Christian Allegory in Tron

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been surprised many times to discover the hidden messages of faith in my favorite childhood movies. Don’t be deceived by the lack of overt themes of Christianity. As Ralph Wood explains in The Gospel According to Tolkien, his treatise on Tolkien’s deeply Christian fantasy world, the subtle infusion of theology is the most effective way to convey the message:

Tolkien’s work is all the more deeply Christian for not being overtly Christian. He would have violated the integrity of his art — and thus the faithfulness of his witness — if he had written a 1,200-page novel to illustrate a set of ideas that he could have expressed apart from the story itself. This is a principle not only of good art but also of good theology.

Look for the hidden messages of faith in movies. So strong is the influence of Christianity in the West that these messages often find their way into popular entertainment almost subconsciously. Although, sometimes, the message is so allegorical that there can be little doubt of the filmmakers’ intentions.

One such movie is Tron (1982). I knew almost nothing about religion when I was a kid seeing this movie for the first time, but I was still intrigued by the idea of the quasi-supernatural Users and the Master Control Program’s campaign to stamp out any “superstitious” belief in them. Watching this movie again many years later, the message became clear:

Flynn may be a sort a Christ-figure, but so is Tron, the program who teams up with him to defeat the Master Control Program. In addition to his miracles, Flynn sacrifices himself in a way that evokes both the descent of Christ into hell as well as his ascension, while in another scene, Tron communicates with his user in a way that resembles the opening of the heavens at the baptism of Christ. And all of this takes place in an environment in which programs who believe in their users are persecuted for being ‘religious fanatics,’ and are sent to their deaths in video-game battles that resemble ancient Roman gladiatorial fights. (From a now-defunct link at Canadian Christianity)

And of course the villain—whose name, “Sark,” is the Greek word for “flesh”—is the allegorical Satan figure of the movie.

Tron is not a perfect allegory, but its basis in the Christian faith is unmistakable.

Computer-generated images are now so de rigueur in movies that we take them for granted. It must be remembered that Tron was made at a time when computers were a decade away from becoming household items, and constituted both a source of fascinated hope and a cause for concern (cf. War Games, released a year after Tron). Disney was ahead of the curve in creating the computer graphics, which were astonishing at the time, and captured perfectly the cold, electronic quality of a computer world. An intriguing counterpoint to the message of the gospel.

Why haven’t we been back?

Bill Whittle observes that it’s becoming increasingly common for young people to question whether we ever landed on the Moon, despite reasonable explanations for their objections:

Now, I have no problem with people who are by default skeptical until they find compelling evidence and a logical argument for a claim. That’s actually pretty wise. But, like Whittle, I do have a problem with people who are too intellectually lazy to examine the arguments and evidence.

Whittle cites a common objection to the idea that we put men on the Moon in the 1960s and 1970s, which is that we haven’t been back since. Like other objections to the Moon landings, there’s a reasonable explanation for why we haven’t been back.

What’s truly astounding is that, in terms of technology, it really doesn’t take anything more than Newtonian physics and 1960s technology to go to the Moon. The proof of that is the mirrors placed on the Moon in the 1960s for experiments called laser-ranging — we use them to accurately measure the distance from the Earth to the Moon by bouncing laser-beams off of them. So, there’s no doubt we sent something to the Moon in the 1960s. But did that include men? There’s good reason to think so just based on the technology available, but there is one other ingredient that’s necessary to pull off a feat like that, and once you know what that is, you will understand why we haven’t been back.

The first thing we need to consider is the historical and cultural context of the Apollo program. The space program of the 1950s and 1960s was an outgrowth of Eisenhower’s powerful military-industrial complex. NASA’s budget at that time represented a whopping 5% of the federal budget (compare that with NASA’s current budget of just 0.5%). Two major wars in which the U.S. was victorious were still fresh in the memories of Americans. Our economy was doing well, and, culturally, the U.S. was still united. We also had a powerful common enemy — the Soviet Union. So great was our animus for the Soviets, that the U.S. at that time was almost singularly devoted — militarily, culturally, and economically — to beating them in the Cold War.

For those of us who were not around in the 1950s, it’s impossible to understand the shock and fear Americans felt in 1957 when the Soviets successfully put Sputnik in orbit. Then there was Yuri Gagarin and his historic orbital trip around the Earth. The Evil Empire, as Reagan would later call it, had made it to space before anyone else, and Americans were fearful that the Soviets would soon dominate space. So, it was determined that we would do everything in our power to beat the Soviets in the space race, and what better way to beat them than by going to the Moon?

Mountains of money and countless hours of manpower went into the Mercury and Gemini programs, eventually leading up to Apollo. But even then, by the mid-1960s, the political and cultural infrastructure supporting the space program was beginning to weaken. It was after the success of Apollo 11, when men finally set foot on the Moon, that the cracks began to show. NASA continued with five of six remaining Apollo missions, because they had already been planned and budgeted, but with the exception of the doomed Apollo 13 mission, the public wasn’t all that interested in these anticlimactic follow-up trips to the Moon.

By the 1970s, the fervor that had kept the Apollo program going was simply no longer there, and going back was of little interest. What were we going to do there that we hadn’t already done? Establishing a Moon base would require dedicating economic and technological resources far in excess what was required for the Apollo missions. Going to Mars was a long ways off. That didn’t much leave in terms of foreseeable goals for manned missions. It also didn’t help that there was an energy crisis at the time, with the emphasis on conserving energy as much as possible. For those reasons, there was little public or political support for continuing to fund NASA at such a high level.

The government shifted priorities and decided to focus on orbiting space stations and satellites, the reusable Space Shuttles, and the much more feasible robotic explorers that could go anywhere in the Solar System for a fraction of the cost and none of the risk of sending human explorers. With this shift in priorities, the military-industrial infrastructure and the technological and engineering manpower that went into designing and manufacturing manned lunar rockets disappeared.

By the 1980s, the Cold War was also increasingly winding down, or at least competition with the Soviets wasn’t seen as such a high priority. When the Evil Empire formally collapsed in 1991, there was nothing against which the U.S. needed to push back. Much like we build body strength by pushing weights, cultural strength is often achieved by pushing back against some external cultural force. But what Americans were pushing back against by the 1970s wasn’t even clear. Gas shortages? The Iranians? Disco? And what do Americans have to push back against today, except perhaps the increasingly confused and demoralized War on Terror? It’s costing the U.S. trillions in the long term, and it has absolutely nothing to do with space. No politician is going to divert any of that money to going back to the Moon.

So, what else is America fighting against? Global warming, trans-fats, a never-ending list of social justice grievances? I hope you see what I’m getting at here. Unlike the America of the 1950s and 1960s, we have no coherent culture. There is no common enemy. More importantly, there are no common values and goals, and no common vision. All you have to do is look at the political landscape to see that we’re a fractured and demoralized nation, and that’s effective death for any culture.

It didn’t take much in the way of physics to land men on the Moon. What it did take was enormous cultural capital — a compelling reason, a monumental economic and technological effort, and the will of a strong, united, and invigorated people. We need a compelling reason to return to the Moon, and the only reason would be to establish a semi-permanent human settlement. Do we have the will to do that? The America of today hardly resembles its former self, so it shouldn’t be surprising in the least that we, as a nation, haven’t taken any meaningful steps towards expanding the human exploration of space.

Fortunately, that’s not the end of the story. There are still parts of America that remain strong and invigorated. One of those parts is in Mojave, California, where there is a burgeoning private space enterprise. Bill Whittle talks about the Free Frontier here:

Replay: An invalid equation

Traffic’s up after the announcement of the publication of our Astronomy and Astrophysics curriculum, so we’re replaying some of our more important posts from the archives for our new readers. This article was originally posted on January 23, 2012

Scientists working in the Netherlands and the U.S. who developed a more transmissible strain of the deadly bird flu have temporarily suspended their work to allow governments around the world time to assess the risks to “biosecurity.” The Dutch and American scientists, who produced their work separately, have submitted their results for publication. The National Institutes of Health, which funded the research, has requested the omission of important details over fears that the information could be used by terrorists to unleash a potentially genocidal attack in the future.

Keep this in mind as you consider what atheist writer and neuroscientist, Sam Harris, says about his “extinction equation”:

religion + science = human extinction.

He argues that religion is the source of all great conflict. Continued conflict with the destructive tools provided by science will result in the destruction of humankind. Therefore, all those who are dedicated to science must work to eliminate religion if humankind is to avoid extinction.

Yet as Christian writer, Vox Day, stated in his book, The Irrational Atheist, if we take Sam Harris’ Extinction Equation seriously, historical evidence shows that the most prudent action we can take is to eliminate science. As a professional astrophysicist who has dedicated her life to science, I must grudgingly concede that Day is correct if we are limited to an either/or choice between religion and science.

From a purely pragmatic point of view, it’s not difficult to choose which variable to set equal to 0 in Harris’ Extinction Equation. It would be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to eliminate religion, which has existed in myriad forms for at least several thousands of years. Even religion’s greatest opponents, secular humanists devoted to Darwinism, recognize that the human species demonstrates a deep and enduring need for religion, so much so that even today as much as 90% of people in the world claim to be religious in some form or fashion.

Science by comparison has only been around in its modern form since the time of Galileo. It is understood, supported, and practiced by vastly fewer people around the world than religion is. The scientific method does not come easily to most people, which is why it takes many years of education and training to effectively instill it even in the small minority of humans who are predisposed to it. Science would simply be much easier to eliminate from humankind than religion.

Historical evidence also shows that religion, all by itself, poses far less of a threat to humankind than science does. It is true that throughout history religious groups have made war against each other. But the whole truth is that humans have always fought one another for territory and dominance beginning long before the appearance of modern religions. There is little or no evidence of peaceful coexistence on Earth at any time or place with or without religion. Monotheistic religion is therefore not a basic cause of conflict, but rather a relatively recently added element in the ongoing chaos and conflict of human affairs.

During the thousands of years that religion has existed, the human population has risen from a few million to almost seven billion. Since the time of the Reformation, human prosperity has improved to the point where 75% of humankind has risen out of its natural state of poverty, and there is a well-founded hope that the remaining 25% will follow in the next 50 years. The only threats to human survival during the time of religion were the possibility of an errant asteroid, such as the one that is believed to have wiped out the dinosaurs, and naturally-arising contagious diseases that periodically ravaged civilizations.

Science and technology has changed all of that — there can be no doubt that they’ve had a much greater and more negative impact on human violence than religion ever had. An explosion of technology beginning in the 15th century made it possible for the ongoing conflict to enter the era of modern warfare resulting in new levels of slaughter which eventually led to the horrors of the First World War. The determination of the Nazis to use science to destroy its enemies in World War II rushed humankind to the point where scientific knowledge could result in its utter destruction.

Realistically speaking, and regardless of the dangers, we can’t put the scientific genie back in the bottle. Nor can humans live without some spiritual/moral system. As the world seems on the brink of a preemptive attack (possibly nuclear in nature) to eliminate Iran’s nuclear capability, there is good reason to be pessimistic about the future of humankind. Some kind of moral system must function to prevent scientific knowledge from causing the end of conscious life on Earth. As Vox Day observes, “the more pressing question facing the technologically advanced societies today is Quis eprocuratiet ipsos scientodes? Who will supervise the scientists?”

Does such a moral system exist? Yes, and that’s why I don’t think we face Harris’ either/or choice. Surak explains why here.

Kepler’s resurrected!

Kepler spacecraft

Artist’s conception of the Kepler spacecraft [Credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech]

The space observatory
, that is, not the late great astronomer.

NASA is breathing new life into the currently defunct Kepler spacecraft, which was designed to look for Earth-size exoplanets (planets orbiting other stars) in the Milky Way. Partway through its mission, the Kepler spacecraft lost function in two of the four flywheels it uses to orient itself, and, without the ability to steadily point in a given direction, it became effectively dead.

However, NASA scientists have figured out how to use the pressure from the solar wind to stably orient the spacecraft, and it will hopefully resume its mission of searching out the Milky Way for Earth-size planets. The use of the solar wind to stabilize Kepler will limit where the spacecraft can point itself, but it will still be able to collect a lot of meaningful data.

Physicists getting close to turning light into matter

We’re one step closer to having replicators in our homes. Okay, maybe a slight exaggeration, but physicists are on the verge of transforming light into matter. The process involves high-powered laser beams, a slab of gold, super high-speed electrons, and eventually a stream of photons. The whole apparatus can be thought of as a photon collider. Photons are essentially tiny “packets” of light, and it is hoped that a collision of two of these packets of light will produce a pair of subatomic particles — an electron and its anti-matter counterpart, the positron — particles that are far too tiny to be visible to the naked eye.

Physicists already know that the reverse process — a negatively-charged electron colliding with its positively-charged counterpart, the positron — causes the particles to wipe each other out and produce a burst of light, so the opposite reaction should, in principle, work. The process is governed by Einstein’s famous equation, E = mc2, from his Special Theory of Relativity, which says that energy (light) and matter are essentially the same thing. In fact, during the very, very early history of our universe — the first few fractions of a second — the universe was so hot and dense that energy was converting to matter and back again to energy very rapidly, until the universe cooled down enough for energy to finally “freeze out” into matter. The physics governing this is very simple, but it turns out to be rather difficult to create the conditions in a laboratory for this to happen. Thus, the excitement over this latest experiment to create matter from light.

It’s pretty exciting to think I may see Star Trek-like replicators in my lifetime. First thing I’m ordering when I get one? Tea, Earl Grey, hot.

Replay: The free frontier

Traffic’s up after the informal announcement of the publication of our Astronomy and Astrophysics curriculum, so we’re replaying some of our more important posts from the archives for our new readers.

Yesterday [April 12, 2011], on the 50th anniversary of the first man in space, The Atlantic featured an article by Jim Hodges lamenting the decline of American exceptionalism in space:

[In the 1960s] Americans didn’t talk of their exceptionalism. They did exceptional things, and the world talked about it. In many places around the world, in science labs and classrooms, the NASA “meatball” was as recognizable as the Stars and Stripes.

People remember that President Kennedy said, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade [of the 1960s] is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”

Forgotten is that just before that challenge, he said this as a preamble to it: “I believe we possess all of the resources and talents necessary [to lead the world into space]. But the facts of the matter are that we have never made the national decisions or marshaled the national resources required for such leadership. We have never specified long-range goals on an urgent time schedule, or managed our resources and our time as to insure their fulfillment.”

The government is certainly not doing that now, and we can’t count on it to do these things ever again.

However, I do not see this as occasion to despair. As well-intentioned as NASA has been, government almost always does things slower, costlier, and with less innovation than private enterprise. In fact, while government has been slashing NASA’s budget and scaling back its goals, private companies out in Mojave have been quietly innovating like crazy:

Lost in translation

I got nothin’ for you this week. In lieu of actual content, some fun. What happens if you use online translators to translate a phrase into another language and then back into English 35 times? This:

Newton’s first law: “Every body persists in its state of being at rest or of moving uniformly straight forward, except insofar as it is compelled to change its state by force impressed.”

Translated: Form or change in this area is for a period of 10 days.”

Newton’s second law: “The change of momentum of a body is proportional to the impulse impressed on the body, and happens along the straight line on which that impulse is impressed.”

Translated: Forces in the body, and then click OK.”

Newton’s third law: “To every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction: or the forces of two bodies on each other are always equal and are directed in opposite directions.”

Translated: “Always in the direction opposite to the Organization, the President of the movement.”

Simple random statement: “My dog has fleas.”

Translated:Dog fleas.”

I use online translators occasionally to help translate messages from my Finnish in-laws, but as Bad Translator points out, they’re really only good for getting the gist of a phrase. As you can see, there is potential for the translation to go hilariously wrong.

New origin date for the Shroud of Turin

According to a book just released in Italy, researchers have established a new date of origin for the Shroud of Turin. Using a method involving spectroscopy and infrared light, researchers are now placing the origin of the shroud between 300 B.C. and 400 A.D., consistent with the lifetime of Jesus (other reports claim a range of 280 B.C. to 220 A.D.). Previous attempts to date the shroud using radiocarbon dating placed its origin between the 13th and 14th centuries, suggesting it had been faked. However, this origin was in dispute, not only because the level of sophistication required to produce such a fake did not exist at that time, but because the sample was apparently contaminated by newer fibers used to repair the shroud after it was damaged in a fire.

Although the Catholic Church has so far not taken an official position on its authenticity, Pope Francis will appear on Italian television today to introduce images of the famous shroud.

The universe is a little older than previously thought

Scientists using data from the ESA Planck mission have measured the age of the universe to be a little older — about 100 million years older — than previously thought. The official age, based on measurements of the cosmic microwave background, is now 13.8 billion years. Also, the proportions of matter and dark energy have changed a little, with slightly more matter (‘normal’ matter + dark matter) and slightly less dark energy than previously measured.

Related posts:

Voyager 1 is on a “magnetic highway”

Popular media reports that the Voyager 1 probe has left the solar system are premature, according to NASA. Back in December, NASA reported that Voyager 1, which was launched in 1977, had entered a region known as a “magnetic highway” that is a boundary between the solar system and interstellar space. The magnetic highway is a region where the magnetic field lines of the Sun meet the magnetic field lines of interstellar space, permitting charged particles to stream into and out of the solar system. Voyager scientists expect the spacecraft to cross this highway and enter interstellar space soon, but have seen no evidence for this crossing yet.

Update: xkcd comments on Voyager 1’s latest journey out of the solar system:

So far Voyager 1 has ‘left the Solar System’ by passing through the termination shock three times, the heliopause twice, and once each through the heliosheath, heliosphere, heliodrome, auroral discontinuity, Heaviside layer, trans-Neptunian panic zone, magnetogap, US Census Bureau Solar System statistical boundary, Kuiper gauntlet, Oort void, and crystal sphere holding the fixed stars.