Saheli*: Musings and Observations
Monday, February 28, 2005
 
Deep Sea Thrills

I don't have all of James Cameron's oeuvre on easy access in my memory, so it just wasn't all that relevant when we went to go see the his 3-D IMAX Aliens of the Deep. Slate's Bryan Curtis missed the point in his Slate column on the film--or rather, he missed the opportunity to review a really fun and informative experience. It seems that he was too busy thinking about his theory of Cameron self-aggrandizement and megalomania to actually notice the work. After reading his piece I was expecting a goofy, uninformative, glitter-driven show. Instead I got a refresher course in how absolutely gorgeous science can be. Aliens of the Deep promised to show us the wonders of life in extreme conditions and use those ideas and examples to build a good argument hypothesizing the possibility of exraterrestrial life--specifially, life on Jupiter's moon Europa. It did so with panache.

First of all, I was impressed with how much voice and emphasis were given to the actual scientists in the film. I was particularly impressed that the main narrator was a graduate student, Dijanna Figueroa of UCSB. How often does the public get clued into the role of graduate students in most research?! Cameron clearly gave them all their dues. Secondly, Curtis' snide dismissal of Cameron's scientific sincerity betrays Curtis's own shallow idealogy of science: "He lovingly films exotic deep-sea creatures, then neglects to identify them, reducing them to his own bug-eyed reactions: "It's like the ugliest fish in the world!". It's a stamp collector's view of science, where the important thing is just labelling and categorizing. Instead, I found that Aliens of the Deep told a very clear story, suitable for a ten-year old or this one-time microbiologist: Most life depends on the sun and photosynthesis as the base of its food chain. Near the bottom of the ocean energy from the mantle burts out into the ocean in thermal vents, deeper than sunlight has ever penetrated--and the heat creates enough volatile chemistry to feed a whole food chain built on chemosynthesis, not photosynthesis. It's a food chain that ranges from giant fields and plumes of the basic building block bacteria to curious octopi and swarms of shrimp and crabs and red-tipped worms. Given the liveliness of our terrestrial extreme conditions, there's a distinct possibility similar conditions on Europa could also host life. If Cameron was promoting anything, it was the idea that we, as a society and a species, have to exercise our own explorations skills here on earth if we're really interested in exploring them in space. Sure, you can find plenty of people--like Figueroa, a marine biologist--who are probably perfectly happy to explore extreme life conditions without reference to space travel. But science thrives on the cross polinization of ideas, interests, and investigative motives, so if Cameron can hook a young generation of space junkies on oceanology, more power to him.

Judging a 3-D IMAX movie with a host of commerical films in the back of your head is missing out on how much more delightfully juvenile an experience it is. The loud whispers of children all around me going, "Mom! Mom! Look its an octopus!" or "It's like a volcano!" were a perfectly welcome addition to the soundtrack. If you want to rekindle a little of your bug-eyed enthusiasm, or have some little bug-eyed enthusiasts with hungry minds to feed, then I highly recommend it.
 


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Saheli Datta started this when she was a journalism student at Columbia in New York. Now she lives in the Bay Area. *Old people call me R. New people, call me Saheli. Thanks! My homepage. Specifically, my links. Email me: Saheli [AT] Gmail [dot] Com

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