Arrival, Eschatology, and Philip K. Dick

The new film Arrival, based on a story by Ted Chiang, is unlike most any science fiction blockbuster at the box office these days. It’s a tense, thoughtful, somber meditation on the human condition and the nature of a higher reality. In many ways, it is a religious film that deals with eschatology (the end times or judgment day).

Unlike Chad Orzel, I haven’t read the source material, so I experienced the film with fresh eyes. I was immediately reminded of Philip K. Dick and his real-life experience of being ‘touched by an angel.’ Dick, both a life-long Christian and prolific author of fantastical science fiction scenarios, felt that he had come into contact with the Logos, which he alternately identified as Jesus Christ, and so experienced a deeply personal revelation about the nature and meaning of time. Dick had many names for the entity he came into contact with, including VALIS (for Vast Active Living Intelligence System). VALIS proved to Dick that temporal causality flowed in both directions, both from past to future and from future to past. Note that Hollywood loves adapting Dick’s work, having done so with Blade Runner, Minority Report, Paycheck, Total Recall, and others. Dick’s fiction is also the basis for Amazon’s series The Man in the High Castle. After coming into contact with VALIS, Dick came to believe that all his work, which had once seemed to him fantastical, was actually a deep metaphor for reality. Part of his insight was the idea that ancient Rome never ended; that the world as we know it is really a black iron prison.

In Arrival, the central character of Dr. Louise Banks seems to flashback to the death of her child from cancer. It appears that random moments from her past begin to make sense in the present (as they do in Signs by M. Night Shyamalan). This would be a synchronistic scenario, a view that everything happens for a reason, and well-aligned with what Dick experienced. In the moment of his revelation he felt that he had been programmed from birth by VALIS with seemingly random signs, symbols, and cosmological ideas, which only later made sense as part of a grand design.

But it turns out Arrival is not quite Dickian in its conception of cause and effect; Louise isn’t remembering important moments from her past, she is witnessing important moments from her future. This places her in the same vein as a prophet or oracle. Her ability to flash-forward is not well explained and she seems to be the only human being capable of precognition. Her exceptional nature has religious connotations as well; her indispensability in the salvation of Earth is akin to the return of Christ itself. She is, in fact, a messiah.

The film begins with twelve alien ships positioning themselves around the planet, proximal to different cultures with different languages (compare this to Revelation 12:1, ‘A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head’). The aliens are menacing, squidlike, incomprehensible. As a linguist, Louise is sent to speak with them. The nature of language is central to the thesis of the film, and according to Chad, language issues feature much more prominently in the source material by Chiang. Louise explains that languages are not neatly interchangeable, and in fact the language(s) one speaks determine the way one thinks. For example, early in the film she comments that the Sanskrit word for ‘war’ is best translated into English as ‘a desire for more cows.’ When the aliens in their twelve ships express a concept that she translates into the word ‘weapon,’ Louise is quick to note that they might really mean ‘tool.’ When she further deciphers the alien’s message to mean ‘give weapon,’ she has reason to believe that they are offering humanity a gift. But the Chinese, half a world away, believe that their aliens are saying “use weapon.” Distrust and fear from military types on all arcs of the globe quickly threaten to lead to war. The future hangs on by a thread.

It is only Louise realizing that she can remember the future that allows her to prevent global destruction. Arrival is solved with a paradox: Louise has a memory of the future in which the Chinese General tells her what she said to him in the past in order to avert the war. This is the only way she knows what to say to him in the present. Does that make sense? Of course the aliens have come to Earth for paradoxical reasons as well; they are giving a tool to humanity because they will need humanity’s help 3,000 years in the future.

All this differs from Dick’s conception of reverse causality; Dick did not experience visions of his personal future, but he realized that the future was nonetheless communicating with him, and had been all his life. It was not Dick’s memories of the future, but VALIS’s memories of the future, that created orthogonal axes of cause and effect in his mind.

As Louise ultimately asks, with the knowledge that falling in love will eventually lead to the death of her child from cancer, “If you could see your whole life laid out in front of you, would you change things?” For that matter, could you?


Understanding the History of HIV

On Aetiology, Tara C. Smith explores the story of Gaetan Dugas, a man who was long blamed for precipitating the AIDS epidemic in the United States. The vilification of Dugas had nothing to do with science; instead he was dubbed “patient zero” in a misinterpretation of his study moniker “patient O” (for Outside). Dugas’ portrayal in the media turned him into a modern Typhoid Mary, but he was not an originator of the U.S. epidemic, as a 2007 molecular analysis proved and a new paper in Nature confirms. Smith writes “This is the real scandal and lingering tragedy of Dugas. His story was used to stoke fear of HIV-infected individuals, and especially gay men, as predators seeking to take others down with them.” Does science finally have the clout to revisit such an entrenched media narrative?

In other news, The Verge reports on a man who may hold the key to halting the spread of HIV and AIDS. Patient Z258, as he is known, exhibits natural immunity to “a whopping 98 percent of the de-clawed HIV virus strains the scientists generated in the lab.” Understanding the broadly neutralizing antibody that protects Z258 could lead to powerful new treatments for the disease.

Nobel Prize Notes

On Pharyngula, PZ Myers examines the work of Yoshinori Ohsumi, who was awarded the prize in Physiology for his studies of autophagy in yeast. Autophagy, or self-consumption, is a strategy used by all cells to recycle malfunctioning bits of themselves, or to survive during times of starvation. But autophagy is also involved in cancer metastasis and may play a role in other diseases such as Parkinson’s. Meanwhile, the Nobel prize in Physics did not go to LIGO and the observation of gravitational waves as widely expected. Instead it was divided between three individuals for “theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter.” Ethan Siegel writes that their work has “led to a whole suite of new research, and is leading towards breakthroughs in electronics and quantum computing.” As for the prize in Literature, Martin Rundkvist says “I would have an opinion on Bob Dylan’s latest prize if I thought the Swedish Academy’s taste in literary matters was a big deal. And if I cared one way or the other about Bob Dylan.”

Planets, Planets Everywhere

The European Southern Observatory made major headlines with their discovery of an Earth-like exoplanet orbiting our nearest neighboring star. On Dynamics of Cats, Steinn Sigurðsson writes: “ESO researchers, using the radial velocity variability technique, have detected a quite robust signature of a planet with a mass of 1.3 Earth masses, or more, in a 11 day orbit around Proxima Centauri.” The planet is within the red dwarf’s habitability zone, but we don’t yet know if it harbors an atmosphere or liquid water. Greg Laden writes “now that we have an Earth-like planet in our sights, perhaps there will be impetus for both funding and effort to squint really really hard at it and see if any life is there.” Ethan Siegel says “we can use giant ground-based telescopes for high-resolution spectroscopic images of these worlds. We can use space-based telescopes with coronagraphs or starshades to image these worlds directly over time. Or we could undertake a journey across space.” Reflecting on the number and quality of exoplanets discovered in the last few years, Steinn Sigurðsson concludes “What a nice Universe.” Amen.

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Spoiler Alert: Star Trek: Beyond

The centerpiece of the latest Star Trek film is a bright celestial bauble, a tremendous re-imagining of a Federation starbase, named Yorktown.

Yorktown is on the scale of a Death Star, but instead of incinerating worlds it is presumably dedicated to a lot of peace-mongering bureaucracy and some very nice apartment buildings. To quote Memory Alpha, “Yorktown’s structure consisted of a matrix of city-sized interlocking rings and radiating arms enclosed in a spherical translucent surface; Enterprise doctor Leonard McCoy likened it to a giant ‘snow globe’ in space.” At the center of it all the tips of opposing skyscrapers nearly touch, and the artificial gravity gets jumbled into an Escheresque milieu.

One of the best aspects of this film is its level of self-containment. While last year’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens relied on narrative connections to future films and the expanded universe, Star Trek: Beyond shies away from serialization. As a result, it feels a lot like a shot of the original series or The Next Generation, back when episodes of television stood on their own instead of tying together intricate season-long plotlines.

On the other hand, the Enterprise does very little trekking in this film. All the action takes place between Yorktown, an intervening nebula1 and a star system on the far side. Lured from Yorktown through the nebula and to the star system, the Enterprise is utterly destroyed by a swarm of alien drones, and its crew marooned. This is perhaps the most spectacular, fetishistic demolition of the Federation’s flagship in history, and it recalls the other times it has been sacrificed for the silver screen. As in Star Trek: Generations we see the saucer section crash-land on a planet. And as in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock we see a new Enterprise under construction at the end of the film, ready for more box office openings.

Another asset to this film is a complex bad guy who carries plausible motivations for his homicidal rage. Whereas most sci-fi villains tend to be one-note, bloodthirsty evil-doers, Krall carries ideological motivations that Kirk very nearly demolishes in a short conversation. Krall does what he thinks is justified. He’s not a narcissistic ubermensch like Khan, or an irredeemable alien like many of Trek’s cinematic villains. He’s also not an inanimate object, like the primary antagonists of Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. He’s a human soldier who feels betrayed and abandoned by his commanders, a relic from the past who rejects the Federation’s liberal multiculturalism and wants to disintegrate anyone who takes part in it.

This film also recalls an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which the crew discovers a long-lost starship (the Pegasus) trapped inside an asteroid. In Star Trek: Beyond, the crew discovers Krall’s old ship, the Franklin, which had been missing for a century. This time capsule allows the movie just enough narrative headroom to whip out a bad-ass motorcycle for Kirk to ride and the Beastie Boys’ song “Sabotage” to clinch the climactic space battle. I’m not sure whether these elements are cheap stunts from the director of four Fast/Furious movies, or a fun exploitation of Earth’s history within the Trek franchise, but Wil Wheaton leans toward the former.

At any rate this is a fun film, built on strong performances, great characters, stunning visual design, and a tight if sometimes wonky plotline.

1. As for the “nebula” it’s full of more wildly careening rocks than the “asteroid field” in The Empire Strikes Back. This is a step backwards for Star Trek as it represented the Enterprise navigating through a more accurate depiction of a nebula in The Wrath of Khan. As GeekWire writes, “the clouds of gas and dust that make up a nebula are so thin that a starship would have no place to hide – and nothing to dodge except for protostars.” And per Wikipedia, “although denser than the space surrounding them, most nebulae are far less dense than any vacuum created on Earth – a nebular cloud the size of the Earth would have a total mass of only a few kilograms.”

Cupping Just Sucks

Even as Michael Phelps piled a 23rd gold medal onto his stack, he also drew attention at the Rio Olympics for circular bruises on his shoulder resulting from a pseudoscientific medical treatment called cupping. Several ancient cultures practiced variants of cupping in order to reduce pain or heal injury. On Respectful Insolence, Orac writes “even if it does date back 5,000 years, arguably so does bloodletting.” He continues “there is no compelling evidence that cupping is effective for any condition. Certainly, there is no credible evidence that it helps athletic performance.” The benefit that Phelps and other Olympians perceive from cupping treatment is likely a result of the placebo effect. Treatments may also become part of a ritual for athletes or a superstition. Orac says “athletes have a distressing tendency to embrace pseudoscience, as long as they think it can give them an edge.” Certainly Phelps has his edge, but there’s no reason to think suction cups have anything to do with it.

See also: What’s the harm? Cupping edition


Stem Cells on the Medical Frontier

On Respectful Insolence, Orac examines the dangers posed by experimental stem cell treatments, which are often offered outside the United States in order to avoid regulatory oversight. Orac writes that stem cell therapy is “moving from cutting edge science to applied science” but treatments are not yet refined to the point of being safe and effective. In the case of Jim Gass, a stroke patient who sought stem cell therapy at clinics around the world, the intervention proved to be disastrous, as cells injected into his lower back grew into a cancer-like mass that left him paralyzed from the neck down. On Life Lines, Dr. Dolittle reports new findings about the long-lived naked mole rat. Induced pluripotent stem cells from naked mole rats have an active gene that suppresses tumor growth, while in mice and humans the gene is not active. Dr. Dolittle concludes, “The hope is that this exciting research will lead to advancements in stem cell therapy that will make the process safer.”