Ad Astra

Having just seen a standout performance by Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, I was keen to see his latest film Ad Astra.  I saw some rave reviews by film critics that perhaps raised my expectations a little too much, because while I enjoyed the film I had some problems with it also. Here is a quote from one review: “In a mesmerizing, minimalist performance, Pitt forms the gravitational center of a film that takes its place in the firmament of science fiction films by fearlessly quoting classics of the genre (as well as those outside it)”.

It pays homage to many classic science fiction and other films, and the central journey to Uranus is very reminiscent of 2001 A Space Odyssey.  Brad does give a great “minimalist” performance as the icily competent, pathologically controlled astronaut, Roy McBride, whose heart rate never rises above 80 beats per minute, even in the opening sequence when he is falling from near space out of control, after an accident on the world’s tallest antenna.  I did really enjoy his many psych evaluations where he made verbal reports such as:

  • “I’m unsure of the future, but I’m not concerned. I will rely on those closest to me, and I will share their burdens, as they share mine. I will live and love.”
  • “I’m steady, calm, ready to do my job to the best of my abilities. I will remain calm. I will remain focused.”
  • “I’m calm, steady. I slept well, eight point two hours, no bad dreams. I am ready to go, ready to do my job to the best of my ability. I am focused only on the essentials, to the exclusion of all else. I will make only pragmatic decisions. I will not allow myself to be distracted. I will not allow my mind to linger on that which isn’t important. I will not rely on anyone or anything. I will not be vulnerable to mistakes.”

I even looked some of these up to use as affirmations in preparation for a stressful event recently.

So what about the film irritated me and to my mind hold it back from true greatness? Spoilers ahead.

First, while the space scenes were visually spectacular, the technology looked identical to that used for the moon landings. The rocket used to leave the earth was a multistage rocket just like the Saturn 5, we even saw the boosters falling away as it left earth atmosphere. OK, but the rocket from the moon to Mars also looked similar, and yet the trip was to be done in 17 days.  That is an order of magnitude faster than NASA thinks it can achieve.  On top of that, they stopped along the way to investigate a distress signal from another spacecraft which was drifting. Then apparently accelerated again and got to Mars within days not weeks or months.  My sons disagreed with me, and said almost certainly they had much better fuel, engines etc and just didn’t dwell on the technology. Even so, it just seemed jarring to me to have a trip to Uranus and back in months using technology that looked identical to that used in the 1960s.

This continued on the moon when they travelled to the dark side in lunar rovers looking just like those of the Apollo expeditions, right down to the space suits they wore as they sat in the open rovers.  Once on Mars, surface transportation were little bus-like vehicles with no need for space suits.  Back to the moon, they were attacked by space pirates also wearing space suits and riding open rovers.  This really made me incredulous. The movie did say that there were multiple bases from a number of countries, and mining companies, and quite a few people on the moon. But it defies my imagination to think that the US base would not have surveillance, and that a lunar surveillance satellite would not be able to spot and track all outside movement on the lunar surface and alert McBride and his companions to unknown vehicles approaching.

The other limitation was the theme of McBride seeking out his father, dealing with Daddy issues, and returning to earth a changed man who will give priority to his loved ones. This is pop psychology and the movie did not really go beyond the simplistic here.  There really was not much of a deep dive into either father or son’s issues, or the broader issue of other life in the universe, on which some of the psychology was hung.  Though Interstellar did not go too much deeper, I found it a much more moving and thought-provoking movie than Ad Astra.

I think the viewing public must have had some similar thoughts.  On Rotten Tomatoes, the critic score was high at 83% and the audience score wa 42%. Similarly, on Metacritic, the critics score 80% and the user score is 59%.  Typical of some of the user reviews was the following comment: In space, no one can hear you cry about your absent-daddy issues.”

The movie is worth seeing, if only to see Brad Pitt in a very different role. Where his beauty is largely hidden and we get to see only his eyes through a space helmet visor.  But it misses greatness in my view.

The 10 greatest athletic feats of the 21st century – transcending perceived limits of mind and body

I have been following Eliud Kichoge’s bid to be the first human to run a marathon in less than 2 hours. He succeeded on Saturday with a time of 1 hour 59 mins and 40 seconds. This is an absolutely extraordinary achievement. It was not an official world record, because of the use of rotating pacemakers and because Kipchoge was handed his drinks from a bike, but it is still the fastest marathon ever run. After he finished, Kipchoge said that he had wanted to send a message to the world that no human is limited.

This made me think about a number of extraordinary feats that I’ve seen achieved in recent years and I decided to make a list of my top 10 most extraordinary human achievements in the realm of extreme feats that broke barriers and went beyond perceived limits of mind and body. Quite a few of these feats involve non-ordinary states of consciousness that need total engagement in the here-now, unity of mind and body, and transcendence of distracting thoughts and emotions. States known as “being in the zone” or “flow” to athletes, as “immovable mind” to the samurai and as samadhi to Zen practitioners.

I also decided arbitrarily to restrict my list to feats achieved in the last 20 years, or in other words, in the 21st century (counting the year 2000 as part of this century). This is an idiosyncratic list that reflects my interests and the level of amazement and awe that watching (or in one case reading an account of) the event inspired in me. You may well have a very different list, though I think at least the ones towards the top should be on most lists.

1. Alex Honnold

Alex Honnold is an American rock climber best known for his free solo ascents of big wall climbs. On June 3, 2017, he made the first free solo ascent of El Capitan, completing the 2,900-foot Freerider route in 3 hours and 56 minutes. Among other awards, the film won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature (2018).  I’ve reviewed Free Solo in an earlier post.  I agree with the New York Times that this is “one of the great athletic feats of any kind, ever”, and put it as number one in my list.

2. Eliud Kipchoge

On 12 October 2019, Eliud Kipchoge became the first human ever to run a marathon in under two hours. He finished in 1:59:40, holding a sub-4:34 pace for the 26.2 miles. It is an achievement to rival that of Sir Roger Bannister in 1954, the first human to run the mile in under 4 minutes.

3. Ueli Steck

Ueli Steck was a Swiss rock climber and mountaineer who specialized in solo speed ascents of Alpine and Himalayan mountains. On 17th November 2015, Ueli Stecj set a new and still unbroken record for the North Face of the Eiger, soloing it in 2 hours, 22 minutes 50.7 second. Tragically, he died on 30 April 2017 after falling during a training climb for an ascent of Everest on the West Ridge route.

4. Felix Baumgartner

On Oct. 14, 2012, the Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner made history by jumping from a balloon at an altitude of 39,045 km, landing safely after a nine-minute descent. He not only set a new record for the highest parachute jump (39 km or 24 miles), but became the first human to break the sound barrier without engine power, reaching a speed of  1357 km/hr or Mach 1.25. He also set records for the highest free fall and the highest manned balloon flight.

5. Eddie Hall

Eddie Hall is an English former professional strongman, who set a world record for the deadlift in July 2016 by lifting 500 kg.   This lift of 500 kg (1,102 lb; 79 st)  under strongman rules bested the world record he had previously set at 465 kg (1,025 lb) earlier that same day. The 500 kg lift made Hall pass out with blood coming from his eyes, ears and nose due to burst blood vessels in his head. He went on to win the 2017 World’s Strongest Man competition.

6. Aron Ralston

In April 2003, Aron Ralston was canyoning alone through Bluejohn Canyon when an 800-pound boulder crushed his right arm against the wall of a canyon. He was stuck beneath its weight for five days and was completely unable to free his arm. In order to save his own life, he took the drastic decision to amputate his own arm using a dull two-inch knife. He realized that his tool was inadequate to cut through the bones in his arm, so he first had to torque his arm against the boulder to break the radius and ulna bones. After freeing himself, he climbed out of the canyon, abseiled one-handed down a 65-foot cliff and then hiked 6 miles before encountering a family who summoned help. His ordeal was made into an Oscar-nominated documentary “127 Hours” in 2010.

7. Wim Hof

Wim Hof, known as the Iceman, is a Dutch extreme athlete with an ability to withstand extreme cold for long periods. He has set numerous world records,  including for the farthest swim under ice in 2000, and the fastest half marathon barefoot on snow and ice in 2007. Hof has set the world record for longest time in direct, full-body contact with ice a total of 16 times, the most recent being in 2013 one hour, 53 minutes and 10 seconds. He is considered a master of Tummo meditation, a form of yoga, and is the first person to have scientific validity for the practice.

In 2007, Hof climbed to an altitude of 7,200 m (23,600 ft) on Mount Everest wearing nothing but shorts, climbing boots and gloves. In 2009, Hof reached the top of Mount Kilimanjaro within two days wearing only shorts. That same year he ran a full marathon in the Namib desert without water and another above the Arctic circle wearing nothing but shorts

8. Alain Robert

Alain Robert is a 57-year old French rock climber and urban climber, known as “the French Spider-Man”. Robert is famous for his free solo climbing, scaling skyscrapers using no climbing equipment except for a small bag of chalk and a pair of climbing shoes. Among many climbing exploits he climbed the then tallest building in the world, the 508-metreTaipei 101 building, on  25 December 2004. On 28 March 2011, he climbed the tallest building in the world, the 828-metre Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai, though he was required to use a belay rope for safety. He continues to regularly climb skyscrapers around the world. The latest is the 153-metre tall Skyper building in Frankfurt, where he was arrested upon finishing his descent.

9. David Blaine

David Blaine is an American illusionist, endurance artist and extreme performer. He is best known for his high-profile feats of endurance, and has set and broken several world records. These include standing for 35 hours on a 100 foot high pillar only 22 inches wide in 2002, and sitting in a clear Perspex box for 44 days in 2003 without eating, and drinking only water.  On September 8, 2008 he set a world record for static apnoea, holding his breath inside a tank of water for 17 minutes, 4.5 seconds.

10. Luke Aikins and Constable Velumurugan

I had some difficulty deciding who to list as number 10 on this list, there was not an obvious candidate in my mind. Usain Bolt did come to mind as the fastest man alive, and he is often listed as the number 1 greatest athlete of the 21st century in other people’s lists. I don’t disagree he should probably take this slot, or perhaps a higher one. But sprinting does not really rock my boat, so I kept looking. I did seriously consider Luke Aikins, who on July 30 2016 jumped without a parachute from a plane at 25,000 feet (7,620 m) and successfully landed in a 100 by 100 foot net set up on the ground.


But I have a soft spot for Constable Velumurugan of the Tamil Nadu State Police who, in December 2002, attempted a high dive from a height of 38 metre (125 feet). He lost control of his body halfway down and hit the water in what I believe is the world record for bellyflop. So I list them both as humans who performed extreme jumps with unusual landings they were fortunate to survive.

Climate change and the undermining of science

Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion have been raising awareness of the urgent need to stop talking and start acting on global warming. The evidence that global warming is real and that it is human-caused is now overwhelming, but the public debate is regularly swamped by science deniers who in most cases clearly simply ignore or are ignorant of the evidence, and often are clearly clueless about how to assess evidence, or even what constitutes evidence.

The first illustration below, from a recent Economist issue, summarises the rise in average temperature across the earth’s surface in 2018 compared to the average for 1951-1980.

Many deniers claim that the current rising temperature is natural, resulting from ice age cycles or orbital variations of the earth. The graph below shows how current CO2 levels are dramatically higher and rising faster than in any interglacial period over the last half million years. And our best climate models predict temperature rises associated with CO2 levels which match measured temperatures over the last 40 years. If the impact of CO2 is excluded from the models, it is not possible to explain the observed rise in temperature (see graph below).

Three recent studies published in Nature and Nature Geoscience use extensive historical data to show there has never been a period in the last 2,000 years when temperature changes have been a s fast and extensive as in recent decades (Neikom1, Neikom2 ,Bronnimann ).

It had earlier been thought that similarly dramatic peaks and troughs might have occurred in the past, including in periods dubbed the Little Ice Age and the Medieval Climate Anomaly. But the three studies use reconstructions based on 700 proxy records of temperature change, such as trees, ice and sediment, from all continents that indicate none of these shifts took place in more than half the globe at any one time.

The Little Ice Age, for example, reached its extreme point in the 15th century in the Pacific Ocean, the 17th century in Europe and the 19th century elsewhere, says one of the studies. This localisation is markedly different from the trend since the late 20th century when records are being broken year after year over almost the entire globe, including this summer’s European heatwave. Major temperature shifts in the distant past are also most likely to have been primarily caused by volcanic eruptions, according to one of the three studies.

The oft-quoted 97% figure

In the last few days I have seen several articles quoting the claim that 97% of climate scientists accept that humans are causing global warming.  This figure actually comes from a 2013 article in Environmental Research Letters by Cook et al. titled “Quantifying the Consensus on Anthropogenic Global Warming in the Scientific Literature”. It actually estimated that among abstracts expressing a position on global warming, 97.1% endorsed the consensus position that humans are causing global warming”.  Not a per cent of scientists but a per cent of papers whose abstracts expressed a position. But the misquote has achieved the status of a universal factoid trotted out by those arguing that humans are causing global warming as well as climate sceptics, who point to 3% thinking it is not real means there is uncertainty.

A more recent review of abstracts from 2013 and 2014 (the_consensus_on_anthropogenic_global_warming) found that of 24,210 abstracts of papers on climate change, only five explicitly rejected human role in global warming. As two of these papers were by the same author, the final figure for scientists who publish on global warming and reject a human causative role is 1 in 17,352 or 0.006%. Almost certainly this percentage is even lower now as more evidence floods in every year. This is probably as close to unanimity as humans are capable of in areas of science that involve such massive amounts of data of different kinds.  Its probably approaching the level of unanimity among physicists and geologists about the shape of the earth. In that case, the evidence is also overwhelming but quite straightforward and accessible to anyone. I suspect the number of scientists publishing papers arguing the earth is flat is actually a real zero per cent.

The obfuscation and undermining of science

In a recent post (are-humans-heating-up-the-world), I commented that the climate change denial is being fuelled by deliberate obfuscation and funding of deniers, politicians and right-wing think thanks, that is reminiscent of the way that tobacco companies set out to confuse and obfuscate the very clear scientific consensus. And I went even further to say that in both cases, the relevant industries knew the truth from quite early on but hid that.  After I posted it, I had some qualms. While I thought I was right, perhaps I was just remembering second hand comments and I should check my facts. So I did.

Cummings et al have documented the evidence that the tobacco companies knew and for most part accepted the very strong evidence that cigarette smoking was a cause of cancer by the late 1950s. They and Brandt also document how the tobacco companies’ response was to deliberately undermine the acceptance of the facts by funding research intended to obfuscate the debate about smoking and health and to manufacture controversy about the facts.

In the immediate post-war years – the dawn of the nuclear age – science was in high esteem. Scientific advances (the bomb, radar, computing) had played a major role in winning the war, and continued to transform everyday life with radio, TV, electronics and electrical labour-saving devices. The tobacco industry launched an unprecedented strategy to undermine acceptance of scientific results through funding research intended to undo and obfuscate what was known. In doing so it provided substantial funding to researchers and doctors who would work to confuse the public and more or less invented the modern conflicts of interest that are now such a source of contention in science, medicine, media and public policy. This strategy of producing apparent uncertainty in the science (which actually largely did not really exist) undercut public health efforts and regulatory responses designed to reduce the harms of smoking.

Following the publication by Sir Richard Doll and Austin Bradford Hill in 1952 of a definitive review American, German and British studies which showed smoking was an important cause of lung cancer, the major tobacco companies of the time commissioned a public relations company, Hill and Knowlton, to regain public confidence in the tobacco industry.

In 1954 the British Medical Journal published the first prospective results from the British Doctors Study set up by Doll, confirming that lung cancer rates were much higher in smokers, and increased with the amount smoked. Doll and Hill reported that smokers also had higher death rates from heart disease, chronic lung disease, and many other conditions and, in 1957, the British and Dutch were the first governments to accept officially that smoking caused lung cancer.

John W. Hill, Hill and Knowlton’s president at the time, said that denying the facts would not be enough as this would clearly be borne from self-interest. Instead, demanding more science was a better tactic. He suggested that the goal of the tobacco industry should be to build and broadcast a major scientific controversy which would convey the message that the health effects of smoking were not conclusively known. One way to achieve this end was to commission more research into the causes of illness. Hill proposed the creation of a research group which would serve a public relations purpose demonstrating the tobacco industry’s collective concern for the public. The Tobacco Industry Research Committee was founded. In an advert published in more than 400 newspapers across the United States, tobacco companies promised to explore the science of tobacco and to ensure consumer well-being.

A wide range of other industries have subsequently adopted similar strategies to invent scientific controversy to undermine public action to address known harms. While the tobacco industries have now conceded and accept that tobacco smoking causes cancer, respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, the fossil fuel industries and their supporters are doing their utmost to undermine acceptance of the evidence and consensus on global warming.

The Guardian recently documented the evidence that the fossil fuel industries’ own scientists were advising them in the 1970s that there was an “overwhelming” consensus that fossil fuels were responsible for atmospheric carbon dioxide increases (8). And a confidential report prepared for Shell found that CO2 could raise temperatures by 1C to 2C over the next 40 years with changes that may be “the greatest in recorded history”.  In 1990 Exxon funded two researchers, Dr Fred Seitz and Dr Fred Singer to dispute the mainstream consensus on climate science. Seitz and Singer were previously paid by the tobacco industry and questioned the hazards of smoking. Singer, who has denied being on the payroll of the tobacco or energy industry, has said his financial relationships do not influence his research (8).

The Manson murders and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

After watching Tarantino’s latest film, which I reviewed in my last post (once-upon-a-time-in-hollywood), I got out Helter-Skelter to read again. This is the absolutely riveting story of the Manson murders in Hollywood in 1969, the police investigation that followed, the trial and outcomes, written by the prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, who meticulously investigated and prosecuted Manson and three female followers.

Warning: this post contains spoilers about the movieOnce Upon a Time in Hollywood”.Don’t read further if you haven’t seen the movie and intend to.

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Once Upon A Time in Hollywood

I wanted to see Tarantino’s latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which takes place in a loving recreation of late-’60s Los Angeles. I knew that it starred one of my favorite actors, Brad Pitt, along with Leonardo DiCaprio and Margot Robbie and was set in 1969 at the time of the Manson murders. But that was all. I asked my older son if he was interested to see it and he came along. I was a teenager in last years of high school in 1969 and very clearly remember the Manson murders, as well as later reading a book by the prosecutor who got Manson and his followers convicted and sentenced to death. So I was quite interested to see what Tarantino would make of this material and era.  We both thoroughly enjoyed the film, of which more below, but in our discussion after the movie ended, I discovered that we had had two extremely different experiences, as if we were watching two different movies.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Cast

Warning: this post will contain major spoilers about the movieOnce Upon a Time in Hollywood”. I strongly recommend that you don’t read further if you haven’t seen the movie and intend to. It really will be a much more satisfying movie if you don’t already know the plot.

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Stand on Zanzibar

My older son has been voraciously reading science fiction novels from the golden age of SF, namely the 1960s and 1970s. I say the golden age, because I was his age in the 1960s and at university in the 1970s, and read all the same novels.  I have more than once told him that I read almost all of the “good” or “important” SF and authors of that period.  My interests veered into fantasy of the Tolkien type, but at the same time the immense proliferation of second rate Tolkien copiers in the 1970s (think Terry Brooks: Shannara etc) led to me ceasing to try to read all the important authors as they were published.

I also got rid of much of my extensive SF library with time, keeping only a few authors that I particularly enjoyed (think Philip K. Dick, Philip Jose Farmer, Roger Zelazny….) and now I am buying my son SF novels from Amazon that I once used to own.

My son recently read “Stand on Zanzibar” by John Brunner and raved about it, said I had to read it. It has a huge reputation, made a big impact, and won the Hugo Award for Best Novel at the 27th World Science Fiction Convention in 1969, as well as the 1969 BSFA Award and the 1973 Prix Tour-Apollo Award. Fifty years after its first publication in 1968, it is considered one of the greatest SF novels of the period, and is still regularly reviewed and discussed.

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Ulysses and book burning in Australia

Today the 16th June is Bloomsday, a celebration of the life and work of the Irish writer James Joyce. Joyce’s epic novel Ulysses is set on that day in 1904, the day of his first date with his wife-to-be, Nora Barnacle.

This lengthy novel has been highly controversial, and has been banned in various countries. It is written using a stream-of-consciousness technique, with careful structuring based on Homer’s Odyssey. Its revolutionary technique and experimental prose as well as its rich characterisation and broad humour, have led it to be regarded as one of the greatest literary works in history.

I read Ulysses as an undergraduate during my daily commutes by train to and from Sydney University. I was particularly taken with the final chapter of Ulysses in which Molly Bloom is lying in bed next to Leopold and her thoughts are reported as a stream-of-consciousness 42 pages in length. I think I read a paperback edition that belonged to my father. I remember him during that period quoting to me the following passage highlighting Leopold Bloom’s adoration for his wife Molly, because he loved the sound of the words:

“He kissed the plump mellow yellow smellow melons of her rump, on each plump melonous hemisphere, in their mellow yellow furrow, with obscure prolonged provocative melonsmelonous osculation.”
                James Joyce, Ulysses, Episode 17 “Ithaca”.

My father and before him my great-Uncle John (1895-1975) were book collectors and I have kept some of their books, including a copy of the first edition of Ulysses published by Shakespeare and Company in Paris. After the initial printing of 1000 numbered copies in 1922, my great-uncle acquired a copy in 1927 from the 8th print run of May 1926.

Title page

A publishing history of Ulysses can be found at

I knew that Ulysses had been banned in Australia for some time and looked up the dates. it was not banned until 1929, then released in 1937, only to be restricted again in 1941 after pressure from Catholic organizations. This ban was lifted in 1953 after it was considered ineffectual considering how many copies were already in circulation.

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