Monday, November 24, 2014

Of Time and Its Chronicler

Busy as I've been, I still found the time to see two movies last week. The two are of absolutely different genres, one being a sci-fi thriller and the other a biopic. Yet, there was a common thread connecting the two movies.

The first one was Interstellar. Christopher Nolan's movies often tax the viewers' comprehension abilities, and Interstellar was no exception. While many movies have fantasized about interstellar travel and visiting alien planets, there are hardly any that have approached the subject in such a scientifically accurate manner. Black holes, wormholes, time dilation, gravity waves - these are concepts which boggle the mind even in their unadulterated form. Add a little creative license and the result becomes truly remarkable.

I do not want to talk too much about the plot of movie here since it is easy to give away spoilers, and it would be a shame to do that. The movie reminded me of several movies, but primarily of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The rotating spaceships a lot of other things refer to that movie. Interstellar also reminded me of WALL-E and the book Rendezvous with Rama. As a matter of fact, Interstellar is almost an unintentional prequel to WALL-E. The robots of Interstellar were very lovable too, though they were not like WALL-E. They reminded me more of Marvin from The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy. With the lovely music by Hans Zimmer and some never-before seen scientifically accurate visuals of a black hole and a wormhole, the movie is a very out of this world experience, although one might need to do a little homework in order to understand it fully.

One of the concepts presented in Interstellar is that of time dilation. Time runs slowly for astronauts close to the event horizon of a black hole and they age more slowly than their friends and relatives on earth. This was somewhat difficult to digest for a lot of people, as was the idea of dimensions more than four. I, however, was aware of such things since my school days and I understood most of the movie. I may sound arrogant when I say this, but actually knowing these concepts was not my credit at all. I read a couple of excellent books on these subjects which made me knowledgeable. The first of these was the book "A Brief History of Time." This book has shaped many of my ideas about the universe, and strangely, much of my idea about God as well. The second movie that I saw this week was about the life of the author of this book.

Most people accept Stephen Hawking as the greatest physicist of our era. He was diagnosed with an extremely rare motor neuron disease when he was a student. The doctors said he had only two years to live. Yet, Hawking mysteriously went on living well beyond those two years, married and had children, besides telling us much of what we know about the universe and authoring one of the most-sold books in history. Today, the 72-year old wheelchair-ridden Hawking who speaks with a speech synthesizer is a familiar face across the world. The movie "The Theory of Everything" tells the story of how a normal college student became the Hawking of today. It tells the story of the day-to-day struggles of a young Stephen Hawking and his wife Jane. It tells the story of one of the most brilliant brains on the planet struggling to break free of the most unfortunate imprisonment of its body.

The Theory of Everything is an extremely well-made film. The casting choice is phenomenal: Eddie Redmayne does not look like Hawking, he is Hawking. His portrayal of the famous scientist's physical disabilities, his slurred speech, his strained movements is so realistic that it is painful to watch at times. Felicity Jones is adorable as Jane Hawking as well. This movie also has a beautiful theme music, though not as intricate and exotic as that of Interstellar.

And then there is time itself, as one of the characters of the movie, the same time that holds the story of Interstellar together. Both the movies are a race against time. In one the human race struggles to survive while time runs out for them, and in the other it's more of a struggle for one man while time claims yet one more of his normal bodily functions. It is not a race that can eventually be won, of course, but can time be temporarily held at bay? Watch the movies to find out.

I recommend both of them, but if you decide to watch just one, then go for The Theory of Everything. It may then interest you enough about time so that you change your mind about watching the other.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Fall in Virginia

As I wrote a long time ago during my first fall in the USA, no amount of preparedness can take away the surprise of experiencing an American fall first hand. I must clarify of course, in case it is not already clear, that I am talking of the season fall, and not the act of falling down upon black ice, although that also takes you by surprise in spite of all preparedness.

Fall foliage in Chantilly, Virginia where I go for grocery shopping

Last October, I had moved to Fairfax, Virginia to start my post-doctoral job. Naturally the second half of October and the first half of November was spent in a frenzy of activity related to packing, moving and unpacking my stuff and I hardly had time to really see what fall looked like in Virginia. This year, when I got that chance, I finally realized that if fall in New Jersey was breathtaking, fall in Virginia is beyond all adjectives. And I am not even talking about the national parks and rural areas. Both Falls Church, the city where I live, and Fairfax, the city where I work, showed spectacular fall colours along with all neighbouring urban regions that I happened to visit during the last month.

Fall foliage in downtown Fairfax

Fall foliage inside my apartment complex

So this year, I photographed fall colours at all these places to my heart's content. I even parked my car in downtown Fairfax while going to work and photographed the trees there which I see everyday on my route. Apart from that, in keeping with the spirit of the season, I put up coloured lights on my balcony before Diwali and left them until Halloween. I bought a pumpkin and carved it to make the face of the King of Ghosts from Goopy Gayen Bagha Bayen as a jack-o-lantern. I also bought chocolates in case some occasional trick-or-treaters decided to come knocking (which they did).

Now fall is almost gone. The trees are gradually turning a golden brown and the roads are covered with dry rustling leaves rather than the bright red carpet of a few weeks ago. The temperature is reaching for the freezing point and the wind is making sure that fall lives up to its name. I threw away my rotting jack-o-lantern and took off the lights from the balcony. Daylight saving time ended this weekend, which means the evenings will now be intolerably long. There was a time when I loved winter and waited for it all year long. Now, however, winter seems bleak and depressing and I feel like quoting Robert Frost and say:

Fall foliage inside my apartment complex
O hushed October morning mild,
Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;
Tomorrow’s wind, if it be wild,
Should waste them all.
The crows above the forest call;
Tomorrow they may form and go.
O hushed October morning mild,
Begin the hours of this day slow.
Make the day seem to us less brief.
Hearts not averse to being beguiled,
Beguile us in the way you know.
Release one leaf at break of day;
At noon release another leaf;
One from our trees, one far away.
Retard the sun with gentle mist;
Enchant the land with amethyst.
Slow, slow!

October is already over, but the last few snow-free and occasionally warm days of this year are still left. Then it would be time for winter, and when the world outside turns white, I would be left looking longingly at the warm colours of fall in these photographs until the arrival of spring.

The view from my balcony

Fall foliage inside my apartment complex

Fall foliage in downtown Fairfax