"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Thursday, July 31, 2014

An A-Plus for 'Europa Report'

Last week I went on a date to the movies. As we waited for the previews to start, one of the movies we discussed was Gravity. I am both a movie lover and a dedicated space enthusiast, so I relished the film. Even where it takes liberties, it does so to achieve a wonderfully vivid depiction of the cluttered realm of Low Earth Orbit.

My date, on the other hand, did not care so much for the movie. Her number one gripe was how Gravity beats you over the head with its themes. I had to agree with her. The chief strength of the movie is not character, plot or dialogue. Its brilliance lies in cinematography.

Around the time Gravity came out, a much lower profile--and lower budget--science fiction film had a limited release: Europa Report. Check out the trailer, which is as smartly edited and expertly teasing as is the movie.

Europa Report depicts, as plausibly as possible, a human mission to the moon of Jupiter. Real science indicates the possibility of a real subsurface ocean with the real potential to harbor life. That's right. We might have neighbors in our solar system at this very moment. I enjoyed my second viewing last night and felt the need to plug this film. Hope you'll give it a try.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Big Band at Sunset

As part of my regimen for not spending all summer in a coffee shop, I headed to West Park in Ann Arbor to watch a community band perform. This is the type of band I might have happily ended up in had I stuck with trumpet beyond sophomore year in high school (didn't merely quit, transferred my focus to theatre).

I learned of the Ann Arbor Civic Band through a co-worker who graces the woodwinds section with her ongoing devotion to both music and community. The below picture captures last week's Tribute to the Big Band Era. Had I taken the photo at a different moment, you would see couples swing dancing on the sidewalk as the sun sets. Good times!

Monday, June 9, 2014

Dramatizing 'The Science of Shakespeare'

The Science of Shakespeare: A New Look at the Playwright's UniverseThe Science of Shakespeare: A New Look at the Playwright's Universe by Dan Falk
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Around the time of Shakespeare there were two views of the solar system: the older view was Earth-centered (Ptolemaic), and the newer view was Sun-centered (Copernican). In The Science of Shakespeare, Dan Falk provides a wonderfully accessible history lesson explaining these two astronomical systems--how the Ptolemaic view dominated for so long and then was overtaken by the Copernican theory (roughly around the time Shakespeare wrote Hamlet). If Mr. Falk’s book had been solely, or even mostly, about this crucial history lesson, I would probably be writing a four-star review. I am not.

At the heart of Falk’s book is a vein of wishful-thinking that borders on conspiracy theory. What begins as an informative interdisciplinary discussion--examining the intersection of Elizabethan drama and modern science—by Chapter 7 diverts in to a scholastic pipedream with Shakespeare being a closeted devotee of Copernican astronomy. Perhaps, the author and his chief source suggest, Hamlet is more than just a great play. Perhaps it is also a clever and elaborate allegory exploring the revolutionary discoveries of Galileo et al. What if the characters in Hamlet are actually symbolic stand-ins for the leading thinkers of Ptolemaic and Copernican astronomies?

As Falk grants by way of academic integrity, prevailing literary theory finds this hypothesis flimsy. Shakespeare’s plays have clear, unmistakable, and fully-developed themes. Science-flattering allegory is not one of them. It smacks of the same contrived, cherry-picking investigation that lies at the core of conspiracy theories--like the one about Shakespeare not being the author of any or all of those plays. This does not stop Falk from devoting a lot of ink and credulity to the idea. It is as if Falk wants to be the Copernicus of Shakespearean scholarship--establishing a new unifying truth of what the Bard's plays really mean, a revelation that has eluded centuries of previous thinkers.

To his credit, Falk makes clear the highly speculative nature of suggesting Shakespeare had his finger on the pulse of the Scientific Revolution. Furthermore, I am not offended that Falk addressed the notion of Hamlet as science allegory. I am annoyed at how hard he worked to make it look compelling. I come at this as a Shakespeare fan with a humanities degree. I feel like Falk might feel if he had to read multiple chapters of me saying, “The Academy may have dismissed Velikovsky’s ideas about the solar system, but clearly he was on to something. Scholars should revisit him.”

The truth is Hamlet does not want for a science tie-in to be one of the greatest achievements of human expression.

Late in The Science of Shakespeare, Falk makes a compelling exploration of King Lear. The author hits his stride juxtaposing the Bard with the fledgling modern science of his day. He also does justice to what makes King Lear great--its humanity. For this chapter above all others, I am glad I stuck this book out to the end. Falk even got me in the mood to reread King Lear. And that is great, because Shakespeare’s plays deserve to be read. They do for English literature what Copernicus and Galileo did for science--they give us a lasting foundation for worthy exploration.

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