Tuesday, November 1, 2022

The unexpected science subtext of George Miller's 3,000 Years of Longing

George Miller’s lavishly produced recent film, “3,000 Years of Longing,” could be described as a sort of Aladdin for adults. It is the retelling of a tale from Scheherazade’s 1,001 Arabian Nights set in our mythology-leary world. And, contrary to expectations, if one digs beneath the surface, a surprising story about science reveals itself.

That science will play a role in this reformulation is hinted at early on in the movie. Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton), a “narratologist” by trade, is arriving for a storytelling conference in modern day Istanbul. Her grip on reality is called into question when we watch her spy a diaphanous, gnome-like man trying to run off with her baggage cart at the airport. Unwelcome apparitions like him continue to appear, unbidden, at the conference’s keynote lecture where a distracted Alithea pauses to declare that the tales of gods and heroes of ancient times have been vanquished to the dustbin of history. According to her, scientific explanations now rule the day.

Given Alithea’s job as an expert on the art of storytelling, this declaration is a surprise. Shouldn’t she at least take some professional pride in the enduring power of ancient myth? Or maybe it’s that, as Alithea has grown older, these just-so stories have lost their appeal. Has tragedy in Alithea’s life drained the magic from her world?

Miller and his co-writer/daughter, Augusta Gore, appear to be setting us up for a tale which will pit the rationality of science against the enchantment of the supernatural. So we ready ourselves to have the hard heart of our cynical protagonist softened by an encounter with magical forces. Thankfully, the writers dodge this predictable storyline and, instead, offer us a story in which science and magic become willing collaborators.

So, when Alithea pries open an antique glass bottle purchased at the Istanbul bazaar releasing Djinn (Idris Elba), she is startled, but, surprisingly, not at all disbelieving. Alithea is not so much concerned that she may be losing her mind when Djinn appears as she is that she will, like a sucker, fall victim to his plea for her to get on with the business of making her three wishes. From experience as a scholar of storytelling, Alithea knows that giving in to this temptation will inevitably lead to a less than happy outcome, no matter how carefully she formulates the statement of her desires.

In order to dissolve Alithea’s skepticism, Djinn launches into his three-thousand-year story as a prisoner of an assortment of lamps and flasks. He describes how he came to be “incarcerated” the first time - by King Solomon, no less - as well as the relationships he has had with the mortals who liberated him after that. In the process, we discover that Djinn desperately longs for lasting freedom, and we also learn that he is capable of deep human attachments. Significantly, for our purposes, it is also revealed that Djinn is a being who is made up of electromagnetic waves. In other words,he is a creature of pure light.

Soon after, the role that light will play in the film is underscored by a set of text panels that flash across the screen briefly. This mini powerpoint presentation telegraphs a schematic history of Djinn’s universe which begins with a burst of electromagnetic waves  - let there be light! - and culminates with the emergence of biological compounds and then, presumably, Darwinian evolution. It appears that, whatever Djinn’s status as a supernatural being is, he sees himself as a participant in a world of natural phenomena. Far from being at odds with one another, in this view of the world science and magic are companionable fellow travelers.

But “3,000 Years” is not done with light yet. As Djinn tells his story, we learn that his most recent liberation, sometime in the nineteenth century it appears, was at the hands of Zefir, the young wife of a Turkish merchant. With a nod to “Faust,” Zefir wishes for all the knowledge in the world. What we see flashing across the screen as a result of her request is a high-speed montage of Zefir devouring book after book supplied by Djinn which contain the scientific findings of the age. 

Usually the graphics presented in such a montage are a mess of mathematical nonsense, a lot of random expressions yanked from a high school algebra text. But the equations that appear in the books that Zefir pours over are, in this case, the real deal. They faithfully retrace the development of the theory of electromagnetism that got underway with Michael Faraday’s experiments in the 1830s in London and culminated in the early 1860 with Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell’s unification of electrical and magnetic phenomena. Maxwell’s equations, as his system came to be called, was the first unified field theory of modern physics.

This sequence presents us with a tantalizing ambiguity: is Zefir simply reconstructing discoveries reported by contemporary researchers in the books Djinn has provided, or has she, in a stroke of genius, developed a theory of electromagnetic waves all on her own, beating the esteemed Maxwell to the punch? Maybe the famous handful of equations should rightfully be called Zefir’s equations?

This backstory having to do with the phenomena of electricity and magnetism continues into the final act of the film when Alithea returns to London with Djinn as her companion. Creature of light that he is, Djinn is acutely sensitive to the electromagnetic radiation that impinges on him. In fact, he is so overwhelmed by the ocean of radio waves, Wi-Fi, and wireless signals that he starts to become ill. (Admittedly, present-day Istanbul, the technological metropolis that it is, should have presented Djinn with similar problems.) Although he manages to maintain his composure in the face of this electromagnetic assault, it slowly begins taking a toll on his well-being.

At the beginning of the film Alithea telegraphs that a science vs. superstition confrontation may be in the offing. And, yes, Djinn’s composition as a creature of light, along with the electromagnetic origins of the universe, is clearly stated. Yet no review of the film that I’ve read takes note of these facts. In addition, the montage of mathematics including Maxwell’s equations streams by so quickly that it takes a trained eye - at least an eye that has been exposed to an intermediate undergraduate course in electricity and magnetism - to make sense of it. Somehow, though, I doubt that physicists were the intended audience for the film.

A possible explanation is that the writers inserted the Easter eggs having to do with electromagnetism as a message in a bottle of sorts into the encasing tale of Alithea and Djinn. And it could be that they expected the occasional viewer, like me, would pick up this bottle and rub it hard enough to have its hidden message revealed. If that is the case, then I count myself as lucky to have happened across “3,000 Years” and to discover, unexpectedly, the science story inside. Being a science nerd, a wish of mine was indeed granted.

Monday, June 7, 2021

Adding injury to insult: the negative public health implications of Republican-sponsored voter-suppression laws

There are all sorts of reasons being offered for opposing the GOP-sponsored restrictive voting legislation being enacted around the country in states like Georgia and Texas. Most of them have to do with the fact that these measures, contrary to the claims of their authors, are intended to limit access to the polls by eligible voters, in particular by voters of color. The anti-democratic intent of these laws is clear; they are little more than a sour-grapes expression by Republicans for having lost the 2020 elections fair and square and a desperate attempt to not do so again.

But little is being said about another important reason to stand against these new voting measures that aim to thwart mail-in voting, either by making getting a absentee ballots harder to get or by reducing the number of drop boxes to which to return them, or by limiting early-voting options which distribute the otherwise large pulse of election-day voters over an extended period of time. That reason is that these voter suppression laws will also put public health at greater risk.

As much as we'd like to believe that the COVID-19 pandemic is a one-off event, hopefully one we will be able place behind us soon, the fact of the matter is that it will more than likely mark the first in a series of pandemics that we will have to confront this century. This is due in part to the fact that habitat loss, either as a result of encroachment by expanding urban areas or environmental degradation, will bring wild animal populations in closer proximity to humans. The chances of the occurrence of zoonotic disease, an infection that jumps from an animal to a human, becomes more and probable. And the increasingly connected global transportation system ensures that any such spillover will spread as far and as quickly as possible.

We dodged the other coronavirus bullets of SARS in 2003 and MERS in 2012 which had originated in non-human animals. And, even if it turns out that COVID-19's intrusion into the human population resulted from a laboratory accident and not direct animal to human transmission, we should in no way breathe a sigh of relief. These pathogens are coming for us. When they do, they may take the form of a more virulent version of the common cold, as has COVID-19, or a more deadly strain of the seasonal flu. In this regard, an H5N1 variant of influenza, the so-called avian flu, has been on our pandemic radar for years. It really is only a matter of time.

The emergence of a novel coronavirus in China in late 2019 and its rapid spread to other parts of the world served to remind us that these kind of pandemics can arise unexpectedly. In the case of COVID-19, its U.S. debut coincided with the run-up to the 2020 primary election season. It is useful to remember that, in a time before the virus became a political hot potato, election officials began taking steps to reduce the infection risk to voters in their respective jurisdictions. These steps were viewed as prudent public health measures plain and simple.

Notably, Republican Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger took quick action to distribute absentee (a.k.a mail-in) ballot applications to all registered voters and wisely deferred primary election dates to better get a handle on how to operate in-person voting in the midst of a pandemic. Raffensperger, in spite of the fact that he had always been aligned with elements of the state's GOP-dominated government in their efforts to limit access to voting, recognized that the grave responsibility of reducing the impact of COVID-19 on Georgians going to the polls was in his hands.

And Secretary Raffensperger was not alone in this recognition; his counterparts in both red and blue states implemented similar measures, such as allowing for no-excuse absentee ballots and increasing the number and geographical distribution of drop-boxes where they could be returned. To the extent possible, especially given the short notice, these actions reduced the health risks to voters around the country who wanted to do their civic duty by participating in all phases of the 2020 election cycle. As dozens of legal challenges would reveal later that year, these voting changes were made without degrading the integrity electoral process one iota.

So, when all was said and done, as the last of the 2020 elections trickled into early 2021 with the Georgia runoffs for U.S. Senate, many states had accomplished the unexpected: they had made voting both more accessible and safer from a public health standpoint. It will be a head-scratcher for future historians who will ponder why such significant electoral achievements were dismantled almost immediately after their unalloyed success had been widely demonstrated.

Well, I guess they won't be scratching their heads about what motivated the Republican Party to turn back expansion of voter access. Due to cultural and demographic shifts in the electorate, the survival of that party has come to depend on anti-democratic measures like political gerrymandering and creating obstacles to voting by people of color. So there won't be much puzzle to the upside the GOP saw in rescinding pandemic voting procedures to renew established efforts at voter suppression.

What future historians will find puzzling is that the public health advantages that resulted from expanded absentee- and early-voting were so soon abandoned, especially since there would be a scramble to reimplement them when the next pandemic - and there would be a next pandemic - coincided with an election cycle. At a time when state officials and legislatures should have been working to refine and standardize approaches to voting that takes public health into account, they were instead preoccupied with dismantling the small advances they had made in this regard.

If you think that we reap benefits from socially-distanced approaches to voting only in the midst of a pandemic, you may want to think again. Although the Founding Fathers may have been visionary in many regards, ignorant of the germ theory of disease, they could not have contemplated that gathering large numbers of people to vote in enclosed spaces for an extended period of time in early November was a very bad idea from a public health perspective. It is the height of flu season, a reality that will likely stay with us for years until a universal influenza vaccine is fielded and widely administered.

The seasonal flu is responsible for 10,000 - 60,000 deaths in this country every year, not to mention many tens of thousands of more cases of serious illness and the hospitalizations that result from them. Its most vulnerable target is seniors, who turn out to be not only a segment of the population who vote in disproportionately large numbers but who also traditionally provide the lion's share of the army of volunteers that make in-person voting possible. Socially distanced voting measures will not only reduce the disease burden shouldered by the elderly but also by other vulnerable populations.

Admittedly, given the numerous state party primaries and runoffs, elections in the country are held at a variety of times of year well outside of flu season. But, as the COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated, you don't need cold weather to encourage the spread airborne diseases. Indeed, the prevalence of respiratory illnesses in the fall and winter have less to do with the temperature itself and more to do with the fact that cold weather tends to drive people indoors. Why give these diseases a foothold anytime of the year by forcing vulnerable people into polling places unnecessarily?

Yes, it should be enough to retain or even extend expanded mail-in and early voting options as a matter of increasing participation in our elections at all levels and all times of the year. In spite of a small number of isolated incidents of voter fraud, as dozens of legal challenges have indicated, the 2020 elections have been the most secure and the most transparent in this country's history.

The bottom line is that recently enacted voter suppression legislation is the wrong way to go. Rolling back the very measures that made voting safer during the 2020 COVID pandemic is ill-advised according to public health considerations. It is these regressive laws that should themselves be rescinded to ensure that our electoral process is not only fair but also healthy.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Honoring Elijah Cummings by not repeating a mistake made at the 2016 Democratic National Convention

I think it's fitting on the day that the great civil rights and congressional leader Elijah Cummings is laid to rest to take a look back at the disrespect he endured giving an opening speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. Reflection on this cautionary tale is critical because failure to take what happened then into account at next year's convention could very well mean a continuation of the political nightmare we have been experiencing for the last three years.

The setup for this video is pretty simple. It was July 25, Day 1 of the 2016 convention. The opening speeches, as always, were intended to strike unifying themes, the kind of things upon which it was imagined all Democrats could agree.

Accordingly, Representative Cummings had prepared a speech that emphasized the the need to address environmental concerns, including global warming, while creating jobs and maintaining U.S. global economic competitiveness; the related need to provide American children with a first-class education to accomplish this economic goal; the need to protect women's access to reproductive health services; and the need to secure and extend the access to healthcare that had been made possible by President Obama's Affordable Care Act.

What's not to like, right?

Well, it wasn't easy going for Representative Cummings. From the get-go he had to contend with resounding shouts of "Stop TPP" from the crowd, in particular from a cadre of very vocal Bernie bros. The shouts were so loud that they made his remarks impossible to hear in the conventional hall itself. The audio feed from speaker's microphone is what saved Cumming's speech from being lost to history and internet streaming.

I recall this situation first hand. I had tuned in to listen to the opening day speeches because I knew that Stacey Abrams was scheduled to be making her first appearance on the national stage. I was already a big fan of Leader Abrams, as she is called, and wanted to witness what I believed would be a historical moment in her political career, one that a good year  before the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial campaign that would make her a Democratic superstar. The shouting infiltrated her later appearance as well.

I remember sharing Representative Cumming's frustration as he tried to do his assigned duty by calling Democrats together to recognize, in spite of their differences, the many things that united them in common cause. And I shared in his disappointment that his important message was drowned out by those who had much more narrowly focused agendas.

Of course, it's hard to argue with true-believers of any stripe, those people who would see a promising party platform dashed to pieces unless it included a particular plank of their own insistence. Besides, as many thought at the time, the presidential election was in the bag, so why not take the opportunity to make a lot of noise about TPP, especially given how poorly the Democratic establishment had treated then upstart contender Bernie Sanders. What harm could it possibly cause?

One of the great ironies of this situation is that, as far as my informal survey would indicate, very few people now even remember what the initials TPP stand for. It's Trans-Pacific Partnership, by the way; a trade deal approved by President Obama and backed by candidate Hillary Clinton which was anathema to Democrats who saw it, understandably, as yet another big concession to multinational corporations to the disadvantage of American consumers and working people.

However important an issue TPP was at the time, it is recalled now as a vague skirmish in a fratricidal, intra-party conflict which preceded a war that Donald Trump and the Republicans would win three months later. I should add that shouts of Stop TPP will forever remind me of the unwarranted disrespect shown to the great Elijah Cummings, a man who had committed decades of his life to improving the lot of his party and the American people.

I hope that the salience of this video from July 2016 to our particular political moment is not lost. I fear that history could very well repeat itself as some notable, perhaps long-serving, well-respected Democratic leader like Elijah Cummings tries to offer a unifying message at the 2020 Democratic National convention. My genuine expectation is that person will drowned out with shouts of one sort or the other. My money is on "Medicare for all" as the deafening shout if, say, Joe Biden or Pete Buttigieg is the nominee apparent, but I imagine that there is a chant available for every variation of Democratic presidential primary outcome.

Whatever slogan the crowd is shouting  in July 2020, what they won't be hearing - or allowing others in the hall to hear - is the list of things that the opening speakers are enumerating that unite us.

These will include, but not limited to: securing and extending current access to healthcare; reestablishing and defending women's right to reproductive health services; recognizing and safeguarding the rights of LGBTQ citizens in the workplace and in our society at large; restoring the EPA to former glory with a commitment to keeping our air and water clean; rejoining the Paris Climate Accords; returning our country to a progressive tax policy designed to narrow the growing chasm of wealth that separates the very rich from the middle class and the poor in this country; preserving our national wilderness for future generations to enjoy; and addressing and correcting the crimes being committed against people of color not only on our borders but also in our own communities. The list goes on.

It would seem to me that one of the most significant ways we could honor the memory the late Elijah Cummings is to remember this stain on the 2016 Democratic National Convention and vow to not let it happen again next summer. Whatever single issues inspire us, in the final analysis we need to keep focused on the constellation of concerns that bring us together. By insisting defiantly on any one thing, we risk - once again - the possibility of losing them all.