas around the country.
This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog
Jim Ottaviani, Leland Purvis,
I’ve long been fascinated with the life and work of Alan Turing, the remarkable British mathematician and boffin (and if anyone deserves the affectionate old British label “boffin”, surely it’s Turing), the ideas, far ahead of his time and the technology available to him, spilling out of that unusual mind like a brilliant river of thought that most of us would struggle to stay afloat in, let alone navigate that river. Ideas which changed the world, although for many long decades some of that astonishing work would be concealed under the Official Secrets Act, wartime work not to be discussed. And it wasn’t; from the eccentric academics with their erratic, lateral-thinking brains tackling seemingly impossible problems to the legions of women who sweated over the operations at Bletchley Park, they kept their mouths closed. Some, like Turing, would go to their graves long before the nature of their work was revealed, the role it played in saving the nation – and arguably the free world – from the dark tyranny of the Nazi onslaught.
And as if helping save the world was not enough, also using those desperate times to push the envelope, advancing ideas and new technologies which would otherwise have taken years or decades more, birthing the proper digital programmable computer (in hastily erected sheds in wartime Britain of all places). Birthing the technological creations which would take us from the Industrial Age into the Information Age, a revolution we’re all mostly still running to catch up with, an idea which, like Gutenberg’s movable type printing press before it was an idea which would branch off into so many other areas, influencing every aspect of our lives, from everyday things like train travel or making a phone call to the exotic, like launching satellites or creating new ways of peering into our bodies to create new treatments. And some of those first ideas come from a young, eccentric and awkward, but brilliant, lad, ideas which may have remained only theories and academic papers and perhaps the odd bit of mechanical or electronic tinkering, if the budget allowed, until the war came.
Ottaviani (who previously brought us a wonderful biography on the great Feynman) and Purvis break this look at Turing’s life and mind into three main parts, starting with his youth – school and college days, home life – then answering the call of duty during the dark days of the Second World War for secret work at the (now rightly famous) Bletchley Park, the desperate, frantic attempts to find ways into the supposedly unbreakable Enigma codes, and then his post-war life, able to show his OBE for services to “king and country” but not to ever tell what that remarkable work actually was. And of course, for those of us already familiar with Turing (I’ve admired him since I sat programming my first home computers, way back in the days when you had to learn programming to make them do anything, long, long before apps and swipes) that last act is a tragic one (potential spoiler alert for those not familiar with that history).
It would have been very easy to focus entirely on those Bletchley Park years, and indeed the material from that period would easily have filled the book. But to Ottaviani Purvis’ great credit they want to show the person, not just the historical figure, and it greatly enriches the book by taking in his younger years first. The awkward lad with a brilliant brain that seems to grasp hugely complex problems easily and solve most of them just in his head (where the rest of us would fill entire journals working on the problem for years and still be scratching our heads), and yet to whom many of the normal everyday social interactional skills were a mystery (these days it’s hard not to imagine Jim Parsons’ wonderful portrayal of Dr Sheldon Cooper when noticing these quirks).
But there are still warm, social connections there despite his awkwardness, from family, from a few select friends, including Chris Morcom, a young, intelligent friend who accepts him as he is, and who other biographers have speculated about – was he perhaps young Turing’s first crush as he realised he preferred men to women? Here that isn’t exactly downplayed, but neither is it highlighted, instead, rather nicely focusing on their friendship and shared interests, sadly doomed to end all to early as Morcom died very young (the scenes following that are both sad and very touching, showing Turing the man, not just a brilliant brain, but a person with feelings).
Some of the book follows Turing himself, showing him at school, college, being invited to America to Princeton where he is in the company of the likes of Von Neumman, Alonzo Church (even Einstein was there during this period), then into the wartime work and realising some of his ideas about “universal machines” could be used to help crack these Nazi cyphers, first by mechanical means (the famous “bombes” rotating and clacking away by the hundred, staffed by service woman often working in their undies due to the heat of the machinery) then (with the brilliant electronic engineering of the GPO’s Tommy Flowers) an actual electronic, digital computer, the first such in world history (although as it was a state secret for decades afterwards textbooks would give that honour to American scientists. Again those who worked on it kept their lips sealed about their much earlier efforts).
At many other points the book deviates from this approach, instead bringing in people who knew him, friends, colleagues, his mother, even his wartime fiance (who accepted even though she knew he was homosexual, because he liked her time with him), taking their turns in the interview chair, introducing parts of Turing’s life that they were involved in, as if in a documentary film. Again this very much helps personalise this story – it isn’t just about an odd but brilliant mind, it’s a person and the people who were around them. I also very much approved of the many nods to others from Bletchley, such as Dilly Knox or the “golden geese” (the servicewomen who worked there – as Churchill called the vital Bletchley decrypts, it was the goose which laid the golden eggs but never cackled. This was an era where one did one’s duties, all in it together, and did not talk about it. Most maintained that silence for decades until their work was declassified). The Bletchley segment is also something of a celebration of the “backroom boys”, the great British Boffin, the sort of chap with a brilliant mind solving amazing problems in time of need, and yet the sort who often forgets to tie his own shoelaces.
And then there is that final act, the tragic act (again spoiler for those who are not familiar with this history and don’t want to know in advance of reading the book). The postwar work, struggling to get resources like they had during the war to continue his early computing work, and the nature of his homosexuality also coming out, no real, continuing romantic relationship, just the odd fling, giving an impression of sadness and loneliness, also of frustration at work he can’t advance as much as he wants. And finally the fling which lands him before the judicial system, because this was 1950s Britain and homosexuality wasn’t just frowned upon, it was actually illegal. His status and service saved him from prison, but cruelly he was put on a probation that included taking female hormones to “cure” him, causing him illness, weight gain and even developing breasts, provoking despair and depression and more isolation. Until this brilliant man, whose work had been absolutely pivotal to the survival of the entire nation, takes his own life with a poisoned apple (beautifully foreshadowed much earlier in the book as he and a college chum go to see the new Disney film, Snow White).
The disgrace of a man who had rendered such service to his country, to be treated so is shocking still, and the question that can never be answered echoes heavily over this last chapter – what else could have come from that brilliant mind? What other innovations would Turing have given to the fledgling computer industry? But despite this terribly sad ending this is not downbeat, this is a celebration of a remarkable man and an astonishing life. Purvis uses some wonderful visual tricks to convey the processes of Turing’s mind – a scene showing the ticker tape for an early thought experiment machine flowing past him as he effortlessly walks on and his friends struggle to keep up with him was rather wonderful, likewise a fantasy scene with Turing talking with the brilliant Ada Lovelace – another innovator of the world we now live in – is beautifully depicted, and there are lovely little cameos, including a young officer from Naval Intelligence, Commander Ian Fleming (later to create the James Bond novels).
It’s a beautifully told story, both for those of us with some familiarity with Turing and that historical period, and to those who are new to it, a reminder also of the enormous debt the present and future always owe to the past and those who came before us, and what they achieved, often in the face of adversity; it celebrates an amazing man and the people he worked with. In 2009 the British Prime Minister issued a posthumous apology to Turing for his judicial treatment, in 2013 the Queen officially granted a royal pardon. Computer scientists, cognitive psychologists and philosophers are still debating Turing’s thought experiments on advanced computing technology actually being able to develop into artificial intelligence, his importance and work are still taught in academia around the globe.
this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog
I’ve very much been looking forward to Knockabout publishing Jen Harder’s Alpha, the first of a projected three graphic works which aim to take in one of the grandest themes a book can tackle: life, the universe and everything, from the fizzing, bizarre microseconds around the Big Bang when even the universal laws of physics and nature hadn’t yet taken effect (in fact they didn’t yet exist as we know them) through the slow birth of stars, planets, whole galaxies, then the molten lumps which would grow and reform to become one planet in particular, our own beautiful Earth.
In Alpha Harder takes us on a mind-blowing head-trip through some four and a half billion years (give or take) from the “let there be light” moment to formation of the Earth, the endless ages of changes, the first sparks of life, the astonishing spectacle of evolution, of great geological processes, from the beginning right through to the Anthropocene era, the “human era”. And as a subtle reminder that humans are not as special as we like to think we are, we come in only at the very end of this volume, comparative latecomers in the great book of life on Earth.
The Beta and Gamma volumes are aiming to look at the rise of humans, form primitive ape-like forms to modern humans and establishing civilisations then potential futures, but those are stories for other days, and while I very much want to read those, Alpha offers up more than enough imagery, spectacle, amazement and food for thought for any reader to mentally digest.
“At first only a germ exists, the singularity. From this infinitely hot and dense original state, no bigger than a football, the Universe expands. An inflation commences. The beginning of Space-Time.”
The breadth and scope of Alpha is remarkable, and Jens has the confidence to trust his readers and their own ability and knowledge, frequently giving us entire pages without text, just images, trusting his readers to participate with him, to be an active part of this story telling experiment. And what a story – the great story, the one philosophers, sages, religious leaders and scientists alike have explored since… Well, for as long as humans have been capable of thought. The first section come across very much like a fantastic voyage, spectacular images splashed across our retinas, from the infinitely small world of sub-atomic physics, quarks, of matter and anti-matter springing into being and annihilating one another, then to the much larger scale, to the cosmological scale. Hydrogen gas accumulating, gravity starting to exert its power billions of years before Isaac Newton would lay down his laws. Atoms are formed, stable substances, they start to group together under the influence of gravity.
As they clump together they are changed, enlarged, spinning, turning, growing. From simple dust and gas will come the most massive of structures: swirling gas spins before our eyes, faster, faster, heat generated by the friction, the rotation, pressures building from being so squashed together until heat and pressure pass the point of no return and this accumulation of matter ignite: nuclear fusion takes place at their heart and the first stars burn into existence, fuelling in turn the creation of more elements, while around these new stars more rocks come together, slowly, oh so slowly forming what will become the planets. It will take billions of years, but these cold rocks smashing together will one day become vast, complex ecospheres of their own, especially our own remarkable world.
We move from the cosmic to the Earthly, to a world we wouldn’t recognise, one we couldn’t actually live on – the atmosphere, such as it was, poison to us and to most other life we know of, no water yet, the surface crust just the thinnest covering over raging magma, constantly bombarded by debris from the formation of the solar system. And yet this volcanic hell-world is destined to become the richest and most diverse source of life in our entire solar system. Wind and water start to form on this embryonic planet, shaping it as much as the geological movements do, that spinning metal core starts to generate a magnetic field, deflecting the worst cosmic rays, an invisible umbrella that will encourage and protect the endless variety of life to come.
And that life too will change the form of the Earth, the earliest lifeforms breathing the foul atmosphere and excreting oxygen. We can even still see some of those incredibly ancient lifeforms, such as the Stromatolites off the coast of the great island continent of Australia. We know that mighty oaks come from a humble acorn, but here Jens graphically shows us the almost miraculous formation of worlds, stars and life, from the most primitive bacteria which would eventually lead to swimming creatures, then backbones, eyes, legs. Giant sea scorpions, massive dinosaurs, the rise of the mammals, the waves of extinctions and the new forms which would emerge to take their place, a never-ending cycle of death and new life while around that life the Earth itself, seemingly so solid to short-lived beings like us, is continually changed, altered, mountains rise, erode, entire continents move and reform…
Jens doesn’t just offer up imagery of these events though – throughout the entire book he constantly inserts frames from much, much later, from our own human culture era, into the events. The slow coalescing of gases into the spark of nuclear ignition that forms a living star comes across like a NASA countdown. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, we have ignition, and appropriately this sequence is intercut with the mighty blast of human-built rockets defying gravity to launch a spacecraft beyond our world. The growing power of the young sun bathing the early planets is intercut with more human imagery, Egyptian pharaohs and their children beneath the all-powerful sun-god Ra (or perhaps it is the Aten sun-god of the heretic king Akhenaten). Early creatures experiencing celluar division are contrasted with mythological beings from Incan and Mayan civilisations.
Sequences depicting the first order out of chaos as the laws of physics establish themselves following the Big Bang are intercut with human desires to impose order on nature, the swirl of the subatomic coming together to form the larger-scale reality intercut with the creation of the great Pantheon and its wondrous dome by the Romans. The embryonic seas form in a sequence intercut with Hokusai’s famous Great Wave artwork. Depictions of continental drift are contrasted with delightfully inaccurate and yet still so beautiful medieval Mappa Mundi, the amazing new life forms of the great beasts contrasted with woodcut images from a bestiary, the era of the giant “terror birds” with Alice meeting Dodo, the evolutionary adaptation of skeletons to move from sea to land with the structure of the mighty Forth Rail Bridge, nature and human culture and invention entwined repeatedly.
It’s a remarkable experience; this journey across unbelievably vast tracts of time and creation is mind-bending. It puts me in mind of The Light of Other Days, a collaboration between Stephen Baxter and the great Arthur C Clarke, in which wormhole technology allows humans to look anywhere in time and space, one character following his own family line back, back, back, his mother, father, grandparents, following them visually all the way back to early hominids and further back. But here, unlike Clark and Baxter, we are moving forward, not back, sailing through space-time and history and evolution.
And while the concepts are as vast and complex as the timescales and lifeforms they depict, this counter-cutting the story of creation with human images puts a scale on it we can understand, while also reminding us strongly that we’re not different, we’re not apart from all of this, we are an integral part of this magnificent chain of creation. It also subtly hints that out of all of those billions of years and different lifeforms, we are the only ones we know of who have established an understanding of these things, and even then only comparatively recently.
It’s only a few hundred years since Hooke explored the microscopic world we never even knew existed before that period, even more recent since we started to understand world-shaping concepts like continental drift or stellar physics or sub-atomic physics or the Darwinian notions of evolution, barely half a century since we discovered DNA or set foot on a surface that was not part of our own world, but another celestial body. And yet all those new discoveries and knowledge are all connected with what went before, standing on the shoulders of giants, our precious knowledge showcased so wonderfully here also part of that same great chain of circumstances across billions of years which allowed the conditions for these things to happen, these creatures to be, these people to exist, to think…
It is both incredibly humbling, putting us in our place, just another part of a long cycle of life, and yet also exalting humanity for being the only life on Earth to be able to comprehend and celebrate this knowledge. Humans are a part of this creation, not aside from or above it, but a part of it, the latest in a long, oh so long chain of events leading to the conditions for life, then for that life to slowly evolve into beings who could regard this universe and start to read it’s history like a book, to start lifting back the heavy curtains of Dark Matter to peer at the very structures of the universe or to explore the book of life through DNA or the extensive fossil record our remarkable world has furnished us with and start putting together those stories. Which are our stories, the stories of all life.
This is a spectacular book, a ride through the creation of everything, leaving the head spinning, flooded with ideas, imagery, offering new lenses to look again at the world around us and marvel at it all. It’s combination of physics, cosmology, geology and evolutionary sciences is like a terrific mixture of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and David Attenborough’s Life on Earth. Ultimately though, Alpha offers readers something truly special, that beautiful feeling that comes simply from the sheer sense of wonder.
“Don’t ask me and don’t tell me. I was there.
It was a bang and it was big. I don’t know
what went before, I came out with it.
Think about that if you want my credentials.
Think about that, me, it, imagine it
as I recall it now, swinging in my spacetime hammock,
nibbling a moon or two, watching you.
What am I? You don’t know. It doesn’t matter.
I am the witness, I am not in the dock.
I love matter and I love anti-matter.
Listen to me, listen to my patter.
Oh what a day (if it was day) that was!
It was as if a fist had been holding fast
one dense packed particle too hot to keep
and the fingers had suddenly sprung open
and the burning coal, the radiant mechanism
had burst and scattered the seeds of everything,
out through what was now space, out
into the pulse of time, out, my masters,
out, my friends, so, like a darting shoal,
like a lion’s roar, like greyhounds released,
like blown dandelions, like Pandora’s box,
like a shaken cornucopia, like an ejaculation –
I was amazed at the beauty of it all,
those slowly cooling rosy clouds of gas,
wave upon wave of hydrogen and helium,
spirals and rings and knots of fire, silhouettes
of dust in towers, thunderheads, tornadoes;
and then the stars, and the blue glow of starlight
lapislazuliing the dust-grains –
I laughed, rolled like a ball, flew like a dragon,
zigzagged and dodged the clatter of meteorites
as they clumped and clashed and clustered into
worlds, into this best clutch of nine
whirled in the Corrievreckan of the Sun.
The universe had only just begun.
I’m off, my dears. My story’s still to run! ” Planet Wave, Edwin Morgan (excerpt)*
(* = apologies for such a lengthy quote, but Alpha put me in mind so much of the poetry of the great Edwin Morgan, who often showed a fascination for real science and for science fiction in his work, and I had to include the opening of his Planet Wave verse, which celebrates the creation of the universe, the world, people and life, much as Alpha does, although in very different ways. Carcanet have it in his collected poems, should you wish to read the full thing)
This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog
Here’s some vintage video of a conversation moderated by the late Magnus Manugsson, between Arthur C Clarke, Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking, discussing life, god, science, the universe and everything… Let me just say that again: ARTHUR C CLARKE!! CARL SAGAN!!! STEPHEN HAWKING!!! Three of my heroes of science… Has sudden geekswoon… This was recorded in 1988 – strange to think of the four here (including the distinguished Magnus, who used come into my old bookstore from time to time and was always charming when he did), only Professor Hawking is still with us, a man who was told his illness would claim him when he was still just a young man. (link via BoingBoing)