Wednesday, 28 November 2012

The Why? Axis


 Rene Magritte - La reproduction interdite
Hey it rhymes!

Here's the talk I gave at Science Showoff in September, in lieu of an interview, about a show that doesn't exist, recycling old blog posts. Pathetic. Since it looks like there may be as many as twenty acts performing on Thursday I'll probably go for something shorter than this now. I apologise that it starts with "so".

So as advertised I'm going to give a talk about how I managed to stave off a growing interest in science long enough to write a science fiction pilot.
The reason I wanted to write a sitcom about Space/Time Travel was...
Well, 1) I'd never tried to write a whole series before. I had written sketches, many of which took place in the past, and if I set a series in all of Time and Space then I might be able to recycle some.
But 2) I liked the idea that the best sitcoms take place in a form of prison, a trap from which the "hero" wishes to escape (trenches in Blackadder Goes Forth... in Father Ted it's Craggy Island... in Porridge it's a prison, it's a prison!) I'm not sure I actually agree with it but I thought, wouldn't it be great, just metaphysically, if the setting from which you longed to escape was All of Time and Space?
So I thought great, but now I'd chosen "The Universe" as my setting I had to work out what that actually looked like, the "sit" of my "com". So I started researching -

Actually, before I started researching I think I had already decided on two rules that this universe had to obey. First, in keeping with the idea of being trapped, it had to be finite. This is best explained by the image of someone looking through a powerful enough telescope long enough to see the back of their own head. Well that was how it was explained to me.

The second rule: There had to be just one universe, so no timelines - I was pretty strict about this, in spite of quantum theory. If you went back in time, you didn't get to change the past like in Back To The Future, you simply risked becoming more responsible for it. This cured any compulsion to go back and rescue Jesus or kill Hitler, or buy his paintings or - You could keep things light.

 
So, not this. Sorry, dude. 
(Update: this video has been removed. I can't now for the life of me remember what it was.)

In fact, according to this rule, if you did try to kill Hitler, then History and Dumb Luck dictated you would fail, so all you'd do is end up making him angry. Maybe it was all your fault. Aha.

Anyway, these rules decided (unscientifically), I began to research the Universe.
I watched Carl Sagan's Cosmos, which I'd bought on amazon, and I thought about nostalgia, because he's dead and I only found that out after, and because I'd originally seen the show when I was eight, with my Dad, and watching it again Space itself now seemed like quite an old idea, something I had grown up with but something, say, our hero's twenty-year-old sidekick might not have. And watching Cosmos I also started, really for the first time, learning Science... and the history of science, which is Science... and History. But when I was growing up I hadn't learnt either. "History" was battles and numbers, and "Science" was... also numbers I suppose - no one spoke about ideas the way I watched Carl Sagan doing now, not quite looking at the camera, poetically, and... simply the voice, which was wonderful and I found myself trying to do it. I'd find myself narrating my life, running a bath, say: "Thuh simpul ackt uv... turningonna tah pp... thuh wwwwater falling, theb ath fffffilling." It was lovely. I was hooked.


The real deal. Also available on vinyl

Speaking of Hooke, I spent three years of school studying Science in something called The Robert Hooke Building, yet in all those three years nobody told me who Robert Hooke actually was. That's what I mean.

So I was hooked on Science now, and History, and Reality. Which was a bit annoying, because I was getting further away from... well, Doctor Who and B-movies and umbrella-headed aliens and robots, and what I thought I'd wanted to write about: the flip-side to this research. The daffy conspiracy theories on youtube on which I'd hoped to base the mythology for this universe: Illuminati, aliens, the Philadelphia Project, Tesla conspiracies, Osiris, esoteric anti-science, Alchemy, John Dee, that kind of thing...



"Jim Carrey is an Osiris Resonator."
 Prometheus was basically made for this man.

Doctor Dee: very interesting historically, and pertinent. Queen Elizabeth the First's Court Mathematician. Prospero was based on him. An alchemist, he was called the Queen's Conjuror. What he actually was though was very good at reading maps. Map-reading was a technology in its infancy. When Dee brought one of the first globes back to England, it was like Project X, an invaluable technological advantage that ensured his country's position as a Global Super Power. Shakespeare named a theatre after it, of course. And yet. in spite of his learning, what Dee really wanted was to be able to scry, which means communicate with angels through use of a mirrored surface. Yes, they have a word for that, and it's "scry". And he couldn't scry - I think for pretty obvious reasons.


Dee, picture, image, illustration
   
This never happened.

Angels don't exist. But... for the purposes of this sitcom I thought it might be useful to have an angel exist, if only to give my hero the ability to travel through Time and Space in the first place. After all Magic is simply Science that... can't be bothered. And Science is the study of reality. And Art is the study of everything else.

Except the "reality" component of this research was actually killing my interest in Time Travel now because I no longer believed in it... I was watching a home video of life in the year 2000, and there we were in our twenties pissing around in a garden that was still viewable from my window, but I live next door now, and a family have moved in with a staffy that barks, and a massive trampoline. The garden in the video is gone, and watching what was going on behind me ten years ago, it was suddenly clear to me that the past was gone. Just gone. It's there in our heads and in what we own, but there's no reaching it. And I know we talk about wormholes, and four dimensions, but Time's a dimension we can only move forward in and it takes no energy to do so and it requires no force, so it's really not the same. Which is fine. Everything's closed and cosy in this finite universe, fine... Except I didn't believe in the central concept of what I had to write any more. Not being able to visit the past seemed far more interesting than visiting it, because it was true. I didn't know what there was to explore in an idea I'd dismissed unless, unless I could find a way to stop dismissing  that idea by somehow working out a practicable method for our hero to travel anywhere in Time without cheating. I... Basically I had to work out how to travel through time. Backwards. Because we're obviously traveling through it forwards already. Or perhaps more accurately, downwards. It's called Waiting. And then... hanging out the washing in the stairwell I remembered  the telescope, and the back of the head, and it suddenly occurred to me how you might be able to visit the past without having to travel backwards. All it would require is for Time to be cyclical as Space is, patience, and a Big-Bounce-proof container. In other words, the longest journey anything could make was a second into the past, because you had to go the long way round.

So it's looped. Here's Space/Time:

 

Here's Now - Zero - here's the line of numbers meeting round the back, positive and negative, future and past. That's what the universe - reality - looks like, let's say. Every answer to "How?" lies on that axis. Now where do we put the angels?

Well I was reading too. It wasn't all box sets. And in Fermat's Last Theorem by Simon Singh, I learnt that while Dr. Dee was furiously trying to scry, another mathematician over in Italy - Rafael Bombelli - was inventing the number "i"... in italics... which is the square root of minus one... which is imaginary... which doesn't exist, but crucially is "necessary for completeness". Bombelli literally brought a whole new dimension to Maths. One that went up and down.

 

It met reality at Zero, which by definition doesn't exist. And everything from that point crept into some definition of being.

So here then was the Universe.
Along the x-axis: Time and Space and everything else that exists, carbon, eggs, the shops - I could go on.
And along the "imaginary" axis, and Maths calls it that so... everything else: Angels, God, and numbers of course, and Love. Which is necessary for completeness. And which of course is why scientists sound religious when they talk about Science.

Not because Science is an Act of Faith, but because Love is. And scientists love science.
And so do I. Thank you.

Carl Sagan's Cosmos is the best, by the way, and here.

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