Month: June 2016

Three Body Problem

Three Body Problem

I like science fiction. Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke are amongst my favourite authors. When I read sci-fi, I am looking for novel ideas of what else is possible in science. As many of the prescient sci-fi authors have shown, their ideas are not just castles in air. Some of the concepts in Asimov’s novels are very deep, like the three laws of Robotics. Others are more speculative – for instance the science of psychohistory on which The Foundation Series was based. I get excited reading about such concepts and I am always left wanting for more. Many times I feel that these books do not have enough hardcore science for my taste. This is understandable because they have to sell. Stephen Hawking was told by his publisher that every equation in A Brief History of Time would halve the sales. He settled for one : E = mc².

With this background, it was a pleasant surprise to read The Three Body Problem, a sci-fi novel by Chinese author Cixin Liu. The Three Body Problem has been a best-seller in China and it became hugely popular all over the world when its translation won the prestigious Hugo award. Its first stage adaptation has just debuted and its film adaptation is under way. The book was also recommended by Mark Zuckerberg in his book club. What I find most amazing about The Three Body Problem is the fact that it became so popular in spite of so much hardcore science in it.

At its core, the plot of The Three Body Problem is an old one. Battle of an alien civilization against humanity. The story starts against the backdrop of cultural revolution in China. A fifteen year old girl is killed while protesting against the Red Union. A physics professor is tortured to death by Red Guards in front of a large crowd. Fast forward forty years and we meet the daughter of the physicist Ye Wenjie, who is working on a secret army project. As the story progresses, we are confronted by some fundamental questions in Physics. Can everything about the universe be known simply by observation and experiments? Particularly interesting are two hypotheses – the shooter hypothesis and the farmer hypothesis. In shooter hypothesis, a hunter shoots at a target creating a hole every ten centimetres. Intelligent beings living on the target propose a law : there is a hole in the universe at every ten centimetres. In farmer hypothesis, a farmer feeds his turkeys at 11 am everyday. A scientist turkey hypothesizes : food arrives at 11 am everyday. On thanksgiving day, food does not arrive. Instead, the farmer collects the turkeys and kills them all.

Wang is a scientist researching on nanomaterials – materials composed of very small particles that have extraordinary properties like high strength, low weight etc. Paths of Wang and Ye Wenjie cross and Wang discovers that Ye Wenjie was the first human on Earth to send and receive a transmission from an extraterrestrial civilization. The aliens are on the nearest star system Alpha Centauri and they are called Trisolarians. Trisolaris is so named because it has three suns. These three suns have a complicated trajectory and as a result there are no fixed seasons on Trisolaris, only stable periods followed by extreme weather conditions. Trisolarians have very advanced technology and they are looking for a new home to conquer. They find it on Earth.

The story takes many dazzling twists and turns, characters enter and exit. And in the midst of all this, the reader is exposed to some brilliant ideas of futuristic science. We live in a four dimensional world – three dimensions for space and one for time. According to one theory, there are seven more dimensions, making it an eleven dimensional space. What if we could manipulate the rest of these dimensions? Turns out that the Trisolarians have achieved the capability of manipulating higher dimensions. Using this, they unfold a proton in two dimensions so that it becomes a vast surface that consumes all of Trisolarian sky. Then they build a quantum computer with four such protons – two of them on Solaris and two on Earth. These computers are able to communicate instantly, without any time lag.

In the foreword, Liu Cixin talks about his childhood. In the village in rural China where he grew up, there was no electricity and China had yet to become polluted. The Milky Way was clearly visible every night. As he became older, he began to learn about planets, stars, and the vast distances between them. He struggled to grasp the vastness behind the concept of light-year. And it was then that he discovered his special talent. Units such as one light-year which are unfathomable to everyone else took on concrete forms in his mind. He could visualise them and play with them.

Progress in science is always slow and takes time. This does not mean that our imaginations should be limited by it. The Three Body Problem is a journey into what science may look like in a couple of centuries from now. Cixin Liu is being heralded as Arthur C Clarke of China. I am looking forward to his other books getting translated to see how far this comparison holds.

When Spielberg Faced A Googly

When Spielberg Faced A Googly

The television program Inside The Actor’s Studio hosted by James Lipton is part of the course for students who study acting at Pace University. At the end of each interview, the students get to ask questions to the celebrity actor/director. When Steven Spielberg was answering the questions, one student asked him, “What is your definition of acting?” Spielberg was taken aback. Incredulous, he asked, “You want me to define acting?” In the end, he gave a stock feel-good answer, “Acting to me is about courage.” I wish he would have gone deeper into it – what does he expect from his actors, what criteria does he apply for good and bad acting and so on.

I think about this incidence many times, especially when I am watching movies. My views on which type of acting do I enjoy most have changed quite a bit. Once upon a time, Robert De Nero, Al Pacino and Meryl Streep were my idols. Now I am beginning to think differently. I should stress here that this opinion does not, in any way, reflect the quality of acting of these actors. They are very, very good in their craft. And perhaps, that is my problem. They are too good.

I loved Robert De Niro in Raging Bull. By the way, I hated him in Godfather II. There, I said it. His Italian accent and gestures are too exaggerated. If you want to see an authentic American Italian, watch Fanucci or Clemenza. The other complaint I have about this movie is that it set an irritating trend of how Italian Americans talk – in all the following movies and even sitcoms like Seinfeld. Anyway, to get back to the point, when I see De Niro or Pacino, what I perceive is these actors giving a great performance. I can never forget the actor behind the character.

Contrast this to British actors and the difference is remarkable. Ben Kingsley immortalized Gandhi but in his later movies, I do not see Ben anywhere. I see the character he is playing. Or take my current favorite – Daniel Day-Lewis. Nowhere do I see even the hint of the actor. I see Abe Lincoln – how he walked, how he talked. Or I see the vicious gang leader. When I watch Steve Jobs, I have forgotten about the actor called Michael Fassbender. All I see is the ambitious entrepreneur. This goes for actresses as well. I watch The Iron Lady and I think to myself “Wow! Meryl has really outdone herself this time!” But in Steve Jobs all I see is Joanna Hoffman. In fact, I did not know that Kate Winslet was in the movie and it took me quite some time to identify her.

Why does this happen more frequently with British actors compared to their American counterparts? There are exceptions of course. Leonardo Di Caprio was exceptional in The Aviator. Morgan Freeman is just amazing in his range – from a convicted felon in The Shawshank Redemption to Nelson Mandela in Invictus. I love the way Matt Daemon manages to portray the character without much change in his appearance. Exceptions like these aside, I find it difficult to appreciate performances of most of the American stalwarts.

Maybe it has more to do with Hollywood. These icons are in limelight so much that they have become bigger than the movie. The moment you see them on the screen, you have so many preconceived ideas about them that you fail to appreciate the character they are playing. Take the case of The Revenant. The publicity machine went full throttle much before the movie was released. How Leonardo Di Caprio painstakingly worked for his role, ate raw bison meat, drank Unicorn milk and so on. All this built up such a huge mountain of expectations that when I watched the movie, I hardly gave a thought to the character. All of my attention was on Leonardo – the supreme actor – delivering an impeccable performance, with the nagging question at the back of my mind – will he get the Oscar this time?

Coming back to Pacino, I remember reading somewhere that there are two Pacinos – the early Pacino and the later Pacino. I like the early one. Unfortunately, it’s a pain to watch the later one. Is there any movie where Pacino does not have an angry, yelling scene? Watching him has become such a bore that I simply skip the movie if I see his name. Probably, I am not alone in this. The latest Pacino movie called Misconduct, with Anthony Hopkins, failed to earn even £100 at the UK box office.

So, these days I enjoy watching mostly British actors. I cannot get tired of watching Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Or, I go for movies where the actors are talented but not so well known. Take for instance, In My Father’s Den, a movie from New Zealand. Matthew Macfadyen and Emily Barclay give a splendid performance. You don’t know much about these actors so there are no preconceptions. Nowhere do you get the feeling that they are trying to pull off the role of a lifetime.

It’s just story telling at its best.

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Dear American readers, “googly” has nothing to do with Google. It’s a cricket metaphor and it means to face something surprising.