ORIGINAL

Slingshots of the oceanic

2 minutes

9at38

18 minutes

The clinic

16 minutes

Out of the blue

8 minutes

Soft awareness

13 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

The violinist staging a concert of unity at the border between North and South Korea

The South Korean violinist Hyung Joon Won has held a singular – and perhaps quixotic – dream for the past seven years: a joint concert by North and South Korean musicians at the world’s most contentious border. At 160 miles long and 2.5 miles wide, the Korean Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) separates the two countries at the 38th parallel. On this narrow strip, the threat of all-out war hangs heavy – and anyone with a violin case or a film camera gets short shrift. The South Korean-born filmmaker Catherine Kyungeun Lee follows Hyung Joon as his plan for a show of peace at the border teeters between success and collapse, at great personal cost to him. Filmed in 2015, her documentary traces the confluence between fraught geopolitics and all-too-human struggles on the peninsula.

Lee is now directing two documentaries in East Africa. One tells the story of a child-soldier who became a Harvard graduate and activist who was jailed in South Sudan, and the other follows the woman in charge of realising Somalia’s first democratic election in 50 years, despite seemingly insurmountable opposition.

Director: Catherine Kyungeun Lee

Producers: TR Boyce Jr, Ciara Lacy, Sarah S Kim

Website: 9at38

Basic healthcare and clean needles is all in a day’s work at a roving addiction clinic

Marc Lasher works as an addiction medicine specialist but, between his regular appointments, he oversees a clean-needle exchange on the streets of Fresno County in California, out the back of a modified school bus. Lasher’s decades-long dedication to public health is all the more impressive considering that his programme was illegal in the state until 2012. In the wake of the opioid epidemic, his approach – addressing drug addiction as a matter of public health rather than criminality – has only recently come into favour in much of the United States. In this acclaimed documentary, the US filmmaker Elivia Shaw follows Lasher and a team of young volunteers as they provide people coping with addiction with clean needles, as well as basic medical care and referrals to specialists and detox centres. The result is both a moving testament to Lasher and his team’s selfless work and a damning indictment of a healthcare system in which unaddressed health issues, costs and the physical and emotional tolls of poverty compound each other relentlessly.

Director: Elivia Shaw

Jim Hall, 78, has a blue body – but his outlook on life is more unusual still

‘I decided it was OK to have fun with my body … I probably have more balls than anybody!’

Jim Hall worked in urban development for four decades before retiring as the principal city planner of Baltimore. Aged 78 and beginning to feel some of his faculties slip, he is planning a move to Texas to live out his final years. These unremarkable details of his biography might seem at odds with his unique look – most conspicuously, the blue tattoo covering almost every inch of his skin. But despite the unusual choices he’s made to modify his body – including some unusual, intimate augmentations hidden from view – Hall’s outlook on life is deeply practical, centred on playfulness and an enduring sense of gratitude for what he sees as the incredible gift of being a human. With a palette that complements Hall’s own chosen colours, this short documentary from the US directors Jonathan Bregel and Steve Hoover finds wonder and wisdom in a man who is as hard to define as he is plain-spoken and pragmatic.

Directors: Jonathan Bregel, Steve Hoover

Website: friendzone

What’s it like to chat with an AI that mimics you? Uncanny conversations with Replika

Replika is a chatbot that was launched in 2017 with the aim of offering users emotional support – or, as the company’s advertising copy puts it, becoming their ‘AI friend’. To give users a personalised experience, the deep learning bot gathers information about conversation partners by asking them questions, adapts to their conversational style and, over time, attempts to mimic them. Beyond companionship, Replika’s creators believe that the technology could eventually serve as a conversational stand-in for deceased loves ones.

In Soft Awareness, Anastasia Sif Karkazis, a Danish film student and co-director of the film, engages in a series of conversations with Replika, drifting between a series of loosely connected subjects – including art, dreams and identity. Throughout, the exchanges seem to teeter between meaningful and unintelligible, offering a window on Karkazis’s inner world, how Replika ‘understands’ her, and the many hazy areas in between. Beneath the surface of these uncanny exchanges, larger questions about privacy and the contours of intimacy between humans and AI slowly emerge.

Via Labocine

Directors: Cecilie Flyger, Olivia Mai Scheibye

Co-director: Anastasia Sif Karkazis

Website: Copenhagen School of Film and Photography

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

Aeon is not-for-profit
and free for everyone
Make a donation
Get Aeon straight
to your inbox
Join our newsletter

Albert Einstein's original passport. Photo by Jean-Pierre Clatot/AFP/Getty

Essay/
Race and ethnicity
Identifying Einstein

For Albert Einstein, being Jewish and German were not questions of identity but rather mutable matters of identification

Michael D Gordin

Saturday night in Borgarfjörður eystri, Iceland, 2007. In 2018, 70 per cent of births in the country were outside of marriage. Photo by Jonas Bendicksen/Magnum

Essay/
Love and friendship
Is marriage over?

Marriage is practised in every society yet is in steep decline globally. Is this it for longterm intimate relationships?

Manvir Singh