Friday, July 31, 2009

The Latest Twist

It seems that a few days before a small comet or asteroid hit Jupiter, something weird and violent happened at Venus. Volcano? Asteroid impact? The launch of the superweapon that took down the marshalling yards of the fleet Jovians were planning to use to invade our sister world?

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Moon Over Frozen River

Caught Duncan Jones' Moon last week, and today saw Courtney Hunt's Frozen River. Two fine, low budget, low-key films about ordinary hard-working people caught up in strong moral dilemmas and forming unlikely partnerships, both realistic and unsentimental, but steeped in the kind of deeply felt human values that are missing from many bigger and noisier and hollower films.

In Moon, Sam Rockwell plays Sam Bell, a mining technician confronted by a mystery -- a neat variation on a perennial SF theme -- that undermines his sense of identity and grip on reality. Its tropes echo classic 1970s films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Silent Running; its twists are expertly handled; Rockwell's portrayal of Sam, by turns assertive and exhausted, is affecting and assured. Frozen River is set firmly in the here and now, on the border between New York State and Canada. Melissa Leo (Detective Sergeant Kay Howard in the TV series Homicide: Life on the Street) plays mother-of-two Ray Eddy, who gets mixed up in cross-border people smuggling after her husband, a gambling addict, takes off with cash saved to buy a new trailer home. The script and direction by Courtney Hunt is tight and precise and merciless; Leo is terrific as a woman trying to hold everything together as her situation grows increasingly desperate and dangerous; Misty Upham is also terrific as her Mohawk partner-in-crime. I really liked both these films. Catch 'em if you can.

Also seen: Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. But even though it was reviewed after its Cannes showing, I'm embargoed from commenting on it until the week of its release. I had to sign a release to that effect at the screening, and a promise is a promise. What happens if I break it is unclear, but, you know, I can't be bothered to find out.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The English Moon

Exactly four hundred years ago, on July 26 1609, the English astronomer Thomas Harriot turned his primitive telescope, a Dutch 'trunke', on the full Moon above Syon House in what is now West London, and made the above sketch. It doesn't look like much, but it's not only the first known sketch of the surface features of the Moon; it's also the first known sketch of astronomical features seen through a telescope - Galileo would begin drawing features on the Moon four months later. Over the next year, Harriot made detailed maps of what he could see of the Moon's geography and helped to usher in a revolution in human thought: heavenly bodies like the Moon were no longer remote lights, but places with local habitations, and names.

He lived a life eminently worthy of novelisation - he was a mathematician who worked for Sir Walter Raleigh, giving tutorials in navigation to Raleigh and his captains, helping to design their ships, and sailing to America on an expedition, where he spent time with the Algonquin Indians. When he returned to England, he worked for Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland, popularly known as the Wizard Earl, because of his interest in science and alchemy - he knew the infamous astrologer John Dee, as well as Christopher Marlowe and John Donne. Possibly, Harriot was a member of the 'School of Night' mentioned in Shakespeare's Love's Labours Lost. In any event, he helped to tutor the Earl's children in the pleasantly stimulating company of other mathematicians and scientists at Syon House, run by the Earl's cousin, Sir Thomas Percy. Sir Thomas was involved in the Gunpowder Plot; after he and the leader of the plot, Robert Catesby, beseiged at Holbeache House in Warwickshire, were killed by a marksman with a single bullet, Harriot was briefly imprisoned, and the Earl of Northumberland was locked up in the Tower of London for seventeen years. Harriot returned to his studies, making the first observations of sunspots and founding the 'English' school of algebra, but remained obscure because he published little in his lifetime. Unlike the poor and vigorously ambitious Galileo, he enjoyed the leisurely life of an English gentleman, sharing his findings only with his close colleagues and his sponsors. He died in 1621 of skin cancer - some have speculated that it was caused by the tobacco popularised by Raleigh. A crater is named in his honour, on the far side of the Moon, first mapped in the 1960s by machines beyond the wildest dreams of the School of Night.

You can see Thomas Harriot's drawings, and much else, at a new exhibition at the Science Museum, London.
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