ORIGINAL

Slingshots of the oceanic

2 minutes

Sabine Hossenfelder: searching for beauty in mathematics

9 minutes

A small antelope horn

2 minutes

EXCLUSIVE

Conor and Kobe

6 minutes

How Big Tech betrayed us

4 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

Against ‘beauty’ in science – how striving for elegance stifles progress

That there is an inherent ‘beauty’ and ‘elegance’ to the laws of nature is a view that permeates the field of physics. But, according to the German theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder, the notion that the further you peer into reality, the easier the equation gets, has no basis in reality. Indeed, since the mid-20th-century, the maths of physics has become increasingly knotty, even as many physicists have continued to search for a path back to simplicity. In this interview with Robert Lawrence Kuhn for the PBS series Closer to Truth, Hossenfelder makes the case that this fixation on beauty isn’t just misguided – it’s stifling scientific progress.

Video by Closer to Truth

Sitting by the fire with a nomadic tribe, a physicist ponders the many shapes of wisdom

The Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli is a pioneer in the field of quantum gravity, and often thought of as one of the world’s foremost scientific thinkers. In this brief animation by James Siewert, which features narration from the Swazi-English actor Richard E Grant, Rovelli recalls communing with members of the Hadza tribe of northern Tanzania – one of the last hunter-gatherer societies on Earth. Sitting by the fire, thoughts of the peculiar trajectory of Homo sapiens and the many shapes of human wisdom flicker in his head, as he ponders the gaps, large and small, between his world and theirs.

Video by rubberband.

Animator: James Siewert

Website: Alexander

Grieving Kobe Bryant, Conor wonders: why do untimely celebrity deaths hit so hard?

‘It’s weird, like – I’m tearing up for someone I didn’t even know…’

Kobe Bryant’s death on 26 January 2020 in a helicopter crash, alongside his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others, was met with public displays of mourning in the hours, weeks and months that followed. One of the most beloved basketball stars from a league with a global fanbase, the tragedy prompted innumerable tributes to the NBA legend, scrawled everywhere from the sidewalks of Los Angeles to the Chinese social media platform Weibo – alongside plenty of discussions and think-pieces about his complicated legacy, on and off the court.

This short documentary from the US filmmaker Derek Knowles is constructed from phone conversations between Knowles, his brother Conor and the siblings’ parents in the wake of Bryant’s death. Conor, the family’s biggest Bryant fan, meets the news with a distinct combination of shock, sadness and confusion over how the death of someone he never truly knew could affect him so powerfully. The result is a poignant and intricate reflection on celebrity, mourning and death, crafted from just a few intimate words between family members.

Director: Derek Knowles

Tech companies shroud their algorithms in secrecy. It’s time to pry open the black box

The so-called father of capitalism, Adam Smith, would frown upon the ‘free markets’ of the 21st century, argues the US economics writer Rana Foroohar. For Smith, a functioning market required transparency, a mutual understanding of exchanges and a shared moral framework. And, as Foroohar puts it in this brief animation for the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), surveillance capitalism – pioneered by Google, and now, to varying degrees, ubiquitous worldwide – comes up short on all three fronts. Featuring excerpts from a presentation given by Foroohar at the RSA House in London in 2019, this brief animation lays out the many ways in which surveillance capitalism continues to encroach unchecked, and one potential plan for course correction.

Video by the RSA

Director and Animator: Thomas Kilburn

Producer: Phoebe Williams

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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Bessie. Holstein cow, aged 20, from the Allowed to Grow Old project and book by the photographer Isa Leshko. All photos © Isa Leshko

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