Friday, January 23, 2009

Cinema and the scientific method

Nick Nolte taps the wellsprings of scientific inspiration by way of a dream-like state.

Last weekend we watched, again, George Miller’s (yes, ‘our’ George) film Lorenzo’s Oil (1992).

It will be recalled this is the true story of Augusto and Michaela Odone’s efforts to save their young son from the ravages of adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD).

ALD is an in-born disorder of metabolism which, untreated, causes catastrophic degeneration of the nervous system and certain death. As the diagnosing specialist tells the shocked couple: “It’s progress is relentless. The end is inevitable.

What then unfolds is a harrowing journey through the horrific onset of an appallingly cruel disease. But ultimately, too, there is redemption of sorts in a truly epic story of tragedy, heroism, persistence, and ingenuity.

The Odones belatedly realise the doctors to whom they have “consigned” their son’s fate are “groping in the dark” and they embark on a quest to understand and tame the scourge afflicting their only child.

Astonishingly, their efforts culminate in a therapeutic breakthrough which leads to salvation for thousands of sufferers all over the world. Ultimately and tragically, however, it comes all too late to save their own son from profound impairment.

As I was watching, it happened that the words of the late great Michael Crichton (yes, again) came to mind:

The scientific method presents a genuine problem in film storytelling and I believe the problems are not soluble. The best you’ll ever get is a kind of caricature of the scientific process...

Well, I wondered then whether Crichton may have missed seeing Lorenzo’s Oil, because if there’s a film that faithfully captures the scientific method — and its vicissitudes — then this is the one.

It’s all in there, in the gropings by the Odones towards the light. Formulating, revising, re-formulating the problem. The observational artefacts and dead ends. The inevitable, often regrettable, politics and economics of the scientific enterprise. The perspiration. And...

The inspiration... As told in the film, Augusto Odone literally receives his epiphany in a waking dream. This isn’t by any means an unlikely scenario, as for instance Alfred Russell Wallace formulated the theory of evolution by ‘natural selection,’ independently of Darwin, whilst he was in a malarial delirium.

The glory and the passion of the scientific enterprise is all there in a highly-accessible, skilfully-told cinematic work. Not withstanding a very few inferior moments, this achievement of George Miller’s is certainly one to rival Happy Feet.

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Little Israeli human shields sign ‘love’ bombs

Here once again is an enduring image from Israel’s 2006 war against Lebanon.

Juvenile human shields, evidently assigned to protect an Israeli military installation, are made to sign heavy ordnance “with love”.

More adorableness here (warning: brief scene of atrocity) ...


Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Noam knowns

“Decades ago, I wrote that those who call themselves ‘supporters of Israel’ are in reality supporters of its moral degeneration and probable ultimate destruction. Regrettably, that judgment looks more and more plausible.”