ORIGINAL

Slingshots of the oceanic

2 minutes

Don’t think twice

12 minutes

EXCLUSIVE

Ping pong Sufi

11 minutes

Is Eric Cantona an existentialist?

3 minutes

No ball games

14 minutes

The voyages of Ancient Pacific mariners echo in modern space exploration

Adapted from a post at BLDGBLOG, this short animation is an Aeon original made in collaboration with the filmmaker and animator Flora Lichtman.

There are many ways of moving through the Universe – of travelling from one point to another over great, even extraordinary distances. There is also a way of using the world for your own ends: taking advantage of slopes, winds, currents or gravitational fields, as fuel-efficient resources for your own acceleration.

Gravity-assisted space travel is one such example, when a spacecraft uses the gravitational pull of a nearby planet or other celestial body to ‘slingshot’ itself toward another, more distant goal. Crucially, the target or destination here is one that could not have been reached without this assistance, not only in terms of the ship’s velocity but even in terms of its original direction of travel.

You head toward one place to get to another – or, channelling Hamlet, ‘by indirections find directions out’.

Remarkably, this metaphorically rich idea of heading in one direction to arrive somewhere else entirely connects gravitational slingshots with the oceangoing people who settled remote island chains in the South Pacific. These ancient mariners learned to use a combination of seasonal winds and celestial navigation to push ever farther east, reaching the most extreme outer edges of Polynesia.

Early human settlement of the offshore Pacific revolved, in part, around enduring, large-scale meteorological phenomena that are still little understood. Most of these phenomena relied on what the maritime historian Brian Fagan called ‘an elaborate, usually slow-moving waltz involving two partners – the atmosphere and the ocean’. The local seasonal winds, combined with large but predictable long-term climatological events the size of continents, could be used to propel people from one archipelago to another.

We can draw a rough analogy between this climatologically assisted exploration of the remote outer Pacific and the careful interplanetary techniques of gravity-assisted space travel. Imagine, for example, a well-organised group of extreme maritime navigators standing on the shores of an isolated Pacific island chain 1,000 years ago, looking much further out to sea, knowing that there are distant land masses there, ever more island worlds whose presence is implied by the behaviour of the winds, clouds and currents.

More important, from generations’ worth of experience navigating the vast and inhospitable space of the Pacific, these same families know that only a particularly strong atmospheric cycle will be able to take them there – and that they must wait another season, another year, another decade, for these assistive winds to arrive. They are timing their launch.

Like NASA scientists calculating the positions of Mars and Jupiter as they hope to slingshot themselves beyond the black horizon of the solar system, these navigators would have known that the regional winds also move in cycles, or perhaps even that an unpredictable 100-year superstorm will be required to bring them further out into the ocean.

Awaiting these alignments, they temporarily become land-based, settling on a particular island and raising their children on the atmospheric folklore of a journey yet to come – telling themselves a science fiction not of interplanetary travel, but a kind of anthropological Star Trek of outer-sea exploration. Then, of course, the winds pick up – or ominous Antarctic clouds begin to appear on the southern horizon again for the first time in a generation – and everyone knows what these signs really mean. The skies are clicking back into place and, spurred on by this vast meteorological clock, they begin to build new canoes, their own wooden space probes for pushing the limits of a maritime universe.

It’s simply a different kind of sling-shotting: not between planets using gravity, but from island chain to island chain, riding a long tail of Pacific winds you know won’t last, and that only appear once per generation. Future storms will take you to distant archipelagoes where your descendants will then have to wait another year – another decade, another century – memorising the climate and plotting their woven way through the ‘slow-moving waltz’ of the world’s rhythmic winds and currents.

– Geoff Manaugh

Director: Flora Lichtman

Producers: Flora Lichtman, Ruth Lichtman, Kellen Quinn

Narrator and writer: Geoff Manaugh

Music: Martin Crane

As dementia trims the tree of knowledge in John’s brain, music holds firm

At the age of 24, John Fudge took a violent fall while climbing the white cliffs of Dover in the south of England, splitting open his head and losing consciousness. The extent of his injuries weren’t revealed until decades later, when doctors decided to perform a brain scan after John slipped into a deep depression. The results revealed extensive brain damage, including a progressive form of dementia. Now, 10 years on from his diagnosis, John’s wife Geraldine compares his brain to an oak tree, its limbs of knowledge being slowly trimmed away, causing John great mental anguish. His only relief comes when he’s able to live in the moment, such as when he plays guitar and sings – his musical abilities being an as-yet untrimmed branch. Don’t Think Twice offers an insight into John’s life, including visits from Jon, a young volunteer who joins him for music sessions at home. An affecting and unusually honest portrait of dementia, the UK director Harry Hitchens leaves his viewers to find relief and peace, like John, in the musical moments tucked in between difficult realities.

Director: Harry Hitchens

Producer: Chloe Abrahams

Website: Everyday Studio

‘I’m just measuring myself with myself’ – ping pong as a route to Sufi spiritual practice

A practitioner of the inward-looking form of Islam known as Sufism, Noah Nazir pursues self-improvement as a means of connecting with God. This is especially true at the ping pong table at his local Sufi centre in Sheffield, where Nazir is ever in search of new and creative ways to up his game. And, as he relays in Ping Pong Sufi, his striving has yielded some impressive results. Despite his age and a recent stroke, he’s one of the centre’s best players – even though, he stresses, he views his only competition as from within, commenting: ‘I’m just measuring myself with myself.’ The UK filmmakers Rachel Genn and Connor Matheson cultivate an appropriately meditative mood in their short documentary, made in 2019, capturing Nazir as he seeks transcendence through ping pong and prayer. The result is an illuminating and novel window into Sufi spiritual practice, which is given a musical lift by the multitalented Nazir, who also composed the song that plays over the closing credits.

Directors: Rachel Genn, Connor Matheson

What would Sartre make of the footballer who stood by his decision to kick a fan?

The most infamous kick of the French footballer Eric Cantona’s accomplished career wasn’t a game-winning goal, but rather an airborne attack on a fan who was shouting abuse at him during a match in 1995. When asked to reflect on the incident some two decades later, Cantona stated: ‘I love it and I don’t regret it … I am not a role model … I am just a human being with emotion.’ This short animation from the Illustrated Philosopher series – written by Nigel Warburton, consultant senior editor at Aeon – ponders whether Cantona proved himself an unlikely existentialist by refusing to succumb to the pressure to express contrition.

Writer and Narrator: Nigel Warburton

Animation: Cognitive Media

Immerse yourself in the games kids play when the streets are their playground

The London-based filmmaker Charlotte Regan’s charming documentary No Ball Games tracks the nuances of play between young friends in three working-class neighbourhoods across the UK. Capturing the joy of an aimless summer’s day spent finding fun, the film celebrates the instinctual ability of children to cook up their own entertainment from scratch – including, in this case, wresting directing duties from the filmmakers from time to time. With an immersive style, Regan’s film transports viewers into a world of resourcefulness, invention and fun that’s rarely accessed – and perhaps even forgotten – by those burdened by the quotidian concerns of adulthood.

Director: Charlotte Regan

Producer: Theo Barrowclough

Website: Guardian Documentaries

The voyages of Ancient Pacific mariners echo in modern space exploration

Adapted from a post at BLDGBLOG, this short animation is an Aeon original made in collaboration with the filmmaker and animator Flora Lichtman.

There are many ways of moving through the Universe – of travelling from one point to another over great, even extraordinary distances. There is also a way of using the world for your own ends: taking advantage of slopes, winds, currents or gravitational fields, as fuel-efficient resources for your own acceleration.

Gravity-assisted space travel is one such example, when a spacecraft uses the gravitational pull of a nearby planet or other celestial body to ‘slingshot’ itself toward another, more distant goal. Crucially, the target or destination here is one that could not have been reached without this assistance, not only in terms of the ship’s velocity but even in terms of its original direction of travel.

You head toward one place to get to another – or, channelling Hamlet, ‘by indirections find directions out’.

Remarkably, this metaphorically rich idea of heading in one direction to arrive somewhere else entirely connects gravitational slingshots with the oceangoing people who settled remote island chains in the South Pacific. These ancient mariners learned to use a combination of seasonal winds and celestial navigation to push ever farther east, reaching the most extreme outer edges of Polynesia.

Early human settlement of the offshore Pacific revolved, in part, around enduring, large-scale meteorological phenomena that are still little understood. Most of these phenomena relied on what the maritime historian Brian Fagan called ‘an elaborate, usually slow-moving waltz involving two partners – the atmosphere and the ocean’. The local seasonal winds, combined with large but predictable long-term climatological events the size of continents, could be used to propel people from one archipelago to another.

We can draw a rough analogy between this climatologically assisted exploration of the remote outer Pacific and the careful interplanetary techniques of gravity-assisted space travel. Imagine, for example, a well-organised group of extreme maritime navigators standing on the shores of an isolated Pacific island chain 1,000 years ago, looking much further out to sea, knowing that there are distant land masses there, ever more island worlds whose presence is implied by the behaviour of the winds, clouds and currents.

More important, from generations’ worth of experience navigating the vast and inhospitable space of the Pacific, these same families know that only a particularly strong atmospheric cycle will be able to take them there – and that they must wait another season, another year, another decade, for these assistive winds to arrive. They are timing their launch.

Like NASA scientists calculating the positions of Mars and Jupiter as they hope to slingshot themselves beyond the black horizon of the solar system, these navigators would have known that the regional winds also move in cycles, or perhaps even that an unpredictable 100-year superstorm will be required to bring them further out into the ocean.

Awaiting these alignments, they temporarily become land-based, settling on a particular island and raising their children on the atmospheric folklore of a journey yet to come – telling themselves a science fiction not of interplanetary travel, but a kind of anthropological Star Trek of outer-sea exploration. Then, of course, the winds pick up – or ominous Antarctic clouds begin to appear on the southern horizon again for the first time in a generation – and everyone knows what these signs really mean. The skies are clicking back into place and, spurred on by this vast meteorological clock, they begin to build new canoes, their own wooden space probes for pushing the limits of a maritime universe.

It’s simply a different kind of sling-shotting: not between planets using gravity, but from island chain to island chain, riding a long tail of Pacific winds you know won’t last, and that only appear once per generation. Future storms will take you to distant archipelagoes where your descendants will then have to wait another year – another decade, another century – memorising the climate and plotting their woven way through the ‘slow-moving waltz’ of the world’s rhythmic winds and currents.

– Geoff Manaugh

Director: Flora Lichtman

Producers: Flora Lichtman, Ruth Lichtman, Kellen Quinn

Narrator and writer: Geoff Manaugh

Music: Martin Crane

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