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F(ilm)QX By WILLIAM OREM • Aug. 1, 2014 @ 20:34 GMT
Looking for a low-level break from your usual high-level philosophizing about science? Check out Luc Besson's latest: a sci-fi shoot-em-up titled *Lucy* that will keep you crunching popcorn without straining too many neurons.
Okay, it's not really the thinky movie it thinks it is, but it's fun, and the premise is terrific (spoiler alert, obviously).
Our story begins with Lucy, the Australopithecus, sipping water from a primordial stream: hey, look how far make-up has come since *Space Odyssey*! (Plot ideas, not so much; this movie's most interesting parts are *Space Odyssey* on training wheels). Flash forward three million years to Scarlet Johansson as another Lucy, this one a modern-day dimwit who becomes entangled in an evil Japanese scheme to sell a new designer drug. The drug -- it's not clear how the bad guys missed this before they decided to mass-market it -- inadvertently causes people who take it to start utilizing more and more of their untapped cognitive potential. You may remember a similar premise from the 2011 movie *Limitless,* in which . . . well, exactly that.
This time, the bad guys stash a bag of the stuff in poor Scarlet Johansson's abdomen, turning her into a detection-free drug mule. Even worse, halfway to her destination a sadist starts beating her up, kicking her so hard in the gut that the bag full of crystals begins to leak . . .
That's the most intimidating moment of the movie right there, actually. Lucy's enforced participation in these gruesome proceedings; the savagery of the thugs, coupled by the icy sociopathy of the kingpin; it's scary stuff. At exactly this point, however, our suspended disbelief plummets as we dive into what has become the bane of Hollywood thrillers: the whiz-bang CGI sequence. Racing through Lucy's capillaries *Incredible Spider-Man* style, we see what would have been obvious anyway: the leaked drug is infiltrating her brain, causing amazing physiological changes. (The first of these, oddly, is an anti-gravity seizure.)
How we got from "she's becoming more intelligent" to "she's floating on the ceiling" is anyone's guess -- or, rather, it's up to Morgan Freeman, in his usual wise mentor role, to inform us via a series of wildly unscientific lectures. Among the groaners:
The notion that humans only use 10 percent of our brains. Why do so many people think this is true? There isn't a 90 percent block of gray matter that's just sitting in our skulls, not functioning. This movie claims to be about human evolution -- and interrupts itself frequently to montage about the effects of evolving intelligence in the cosmos -- but isn't all that clear on how brains actually evolve. To quote a Scientific American article on this misperception: "Though an alluring idea, the '10 percent myth' is so wrong it is almost laughable . . ."
If you had access to 20% of your brain, science-Morgan tells us, "you could control your own body." (A bit of a head-scratcher: don't humans control their bodies right now? And why does Lucy start having eyeballs from other species?) At 30% you can control other people's bodies as well; next comes telekinesis, morphing, and on up to time travel. How science-Morgan concluded any of these things is left out of the script, probably wisely; just play along.
Religion also gets smooshed in here too, by the way, though in a rather perfunctory way: "You never really die," Lucy informs a mere mortal at one point. "I only hope we are worthy of your sacrifice," science-Morgan sighs, as she heads toward her humanity-saving apotheosis. There isn't much of Lucy-as-Savior, though: mostly she kicks ass and shoots guns.
The real fun, however, isn't any of that -- it's in the premise of a dumb, abused woman who quickly becomes not only smart, but smarter than her abusers, then smarter than the police chasing her, the scientists studying her, and everyone else on earth. In a way, we owe all such stories to Arthur Conan Doyle, whose hyper-perceptive detective set the standard (If you doubt the enduring influence of Sherlock Holmes, I would point you toward the Robert Downey Jr. movies, the PBS re-runs of the magnificent Jeremy Brett, the runaway British success *Sherlock*, the American TV shows *Elementary* or *The Mentalist* or even *House* . . . among still others.)
Now it's Lucy, who can out-think the rest of us with ease as she evolves up the Kurzweil ladder of rapidly accelerating intelligence. If only the movie stayed with that idea, which is something that is actually on the way -- technologically enhanced super-intelligence, when we boot-strap ourselves into another evolutionary phase altogether -- instead of the magical stuff. As Mr. Spock, an earlier Sherlock Holmes knock-off, would have said, that's fascinating.
Just a quick round-up of some more video and audio on offer.
If you've been following Max Tegmark's latest ideas on consciousness as a state of matter (which I blogged about in January), then you'll enjoy his TEDx Cambridge talk:
I've also posted the latest FQXi podcast, which this month includes physicists Andrew White and Martin Ringbauer talking about their quantum experiments to simulate time travel, in particular closed timeline curves (CTCs), in the lab. The team uses two photons -- one representing the older version of the time travel and the other its younger self -- and then monitors what happens when the two interact. When CTCs are involved, they have found that a some standard quantum rules need to be rewritten: Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle is violated, and the quantum no-cloning theorem no longer applies.
Physicist Malcolm Fairbairn also chats about his analysis which shows that if the BICEP2 results stand, the model of inflation they favour -- combined with data we now know about Higgs boson -- suggests that the universe should have collapsed long ago. The BICEP2 results are, of course, under scrutiny, right now, as cosmologists ponder whether the results, which I blogged about in March, really do provide evidence of primordial gravitational waves, or were instead caused by contamination from dust in our galaxy. In the main podcast, we're hear Alan Guth's thoughts on the controversy (recorded in May). On the podcast page, you can also listen to a longer interview with Guth, where he discusses the implications for reconciling the data with Planck, models of inflations, grand unified theories and the multiverse, if the results do hold.
Plus, Colin Stuart talks to FQXi members Jon Barrett and Matt Leifer about their quest to explain why nature chose quantum theory, based on an investigation of entropy in thermodynamics and information theory. You can read and discuss Colin's profile of their work here too.
Part of our goal at FQXi is to get people talking and wondering about the fascinating and confusing foundational physics research we support. We also want to be a point of connection between the researchers and teachers and everyone else who has an interest in physics.
FQXi wants to see your best videos that highlight how fun and stimulating physics can be.This contest aims to get people around the world excited about studying physics, with the hope that some of them go on to make their own physics discoveries. This Contest will show people (and/or pets) exploring and learning about physics phenomena in wild, innovative, and fun ways.
Video topics and content can cover everything from unsolved physics mysteries, interviews with physicists, fictional tales (that use CORRECT physics), and even fuzzy animals doing cute things that Show Us the Physics!
Video idea 2: Explain your favorite equation
We welcome entries from everyone -- no experience required, all experience allowed. You can record using professional equipment, amateur camcorders, smartphones, tablets, or whatever. The main idea is that learning physics, doing physics -- and making videos about the experience -- is fun. We will judge entries based on the quality of physics content and their entertainment value, with less focus on the technical quality of the footage.
Entry is easy -- you make a video, post it on YouTube (with the hashtag #FQXiVideoContest2014), then fill out the application form. (Entrants under the age of 18 must be represented by an adult parent, guardian, or teacher.)
Video idea 3: Demo your favorite experiment
To stimulate the discussion, we will award prizes up to $10,000, including a 'Young Scientists' prize for entrants under 18--which includes a Skype chat with FQXi directors and foundational physicists Max Tegmark and Anthony Aguirre.
You can find our full rules here. Accepting entries until August 8, so you have some time to storyboard and round up your crew, or to charge up your iphone. Check the contest page for early entries now, and check back regularly for new entries.
Greetings all -- Just a quick announcement to say our current essay contest -- How Should Humanity Steer the Future? -- is closed for entries as of now. We are currently reviewing all the great entries that arrived in the past few days, so expect to see new essays continuously posted over the next week. Enjoy!
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