ORIGINAL

Slingshots of the oceanic

2 minutes

The drill

3 minutes

Mary-Jane Rubenstein: multiverses, pantheism and ecology

27 minutes

Bayes’s theorem, and making probability intuitive

16 minutes

In the absence

29 minutes

Why Ancient Pacific mariners were the NASA scientists of their day

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

Producer: Flora Lichtman, Ruth Lichtman, Kellen Quinn

Narrator and writer: Geoff Manaugh

Music: Martin Crane

‘I want to take the bullet and save my friends’ – the grim reality of safety drills in US schools

A generation ago, children in classrooms in the United States prepared for natural disasters such as fires and tornadoes. Today, active-shooter drills force them to confront the grim possibility that someone – perhaps a fellow student – might open fire in their school. In this StoryCorps animation, one such drill prompts a mother and her 10-year-old son in Texas to discuss a question no child should ever have to consider – whether he would sacrifice himself to try to save his schoolmates. An affecting and troubling short, The Drill gives an aching human voice to the psychological toll of school shootings and the culture of fear they’ve created for schoolchildren and their parents in the US.

Director: Richard O’Connor

Producer: Shelley Gorelik

Website: StoryCorps

If you think that modern cosmology leaves no room for ‘god’, start using your imagination

‘We’re not so much abandoning the idea of the gods, we’re just trying to pull them all the way into the Universe.’

From the possibility of infinite universes to the prospect of panpsychism, puzzles have arisen in physics that can take science to some very counterintuitive places. According to Mary-Jane Rubenstein, assistant professor of religion and feminist, gender and sexuality studies at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, new theories and breakthroughs at the forefront of cosmology need not – and moreover, should not – elbow out theology from the conversation about our place in the cosmos. Instead, as she argues in this wide-ranging interview recorded at the HowTheLightGetsIn Festival from the Institute of Arts and Ideas in 2019, science should encourage us to build more durable myths and theologies to suit our times.

What is it to be Bayesian? The (pretty simple) math modelling behind a Big Data buzzword

If you’ve ever tripped up over the term ‘Bayesian’ while reading up on data or tech, fear not. Strip away the jargon and notation, and even the mathematics-averse can make sense of the simple yet revolutionary concept at the core of both machine learning and behavioural economics. As this video from the YouTube channel 3Blue1Brown skilfully explains, at its most basic, Bayes’s theorem is a tool for assessing degrees of probability based on prior conditions. And there are ways to make it altogether more intuitive than the statistical formulas might suggest. Although the theorem dates back to its 18th-century namesake, the English statistician and philosopher Thomas Bayes, it has gained increasing relevance in the Big Data revolution.

Video by 3Blue1Brown

‘They told us to stay put’: the South Korean ferry disaster that sank lives and trust

On 16 April 2014, the ferry MV Sewol sunk off the coast of South Korea, killing 304 people – the vast majority of them high-school students on a field trip. Like many other tragedies, the event made headlines around the world before quickly fading from the international news cycle. In South Korea, however, facts about the incompetence, government failures and lapses in responsibility that led to the Sewol’s sinking emerged slowly over the course of several years, prolonging pain and stoking anger to the present day. The documentary In the Absence by the South Korean director Yi Seung-Jun is a devastating account of the sinking and its aftermath – from the first signs of trouble at sea to the years-long struggle by bereaved families demanding accountability and justice. Combining original material with real-time audio and video of the tragedy, the film offers an extraordinary, chilling account of the consequences of following instructions from inept authorities – and the profound breakdown of public trust that follows such a disaster.

Director: Yi Seung-Jun

Producers: Gary Byung-Seok Kam, Park Bong-Nam

Website: Field of Vision

Why Ancient Pacific mariners were the NASA scientists of their day

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

Producer: Flora Lichtman, Ruth Lichtman, Kellen Quinn

Narrator and writer: Geoff Manaugh

Music: Martin Crane

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