Field Equations are a Metaphor for Film's Purpose
My father is a member of the American Physical Society and forwarded me the July 2004 issue of APS News which featured a short article about Les Triplettes de Belleville. I am a graduate student at NYU and recently wrote a paper on the animated film for a Visual Literacy class and may be able to provide an answer to why Einstein's field equations of general relativity are featured at the beginning of the film.
It may not be immediately apparent to the general public, but Les Triplettes de Belleville is much more than a cartoon about a grandmother's adventure to save her grandson. Instead, it is an expression of Sylvain Chomet's ideas about many topics, particularly American consumerism and corporate domination taking over the world and crushing the small and individual.
In the film, that dominance is overthrown and Chomet's opinions are effectively expressed through visual parallels and many tiny visual details.
Einstein's field equations of general relativity are amongst those details and can be seen as a metaphor for the purpose of the film itself. The effects of gravity on space-time can be interpreted as a parallel for the effects of the film on the viewers. Gravity can be seen as a representation of the film's message while space- time represents reality. The effects of gravity on space-time are parallel with the effects of the film's message on the viewers and so affects the level awareness in reality.
The film itself also includes many details and references from great icons of world history and culture such as classical music (Bach) and fine art (Salvador Dali). Perhaps the simpler answer is just that Einstein is the appropriate icon for science.
Cheryl S Hark
New York, NY
Who's the Youngest of Them All?
Please permit me to make two comments on your article on C. D. Anderson in your APS News of August/September 2004.
The parents of Carl David Anderson were Swedes, not Swiss.
When Anderson (born 3 September 1905) shared the Nobel prize with Victor Hess in 1936 he was not the youngest so honored. William Lawrence Bragg (born 31 March 1890) who when he shared with his father, William Henry Bragg, the 1915 physics Nobel prize was only twenty-five years old. Heisenberg (born 5 December 1901) was about three months younger than Anderson, when he won (alone) the 1932 Nobel prize in Physics.
Moon/Mars Offers Physics Opportunities
The August/September APS News highlighted a June resolution of the APS Executive Board, urging review of the Moon/Mars proposal and NASA's recent redirection. Calling the 10-15 year timeline for a return to the Moon a "rapid pace", the statement indicated concern about the impact on science and budgets.
Given that the most immediate scientific impact of the new "vision" is a termination of physical science research on the space station, there is certainly reason for this concern. But coming from APS the new statement is ironic in light of the still unrevoked 1991 APS Council "Statement on the Manned Space Station": "The United States needs a vigorous space science program, but such a program can be implemented for the foreseeable future without the proposed manned space station."
Science was never a good justification for the space station. Former APS Public Affairs director Robert Park is widely known as an outspoken critic of human space flight. Park is absolutely correct that human spaceflight is still far too expensive to justify any scientific returns. So far.
With a limited budget, hard choices have to be made on which programs will benefit society more. The money spent to make the aging space shuttles safer, since the Columbia accident, is taking away from science programs at NASA right now. The space station still has billions of dollars worth of committed funding before it can be declared even minimally complete. Bush, in announcing the new Moon/Mars direction, called for an end (by 2010) to the wasteful space shuttle, and thereafter a phasing out of space station commitments as well. This will both protect the substantial continuing science programs at NASA, and leave room for the new program as well. Whatever your views on our president, it's a logical way to proceed.
The reason we need humans in space is not for science. It is to learn how to do things better in space. Robots don't have the intelligence and insight that humans bring. The problems are basic: in our laboratories on Earth we take for granted simple things—shelter from the outside world, a steady internal climate, access to substantial electric power, and of course an abundance of graduate students to put the equipment together, twiddle the knobs, and fix it when it breaks. Fixing things in low gravity isn't so simple—even soldering doesn't work. Small-scale bench-top science that could bring great breakthroughs in space requires all of these, and we don't know how to do any of them cost-effectively yet—and we'll never learn by just sitting in our armchairs and thinking about it.
If the APS is interested in having any real impact on NASA's future, it should make an effort to understand the changes under way. Is it a good idea to turn NASA centers into independent research centers more like the DOE labs? Are there physical science areas that can contribute significantly to the new program, and should receive new funding?
Can we imagine any science we would like to do if the more robust and inexpensive private and federal space infrastructure expected actually comes to pass?
The Moon/Mars decision doesn't have much to do with science—and despite its political origin, has an inevitable logic that a new administration would be hard-pressed to reverse. NASA people are energetically tackling the new challenges they've been given—there are real opportunities here for physicists and physics research, if we are willing to be a part of it.