ORIGINAL

Slingshots of the oceanic

2 minutes

My little piece of privacy

3 minutes

Three pioneers who predicted climate change

5 minutes

Peter and Ben

10 minutes

Sunken films

11 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

Producers: Flora Lichtman, Ruth Lichtman, Kellen Quinn

Narrator and writer: Geoff Manaugh

Music: Martin Crane

A curtain that twitches as people walk by creates a delightful paradox of privacy

In 2010, the German artist Niklas Roy embarked on a project to take back a small slice of privacy in an era and in a place – his Berlin workshop – where it can be quite hard to come by. The resulting installation, My Little Piece of Privacy, comprised a surveillance camera, ‘computer vision’ software and a small, motorised curtain, which followed pedestrians as they walked past his storefront. As you might imagine, the moving curtain had an inverse (and amusing) effect, causing passersby to spend far more time in front of his window than they would have otherwise. This short video, featuring scenes from the installation set to a retro arcade-inspired score, makes a highly entertaining spectacle out of Roy’s clever provocation of privacy.

Via Colossal

Director: Niklas Roy

Score: Holy Konni

Climate change science is centuries, not decades old, and it was pioneered by a woman

The notion that human activities might be warming the planet started coming into focus in the 1960s and ’70s, before a scientific consensus emerged in the 1980s and ’90s. But the rough outlines of the science surrounding humanity’s greatest contemporary threat has a surprising, little-known history that dates back roughly two centuries. This brief animation from BBC Ideas traces our modern understanding of the greenhouse effect through the work of three pioneering scientists, beginning with the US scientist and women’s rights activist Eunice Foote, whose 1856 work on the heat-trapping effects of CO2 was buried for decades before being rediscovered in 2010.

Video by BBC Ideas

Animator: Peter Caires

After 30 years of solitude, Peter forms an unlikely friendship with a fellow loner

‘I had left my flock, and Ben had left his.’

After taking a walk through a remote Welsh valley, Peter committed himself to a life there, and disconnected from the outside world. In doing so, he found a solitary inner peace – a peace he maintained for nearly three decades, until, one day, he stumbled upon a lamb that had been left for dead. Finding kinship with the fellow ‘dropout’, Peter took the abandoned creature home and named him Ben. The short Peter and Ben (2007) by the UK filmmaker Pinny Grylls captures the duo’s relationship three years after their chance meeting, as Peter attempts to return Ben to the wild. With a melancholic piano score and sweeping views of the Welsh countryside, her touching film lends a lyrical beauty to this tale of unlikely connection and camaraderie between outsiders.

Director: Pinny Grylls

Producer: Victoria Cameron

Score: Will Hood

Trawling for secrets in haunting films recovered from the bottom of the sea

The British ocean liner RMS Lusitania embarked on its infamous final voyage from New York to Liverpool on 1 May 1915. Six days later, torpedoed by German U-boats off the southern coast of Ireland, the ship sank in less than 20 minutes, killing 1,198 passengers and crew, and setting the US on the path to join the fight against Germany in the First World War. One of the most luxurious ocean liners of its time, the Lusitania was equipped with what was then a novelty – an onboard movie theatre.

In Sunken Films, the US artist and filmmaker Bill Morrison uses archival footage to unspool the stories of the sinking of this luxury liner, its incendiary movie reels, as well as other films about or from shipwrecks. One early clip was salvaged from the sunken Lusitania in a 1982 expedition; another mysterious film, featuring the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin in 1919-20 with his cat, was recovered from a fishing net off the Danish coast in 1976. By trawling for memories in deep-sea shipwrecks, Morrison offers haunting glimpses into early-20th century film and world history.

Director: Bill Morrison

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

Producers: Flora Lichtman, Ruth Lichtman, Kellen Quinn

Narrator and writer: Geoff Manaugh

Music: Martin Crane

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