ORIGINAL

Slingshots of the oceanic

2 minutes

Dani

8 minutes

The physarum experiments

5 minutes

Kierkegaard’s horror of doubt

7 minutes

Is our attention for sale?

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

‘I hate giving you bad news’: when a daughter with breast cancer calls her mother

Danielle Hernandez is 30 and has Stage 4 breast cancer. As she calls her mother Violeta in Florida to deliver an update on her treatment from her home in Los Angeles, she oscillates between medical jargon and silver livings, with the more difficult pieces of information hidden in the subtext, only occasionally bubbling to the surface. This intimate conversation is captured by her roommate, the US filmmaker Lizzy Hogenson, in the short film Dani. Using a stop-motion technique that combines felt figures and claymation, Hogenson places her own veneer on the discussion, which is pierced by intermittent cracks of raw emotion, hard truths and silence. The result is at once affecting and distressing, as small moments of love, courage and pain spark and fade into uncertainty.

Director: Lizzy Hogenson

Producer: Kyle McClary

Creeping through mazes, repelling adversaries – the slow-motion smarts of slime moulds

To the naked eye, the organism Physarum polycephalum – commonly referred to as ‘slime mould’ – might seem an unexceptional creature, despite its bright-yellow glow, as its acellular existence is dedicated to tracking nutrients at a speed of 1mm per hour. But this protist’s surprising computational cunning becomes apparent when viewed in time-lapse, revealing a life form that seems to possess intelligence despite lacking a nervous system. Between 2009 and 2018, the UK artist and researcher Heather Barnett conducted a series of clever experiments in which she probed slime moulds’ capacities for forming complex tube networks and adjusting to obstacles. For this short film, Aeon Video compiled Barnett’s ‘creative collaborations’ with P polycephalum into a montage that builds in complexity, emphasising the slime moulds’ surprisingly sophisticated capacities for problem-solving.

Director: Heather Barnett

Sound designer: Graham Barton

Editor: Tamur Qutab

Want to think for yourself? Start with an agonising state of doubt, says Kierkegaard

Influenced by Socrates’ sense of irony, the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55) came to believe that a state of doubt – disorienting and horrifying as it could sometimes be – was the cornerstone of a sound philosophical practice. This scepticism of objective truth and ardent belief in thinking for oneself is omnipresent in his pseudonymous works, in which his assumed names sometimes even spar with one another. While amusing, the peculiar literary device also undercuts any sense that the works were written by a voice of authority. In this video from the London Review of Books, the British philosopher and historian Jonathan Rée traces the theme of doubt in Kierkegaard’s life and work using his unfinished, posthumously published novel Johannes Climacus: Or a Life of Doubt as a starting point.

Video by the London Review of Books

Producer: Anthony Wilks

A handful of executives control the ‘attention economy’. Time for attentive resistance

From fitness tracking devices to search engines, it’s easy to think of personalised technologies as convenient shortcuts and useful tools for working towards goals. But, argues James Williams, a doctoral candidate at the Oxford Internet Institute and a former Google employee, the primary aim of personalised tech is to keep users coming back by any means necessary – and often in a way that encourages empty distraction. In this brief animation featuring audio from a 2017 lecture at the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) in London, Williams makes the case that the consolidation of the ‘attention economy’ to just a handful of companies is an unprecedented and deeply fraught human experiment – and one that demands active, attentive resistance.

Video by the RSA

Director: Olga Makarchuk

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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Detail of ‘Siege of the City’ by Jean Charlot, watercolour of a fresco at Chichén Itzá. The Maya mural from the Las Monjas building clearly shows a ship with the distinct wooden planks of a Viking boat © Jean Charlot/Artists Rights Society [ARS]; Copyright Agency, 2020

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