Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Still Out There, Looking: Errol Morris's A Brief History of Time


A lot of journalists I know complain about how bad they are at mathematics, but for me, math was actually not the subject that I struggled with most in high school; throughout most of my algebra and geometry studies, I found myself having a fairly easy time understanding the various ideas involved in both subjects (calculus, though, turned out to be an exception to that rule). No, science, in fact, was the subject that often confounded me the most. It didn't matter whether it was biology, chemistry or physics; there was always something about scientific concepts that seemed so abstract to me that I often found myself experiencing great difficulty relating those concepts to what I observed in the real world. (Physics turned out to be the subject I had a relatively easier time with in high school, mostly because of the greater amount of mathematics involved.)

Maybe this difficulty had something to do with my approach to studying these subjects; I have a sneaking suspicion that, as a high school student, I was always more interested in memorizing facts than grasping concepts when it came to math and science. But maybe my struggles in science classes were rooted in a deeper cause: sheer indifference. What many of my peers were grumbling about history classes—questioning what the point of learning about all these past events and dead people ultimately was—I grumbled about science. You could say that, even before Clive Park uttered those now-famous words in A Serious Man, I was already "accepting the mysteries" of the natural world and preferring to bask in those mysteries rather than digging underneath them.

And yet, is that all there is to scientific study: simply understanding how nature works? As I watched Errol Morris's 1991 documentary A Brief History of Time on Saturday afternoon at the IFC Center, I found myself beginning to develop a more intense appreciation for science, a fresh way of looking at it that verged toward the religious.

For those of you who don't know much about Morris's documentary: Yes, it is based on physicist/cosmologist Stephen Hawking's bestselling book of the same name. But while it is partly about some of the theories Hawking posits in the book, the film—as is also the case with the book, so I'm told (I haven't read it yet)—also focuses on Hawking's personal biography: how he was a fantastically smart yet undisciplined and underachieving student even in his undergraduate-college years, and how his neuro-muscular dystrophy paralyzed him physically but also helped him develop the intellectual and emotional focus to be able to conceive of his theories about black holes and the possible limitlessness of the universe. That may sound like a potentially unwieldy approach, but the mixture of science and biography ends up fusing nicely in A Brief History of Time, with the details of Hawking's own life up to that point running parallel with his theorizing about the beginnings of all life.

One of the more unsettling implications of Hawking's work is the idea that, instead of there being a fixed point in time at which life began, the boundaries of space and time are infinite, and thus our universe is not as closed as we may prefer to think. On the basis of his theories (as explained in the film, at least), one could say that, in his work, Hawking is trying to understand just how much we don't know about the world around us. And as discomforting as this knowledge—or, more accurately, lack of knowledge—might be, it is this kind of awareness that makes us, well, human.

And yet, even as answers to such profoundly immense questions are far from easy to pin down, Hawking, paralysis and all, seems far from deterred. With his mind still intact, he insists on searching for answers to questions about how our universe began, where it may be headed and what may lie beyond it. In a way, Hawking's quest feels spiritual, if not downright religious, in nature (and, as he and his family members note in the film, Hawking, for all his analytical proclivities, was far from ignorant of religion in his youth). Much of what he had offered up by the time he wrote his book and participated in this film was theoretical in nature; I mean, how can one definitively prove the existence of black holes if, by definition, they cannot be so easily observed? Though there has been plenty of evidence amassed over the years that could be interpreted as proof of the existence of black holes, physicists/cosmologists like Hawking and John Wheeler—the scientist who coined the term "black hole," and who appears in the film—basically continue on with their research on the belief, buttressed by mathematical and logical evidence, that there are indeed such bodies to be found. It's almost as if, for such minds, looking for black holes and investigating the concept of a boundary-less universe were the equivalents of, well, looking for God. Could science in general be considered a kind of secular search for higher powers? Who knew science could also be considered something of a religious pursuit?

Some of this conflation of science and religion is briefly elucidated by Hawking and the other talking heads in the film—ranging from physicist peers to family members—but Morris suggests just as much of this spiritual aspect visually and aurally: through the imaginative visual correlatives Morris uses to illustrate Hawking's theories, through the evocative (God-like?) chiaroscuro lighting John Baily and Stefan Czapsky employ during Hawking's interview segments, and especially through Philip Glass's hypnotic score, which itself suggests a striving for order and structure through its myriad repetitions of motifs.

All of this leads up to its moving final image, one that sums up the film's view of both Hawking and the study of science. It circles back to the film's opening image, of a starry void in space...except this time, instead of the head of a chicken foregrounded in order to accompany Hawking's posing of the classic "chicken-or-the-egg" dilemma in the context of space and time, Morris superimposes an image of Hawking's wheelchair, seemingly traveling through that starry void. Hawking may not (yet) have the answers he—and perhaps all of us—seeks to all the questions he has about the universe...but at least he's still out there, looking.

(A Brief History of Time is currently unavailable on Region 1 DVD; a Region 2 DVD looks to be out of print but available in used copies.)

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