Not your typical fictional voyage to Mars

Sean Penn and LisaGay Hamilton

Watching The First, Beau Willimon’s new TV series, for New Scientist, 3 November 2018

FOR reasons that remained mysterious by the end of episode one, veteran astronaut Tom Hagerty (Sean Penn) has been grounded. This left him watching helplessly as a launch accident wipes out his former crewmates, bound for Mars on a rocket bankrolled by prickly space visionary Laz Ingram (Natascha McElhone). By the episode’s end, the disaster has taken a huge psychological toll, not least on Ingram herself.

Welcome to the future – don’t expect it to be easy. Set 15 years from now, the world of The First is not very different from our own. Some cars drive themselves. Media gadgets proliferate. The women who currently hold high executive positions in private space companies are now public figures.

The First is not your typical fictional voyage to Mars. “It would have been safer to just get into space in the first episode,” says series creator Beau Willimon, best known for his stylish US remake of political thriller House of Cards. “But space exploration, with all of its excitement, doesn’t happen overnight. A Mars project will take years of planning.”

Virtually the whole of the first season of this intriguing Martian epic will be set on Earth. It is a risky approach, but one that persuaded Charles Elachi, a former director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, to be a consultant for the show. “Only one organisation has successfully landed something on Mars,” he tells me with relish, “and I used to head it.”

“What attracted me,” says Elachi, “was Willimon’s desire to look at the Mars project in the round, taking in the scientific aspects, but also all the technical and personal and political challenges. How do you convince people to commit to these amazing projects? Important as the science is, exploration is a human endeavour.”

Elachi has seen the truth of this at first hand, having witnessed the decades of effort and sacrifice required to land rovers on Mars, and he is impressed that the series, although it accelerates events tremendously, still reflects the likely scale of a Mars mission.

“The series starts 15 years in the future, but for me, as the show’s technical consultant, it’s really a story of the next 15 years,” says Elachi. “It’s about all the things that come before that first flight: the power sources, the vehicles, all the equipment that needs to be developed and deployed before a human ever boards a rocket.”

Building the backstory to the series was essential. And according to Willimon, it was cool: “A lot of the questions we had were questions that researchers themselves are asking,” he says. “Every design element on the screen has a clear function and a precise reason for being there. We don’t want this to be an 8-hour science lecture, but it’s important for the audience that we can explain everything in the frame.”

It takes thousands of people to get one astronaut into space. Engineers, scientists, the medical team, the ground-support team: people bring thousands of years of combined experience to the business of making several minutes tick by without failure.

Willimon, whose father served months at a time on nuclear submarines, also knows the sacrifices families make. While his father was away, he says, “I used to make these drawings and maps and plans, trying to figure out where he was, under what ice shelf, in what ocean? And I’d try to work out what he was doing.”

This makes The First a very personal project. “We all ask ourselves, What does it all mean? Is there a God? Where’s my place in the universe?” Willimon reflects. If we asked these things of ourselves all the time, we’d go mad. “But space travel,” he says, “literally travelling into the heavens, forces your hand.”

Lunar renaissance

The punchier contestants who entered the never-awarded Lunar X Prize are racing to launch their probes. Who will make moonfall first? My money is on Israel’s SpaceIL. While everyone else was crashing through the X Prize’s deadlines, trying to design wheeled vehicles for their rovers, SpaceIL was racing ahead with a vehicle that bounces about the lunar surface like a steel bunny.

A preview piece for New Scientist, looking forward to the 50th anniversary of the first Apollo moon landing

Jenna Sutela: Mars in a dish

Don’t call this an AI, whatever you do. Jenna Sutela’s mentor on this project, Memo Atkin, has issued a public warning that “every time someone personifies this stuff, every time someone talks about ‘the AI’, a kitten is strangled.”

Watching Jenna Sutela’s art-video nimiia cétiï for New Scientist, 11 September 2018

Scotland’s secret weapon

Attending the launch of  Shore: How we see the sea for New Scientist, 18 August 2018

NOBODY catches much fish around the island of Arran now: overfishing and pollution have hit wild populations hard. There are still plenty of fish, mind: not free-swimming, but cooped up in huge salmon farms that leach detritus, pesticides, antibiotics and plastic waste into the Firth of Clyde.

And yet it is to Arran that Scotland’s coastal communities have turned to see a working vision of a cleaner, healthier, more productive ocean.

Arran’s Lamlash Bay became a Community Marine Reserve in January 2008. Its No Take Zone is helping local maerl, a fragile pink coral-like algae, which provides a habitat for sponges, sea squirts, crabs, squat lobsters and scallops. The hope is that commercial species such as cod will use this area to recover their numbers, and then spill out into the surrounding sea.

Meanwhile, the 280 square kilometres of the South Arran Marine Protected Area restricts trawling and dredging. A community development, it is the first of its kind, and has been taken up by the Scottish government with the creation of 30 more MPAs, covering some 20 per cent of the country’s seas.

Restoring Scottish sea life after decades of pollution, dredging and overfishing is not going to be easy. “We’ve got a long way to go, just to get the environment back to the condition it was 50 years ago,” says Howard Wood, founder of local advocacy organisation COAST, the Community of Arran Seabed Trust. Most ministers, he adds, are only interested in what the environment provides or used to provide – and how much can be wrung from it in five years.

The exciting thing about COAST is the armoury it brings to the battle against the myopia of politicians. Glasgow and York universities are monitoring Arran’s coastal waters, while COAST is working with local tourist organisations to develop dive sites. Even more impressively, it has won over the local fishing community.

Multimedia festival Shore: How we see the sea is the latest addition to COAST’s arsenal. This festival of coastal life was created in Arran and is now circling the Scottish coast, before it ends up in Edinburgh’s Dynamic Earth science theme park in April 2019. It is curated by Invisible Dust, a UK-wide organisation that pairs scientists and artists to explore key environmental issues.

Its founder, Alice Sharp, has commissioned two film-makers, despite the lack of cinemas in the north of Scotland. But the Shore festival does not lack technical backup: it has Screenmachine, a large blue lorry that unpacks Transformer-like into a comfortable 80-seater surround-sound cinema.

Margaret Salmon’s Cladach explores the shoreline of the Wester Ross Marine Protected Area and the community bordering it in Ullapool. “Imagine somebody spending time in a town, then drifting down a beach and into the sea. Margaret’s film is like a journey from one medium to another,” says Sharp.

The second film, I Walk There Every Day But Never Saw It That Way by Ed Webb-Ingall, is a very different proposition as the first instalment in a community video project that aims to get Scotland’s disparate coastal communities talking to each other.

It is an old idea, Webb-Ingall says. In the 1970s, the National Film Board of Canada invited film-maker Colin Low to visit Fogo Island, off Newfoundland, whose fishing community was collapsing. “Low made short films of a group on one part of the island, then showed it to another group.” Soon the different communities and interests had a conversation going, and a more sustainable fishing industry began to emerge.

“The myth among film-makers is the ‘Fogo Process’ rejuvenated the island,” says Webb-Ingall. “Others reckon they were doing the work already!” Salmon is inclined to agree: “These precarious communities have experienced centuries of ebbs and flows. They’re a strong people.”

The Endless: Timeless avant-garde

Watching Benson and Moorhead’s The Endless for New Scientist, 21 July 2018

SINCE they escaped a UFO death cult, nothing much has gone right for Justin and his younger brother Aaron. They clean apartments for a living, subsist on junk food and have rotten luck with women. The arrival of a mysterious videotape convinces them that they should revisit the cult for the sake of “closure”, though it’s obvious that Justin is only going for Aaron’s sake, and what Aaron actually wants most out of this is some decent salad.

But when Justin attempts to jog around the settlement he gets caught in time (although he doesn’t know it at first). Other things are amiss, too, like the third moon. And the rope into nowhere. And an evening heat blur that turns the whole valley into shimmering mirrors.

It transpires that the friendly, gentle people our heroes ran from a decade ago are living in the presence of an unidentified “something”. It is invisible, but it isn’t hiding. Indeed, it is trying to communicate by showing them, through old photographs and videotapes, what it sees.

This low-budget Lovecraftian thriller explores territory we more usually associate with the heavyweights of the 1970s avant-garde – with the tangled story arcs of Alain Robbe-Grillet, and the cunningly withheld narrative revelations of Andrei Tarkovsky’s groundbreaking film Solaris. In fact, I’ll stick my neck out here: The Endless is very nearly this decade’s Solaris.

But while the intelligent planet in that film was innocent, even as its little “gifts” sent the scientists studying it clear off their heads, the entity presiding over The Endless is more overtly malign: like the wanton boy in King Lear killing flies for sport, perhaps.

It is trapping people in time, affording them just enough free will to recognise their plight, but not quite enough to escape it.

But then, isn’t that just like life? We nearly all live out days that by most objective measures are more or less the same as each other.

Justin and Aaron’s cleaning job was certainly a trap of this sort. And are they any worse off now? It is, after all, a very laid-back, well-behaved sort of death cult, up there in the hills behind San Diego. Its spokesman Hal talks a lot, but he’s not in any real sense a leader. The group seems happy, and the beer they make and sell is top notch. All is as Aaron remembers from his childhood: a lot of nice people preparing a lot of good food.

Maybe Justin’s the one with the problem, that he cannot see the charm in living a looped existence here. Knowing they are trapped and being looked at, this “cult” at least has the graciousness to imagine that they are also being looked after. And who’s to say their metaphysical jailer has not handed them a chance – an endless series of chances, apparently – to become the best people they can be?

The directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead also play the brothers Justin and Aaron. (Benson is, wonderfully, a dead ringer for Richard Dreyfuss.) And they have made The Endless dovetail neatly with their first micro-budget feature Resolution (2012). This kind of self-reflexive game-playing can get old extremely quickly, and a rather clunky emotional working-out between the brothers at the climax of the movie should serve as an amber light. Any further with this and self-indulgence will swallow them whole.

My guess, though, is that these two know what they are doing. In Spring (2014) they managed to turn the love affair between an American soldier and a vampiric octopus into one of the most funny, touching and ultimately profound screen love affairs since Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Benson (who writes) and Moorhead (who wields the cameras) take the hokiest ideas and discover in them rich seams of human experience. They’re not ironic. They’re not distant. They’re not portentous. And if they can only hold their nerve they will improve the science fiction genre immeasurably.

It’s coming at you!

OUTSIDE Dimension Studios in Wimbledon, south London, is one of those tiny wood-framed snack bars that served commercial travellers in the days before motorways. The hut is guarded by old shop dummies dressed in fishnet tights and pirate hats. If the UK made its own dilapidated version of Westworld, the cyborg rebellion would surely begin here.

Steve Jelley orders us breakfast. Years ago he left film production to pursue a career developing new media. He’s of the generation for whom the next big thing is always just around the corner. Most of them perished in the dot-com bust of 2001, but Jelley clung to the dream, and now Microsoft has come calling.

His company, Hammerhead, makes 360-degree videos for commercial clients. Its partner in this current venture, Timeslice Films, is best known for volumetric capture of still images – the business of cinematographically recording forms in three dimensions – a practice that goes back to founder Tim MacMillan’s art-school experiments of the early 1980s.

Steve Sullivan, director of the Holographic Video initiative at Microsoft, is fusing both companies’ technical expertise to create volumetric video: immersive entertainment that’s indistinguishable from reality.

There are only three studios in the world that can do this with any degree of conviction, and Wimbledon is the only one outside the US. Still, I’m sceptical. It has been clear for a while that truly immersive media won’t spring from a single “light-bulb” moment. The technologies involved are, in conceptual terms, surprisingly old. Volumetric capture is a good example.

MacMillan is considered the godfather of this tech, having invented the “bullet time” effect central to The Matrix. But The Matrix is 18 years old, and besides, MacMillan reckons that pioneer photographer Eadweard Muybridge got to the idea years before him – in fact, decades before cinema was invented.

“Engineer Masahiro Mori says his ‘uncanny valley’ idea was never meant to be taken scientifically”

Then there’s motion capture (or mocap): recording the movement of points attached to an actor, and from those points, constructing the performance of a three-dimensional model. The pioneering Soviet physiologist Nikolai Bernstein invented the technique in the early 1920s, while developing training programmes for factory workers.

Truly immersive media will be achieved not through magic bullets, but through thugging – the application of ever more computer power, and the ever-faster processing of more and more data points. Impressive, but where’s the breakthrough?

“Well,” Jelley begins, handing me what may be the largest bacon sandwich in London, “you know this business of the ‘uncanny valley’…?” My heart sinks slightly.

Most New Scientist readers will be familiar with Masahiro Mori’s concept of the uncanny valley. It’s a curiously anglophone obsession. In the 30 years since the Japanese engineer published his paper in 1970, it has been referred to in Japanese academic literature only once. Mori himself says the idea was never meant to be taken scientifically. He was merely warning robot designers at a time when humanoid robots didn’t exist that the closer their works came to resemble people, the creepier we would find them.

In the West, discussions of the uncanny valley have grown to a sizeable cottage industry. There have been expensive studies done with PET scans to prove the existence of the effect. But as Mori commented in an interview in 2012: “I think that the brainwaves act that way because we feel eerie. It still doesn’t explain why we feel eerie to begin with.”

Our discomfort extends beyond encounters with physical robots to include some cinematic experiences. Many are the animated movies that have employed mocap to achieve something like cinematic realism, only to plummet without trace into the valley.

Elsewhere, actor Andy Serkis famously uses mocap to transform himself into characters like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, or the chimpanzee Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and we are carried along well enough by these films. The one creature this technology can’t emulate, however, is Serkis himself. Though mocap now renders human body movement with impressive realism, the human face remains a machine far too complex to be seamlessly emulated even by the best system.

Jelley reckons he and his partners have “solved the problem” of the uncanny valley. He leads me into the studio. There’s a small, circular, curtained-off area – a sort of human-scale birdcage. Rings of lights and cameras are mounted on scaffolds and hang from a moveable and very heavy-looking ceiling rig.

There are 106 cameras: half of them recording in the infrared spectrum to capture depth information, half of them recording visible light. Plus, a number of ultraviolet cameras. “We use ultraviolet paint to mask areas for effects work,” Jelley explains, “so we record the UV spectrum, too. Basically we use every glimmer of light we can get short of asking you to swallow radium.”

The cameras shoot between 30 and 60 times a second. “We have a directional map of the configuration of those cameras, and we overlay that with a depth map that we’ve captured from the IR cameras. Then we can do all the pixel interpolation.”

This is a big step up from mocap. Volumetric video captures real-time depth information from surfaces themselves: there are no fluorescent sticky dots or sliced-through ping-pong balls attached to actors here. As far as the audience is concerned, volumetric video is essentially just that, video, and as close to a true record as anything piped through a basement full of computers is ever going to get.

So what kind of films are made in such studios? Right now, the education company Pearson is creating virtual consultations for trainee nurses. Fashion brands and car companies have shot adverts here. TV companies want to use them for fully immersive and interactive dramas.

“I know she’s not real, but my body doesn’t. Every bit of me has fallen for this super-real gymnast”

On a table nearby, a demo is ready to watch on a Vive VR headset. There are three sets of performances for me to observe, all looping in a grey, gridded, unadorned virtual space: the digital future as a filing cabinet. There are two experiments from Sullivan’s early days at Microsoft. Thomas Jefferson is pure animatronic; the two Maori haka dancers are engaging, if unhuman. The circus gymnast swinging on her hoop is different. I recognise her, or think I do. My body-language must be giving the game away, because Jelley laughs.

“Go up to her,” he says. I can’t place where I’ve seen her before. I try and catch her eye. “Closer.”

I’m invading her space, and I’m not comfortable with this. I can see the individual threads, securing the sequins to her costume. More than that: I can smell her. I can feel the heat coming from her skin.

I know she’s not real, but my body doesn’t. Every bit of me that might have rejected a digitised face as uncanny has fallen hook, line and sinker for this super-real gymnast. And this, presumably, is why the bit of my mind that enables me to communicate freely and easily with my fellow humans is in overdrive, trying to plug the gaps in my experience, as if to say, “Of course her skin is hot. Of course she has a scent.”

Mori’s uncanny valley effect is not quantifiable, and I don’t suppose my experience is any more measurable than the one Mori identified. But I’d bet the farm that, had you scanned me, you would have seen all manner of pretty lights. This hasn’t been an eerie experience. Quite the reverse. It’s terrifyingly ordinary. Almost, I might say, human.

Jelley walks me back to the main road. Neither of us says a word. He knows what he has. He knows what he has done.

Outside the snack shack, three shop dummies in pirate gear wobble in the wind.

This way lies madness

Playing Hellblade for New Scientist, 29 August 2017

You are Senua, a Pictish outcast whose lover has been sacrificed to the gods by homicidal Norse invaders. To release his spirit, you must enter Hel, their underworld.

But is this all real?

Three years ago, Paul Fletcher, a psychiatrist at the Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute in Cambridge, UK, took a call from games company Ninja Theory. The firm wanted help creating a character who suffered from severe psychosis.

“My defences were up,” Fletcher admits, “but quickly I realised I was in serious company. We started by discussing the kinds of hallucinations people experience, and within two or three sessions we were into the neuroscience.”

Senua’s world blurs as she moves. The walls crawl as she passes. When she looks in her mirror, the wrong voice comes screaming out of her reflected mouth. “But more interesting,” recalls Ninja Theory’s co-founder Tameem Antoniades, “was the way someone in psychosis will make sense of their world by making associations: ones that outsiders might find very strange.”

Players will enjoy the way that runic images and the features of Senua’s landscape conjoin in perspectival games that further or frustrate her progress. And there are incidental delights: at one point, the embers of a distant fire pulse to the rhythm of Senua’s breathing.

Hellblade is more than a journey through a hallucinatory landscape (and hallucinatory it is, passing from flaming killing fields through sun-kissed meadows to a corridor of withered arms). It’s about a rational hero desperately trying to make sense of her world. “Most of us are pretty bad at that,” Fletcher points out.

He’s referring to a paper he co-wrote a couple of years ago, showing that people in the very early stages of psychosis are actually better at interpreting ambiguous visual information (think spotting the Dalmatian illusion, in which you see a dog image from the dots) than the rest of us. “Someone — I’ve never been able to find out who — said that perception is controlled hallucination. This is true. You bring what you know to bear on what you sense. That is how we recognise things.”

Not all people who experience hallucinations consider them a problem. Some who hear voices, for example, have joined networks dedicated to removing the social stigma attached to the phenomenon. “A lot of people suffer not because of the content of their hallucination, but because of being ostracised,” Fletcher says.

At the same time, games are becoming increasingly immersive. Hellblade’s binaural soundtrack, placing Senua’s intrusive voices in distinct locales for the player, is a case in point. Fletcher’s hope is that psychiatrists and designers can work together to create immersive environments tailored to the needs of specific individuals.

Avatar therapy“, which uses a screen-based, computer-generated figure to represent, normalise and quell an aggressive intrusive voice, is already proving its clinical worth.

For Antoniades, meanwhile, “video games are becoming alternate digital realities”. Hellblade’s 8 hours of gameplay are a gruelling experience, made compelling by a staggering motion-capture performance by Melina Juergens, a freelance video editor who was initially just filling in for a “real” actress.

Certain players will find the game rather restrictive, and some of those limits are imposed by the psychological realism. Senua’s demons are consistent, staying more or less the same. Psychosis is not a variety show

It’s worth noting, though, that the game’s most traditional element is also its most radical: while Senua may be in the throes of psychosis, she is also a hero.

Gardening in space: Sow the cosmological seeds and scatter

gardening

for New Scientist, 3 January 2016.

 

VISITORS to New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2010 got to meet time, face-to-face. For her show The Artist is Present, Marina Abramovic sat, motionless, for 7.5 hours at a stretch while visitors wandered past her.

Unlike all the other art on show, she hadn’t “dropped out” of time: this was no cold, unbreathing sculpture. Neither was she time’s plaything, as she surely would have been had some task engaged her. Instead, Marc Wittmann, a psychologist based in Freiburg, Germany, reckons that Abramovic became time.

Wittmann’s book Felt Time explains how we experience time, posit it and remember it, all in the same moment. We access the future and the past through the 3-second chink that constitutes our experience of the present. Beyond this interval, metronome beats lose their rhythm and words fall apart in the ear.

“By removing the tedium of waiting, we have turned ourselves into sensation junkies“
As unhurried and efficient as an ophthalmologist arriving at a prescription by placing different lenses before the eye, Wittmann reveals, chapter by chapter, how our view through that 3-second chink is shaped by anxiety, age, boredom, appetite and feeling.

Unfortunately, his approach smacks of the textbook, and his attempt at a “new solution to the mind-body problem” is a mess. However, his literary allusions – from Thomas Mann’s study of habituation in The Magic Mountain to Sten Nadolny’s evocation of the present moment in The Discovery of Slowness – offer real insight. Indeed, they are an education in themselves for anyone with an Amazon “buy” button to hand.

As we read Felt Time, do we gain most by mulling Wittmann’s words, even if some allusions are unfamiliar? Or are we better off chasing down his references on the internet? Which is the more interesting option? Or rather: which is “less boring”?

Sandi Mann’s The Upside of Downtime is also about time, inasmuch as it is about boredom.

Once we delighted in devices that put all knowledge and culture into our pockets. But our means of obtaining stimulation have become so routine that they have themselves become a source of boredom. By removing the tedium of waiting, says psychologist Mann, we have turned ourselves into sensation junkies. It’s hard for us to pay attention to a task when more exciting stimuli are on offer, and being exposed to even subtle distractions can make us feel more bored.

Sadly, Mann’s book demonstrates the point all too well. It is a design horror: a mess of boxed-out paragraphs and bullet-pointed lists. Each is entertaining in itself, yet together they render Mann’s central argument less and less engaging, for exactly the reasons she has identified. Reading her is like watching a magician take a bullet to the head while “performing” Russian roulette.

In the end Mann can’t decide whether boredom is a good or bad thing, while Wittmann’s more organised approach gives him the confidence he needs to walk off a cliff as he tries to use the brain alone to account for consciousness. But despite the flaws, Wittmann is insightful and Mann is engaging, and, praise be, there’s always next time.