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Cynicism, 'Interstellar,' physics and discovery


We live in a cynical world; I know because I’m a cynic. From the time I was old enough to understand the concept, my father has scolded me for being so. I don’t know where I get it from, because neither of my parents is like that. For the most part, I find myself surrounded by optimistic people who look to the future with hope, not dread. From an early age, my family instilled in me a belief in myself grounded in the idea of the future holding unlimited potential. Despite all that, I’m a pretty cynical guy. I don’t think I’m pessimistic per se, but I generally arrive at a negative view of the realistic. I think most businesses are greedy and corrupt, willing to do whatever is necessary to accrue more wealth regardless of (most) consequences. I hold a Hobbesian worldview in which modern life — devoid of laws, governments and the enforcement thereof — would devolve into an inhospitable existence defined by a subjugation of the weak by the physically (or monetarily) strong. I see alarming trends within humanity, and it makes me beyond nervous for the future:

The unwillingness to admit the realities of climate change and begin preparing the world for its inevitable consequences; our inability and/or unwillingness to curb the cancerous influence of money in politics; the devaluation of science and medicine; the brainwashing of America by a gluttonous diet of partisan media garbage….

The more of these things I see, the more cynical I become. I realize this has a lot to do with confirmation bias — because I hold these opinions, I’m more likely to recognize and react to instances that support my pre-held beliefs. But, my fear is not without merit. These trends are real. These things are happening all around us, even if the situation isn’t quite as dour as I perceive.

The more of these trends I see, the more difficult it becomes for anything, or anyone, to catch my attention. With all the media I consume and all the idiocy I find myself surrounded by, I learned to tune most of it out. There’s no way to maintain your sanity unless you can develop strong filters to prevent all that noise from reaching you all the time.

As part of that filtration process, I watch prodigious amounts of movies and dramatic television. Whether in the guise of distraction via entertainment or providing the ability to escape this world and its reality, movies and television help me to cope with my cynicism. Maybe I just need to get out of my own head for a time, or maybe I learn something about hope and optimism, I don’t know… All I know is they seem to help.

In the same way I tune many things out, so too do I disregard most of the movies I see immediately after I’ve seen them. Even though I watch a ton of movies, most of them multiple times over, rarely do I expect a lot out of them. So long as they entertain me for the preallotted amount of time, they’ve done their job. But every once a great while, I’m truly surprised. I snap out of it… violently.

That happened today. Just now. And it was awesome.

I’m a huge Christopher Nolan fan. He’s one of those directors who I trust so much, I will see any film he directs. I love the Batman Trilogy, Memento, The Prestige, and Inception. The Dark Knight should have won the Oscar for Best Picture over Slumdog Millionaire in 2009. Nolan has earned a free pass from me; I will see every movie he makes from here on.

I made a huge mistake in November of last year… I didn’t see Interstellar in IMAX. That came right as I was gearing up for finals, working through two huge papers, and producing a film of my own (an introspective documentary which wasn’t going so well at the time). My roommate and I said to each other we really wanted to go see it, but our schedules never synced up so that we could.

What an idiot I am.

I’ve had the movie on my external hard drive for well over a month, waiting to watch it with that same roommate. Today, I decided that wait was over. And while I’m pissed I didn’t get to experience every facet of this film in the exact medium for which it was intended, it was still an experience to behold…

Every so often, a movie strikes a chord within us that resonates throughout our entire being. It’s fleeting and rare, but it can happen. The type of movie that entrances you to the point you’re unaware of anything else as it’s playing. The kind that makes your arm hair stand up on end, or gives you that wave of endorphin-laced euphoria when you reach the dramatic climax of the film, almost as if you just ran five miles.

That’s how I felt for almost the entire three hours of Interstellar this afternoon.

Movies, music, television, art… the great ones can inspire us. Some can teach us. The best can break the fog of cynicism and, if even for the briefest of moments, permit us to dream.

That’s how I feel about Interstellar.

I read A Brief History of Time when I was in junior high school. It was during my “read-everything-in-sight” phase, in which I consumed fiction and non-fiction alike in such quantities and speed that I can’t remember most of it now. But, I remember reading A Brief History of Time and being awestruck — truly awestruck. The concepts in the book were so interesting and complicated; it challenged me to think in a way totally foreign to me. I was hooked. But, it was like tasting the forbidden fruit but being denied entrance to the Garden of Eden. I got a taste, but not the utopia.

In this case, the Garden of Eden is the combination of scientific knowledge and understanding. I am smart enough to know just how mediocre my intellect is; that’s almost worse than not being smart at all. I have the ability to remember trivial facts in infinitum it seems, but cannot think with the creativity and abstract comprehension necessary to understand complex physics theorems. I have some awareness of dimensions beyond the four we know and experience, but I can’t wrap my head around them at all. Calculus was the one class in high school that no matter how hard I tried, I never could get an A. I simply could not think the way brilliant scientists and mathematicians do. And what’s worse, I know how much intelligence separates them from me (or, at least, the type of intelligence that separates us).

Of course this is a “first world problem,” and many people will probably dismiss me as a spoiled white guy bitching about not being good at something. There is probably some merit in there I imagine. But the larger point for me is that I have the ability to recognize and appreciate the knowledge beyond me, but not the intelligence to grasp it. It tantalizes me, but I can never capture it.

For that reason, I never reached for expanded physics knowledge. I thought it would be too frustrating to know about all the fascinating work the leaders in the field were doing yet still not be able to comprehend the thinking behind it. I never stopped wanting to learn about these things, but I gave up hope of ever understanding them.

Interstellar did not make the world of physics any clearer to me. In fact, it introduced some new concepts that, two hours and fifteen Wikipedia pages later, have confused me even further. But, the base concept of the movie sparked that scientific curiosity in me again — a curiosity that has long been dormant.

Interstellar got my attention. It cut through the fog of cynicism.

For one thing, the cinematography provides a shining beacon of what’s possible in the world of cinema. Some movies use special effects and stunning visuals to make up for a lack of story (see Gravity). But this movie used the awesome scenes of space to make the viewers dream — to bring us to the edge of the universe and implore us to explore.

Some of the articles I’ve read claim Christopher Nolan was upset about the U.S. government siphoning funds away from NASA and the possibility of a manned mission to Mars. If this was his protest, we could use a lot more like it (it also helps that I agree with him wholeheartedly).

Interstellar may not be a great movie. It may not go down in history with the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey. But, I have to imagine viewers had the same type of awestruck response to Kubrick’s film as I did to Nolan’s. I felt transported to another world in which the greatest among us pooled their time and talent to explore the universe in search of Earth’s savior. This is a story of love, sacrifice and loss amid the noblest of adventures. Humanity’s history is charted along a timeline of exploration and discovery, and the second we stop exploring, that timeline stops. It regresses. It recedes. Movies like Interstellar poke the fire and fan the flame of imagination. It forces us to dream and to think. And maybe, just maybe, to act.

For me, I’m going to stop using my less-than-genius intellect as an excuse to stamp out my curiosity. Watching this movie made me want to learn about the complexities of our universe again, for the first time in a decade. It let me dream of a world in which our greatest scientists are empowered by our government to explore the galaxy.

I don’t know if anyone else will have the same reaction to this movie as I had; I don’t think that’s really the point. It was just refreshing, for three hours on a Sunday afternoon, to not be so damn cynical. To dream, even for a moment, that humanity can still do great things. To believe, for a few seconds, that our future could be better than our present.