Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Idea Of Flight

If there is one area where evolution has shown an outstanding leap forward it is in the concept of flight. There is enough to ponder about how and why did terrestrial beings first felt the need to fly. Was the craving as simple as that of man, who tried all sorts of contraptions through the ages to be able to soar in the sky? Evidently their wish was far greater than what human beings have had in their relatively short existence. I am sure the need for flight was just absolutely essential for the very survival of the beings that first started hopping towards the sky.

Humankind has felt that need too, albeit for reasons far removed from survival. It is said that the tipping point in the design of first successful fixed wing aircraft was the slight curve on the top part of the airplane wings which made lift possible. Bernoulli's principle which governs this law of physics was written a century before it resulted in, arguably its best application, an airplane.

This post is inspired by the documentary film I just saw - Jacques Perrin's Winged Migration. If it ever crosses your mind to really feel what birds see during flight then this film will probably bring you closest to that vision. I quote from the DVD cover -

"..Witness as five film crews follow a rich variety of bird migrations through 40 countries and each of the seven continents. With teams totalling more than 450 people, 17 pilots and 14 cinematographers used planes, gliders, helicopters and balloons to fly alongside, above, below and in front of their subjects. The result is a film of staggering beauty..."

I tend to agree with the judgment passed in the last line above. The film really has some breathtaking photography of the actual flight of migratory birds. The close-ups are so vivid in motion that initially I thought that one of the birds in each group was carrying a camera attached to its body. As it turns out that is not the case and gliders were used. If you are very accustomed to documentaries on National Geographic or Discovery Channel this film would seem to lack in certain respects. On both of those TV channels, a documentary, whether it features birds, animals or insects, almost always has a very descriptive narrative throughout. That is not the case for Winged Migration; and I do not hold that against the film. I feel that this film, in several respects, is part of a different genre of nature-documentary films. Human intervention has been left to the very bare minimum and the viewer is left to spin his own story around the visual. Occasionally a narrative is used, but at most times only the name of the bird is provided in a subtitle. The sound, though, is different from the visual aspect. The intrusion of music is clear and very well defined. The choice of music too fits well with the sensibilities of the subject matter (and the particular scene). The end result is that the viewer feels he is actually on a migratory flight alongside these dozens of different migratory birds.

Trivia - Check the fascinating Arctic Tern which flies some 12,500 miles twice each year, from the Arctic to Antarctic! Some life, huh?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Everyone Is Going Somewhere

There is an increasing agreement within the global scientific community that human beings (Homo Sapiens) originated in Africa and then spread out to the rest of the world in two or more distinct exoduses. Genetics has played a major role in confirming this idea (which really has been around since Darwin). Dr Spencer Wells is an American geneticist and anthropologist who has written a book titled Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey. National Geographic, in 2003, made the book into a documentary, which I recently watched. To me, the film was like cherry topping on a chocolate cake, since I just finished reading Jared Diamond's Guns Germs And Steel: The Fate Of Human Societies.

If we assume that this community of geneticists, paleontologists, evolutionary biologists and archaeologists is indeed correct then our history appears to be a rather short one (of about 60,000 years or 2000 generations) since the time we left Africa. With the rapid pace of technological innovation which is now underway it should not be long before we colonize the rest of the galaxy (or galaxies). Here we come.

To learn more about this incredible journey of humankind check this link.

Learn more about the documentary here, and about the Recent African Origin theory here.
You can preview the the documentary on Youtube here.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Neorealism In Italian Cinema

Q: What is neorealism (neorealism in Italian cinema)?

1. Italian neorealism is a style of film characterized by stories set amongst the poor and working class, filmed on location, frequently using nonprofessional actors. Italian neorealist films mostly contend with the difficult economical and moral conditions of post-World War II Italy, reflecting the changes in the Italian psyche and the conditions of everyday life: defeat, poverty, and desperation. (Source: Wikipedia)

2. Neorealist style means a simple story about the lives of ordinary people, outdoor shooting and lighting, non-actors mixed together with actors, and a focus on social problems in the aftermath of World War II. (Source: NYTimes)

One of the major figures of this genre of films is director Vittorio De Sica. I recently watched his Ladri di biciclette (The Bicycle Thief; also translated as Bicycle Thieves). As far as visual quality of the film is concerned, it easily surpasses expectations that one might have from a film made in the year 1949. The story is simple in execution and rather haunting in the message. To me, the film is a commentary on human life - we as conscientious beings try our best to be good at most times during our lives. Sometimes, however, circumstances force us to do bad things. The film's end is symbolic of the one quality that we so dearly cherish (and so easily lose), our innocence.

For story and expert opinion you may read the NYT Critics' pick article about the film here (requires login).

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

On Hummingbirds

"Consider the hummingbird for a long moment. A hummingbird's heart beats ten times a second. A hummingbird's heart is the size of a pencil eraser. A hummingbird's heart is a lot of the hummingbird. Joyas voladoras, flying jewels, the first white explorers in the Americas called them, and the white men had never seen such creatures, for hummingbirds came into the world only in the Americas, nowhere else in the universe, more than three hundred species of them ...

Each visits a thousand flowers a day. They can dive at sixty miles and hour. They can fly backward. They can fly more than five thousand miles without pausing to rest. But when they rest they come close to death: on frigid nights, or when they are starving, they retreat into torpor, their metabolic rate slowing to a fifteenth of their normal sleep rate, their heart sludging nearly to a halt, barely beating ...

Hummingbirds, like all flying birds but more so, have incredible enormous immense ferocious metabolisms. To drive those metabolisms they have racecar hearts that eat oxygen at eye-popping rate. Their hearts are built of thinner, leaner fibers than ours. Their arteries are stiffer and more taut. They have more mitochondria in their heart muscles - anything to gulp more oxygen. Their hearts are stripped to the skin for the war against gravity and inertia, the mad search for food, the insane idea of flight. The price of their ambition is a life closer to death; they suffer more heart attacks and aneurysms and ruptures than any other living creature. It's expensive to fly. You burn out. You fry the machine. You melt the engine. Every creature on earth has approximately two billion heartbeats to spend in a lifetime. You can spend them slowly, like a tortoise, and live to be two hundred years old, or you can spend them fast, like a hummingbird, and live to be two years old ..."

Brian Doyle in The Best American Essays/2005

Simply incredible.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

The New York Yankees

I reckon most people will tell you that the very first time you enter the Yankee Stadium you are just awed by its sheer size and volume. Yesterday I had that experience when I watched the The New York Yankees play baseball at their home ground on 161st in Bronx. The green patch at the center and the players in it almost look visually (and metaphorically) minuscule when compared to the arena. From what I know of Gladiators in ancient Rome, the modern day players of Baseball (and also Cricket) assume a similar role in front of the crowd. Even though in hindsight it appears decisively one-sided, the scorecard did nothing to subdue the crowd-spirit. There were loud boos, whistles, shouts of 'go-yankees' (also go-rachel green?!), and 'detroit-sucks' all rolled in with beer, fries, sausages and tonnes of testosterone. If you haven't yet seen the insides of The Yankee Stadium (and ever happen to be in New York City), just remember, it is a must-do thing.

Disclaimer - I am not a Yankees (or Red Sox) fan!