Friday, August 26, 2011

Beware the Rocket Scientist

I've known a few guys who thought they were pretty smart
But you've got being right down to an art
You think you're a genius, you drive me up the wall
You're a regular original, a "know-it-all"
Ohwooh, you think you're special
Ohwooh, you think you're something else
Ok, so you're a rocket scientist...
That don't impress me much!
"That Don't Impress Me Much" - Shania Twain

Actually, Shania, that do impress me much, though not in that way. Rocket scientists, and their theoretical physicist ilk, are often terrifying. Left to their own infernal devices, they tend to shanghai philologists for secret space missions or conduct diabolical experiments inspiring declarations such as "I have become Death, destroyer of worlds." Or, more commonly, they rain acid on everyone's parade, telling them that "there is no heaven or afterlife... that is a fairy tale for people afraid of the dark."

More than that, the entire field of astrophysics, and the theoretical physics I associate with it, puts the fear of God in me. As I told a co-worker the other day, I've come to regard the subject as a metaphysical black hole ready to suck my math-challenged soul into oblivion. Even in matters of entertainment, I've found astrophysically-inspired works to be incomprehensible, impersonal and irritating: Contact and 2001: A Space Odyssey immediately spring to mind. Thus, when my professor handed me the script of the Big Bang Theory pilot episode for an assignment, I turned the first page with some trepidation.

It's clear that the show's creators are more impressed than Shania was. From the outset, Big Bang Theory happily concedes the history of the universe and man to the secular, materialist conclusions of modern science. The intro music (lyrics here) is essentially a Sunday School song for the Church of the Big Bang:

With the authorship of the universe thus designated to the Big Bang and ownership implicitly delegated to its disciples, the meek's inheritance must necessarily shrink from the earth in its entirety to whichever elements slip through the scientists' fingers.

The nature of this reduced inheritance is quickly apparent: the story follows genius physicists Leonard and Sheldon, who, though their heads often remain above the clouds, spend most of each episode contending for women and social status on earth. We of the lesser IQs but superior social skills can then laugh as they try to wow the ladies with the length of their mathematical formulations. Therein lies the respite of the more organically-inclined: as long as the pretty girls can reduce the imposing brainiacs to shy, adorable little boys, we don't have to worry so much about them replacing us all with robots. Heaven help us if sex robots ever erode this last line of defense!

While for the purposes of the show, a blonde is sufficient to keep the boys in check, I still fear the slippery slope of their secular materialism. While 2001: A Space Odyssey was off quite a bit in its timeline, its vision of the godless cosmic endgame is still clear and chilling. Drs. Bowman and Poole might as well be matured, post-angst versions of Leonard and Sheldon, with their robotic companion HAL eliminating all need for additional human assistance. Bowman and Poole, millions of miles away from earth, head for the "Monolith," the source of the cosmic intelligence. Their fates are hauntingly representative of mankind's available options in this dystopian future: Poole gets his oxygen cut off by the defensive HAL and drifts lifeless through space; Bowman reaches the Monolith and transforms through some form of expedited evolution. He too drifts through space, only in the transcendent form of a star baby.

If you're like me, I have a hard time getting excited about those options. But if the world is to be inextricably gripped by the rocket scientist and his rules, I only hope that I will get as much out of the experience as the aforementioned philologist, C.S. Lewis' Dr. Elwin Ransom. For once strapped to the ship and propelled forcibly into space, the fearful man of letters felt his terror transformed into pious wonder:

"A nightmare, long engendered in the modern mind by the mythology that follows in the wake of science, was falling off him. He had read of 'Space': at the back of his thinking for years had lurked the dismal fancy of the black, cold vacuity, the utter deadness, which was supposed to separate the worlds. He had not known how much it affected him till now - now that the very name 'Space' seemed a blasphemous libel for this empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam. He could not call it 'dead'; he felt life pouring into him from it every moment... He had thought it barren; he saw now that it was the womb of worlds, whose blazing and innumerable offspring looked down nightly even upon the Earth with so many eyes - and here, with how many more! No: Space was the wrong name. Older thinkers had been wiser when they named it simply the heavens - the heavens which declared the glory..."

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Apes of Wrath

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.
- "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" (1862)

They don't make them like they used to. The Battle Hymn of the Republic was a blockbuster in its day. Today it is a relic of a society that used to take such volcanic Christian religious imagery a lot more seriously. Still, it's not without a few distant relatives in the modern era.

Science fiction is one of the closest secular equivalents to the spectacular prophetic visions of the Christian faith. Befitting the atheistic bent of American secularism, these newfangled prophecies are almost always pessimistic and tend to be unintentionally silly. The 1968 film Planet of the Apes, steeped in evolutionary themes and imagery, is the epitome of science fiction as godless prophecy. Simultaneously ridiculous and haunting, Chuck Heston's famous last words, spoken upon the realization that mankind brought its extinction on itself, are nicely representative of the film's message to the humans of the day: "You maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!"

Returning to scene of the apocalypse 43 years later, the recently released film Rise of the Planet of Apes (ROTPA) stays true to its fatalistic roots, but discards the despairing tone of its predecessor in favor of an infectious and bizarrely misplaced optimism. This is not to say that ROTPA spares humanity from its horrible fate. Rather, it takes up Monty Python's injunction to look on the bright side of death.

In ROTPA, humanity's dismal future is a subplot, a colorful backdrop for the exhilirating ascension of a new master species of ape. Indeed, mankind barely even has a hand in the species suicide predicted in the original. The (self-destructive) power the original reserved to humans, ROTPA surrenders to the wise, guiding force of natural selection. Man's demise is reduced to a twist of fate, a Darwinian nudge to expedite the rise of the fitter new species.

ROTPA's human ensemble is a sadsack assortment of fools and weaklings. The brilliant scientist (who carries water as the protagonist until the ape matures) is powerless to influence events once his brain-serum sets them in motion. His father, an Alzheimers' patient, is representative of his fellow humans: confused, mostly harmless and ultimately doomed. Even the villains - the scientist's profit-obsessed CEO, his meddlesome neighbor, and the abusive primate-keeper - are terribly overmatched once the apes decide to make their stand.

Caesar the chimp is the film's star, and a bright one at that. His journey from wide-eyed innocent to mighty tribal chieftain, despite its underlying absurdity, recalls William Wallace in Braveheart. So charismatic is he, and so sympathetic his situation, that theatric audiences are moved to tears at his plight (my sister-in-law cried five times) and to cheer his successes. This mass appeal is especially bizarre in that Caesar's character arc transforms him from man's best friend to a militant (though civilized) ape supremacist. Under his leadership, barbarous apes reveal themselves not only to be bigger and stronger than their human oppressors, but smarter, more valorous, and even more virtuous.

When the film's final conflict concludes with the heavily-armed humans thoroughly routed by empowered apes, it is clear that this is no tragedy. The film, and its enraptured audience, celebrate the humans' shocking defeat as a much-needed changing of the guard. The intelligent apes are the new chosen people.

And why should we cry for the humans? They (or is it we?) had their time. Stripped of Imago Dei, there is nothing inherently special about humans, other than the unique power of our brain. Once the scientist let that birthright slip out of their grip (though, in their defense, an Alzheimers' cure is a better return than red pottage), their supremacy was finished. For the new wine of Darwinian progress, we humans are just old wineskins.