An Afternoon at the Astro Hub

It’s 11am, you’re done with the walking in Uluṟu-Kata Tjuṯa National Park, what’s next?

You could come back to the hotel for a snooze since you’ve been up since 4-5am after going to sleep at midnight (the things we do for beary adventures and photos…) or you could go to Town Square for lunch and / or a bit of shopping, to check out the art galleries and whatever else is on offer.

Little Honey and Isabelle are reading up on the Field of Light, the installation by Bruce Munro
Little Honey and Isabelle are reading the Field of Light souvenir book, on the installation by Bruce Munro
Little Puffles (with his dream catcher) and Jay are checking out the story of the southern night sky
Little Puffles (with his dream catcher) and Jay are checking out the story of the southern night sky

One of the other big attractions in the area is the amazing night sky! Currently there is a documentary on show, daily at 2pm, at Wintjiri Art & Museum, Capturing the Cosmos. Narrated by Academy Award winning actor Geoffrey Rush, and written and directed by astronomer Dr Tanya Hill, the documentary reveals the most cutting-edge research on dark energy. The screening is followed by a Q&A session with the resident astronomer.

You can then continue your discussions with the resident astronomer at the Astro Hub (open 3:30-5:30pm daily) at the Outback Pioneer Hotel.

Little bears have settled in to watch the Capturing the Cosmos documentary again, at Astro Hub. Geoffrey Rush’s voice is mesmerizing and the story has them spellbound 🙂

An Afternoon at the Astro Hub

An Afternoon at the Astro Hub

The Astro Hub provides a haven for those with a love of the night sky and beyond. There is a wealth of information, some educational, some funny 😊

An Afternoon at the Astro Hub

An Afternoon at the Astro Hub

An Afternoon at the Astro Hub

An Afternoon at the Astro Hub

An Afternoon at the Astro Hub

An Afternoon at the Astro Hub

An Afternoon at the Astro Hub

You can check out the telescopes on display, learn how to read the Galileo thermometer (we want one now!), learn about the galaxies (FYI Milky Way looked stunning last night and we could even see the Large Magellanic Cloud and the Small Magellanic Cloud) and the constellations visible in the southern night sky and ask the resident astronomer whatever questions pop into your mind. You can even get your beary friendly astronomer to set up your camera for night sky photography (stay tuned!). We have installed the Sky Map app and turned the phone into a star finder (we managed to do that without help since it didn’t require reading an entire manual) 🙂

An Afternoon at the Astro Hub

And if you are brave enough, you can take the astro quizzes and test your knowledge against little bears! Little bears eat their veggies for dinner so they are very smart indeed 🙂

Sweet potato, pumpkin, spinach and fetta pizza from Gecko's Cafe
Sweet potato, pumpkin, roasted capsicum, spinach and fetta pizza from Gecko’s Cafe

Uluṟu-Kata Tjuṯa National Park

Uluṟu
Uluṟu
Kata Tjuṯa
Kata Tjuṯa

The spectacular shapes of Uluṟu (Ayers Rock) and Kata Tjuṯa (The Olgas) dominate the surrounding desert and are the culmination of geological events stretching over hundreds of millions of years. Uluṟu is the exposed tip of a huge vertical body of rock. This rock extends far below the surrounding plain, probably for several kilometers, as an integral part of the earth’s crust.

Uluṟu
Uluṟu

The traditional Aboriginal owners, Aṉangu, regularly visit Uluṟu and Kata Tjuṯa and both sites remain important in the cultural life of the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara people. Many features of Uluṟu and Kata Tjuṯa are an integral part of the ancient Aboriginal culture and some are so sacred that only Aṉangu can visit them. Tjukurpa is the word used by Aṉangu to describe the laws that give meaning and order to all aspects of life. The Tjukurpa provides explanations for the origins of life and all living things as well as features of the landscapes.

Uluṟu - Ranger Mick has a captive audience for story time and Tjukurpa :smile:
Uluṟu – Ranger Mick has a captive audience for story time 🙂

The science of geology is similarly based on sets of rules, but the interpretation of the origin of the landscape and its features is very different from those of the Tjukurpa.

Uluṟu - Walking around the base. Little bears respected the Aṉangu wish that they do not climb Uluṟu.
Uluṟu – Walking around the base. Little bears respected the Aṉangu wish that they do not climb Uluṟu.

It is estimated that Earth formed about 4.54 billion years ago. During the long period between 800 million and 350 million years ago, a shallow sea covered much of southern, central and northern Australia. This vast sea is known as the Centralian Superbasin, and is a depression in Earth’s crust, which received copious amounts of sediment from the adjacent landmass. The preserved part of the Superbasin is referred to as the Amadeus Basin.

Uluṟu - Kulpi Minymaku (Kitchen Cave)
Uluṟu – Kulpi Minymaku (Kitchen Cave)
Uluṟu - Kulpi Minymaku (Kitchen Cave)
Uluṟu – Kulpi Minymaku (Kitchen Cave)

At the time the Centralian Superbasin formed, some 200-250 million years before the Uluṟu and Kata Tjuṯa sediments were laid down, Australia did not exist in its present form. It was part of a supercontinent called Rodinia, which assembled from various older continental fragments between about 1100 and 900 million years ago. Subsequently, Rodinia began to break up again, and the continental fragments were widely dispersed. Tens of millions of years later, many of the fragments began to move together again and by 530 million years ago they had coalesced and welded together to form the well-known southern supercontinent, Gondwana. About 550 million years ago, as the sands and gravels that make up the rocks at Uluṟu and Kata Tjuṯa were laid down, Antarctica was attached to the southern margin of Australia, and India and Madagascar lay to the southwest. A northeast-trending line through Adelaide marked the edge of a deep ocean. West of that line, shallow seas covered vast areas of southern, central and northern Australia. These were not inland seas but the marginal parts of seas that were open to the precursor of the Pacific Ocean to the east.

Uluṟu - Kulpi Nyiinkaku (teaching cave) - Ranger Mick explains Tjukurpa
Uluṟu – Kulpi Nyiinkaku (teaching cave) – Ranger Mick explains Tjukurpa
Uluṟu - Kulpi Nyiinkaku (teaching cave) - Rainbow serpent drawing on the wall
Uluṟu – Kulpi Nyiinkaku (teaching cave) – Rainbow serpent drawing on the wall

About 570 million years ago, in the late Neoproterozoic just before the beginning of the Cambrian Period, a zone within the Centralian Superbasin that now forms the southwestern margin of the Amadeus Basin was raised above sea level, ending the widespread sedimentation in that area. The rocks were squeezed, crumpled and buckled into folds ranging up to kilometers across, and fractured along huge faults. This geologic episode is called the Petermann Orogeny and it affected all of the region west and south from Uluṟu into Western Australia and South Australia.

Uluṟu - Kantju Gorge
Uluṟu – Kantju Gorge
Uluṟu - Looking at Kantju Gorge
Uluṟu – Looking at Kantju Gorge

During the Petermann Orogeny, 550-530 million years ago, the uplifted land formed a substantial mountain range – sometimes called the Petermann Mountains – which was subjected to very rapid erosion. The sedimentary rocks of Uluṟu and Kata Tjuṯa are the products of this rapid erosion, and they represent a new phase of development of the Centralian Superbasin. Although the rocks at each place look different, in each case they are typical of deposits laid down by very high energy rivers, or by sheet floods on alluvial fans. The difference in character between Uluṟu and Kata Tjuṯa is best explained by deposition on different river systems or alluvial fans.

Kata Tjuṯa - Walpa Gorge
Kata Tjuṯa – Walpa Gorge
Kata Tjuṯa - Walpa Gorge
Kata Tjuṯa – Walpa Gorge

A new period of folding, faulting and uplift, more widespread than the Petermann Orogeny began aroun 400 million years ago, and it continued, with some pauses, for around 100 million years. In this ‘Alice Springs Orogeny’ the thousands of meters of younger sedimentary rock that had built up were strongly folded and faulted, much like those around Uluṟu and Kata Tjuṯa. Their eroded remains are visible today as the many ridges of the MacDonnell Ranges, Kings Canyon, and numerous other hills and valleys in the region.

Uplift during the Alice Springs Orogeny raised much of central Australia above sea level. Then began a long period of erosion. The area that is now Uluṟu-Kata Tjuṯa National Park has remained above sea level for virtually all of that time – some 300 million years – although the sea may have briefly encroached from the east some 100 million years ago during the Cretaceous Period, a time when sea levels were at their highest and dinosaurs ruled the Earth.

Kata Tjuṯa - Walpa Gorge
Kata Tjuṯa – Walpa Gorge
Kata Tjuṯa - Walpa Gorge
Kata Tjuṯa – Walpa Gorge

Initially the land surface was much higher than the top of Uluṟu and Kata Tjuṯa. As erosion continued, the ancestral forms of Uluṟu, Kata Tjuṯa and Mount Connor would have appeared as part of a chain of uplands separated by broad valleys. Uluṟu and Kata Tjuṯa probably resisted erosion as a result of compression during the Petermann Orogeny, so that the rocks having relatively fewer fractures were less susceptible to weathering than the surrounding rocks. Once Uluṟu and Kata Tjuṯa emerged from the surrounding countryside, albeit broader and higher than they are today, their domes would have shed water and accelerated the erosion at their margin.

Kata Tjuṯa - Walpa Gorge
Kata Tjuṯa – Walpa Gorge

The magnificent sculptured shapes of Uluṟu and Kata Tjuṯa are the product of million of years of weathering and erosion.

It turns out that Tjukurpa says that you can only learn about ancient Aboriginal culture at the actual location where the story took place. So you’ll have to visit Uluṟu-Kata Tjuṯa National Park and go on the ranger led tour (the highlight of the day!) to learn about the place.

Uluṟu - Kulpi Minymaku (Kitchen Cave)
Uluṟu – Kulpi Minymaku (Kitchen Cave)

Elevenses in Yulara

Elevenses in Yulara

Little bears are relaxing after a very busy and very early morning.

Yulara is a very small town established in the 1970s to service Ayers Rock Resort, in turn established to service (and control) the tourism to Uluru. The resort was designed by Philip Cox & Associates and won the Royal Australian Institute of Architects (RAIA) Sir Zelman Cowen Award in 1984, also the year it became fully operational. There are less than 1000 residents in Yulara and most are workers in the resort or tour operators.

You can reach the area by plane with direct flights to Connellan Airport (Ayers Rock Airport) from Melbourne, Sydney, Alice Springs and Cairns. It is a 3 hour flight from Melbourne or Sydney. Driving to Uluru from pretty much anywhere is a long, long drive. The nearest town is Alice Springs, a 5-6 hour drive away.

The flight from Melbourne was fully booked and full of overseas visitors. The signs at the exit from the airport acknowledge this.

Elevenses in Yulara

Elevenses in Yulara

As you leave the airport you also get a glimpse of the big red rock you came to see.

Elevenses in Yulara

Lesson number one. If at all possible, you don’t come to Uluru in summer (December, January, February). The best time to visit is between May and September. The weather is cooler, making it easier and safer to walk. Also, at this time of year, the colours of the rock are more vibrant and you are more likely to see the hidden surprises of Uluru – waterfalls, plants and animals.

In summer the weather is extremely warm, with temperatures often over 36 degrees Celsius, at which point the weather is declared extreme. So the weather is extreme about half the year! Uluru is a beautiful but harsh environment. Heat exhaustion, dehydration and hyponatraemia are very real dangers here. In summer it is best if you visit Uluru – Kata Tjuta Park only in the early morning before 11am (the park opens at 5am). You also need plenty of water, the recommended intake is one litre per hour! An electrolyte product (Hydralyte / Gastrolyte) might help as well if hyponatraemia is an issue. It is best if you wear a hat, strong shoes and plenty of sunscreen. A head net to protect you from flies might also be really handy. I mean, far out! When walking in the park, stick to the marked tracks and the designated visitor areas.

We met a number of people this weekend who made their booking when the Field of Light Uluru exhibition was scheduled to close on 31 March. The exhibition has been extended to 31 March 2018, which is great news, but we obviously all decided that it was too much hassle to reschedule everything.

We started the day bright and early with a 5am visit to the Field of Light. It is amazing. More on this later. And the light show on the ground was complemented by a light show in the sky. We saw the Emu in the Sky!

Elevenses in Yulara

The Emu is stretched across the Milky Way and the Southern Cross marks the head of the emu. The Emu in the Sky has featured in Aboriginal storytelling for thousands of years.

The resort has a Town Square with a supermarket, post office, bank, newsagent, cafes and souvenir / art shops. There is plenty of Aboriginal art, but not a cherry in sight! The town is really small, it takes at most 15 minutes walk from any point in town to the Town Square. In extreme heat that could be a very uncomfortable 15 minutes so there is a shuttle bus that operates between 10:30am and midnight that goes round and round every 20 minutes, between the six stops along the route.

Ayers Rock Resort provides a variety of accommodation options, with two hotels, self-contained apartments, a lodge and a campground. We went for the room with a view…

View from hotel room
View from hotel room

… but little bears are foregoing the view to cool off in the air-conditioned comfort of the room 🙂

Elevenses in Yulara

Elevenses in Yulara

A Little Disney

For one of those days when you need a little help to get you through the day. Of course, little bears never have this problem!

“The flower that blooms in adversity is the most rare and beautiful of all.” – The Emperor, Mulan

A Little Disney

“You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” – Christopher Robin, Pooh’s Grand Adventure: The Search for Christopher Robin

A Little Disney

“Sometimes, the right path is not the easiest one.” – Grandmother Willow, Pocahontas

A Little Disney

“The very things that hold you down are going to lift you up.” – Timothy Mouse, Dumbo

A Little Disney

“Even miracles take a little time.” – Fairy Godmother, Cinderella

A Little Disney

“Oh yes, the past can hurt. But the way I see it, you can either run from it … or learn from it.” – Rafiki, The Lion King

A Little Disney

“It’s funny how some distance makes everything seem small.” – Elsa, Frozen

A Little Disney

“Remember, you’re the one who can fill the world with sunshine.” – Snow White, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

A Little Disney

Hmmm, might need to watch a movie… or two… or three 🙂

The Encounter

The Encounter

The Encounter by Complicite was THE hot ticket at the Edinburgh Festival in 2015. Broadway has gone crazy for it. It’s received rave reviews everywhere it’s travelled, so expectations were sky-high for its Australian tour. Sydney raved about it and so did Melbourne. Now it’s Perth’s turn to experience the theatrical phenomenon that is The Encounter.

Complicite won the 2016 Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Design and the 2017 Stage Award for Innovation for The Encounter. The production is that rarest of achievements: a fluent, seemingly effortless fusion of art and technology, without compromise.

It’s not often that sound design takes centre stage, yet when Complicite decided to rewrite Petru Popescu’s Amazon Beaming for the theatre, it was – in the words of sound designer Gareth Fry – “not the sort of story you can put on in the typical fashion”.

We went to find out what the fuss is all about. Before we went, we read a number of reviews, but none of them could have prepared us for the innovative, mind-bending and immersive sensory experience of the show, which is second to none.

Richard Katz with the head-shaped microphone which picks up sounds from all directions
Richard Katz with the head-shaped microphone which picks up sounds from all directions

In 1969, National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre disappeared up the Amazon. Searching for a ‘lost’ tribe of Mayoruna Indians (commonly nicknamed the ‘cat people’ because of the bristles they stick through perforations in their upper lip and nose), McIntyre spent two months with a group on the move before he was able to find his way back to ‘civilisation’. Petru Popescu’s transcriptions of McIntyre’s accounts of his Mayoruna encounter and a subsequent search for the elusive birthplace of the Amazon river make up the book Amazon Beaming, the source material for Complicite’s The Encounter.

On one level, this is simply a classic adventure story of an intrepid Western explorer lost in the Amazon rain forest.

But the plot, as exotic as it might seem, is only the point of departure for a more far-reaching journey, one that throws widely open the doors of perception. Richard Katz takes a “walk across your brain”, a perambulation that disassembles everything he’s saying to you and how he’s saying it, how you’re processing it and even how you’ll be thinking about it tomorrow. Your passport is the set of earphones that you find attached to your seat.

Richard Katz in The Encounter
Richard Katz in The Encounter

The earphones don’t even look particularly sophisticated, but almost as soon as you put them on, your sense of time and space is altered. At one moment the performer and guide for this unique audio experience, Richard Katz, is standing a metre or two behind you, then he’s whispering into your ear, then he seems to be blowing warm air directly into your ear. The effect is so realistic that, just for a moment, it feels as though your ear might be heating up, but before too long a mosquito starts buzzing around your head.

The question of where voices come from, and how we hear them, turns out to be central to the plot of The Encounter. To recreate Loren McIntyre’s adventures, Richard Katz becomes McIntyre, a third-person narrator, assorted tribesmen, the occasional jungle animal or insect and — always — Richard Katz himself, the man behind the curtain, pulling the levers and juggling the plot.

Except in this case, Richard Katz is always in full view, standing amid the foam-walled simulated sound studio designed by Michael Levine. You watch him turning from one microphone to another, and crumpling a plastic bag or shaking one of those water bottles to simulate the noises of the brush or the river. So in theory, you can always accurately trace direct cause and effect within the show’s illusions.

Richard Katz in The Encounter
Richard Katz in The Encounter

It turns out you can’t. Richard Katz and the Complicite ace sound designers, Gareth Fry and Pete Malkin, have created an aural labyrinth of many layers. You’ll be watching Richard Katz lips moving in sync with what you’re hearing, only to discover that it’s a recorded voice you’ve been listening to. With your earphones on, there’s no distinguishing between the live and the pre-recorded, a blurring that allows Richard Katz to conduct very immediate-feeling conversations with his past selves.

And with his 5-year-old daughter, whose voice keeps interrupting him in what feels like real time. And with a host of people interviewed in preparation for this show, including Petru Popescu and a variety of neuroscientists, philosophers and environmentalists, who keep interrupting the central story with fragments of theories. What unfolds is a story that evolves and questions the way we see our world and notions of time. Among the questions posed: Is consciousness possible without memory? Is time only a structuring fiction devised by humans? Does time have one or two dimensions? Can language exist without words? Does the introduction of modern materialist cultures into indigenous communities inevitably destroy their essence? Better not to think too hard about this while you’re watching the show.

Richard Katz in The Encounter
Richard Katz in The Encounter

The Encounter is storytelling at its absolute best. Just as impressive is the writing of the play, which brings together all kinds of narrative threads (including one of our narrator researching this story and compiling the show), sources of sounds, and the interviews about the impact of this journey and the context within which we’re now hearing it.

At the end, Richard Katz returned as himself to read us a letter from a Mayoruna headman to Simon McBurney, who had visited the Amazon prior to directing the show (McBurney was the original performer too). The message was loud and clear – we exist, we deserve to exist, and we have a right to our own world and ways despite the documentary makers, the logging engineers and the effects of global warming. Powerful stuff.

Gareth Fry received a 2017 Helpmann Award nomination for Best Sound Design for The Encounter.

When They Came from Another World

The pizza has arrived! And the movie!

When They Came From Another World

Little bears have settled in to watch Arrival.

When They Came From Another World

A giant alien spaceship that has landed in Montana in Arrival, Denis Villeneuve’s film adaptation of a story by Ted Chiang
A giant alien spaceship that has landed in Montana in Arrival, Denis Villeneuve’s film adaptation of a story by Ted Chiang

James Gleick takes a different look at the movie and the book for The New York Review of Books.

What tense is this?

I remember a conversation we’ll have when you’re in your junior year of high school. It’ll be Sunday morning, and I’ll be scrambling some eggs….

I remember once when we’ll be driving to the mall to buy some new clothes for you. You’ll be thirteen.

The narrator is Louise Banks in Story of Your Life, a 1998 novella by Ted Chiang. She is addressing her daughter, Hannah, who, we soon learn, has died at a young age. Louise is addressing Hannah in memory, evidently. But something peculiar is happening in this story. Time is not operating as expected. As the Queen said to Alice, It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.

What if the future is as real as the past? Physicists have been suggesting as much since Einstein. It’s all just the space-time continuum. “So in the future, the sister of the past,” thinks young Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses, “I may see myself as I sit here now but by reflection from that which then I shall be.” Twisty! What if you received knowledge of your own tragic future — as a gift, or perhaps a curse? What if your all-too-vivid sensation of free will is merely an illusion? These are the roads down which Chiang’s story leads us. When I first read it, I meant to discuss it in the book I was writing about time travel, but I could never manage that. It’s not a time-travel story in any literal sense. It’s a remarkable work of imagination, original and cerebral, and, I would have thought, unfilmable. I was wrong.

The film is Arrival, written by Eric Heisserer and directed by Denis Villeneuve. It’s being marketed as an alien-contact adventure: creatures arrive in giant ovoid spaceships, and drama ensues. The earthlings are afraid, the military takes charge, fighter jets scramble nervously, and the hazmat suits come out. But we soon see that something deeper is going on. Arrival is a movie of philosophy as much as adventure. It not only respects Chiang’s story but takes it further. It’s more explicitly time-travelish. That is to say, it’s really a movie about time. Time, fate and free will.

In both the novella and the movie, two stories are interwoven. One is the alien visitation, a suspenseful narrative. Are the visitors friend or foe? Is their arrival a threat or an opportunity? The other is the story of a mother and a daughter who dies. Movies have a standard device for this sort of interweaving: we see flashbacks—newborn baby, four-year-old cowgirl, eight-year-old tucked into bed, twelve-year-old in hospital, eyes closed, head shaved. Before any of that, a question: “Do you want to make a baby?” We understand this film language: fragmentary images, representing memories. Lest there be any doubt, we hear Louise in voiceover: “I remember moments in the middle.” But she also says: “Now I’m not so sure I believe in beginnings and endings.”

When you watch a movie or read a book, you experience it in time, linearly, and you live through its twists and turns, anticipations and surprises. At this point I need to warn you that I’m going to spoil the surprise.

The spaceships arrive, taller than skyscrapers, at twelve different places around the globe. One site is in scenic Montana. Why? No one knows. Louise, a linguist and, evidently, translator extraordinaire, played by Amy Adams, is pressed into service. She once helped Army Intelligence decode some Farsi, so why not some Alien? “You made quick work of those insurgent videos,” says her handler, Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker, exuding can-do decisiveness). She sniffs, “You made quick work of those insurgents.” He has a question he needs answered, pronto. They write it on a whiteboard so we can focus: “What is your purpose on Earth?” She needs to explain that even simple-seeming words are not as cooperative as the colonel thinks. She has a whole language to learn.

On boarding the spaceship, Louise and her scientific teammate, a physicist called Ian (a boyish and charming Jeremy Renner), first see a pair of aliens floating like statuesque octopuses behind a glass wall in their atmosphere of misty fluid. One limb short of an octopus, they are dubbed heptapods. They turn out to be virtuosos of calligraphy: their feet/hands are also nozzles that squirt inkblots, which swirl and spin and coalesce into mottled circles with intricate adornments. Louise says these are logograms. For her they are puzzles, ornate and complex.

Colonel Weber doesn’t want Louise to teach the aliens English or anything else they might be able to use against us. Earth history has provided plenty of lessons in how explorers treat indigenous peoples, and linguists aren’t usually leading the charge. Louise tells the story (apocryphal, unfortunately) of James Cook arriving in Australia and asking an aborigine for the name of those funny macropods hopping around with their young in pouches. “Kangaru,” was the reply. Meaning, “What did you say?” We know how it worked out for them. Anyway, the heptapods seem to be more interested in talking than in listening.

After some hard work in the linguistic trenches, she tentatively translates one message as “Offer weapon,” and all hell breaks loose. The soldiers around her are nervous and well armed, and meanwhile the eleven other spaceships are surrounded by teams from similarly militarized and trigger-happy nations. We are reminded that Earth is a planet with decentralized leadership. Russia controls two of the landing sites, and China’s decision-maker is said to be a “scary powerful” man called General Shang.

Louise and Ian try to calm everyone down. Maybe the word doesn’t mean only “weapon”; maybe it can be read as “tool” or “gift”. The heptapod language is “semasiographic”, Louise explains (in the story, not in the movie, understandably): signs divorced from sounds. Each logogram speaks volumes. They carry the meaning of whole sentences or paragraphs. And here’s a curious thing. The logograms seem to be conceived and written as unitary entities, all at once, rather than as a sequence of smaller symbols. “Imagine trying to write a long sentence with two hands, starting at either end,” Louise tells Ian. “To do that, you’d have to know every single word you’re going to write and the space all of it occupies.” It’s as if, for the heptapods, time is not sequential.

Amazingly, we interrupt all this suspenseful activity for a mini-lecture on physics. In Story of Your Life, Chiang gives us a diagram, which looks like this:

When They Came From Another World

The line could represent a lifeguard running across a beach and then swimming through the water to save a child. To save time, the lifeguard shouldn’t run directly toward the child, because running is faster than swimming. Better to spend less time in the water, so the most efficient path—the path of least time—is angled, as in the diagram.

Or the line could represent a ray of light, which bends when it passes from air to water. It is refracted, at a specific and calculable angle. Like the lifeguard, light travels more slowly through a denser medium. And like the lifeguard, light somehow knows to take the path of least time. Pierre de Fermat stated this as a law of nature in 1662.

But how does it do that? We seem to be anthropomorphizing particles of light. When a photon leaves A on its way to B, does it choose its path, like the lifeguard? Perhaps the path is simply fate. The photon fulfils its destiny. Principles of least time, or least “action,” as they are also known, crop up everywhere in physics, and Ian begins to suspect that this is the key to the heptapod worldview. Instead of one thing after another, they see the picture whole. In the film he explains this to Louise—a cameo by Fermat and a microtutorial in physics — but you’ll miss it if you blink.

We start to sense that Heisserer and Villeneuve are strewing clues for us like breadcrumbs. “I asked about predictability,” Louise says. “If before and after mean anything to them.” As she becomes proficient in the heptapod language, she starts getting headaches and having dreams. We see flashes of Louise with her daughter, Hannah. Louise telling stories; Hannah making pictures. According to the conventions of film, these seem like conventional flashbacks, but are they? Another clue: Ian asks Louise about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistics, the notion that different languages create different modes of thought. “All this focus on alien language,” he says. “There’s this idea that immersing yourself in a foreign language can rewire your brain.” Eventually it will dawn on us: Louise can see the future.

If her visions are patchy — limited in perspective, incomplete in detail — well, so are our memories of the past. She is remembering the future.

Amy Adams as the linguist Louise Banks attempting to communicate with aliens in Arrival
Amy Adams as the linguist Louise Banks attempting to communicate with aliens in Arrival

There is a strain of physicist that likes to think of the world as settled, inevitable, its path fully determined by the grinding of the gears of natural law. Einstein and his heirs model the universe as a four-dimensional space-time continuum — the “block universe” — in which past and future are merely different places, like left and right. Even before Einstein, a deterministic view of physics goes all the way back to Newton. His laws operated like clockwork and gave astronomers the power of foresight. If scientists say the moon will totally eclipse the sun in New York on April 8, 2024, beginning at 12:38 PM, you can bank on it. If they can’t tell you whether the sun will be obscured by a rainstorm, a strict Newtonian would say that’s only because they don’t yet have enough data or enough computing power. And if they can’t tell you whether you’ll be alive to see the eclipse, well, maybe they haven’t discovered all the laws yet.

As Richard Feynman put it, “Physicists like to think that all you have to do is say, ‘These are the conditions, now what happens next?’” Meanwhile, other physicists have learned about chaos and quantum uncertainty, but in the determinist’s view chance does not take charge. What we call accidents are only artefacts of incomplete knowledge. And there’s no room for choice. Free will, the determinist will tell you, is only an illusion, if admittedly a persistent one.

Even without help from mathematical models, we have all learned to visualize history as a timeline, with the past stretching to the left, say, and the future to the right (if we have been conditioned Sapir-Whorf-style by a left-to-right written language). Our own lifespans occupy a short space in the middle. Now — the infinitesimal present — is just the point where our puny consciousnesses happen to be.

This troubled Einstein. He recognized that the present is special; it is, after all, where we live. (In Chiang’s story, Louise says to her infant daughter: “NOW is the only moment you’ll perceive; you’ll live in the present tense. In many ways, it’s an enviable state.”) But Einstein felt that this was fundamentally a psychological matter; that the question of now need not, or could not, be addressed within physics. The specialness of the present moment doesn’t show up in the equations; mathematically, all the moments look alike. Now seems to arise in our minds. It’s a product of consciousness, inextricably bound up with sensation and memory. And it’s fleeting, tumbling continually into the past.

Still, if the sense of the present is an illusion, it’s awfully powerful for us humans. I don’t know if it’s possible to live as if the physicists’ model is real, as if we never make choices, as if the very idea of purpose is imaginary. We may be able to visualize the time before our birth and the time after our death as mathematically equivalent; yet we can’t help but fret more about what effects we might have on the future in which we will not exist than about what might have happened in the past when we did not exist. Nor does it seem possible to tell a story or enjoy a narrative that is devoid of intention. Choice and purpose—that’s where the suspense comes from. “What is your purpose on Earth?”

Certainly no one in Arrival acts as though their future is predetermined and all they have to do is watch. They’re full of energy. Louise and Ian work urgently against the clock. Renegade soldiers set a bomb to blow up some heptapods and we get to watch the traditional electronic readout counting down the seconds. The aliens themselves seem to have a purpose: to give Earth a gift: “Three thousand years from this point, humanity helps us. We help humanity now. Returning the favour.” Perhaps there are two gifts. One seems to be some super technology, unspecified, a MacGuffin. Evidently it comes in twelve pieces, and all the earthlings need to do is share them, in peace and harmony, for once.

But the generals and technocrats can’t get their act together. Instead they find themselves at the brink of war. The Chinese general, Shang, cuts off communication and prepares to pull the trigger. If we think about it — which we are not meant to do, at least while the action is underway — we may see a paradox here. The heptapods already know the future. They’re all Que sera, sera. So if we’re living in their deterministic universe, where’s the suspense?

The real gift has already been received, by Louise. The gift — not a weapon after all — is the language itself, and the knowledge of the future that it provides. It alters her brain, enabling her to see time as the heptapods do. Arrival brings the paradox out into the open, plays with it, creates a mind-bending science-fictional time loop. This isn’t in Chiang’s original story. Louise has a waking dream, a vision of the future. Dressed up in a gown, she is attending what looks like a formal reception. General Shang is there, too, in a tuxedo. He wants to thank her, for saving the world, more or less. For “the unification”. He tells her (reminds her?) that she phoned him at the critical last minute on his private number. But she doesn’t know his number, she says, puzzled. He shows her the screen of his phone. “Now you do,” he says. Now. “I do not claim to know how your brain works, but I believe it is important that you see that.” The future is communicating with the past. The scene leaps back to Montana, where Louise is placing an urgent call to China. She has something to explain to General Shang, and does in fluent Chinese.

In the event, this is a beautiful piece of filmmaking. The revelation is exhilarating, and it gives the viewer a sense of the profound. Yet if you think about it closely, it’s not logical. It breaks down, just as every time-travel paradox breaks down under analysis. If Louise prevents the war and saves the world by phoning Shang, surely she will remember that at the celebratory party. And from Shang’s point of view, he won’t need to provide his number; she’ll already have known it. It’s always like this — a trick somewhere. Time travel violates everything we believe about causality. The best time travel succeeds by hiding the trick.

Woody Allen deployed a version of the same paradox in his 2011 movie, Midnight in Paris. His hero travels back to the 1920s and tries to give the young Luis Buñuel a movie idea. Of course, the idea is Buñuel’s own 1962 film, The Exterminating Angel. Allen breaks the loop with a joke.

Gil: Oh, Mr. Buñuel, I had a nice idea for a movie for you.

Buñuel: Yes?

Gil: Yeah, a group of people attend a very formal dinner party and at the end of dinner when they try to leave the room, they can’t…. And because they’re forced to stay together the veneer of civilization quickly fades away and what you’re left with is who they really are—animals.

Buñuel: But I don’t get it. Why don’t they just walk out of the room?

It’s a message from the future yet again. Imperfectly received.

No one, not even the most devout of physicists, behaves as though their life is predetermined. We study the menus and make our choices. If we knew — really knew — that the future was settled and our choices illusory, how would we live? Could we do that? What would it feel like?

Louise is about to find out. What will she do when Ian asks — as we know he will — “Do you want to make a baby?” There’s not much worse than a child’s death. It’s what the word “untimely” was made for. At least in real life the grief comes after the fact. A lifetime of memories is instantly shrouded in a veil of pain. For Louise, grief is part of the story from the beginning. The pain must colour not only memory but also the experience of each day, each moment.

Nothing about time will be the same. “It won’t have been that long since you enjoyed going shopping with me,” she says; “it will forever astonish me how quickly you grow out of one phase and enter another. Living with you will be like aiming for a moving target; you’ll always be further along than I expect.”

At some point, too, we realize that she is going to tell Hannah’s father what she knows, namely that their daughter will die, and that will be a mistake. He will not be able to handle it. But she will find a way.

For us ordinary mortals, the day-to-day experience of a preordained future is almost unimaginable, but Chiang’s story does imagine it. This is where the movie can’t quite follow, for all its vividness.

He offers another paradox — as he says, a Borgesian parable. Let’s say you get to see “the Book of Ages, the chronicle that records every event, past and future”. You flip through it until you find the page on which, it says, you are flipping through the Book of Ages looking for this very page, and then you read ahead, and decide to act contrary to what is written. Can you do that? Logically, no. If you accept the premise, the story is unchanging. Knowledge of the future trumps free will. And maybe that’s all right. “What if the experience of knowing the future changed a person,” Louise muses. “What if it evoked a sense of urgency, a sense of obligation to act precisely as she knew she would?”

She can be comfortable with her new way of seeing. It’s like the photon fulfilling Fermat’s principle of least time. We can view its path sequentially, one thing after another, or we can view it from above, a whole, all at once. “Two very different interpretations,” she sees:

The physical universe was a language with a perfectly ambiguous grammar. Every physical event was an utterance that could be parsed in two entirely different ways, one causal and the other teleological.

In the same way, language can be seen as purposeful and informative, or it can be seen as “performative”.

“Now that I know the future, I would never act contrary to that future, including telling others what I know,” says Louise. “Those who know the future don’t talk about it. Those who’ve read the Book of Ages never admit to it.”

So, as she comes to understand her gift, she feels like a celebrant performing a ritual recitation. Or an actor reading her lines, following a script in every conversation. The rest of us don’t know we’re following the script. Are we, too, trapped? Enacting destiny? The only alternative is Woody Allen’s version of Buñuel: just walk out of the room.