Seeing the invisible: van Leeuwenhoek’s first glimpses of the microbial world

7 minutes

Visitors

12 minutes

De artificiali perspectiva, or anamorphosis

14 minutes

Pien, queen of the bees

16 minutes

The greatest Briton?

5 minutes

‘I could not but wonder at it’: history’s first glimpses into the microbial world

‘What do you do when you see things that no one has ever seen before?’

When the Dutch scientist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek pointed a new, handcrafted microscope down into a jar of algae in 1674, he became the first person to learn of the microbial world. ‘And the motion of most of them in the water was so swift and so various, upwards, downwards, and round about, that I confess I could not but wonder at it,’ he later wrote to the Royal Society of London. What followed was one of the most outstanding cascades of scientific breakthroughs in history: from bacteria to protozoa to sperm to blood cells we learned that the vast majority of life is invisible to the naked eye and, in many cases, fundamentally inseparable from us.

This imaginative animation from Sweet Fern Productions probes van Leeuwenhoek’s first glimpses of the microbial world, as well as the indelible mark his work left on science and the ongoing quest to understand how microscopic life shapes our existence.

Directors: Flora Lichtman, Sharon Shattuck

Website: BioInteractive

In a remote town near Area 51, UFO believers and locals contemplate the beyond

‘I’ve never seen necessarily an alien but I’ve met some humans that might not be considered born here …’

In June 2019, a prank Facebook event titled ‘Storm Area 51, They Can’t Stop All of Us’ went viral, with some 1.5 million users indicating – ironically or not – an interest in blitzing the famed US Air Force facility in Nevada, long rumoured to contain evidence of extraterrestrial life. By the time the event date arrived in September, most of the world had moved on from the gag. Ultimately, only about 1,500 people descended on the remote Nevada towns around Area 51 – the vast majority of whom had no real designs on storming the facility.

One such attendee was the New York-based filmmaker Scott Lazer, who travelled to the town of Rachel, Nevada, located 27 miles north of Area 51, where a small UFO-themed festival was taking place. There, he found the expected, eccentric collection of UFO diehards recounting sightings and contemplating the nature of extraterrestrial life. But Visitors, his short documentary account of the event, offers more than just an invitation to tour a peculiar subculture. As he interviews true believers and Rachel locals alike, a thread begins to emerge – of people striving to make sense of their place in a strange universe, and seeking connections with something greater than themselves.

Director: Scott Lazer

The Renaissance art illusion that proved everything is a matter of perspective

By the 16th century, European painters had become masterful at crafting illusions of perspective, giving viewers an impression of lifelike, three-dimensional depth on flat surfaces. Building on this well of Renaissance knowledge, a small handful of artists began pushing linear perspective further still, crafting works that required the viewer to occupy a single vantage point – or series of vantage points – in order to be fully understood. Today, this sort of visual illusion, known as anamorphosis, is responsible for viral internet phenomena such as the 3D street paintings of the Rome-based artist Kurt Wenner. At its inception, however, the technique was used to both provocative and whimsical effect, often adding subversive new meanings to works once revealed. In this short film, the celebrated US animation team Stephen and Timothy Quay, better known as ‘the Brothers Quay’, evoke a dark fairytale with their exploration of the technique, which combines stop-motion puppetry with some notable examples of anamorphosis from the 16th and 17th centuries.

Directors: The Brothers Quay

Producer: Keith Griffins

Website: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In between chemotherapy, 10-year-old Pien finds kinship with the honeybees she keeps

Pien is 10 and having treatment for cancer. After learning that crop pesticides and other human activities pose a mounting threat to bees and, by extension, the many foods they pollinate – she developed a passion for the creatures and took up beekeeping. Despite occasional stings, she finds a kinship with the insects, which, like her, are small, industrious and fighting for their survival. While her doctors are hopeful that Pien will make a full recovery, her chemotherapy treatments are an unwelcome intrusion on time she’d much prefer spending with her friends and her colony. With atmospheric cinematography and an observational style, the Dutch filmmaker Ellen Vloet’s short documentary Pien, Queen of the Bees is a sweet and touching portrait of childhood – even as weighty challenges for Pien and her hive hover throughout.

Director: Ellen Vloet

Director of Production: Roel van ’t Hoff

Hero or scoundrel? An iconoclastic biography of Winston Churchill

Most mainstream portrayals of Winston Churchill, such as the critically acclaimed film The Darkest Hour (2017), focus on his role in the Second World War, standing tall in the face of potential Nazi obliteration with a combination of brilliant foresight, fighting spirit and soaring rhetoric. While this is, of course, an important part of the celebrated British prime minister’s legacy, the characterisation paints an extremely incomplete picture of his life, leaving out a great number of important, unflattering facts. This short from the UK filmmaker Steve Roberts deploys a combination of claymation and biting iconoclasm to shine a light on the failing-up nepotism, political opportunism and murderous white supremacy that are often glossed over in surface-level treatments of Churchill’s biography.

Director: Steve Roberts

‘I could not but wonder at it’: history’s first glimpses into the microbial world

‘What do you do when you see things that no one has ever seen before?’

When the Dutch scientist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek pointed a new, handcrafted microscope down into a jar of algae in 1674, he became the first person to learn of the microbial world. ‘And the motion of most of them in the water was so swift and so various, upwards, downwards, and round about, that I confess I could not but wonder at it,’ he later wrote to the Royal Society of London. What followed was one of the most outstanding cascades of scientific breakthroughs in history: from bacteria to protozoa to sperm to blood cells we learned that the vast majority of life is invisible to the naked eye and, in many cases, fundamentally inseparable from us.

This imaginative animation from Sweet Fern Productions probes van Leeuwenhoek’s first glimpses of the microbial world, as well as the indelible mark his work left on science and the ongoing quest to understand how microscopic life shapes our existence.

Directors: Flora Lichtman, Sharon Shattuck

Website: BioInteractive

Aeon is not-for-profit
and free for everyone
Make a donation
Get Aeon straight
to your inbox
Join our newsletter

A woman and her children sit at the entrance of Rua Dois, one of the most violent neighbourhoods in Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro’s largest favela. Photo by Lianne Milton/WMF/Panos

Essay/
Political philosophy
Who gets to feel secure?

Security is one thing to a Black mother in a favela, another to a politician keen on law and order. They should be the same

Olúfẹ́mi O Táíwò

All photos courtesy Marrioth Ling

Essay/
Illness and disease
Beautiful monsters

Cancer is part of multicellular life. Now the riotous growth of crested cacti show how humans might adapt to live with it

Athena Aktipis