Five Ideas That Will Nuke Your Mind
We all love learning new things. The human is a curious animal, prone to applying the old alchemist’s motto ‘solve et coagula’ to everyday life, in so far as we like to take complex things, break them into pieces and then put them back together to see how they work. We do this all the time, often unconsciously, in order to see the inner workings of creation. Curiosity is what drives us onwards, until a moment occurs when the walls of our perception fall back and we are left to view a new expanse that we didn’t know existed. Then we are liberated, momentarily, from former ignorance. It’s a profound feeling and one that we wanted to devote at least one blog to, if not a whole series, depending on how you like our first ‘Five Ideas That Will Nuke Your Mind’.
– Neil deGrasse Tyson shares the Most Astounding Fact About The Universe
– Doctor Manhattan describes the ‘Thermodynamic Miracle’
Ever wondered why dragons are such a terrifying apex predator? Or what connection we have with the stars arrayed across the roof of the Earth? If you the answer is ‘yes’ you might want to count yourself lucky because these are the kind of questions we’re going to be tackling in detail. We too have been troubled by difficult mysteries that keep us pinned to the water cooler, desperately probing each other for something to fill those gaping holes in our knowledge. Like, say, what is the universe expanding into? And how do you define such monstrous terms as ‘eternity’ or ‘nothing’. Surely everything has to have some sort of boundary? And if the universe is, in some vague way, spherical and… ahm… like, collapsing in on itself at its limits, you know? Then how… how is that possible? Maybe it’s like those Russian nesting dolls, right? You just open our universe up and there’s always another smaller one inside. Who knows?
In the end it’s easy to see how people go crazy trying to get to the bottom of all this stuff. For now we’ll just have to leave those mind-benders to larger minds and fry some smaller fish by telling you our first ‘Five Ideas That Will Nuke Your Mind’.
The Reason Why Dragons Are So Terrifying
Guillermo Del Toro
Many times he’s been called the ‘Godfather of Monsters’ and celebrated for his wonderfully twisted and delicately crafted films, which tread a jagged line between fantasy and horror. A Mexican director with a penchant for chilling bones, Guillermo didn’t really make it into the mainstream until the release of his gruesome fairytale, Pans Labyrinth. Now he’s making big budget films and owns a gothic man cave that takes up an entire house, crowded with iconic props and scenes of the cinematic macabre. However you know Guillermo (perhaps not at all), we’re sure you’ve somehow been effected by his rare and piercing perception of the world.
“Well, the first thing is that I love monsters,” Guillermo said, “I identify with monsters.”
As a kid, Guillermo had always been fascinated by the sublime – that which is at once both horrifying and beautiful. At a very early age he decided to volunteer at the local Psychiatric Hospital where he befriended the embalmers and surely encountered the most visceral outcasts of society. It was from these formative, and quite unusual, experiences that Guillermo developed the ability to see in way that is unfamiliar to many of us. This allowed him to create monsters that defied our expectations of how a monster should look. He said that he wanted his creation to seem as though they had transformed if you viewed them from a new angle. In this way he prevented us from being able to fully realise the abnormal form inside our minds, like the unseen shark in Jaws, which is so much more terrible when the music plays and it circles the gloom of our imagination – out of sight.
When it came to the design stage Guillermo said he would start with the definition of the monster’s silhouette. He used this as the key to their movement and it allowed him to frame their anatomy, after which he would apply the colour and texture of the skin, making it mottled, furred or whatever. For him, detail was always the last and most exciting aspect of making monsters. Interestingly, when it came to the design for Smaug from The Hobbit (before Peter Jackson took over), Guillermo referred to the natural world for inspiration. He wanted to capture the softness of the dragon’s underbelly, as it slithered with its sinuous, snake-like body. He also wanted the monster to alight, like a proud water bird, empowered with a variety of different animal traits, whilst still adhering to the underlying principles of what defines a dragon.
At the heart of these principles, there is a rather interesting theory that Guillermo proposed in his illustrated book, ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’. While discussing the reasons why dragons scare us, Guillermo began to describe that primordial era when our ape ancestors were stalked by fearsome predators. Back then the main sources of our perpetual dread would’ve been big cats (lions, leopards, smilodons) birds of prey (eagles, argentavis’, propalaeotheriums) and reptiles (crocodiles, snakes, megalanias). The dragon is a clever combination of all these three predator types. It has the wings and talons of a bird of prey. It walks on all fours with a long tail, hunched shoulders and low neck like the cats. It even has the hard scales, lidless eyes and razor-toothed jaws of a reptile. Together these features stir a congenital memory stored deep inside us – a kind of primal terror kept from the days when we were prey – and that is the essence of why we fear dragons.
Alan Moore is to readers of underground comics what Jesus was to fans of bread and wine. His chaotic beard and shamanic glare have been seared into the psyche of all who come across him. And yet, despite his best intentions, he has inadvertently found his way into the mainstream with his work being adapted for movies like V For Vendetta and Watchmen. Having risen from a gritty Northampton upbringing, stirring through vats of blood in a sheepskin tannery and generally chewing on life’s gristle, Moore eventually assailed the high walls of comic book writing and became one of the most unique, prolific writers today. In fact, Watchmen, arguably Moore’s most important opus, was included in Time Magazine’s list of 100 Best Novels – an astounding feat for a graphic novel, still widely dismissed as comic writing by fusty elitists.
We could pick a page at random from Watchmen and it would undoubtedly have a great idea on it or a flash of genius writing. However, in the interest of brevity, we’ve opted to go with that otherworldly moment when Doctor Manhattan, a God incarnate, walks across the surface of Mars and contemplates the worth of the human race. What we want to focus on in particular, though, is his eventual realisation of how rare life really is, which ultimately compels the Doctor to return to Earth.
“Thermodynamic miracles,” he begins, “Events with odds against so astronomical they’re effectively impossible, like oxygen spontaneously becoming gold.”
Laurie, the Doctor’s estranged girlfriend, stands in the incandescent blue light of his unclothed body. She is effectively his muse and her heartbreak is the whetstone that sharpens the acuity of his understanding.
“…In each human coupling, a thousand million sperm vie for a single egg,” the Doctor goes on, “Multiply those odds by countless generations, against the odds of your ancestors being alive; meeting; siring this precise son; that exact daughter…”
It’s a truly fascinating fact of life, that we all possess something that is so indescribably rare. The probability of our existence is hardly quantifiable, although the odds were presumed to be about one in 400 trillion against us existing as we are, in what Buddhist’s would call this ‘precious incarnation’. To put this into perspective, if you floated a single life jacket somewhere on one of our oceans and let one lonely turtle loose underwater somewhere in those oceans, the likelihood of that turtle surfacing once and poking its head through the jacket is roughly the same as the chance of you existing. It’s quite a thing to take for granted, isn’t it? In fact, if you roughly calculate the odds against this occurrence you’d find that they were about 1 in 700 trillion. However even this is purely hypothetical estimation that discounts the minutiae leading to the concatenation of sperm, among other things. Nevertheless another scientific estimation has been made, supposedly taking into account the intricacies of conception, throughout the millennia. So what’s the overall likelihood of you being you? Well, if you gathered 2 million people together and asked them all to roll a trillion-sided dice, the chance of everyone rolling the exact same number is close to the chance of you being born the way you were. In short, your existence is, mathematically speaking, an impossibility, essentially redefining your being as a miracle.
Or, as the Doctor said –
“It was you, only you, that emerged. To distil so specific a form from that chaos of improbability, like turning air to gold.”
Up close we can seem like a fairly funny bunch, with all our everyday nastiness, wanton destruction and those people who leave chewing gum on the underside of bus seats. However, when seen from a distance, the human race becomes a lot more valuable. From faraway, you see, the whole species has to be viewed as one. Then this perspective can be extended to include all species in the animal kingdom and, indeed, life itself. Eventually what you get is an assurance that you do matter and your life is precious and worth using well.
“…The world is so full of people,” the Doctor concluded, “So crowded with these miracles that they become commonplace and we forget – I forget.”
The Stars, Our Fathers
Neil deGrasse Tyson
There’s a viral video still doing the rounds on YouTube in which the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson passionately explains what he thinks is ‘The Most Astounding Fact About The Universe’. This short excerpt, taken from an interview with Time Magazine, dissects the foundations of life on Earth and effortlessly reveals our relationship with the stars.
Tyson begins by explaining that the atoms which comprise life on earth, which make-up the human form, are in fact traceable to the crucibles where light elements were cooked into heavy elements, within the cores of dying stars. Then, under conditions of incalculable temperature and pressure, these unstable stars collapsed and exploded, sending their glittering entrails into the fathomless ether, scattering carbon, nitrogen and oxygen – all the essential ingredients that finally collected into gas clouds, condensed and became infant solar systems and therein stars attracted orbiting planets, harbouring those drifting ingredients from which life has manifested.
‘The universe is in us,’ Tyson says, his voice filled with awe.
It’s quite a baffling thought isn’t it? It almost seems to be too much for the mind to grasp – that level of extreme interconnectivity, which you glean from listening to those who’ve studied the universe.
How We Resemble Trees
At the time when the First World War broke out (1914) there was a German-Swiss novelist and painter who signed up for the Imperial Army. His name was Hermann Hesse and his conscription was accompanied by the final confession that he “[could not] sit inactively by a warm fireplace while other young authors [were] dying on the front”. However, due to an eye condition, Hesse was deemed unfit for the fight and assigned to the German Embassy’s Central Office where he began to develop a view of the war as an anathema.
In his published essay, ‘O Friends, Not These Tones’ (which earned Hesse a reputation as a ‘pacifist traitor’), he wrote –
“Love is greater than hate, understanding greater than ire, peace nobler than war, this exactly is what this unholy World War should burn into our memories, more so than ever felt before.”
After several years writing in opposition of the war Hesse became increasingly unenthused about the prospects of ‘apply[ing] love to matters political’. He was continuously being demonised by the press and then his wife suffered an intense episode of psychosis, which led to the disintegration of his marriage. Soon after he moved to the secluded town of Montagnola on a kind of unspoken pilgrimage. There he while away his years by the serene waters of the glacial Lake Lugano and wrote the novel Siddhartha, rekindling his fondness of Indian culture through the teachings of Buddhist philosophy. At the same time he also took long, ponderous walks and painted the boundaries of his verdant luxury, enrounded by the forested mountains and colourful lakes.
‘[It was] the fullest, most prolific, most industrious and most passionate time of my life,’ he said.
This renewed affinity with the natural world came to light in his writing for ‘Tree’s: Poems and Reflections’. There’s something very overpowering about the refined simplicity at play in this passage. I could attempt to take it apart like the alchemists, although perhaps it would be better if I just left it intact for you to read – it is, after all, very beautiful indeed:
‘For me trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche. In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity – but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfil themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier; nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree.’
Okay, so this last one is less of an idea and more of a school of thought, belonging to the ‘impressionists’. This was a group of artists who formed a movement and focused our attention on the transience of beauty and the way in which the world around us changes with each passing second. The interplay of light and water became an essential aesthetic indicative of all that impressionism could represent, namely the ever-changing splendour of nature.
Of all the artists who devoted their time to capturing the moment none have been more influential than the popular French founder of impressionism, Claude Monet. This was a man who would take an easel and sit for a long time in a place overlooking a vista he loved. Then he would try to capture that view as it was at that precise moment, preserving the instant in which he sat there. Using a godlike eye he was able to store and paint the view before eventually delivering it to those who saw his paintings. There was a definite sense of honesty that was manifest in this style of painting. According to the accounts we have, Monet used to make charcoal sketches on his canvas, over which he would then apply layers of paint. Other than that, though, there wasn’t much preparation. The composition was created with paint and the first lines would often be made with narrow strokes. In this way, Monet was able to translate the immediacy of the moment and render an entire philosophy, which the writer Katherine Mansfield quite aptly described, when she wrote:
‘Many of the Impressionists convey something of the impermanence and insubstantiality of the visible world.’
This method of painting landscapes also extended to the impressionists’ portrayal of human figures, but, more than that, it offered artists another way to interpret all of their surroundings. The palette seemed to broaden and the canvas became more malleable in so far as it became necessary to observe the smallest details and subtle nuances that transformed the face of nature. Monet was an avid proponent of finding and documenting these subtleties, especially when he acquired his garden with the Japanese bridge, flowering lilies and willow trees. Even when he was losing his sight he tried desperately to preserve this private respite, tearing through canvases with a nightmarish mangle of deep, reddish colours…
No other paintings have ever been so starkly reminiscent of the importance of savouring each passing second.
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