Traveling without Moving

Traveling without Moving

If last summer I felt overwhelmed with all the travelling needed at work for a new project, this year has been the opposite and I enjoyed a quiet summer about which my only complaint is that it felt too short. Already were the mornings of August getting cool and the trees began shedding their leaves. It was August until yesterday! It’s supposed to be hot and bright and scalding and humid; we were supposed to sweat, not to put on sweaters on the train and in the office.

To make matters worse, stores are already selling fall décor, showing off the newest arrivals for Halloween and Thanksgiving. This constant state of anticipation is just too anxious for me; I need time to slow down. In one of his songs Springsteen claims he doesn’t “see the summer as it wanes; just a subtle change of light upon your face”. Lucky him. I am painfully aware of all signs predicting the end of the warm months…Can’t make days last longer, can’t change the weather though. All I can do is to suggest the few good shows and movies that made me travel this summer, from Siberia to Switzerland, through Asia and the Himalayas and all around planet Earth.

For those who remember the epic trilogy by Frank Herbert – Dune – there is this magic substance – the spice – that made people go places without traveling: “The spice expands consciousness. The spice is vital to space travel. The Spacing Guild and its Navigators, whom the spice has mutated over four thousand years, use the orange spice gas, which gives them the ability to fold space; that is, to travel to any part of the known universe without moving.” Cinema does that for me. Here are my favorites this summer:

Gravity –When I was 11 or 12 my dad took me to the movies to watch a rerun of 2001 A Space Odyssey. That movie set the standards for all future sci-fi productions I watched and Gravity was no exception. To a certain extent, it did make me feel like 11 again, mesmerized by the beautiful special effects. Watch Gravity for this: the perfectly orchestrated special effects. Expect little from the acting and you won’t be disappointed. As a light-hearted, bon-vivant of an astronaut, George Clooney gives up his own life to save Sandra Bullock’s character’s just too easily. It did not feel convincingly enough that a man so happy with himself and his world would give up on everything to save a fellow astronaut to whom he was not even close. Had humankind always given up on survival as easily as Clooney, gravity or not, oxygen or not, we would not be here. But the special effects were magnificent. Following Clooney’s sacrifice, the next big chunk of almost two hours are spent by Sandra Bullock trying to remember her training and consulting the user’s manual to make things work at the space ship – tiny – she is trying to pilot. When she by accident tunes the radio to an Asian-speaking (Chinese probably) frequency and starts howling like a dog I had to remind myself again how terrific the special effects had been so far and that no actress on this Earth of ours could have poorformed that painful scene half-decently. Despite Clooney’s self-immolation, Sandra’s fate is uncertain. Space walking must feel great and everything but at the end of the day we all want to set out feet on the good old soil of this blue planet we call home and experience the blessing gravity is.

The Way Back – By contrast, this never made big news in the U.S.; never won any shiny awards except for an obscure best make-up Oscar in 2011. It’s a 2010 NatGeo co-production directed by Peter Weir and starred by Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris and Collin Farrell, inspired by The Long Walk (1955), a book by Stawomir Rawicz, a Polish POW in the Soviet Gulag.

As in Gravity, it’s about things we only miss when we don’t have them; like gravity itself. And freedom. Human beings do crazy things for freedom, as for example, walk four thousand miles, from the Siberian Gulag to India. In one touching scene, when the group of fugitives make it to the plains of Mongolia, their despair in seeing comrade Mao’s portrait upon a portal at the borderline made me shiver. “They are here too”, one of the travelers cries, in despair. It’s the WW II days and it would take many decades for Eastern Europe to divorce from communism. The way back to freedom was achieved step by painful step, for those fugitives and the countries to which they belonged.

Particle Fever – sounds like another sci-fi but it is actually a documentary. A U.S. production that opens the doors to the LHC at CERN. Translation: the Large Hadron Collider at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire) in Geneva, Switzerland. This is one rare chance for us, mere mortals, to see how flesh-and-bone Sheldon Coopers and Leonard Hofstadters behave in real life.

In short, the LHC and the likes of it in the world exist so physicists can smash atoms at unbelievable speeds to see what particles they can come up with. Funny enough, science has to turn to the invisible world of units so small we can never hope to actually see them – only the evidence of their existence – to make sense of the giant universe around us.

For the physicists in Particle Fever, theoretical and experimentalist, life is a constant search for the Holy Grail, which in their world, for a long time – since 1970 – is called The Higgs Boson. It’s also a competition between opposing factions: the ones who advocate for the multiverse theory (predicts that the Higgs particle, if found, will have a mass of approximately 140 giga-electronwolts) and the ones who argue in favor of the supersymmetry theory (predicts the mass of the Higgs to be around 115 GeV).

Flashback to the 1970’s, when the Standard Model was formulated. The Higgs is the very last and perpetually elusive particle to hold the entire system together. Without it, the Model is incomplete – we have to go back and begin again from scratch. It means we know nothing about the Universe. As one of the Sheldons in the documentary says, with a sad voice, “If the Higgs goes, everything goes. [Not finding it] “could be the thing that destroys everything.”

Hence the LHC’s greatest challenge – to find a Higgs-like particle. Its 7 ton superconducting magnets have to be cooled by liquid helium in temperatures below the ones in outer space. One hundred thousand computers handle the data and ten thousand scientists around the world are involved in the project. Watch how a helium leak nearly puts an end to their dreams and how incredibly patient and persistent one has to be in addition to having a brilliant mind in this environment.

Basically put – very basically indeed – If the LHC finds a Higgs-like particle with 115 GeV, supersymmetry wins; all the numbers and equations we have come up with so far are what they are so life can exist. Change one little fraction of a number about any of those, and poof!we’re gone.

A Higgs particle with 140 GeV is more likely to confirm the multiverse theory: Ours is just one of an infinite number of universes – our numbers and equations work out here and here only; we can never hope to understand the entire picture because each universe has its own set of rules. This one of ours is a mere coincidence among a number that is itself incomprehensible to us.

What’s going to be – supersymmetry or multiverse? Watch the day the world came to a halt for physicists, in 2012, waiting for the CERN to announce its official findings; the standing ovation rendered to Peter Higgs – the British scientist who predicted the existence of that very particle and Nobel Prize laureate (born in 1929 and in excellent shape by the way -) wipe away tears from his eyes. 115 GeV or 140 GeV? A puzzling discovery in the end. If anything else, you’ll find out physicists are actually very entertaining people.

The Leftovers – A TV series by HBO. Just when I was feeling no other show would be as good as Game of Thrones, HBO saved the day. Based on the book by Tom Perrotta, also named The Leftovers, the story is more frightening than any version of our world being attacked by zombies. Or monsters from outer space. In both cases we would know who the enemy is. In The Leftovers we are so lost, so flabbergasted by the happenings of one fine October day, many just go postal.

Three years after the so called Rapture (no one could come up with a better name or explanation so The Rapture it became), when two percent of the world’s population simply vanished, the people of Mapleton NY, just outside New York city, are a microcosmos of how human beings are coping.

Praise to the actor who plays Police Chief Kevin Garvey, Jr. – Justin Theroux. So far all I knew about him was his ultra-famous fiancée Jennifer Aniston. He had to become a Leftover to show what he can do! Praise also the casting teams at HBO – they always pick the perfect actor or actress for the perfect role. I have been a long-time fan of HBO shows, since The Sopranos, and it gets better and better.

It’s a story without a hero. From the reverend who sets out to prove to his community that the Rapture was no Rapture at all – that it took away good and bad people alike – from babies to thieves and everyone in between – and therefore is constantly having his nose broken by furious citizens, to the police chief that sleepwalks and does despicable things he cannot remember in the morning. From a weird sect of men and women who don’t speak a word, smoke non-stop and dress in white all the time – the Guilty Remnant – to an African-American messiah who has the power of removing people’s sadness with a hug (provided that you pay a couple of thousand dollars) and has many wives, all of Asian-descent and all of them currently pregnant.

Kevin Garvey’s dad used to be the Police Chief himself (played by Scott Glenn who I missed since Silverado days!) but became violent and began hearing voices after The Rapture. Also, he was having an affair with the very attractive and young Mapleton mayor, in the pre-Rapture days, which only adds to the tension. Kevin’s wife divorced him to join the Guilty Remnant and his son became a follower of Holy Wayne, that mysterious guru. Someone is shooting all dogs in town and Kevin has no idea how to deal with his teenager daughter’s endless anger and hopelessness. Some in town lost their entire families, like Nora, whose husband and two small kids evaporated in the kitchen on that last hectic morning before school and work.

At this point in the story, when the last episode will be aired next week, your guess of what caused millions to disappear is as good as any. I made up my mind watching Nora’s frustration with her screaming kids and aloof husband. Remember Kevin, the little boy in Home Alone, when he asks himself in disbelief, “I made my own family disappear???” What if millions of Kevins around the globe had succeeded in their fleeting wishes, consciously or not, that for one brief second only everybody in their lives could be gone? A crying baby in the back seat, the accidental lover in a motel room… That would explain a lot of the guilt and anxiety the post-Rapture world exhibits in The Leftovers, wouldn’t it? But HBO will probably come up with something twice as astonishing as that. The good thing is, whether or not we will all know next Sunday what happened to the departed, HBO has renewed the show for a second season!

Himalayas – Again a documentary, by BBC’s comedian and travel presenter, Michael Palin, in six episodes. Netflix has the entire series. Like with sci-fi movies, I have to go back to childhood to explain my fascination with this region of the world.

My first good Spanish dictionary, given me by my grandfather when I was 6 or 7, brought from Buenos Aires, Argentina, was published by a now extinct publishing house named Everest. It was a great book, full of pictures and the cover, of bright orange color as I remember it, had printed on the publisher’s symbol. A mountain peak, pointy and covered in snow, under which the name Everest appeared in capitals. I was intrigued. Why would an Argentine publisher call itself Everest, which was a mountain in Asia, when South America had its own formidable mountains, the Andes? I don’t know but the fact remains that it was because of my schism with the name of the publisher that I went on reading everything I could about Mount Everest – Chomolungma, as the Tibetans called it (“Goddess Mother of the World”) since long before 1865, when England’s Royal Geographical Society officially adopted Mount Everest as the name for the highest peak in the world; one to which many famous explorers have lost their lives. A very trying mother as it turned, in the land of eternal snows. Since then I cannot resist a movie or a documentary touching the Himalayas, Nepal, Tibet and Mount Everest – the ceiling of our world.

BBC knows how to put together a documentary. Michael Palin and his troupe travelled six months, from the Khyber Pass, in Pakistan, to the Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh. For us viewers, comfortably seating in our air conditioned homes and soft couches, the perils of Palin’s intrepid journey (3,000 horizontal miles, not counting any mountain climbing) sound even more fantastic. He is no athlete, about 55 years old, and I would think of average constitution. Nearing a climbing that totals over 10,000 feet above sea level, Palin is so ill (maybe a cold, maybe an altitude malaise – he himself is unsure) he can barely speak the camera.

While Palin is having a hard time climbing those steep hills, his Sherpa guides seem to glide upwards. Some are small, some tall, but all of them very muscular; obviously in great shape. Work hard and workout at the same time. Eat rice and lentils for most of your days on the planet, drink Yak butter tea and die of very old age. Such a simple life; we complicated everything.

From conversations with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala to never-seen footage of Tibet’s capital Lhasa (under the Chinese rule) to head- hunting (not the HR type) tribes and villagers that swear the Yeti does exist and looks pretty much like North America’s Big Foot, Palin’s documentary is great fun; I wanted his trip never to end. Although I no longer have any aspirations to see the Everest by myself, I’m glad BBC paid Palin to take on this arduous trip. It’s the Earth’s last frontier. Once we have unveiled all the secrets of the Land of the Eternal Snows, what’s next? We’ll have to go space-walking like George Clooney. I think I’ll pass; I like my gravity.

Happy Labor Day Weekend; enjoy the rest of your summer!

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