Sunday, June 29, 2008

Asimov's last question and Dasavatharam

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I am writing this post after having watched Dasavatharam for the third time this afternoon. Dasavatharam's central theme or the chaos theory is very similar to Asimov's short story "THE LAST QUESTION". The short story deals with the second law of thermodynamics which states that the entropy of the universe is always increasing reaching a maximum value. The question that Asimov tries to address in this short story is "Can entropy of the universe be reversed?" The short story starts with a drunk scientist asking a tough question to an advanced computer.

"Adell was just drunk enough to try, just sober enough to be able to phrase the necessary symbols and operations into a question which, in words, might have corresponded to this: Will mankind one day without the net expenditure of energy be able to restore the sun to its full youthfulness even after it had died of old age? Or maybe it could be put more simply like this: How can the net amount of entropy of the universe be massively decreased? Multivac fell dead and silent. The slow flashing of lights ceased, the distant sounds of clicking relays ended. Then, just as the frightened technicians felt they could hold their breath no longer, there was a sudden springing to life of the teletype attached to that portion of Multivac. Five words were printed: INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR MEANINGFUL ANSWER. "No bet," whispered Lupov. They left hurriedly. By next morning, the two, plagued with throbbing head and cottony mouth, had forgotten about the incident.

This resonates well with the central theme of the movie Dasavatharam which deals with the chaos theory. According to the chaos theory the fate of certain dynamic systems can be determined solely by their initial state irrespective of whatever transitions occur in between. What in the world is the connection between chaos and entropy? Entropy is nothing but the state of disorderliness of a system. The disorderliness of the universe surrounding us is constantly increasing and this disorderliness can manifest in ordered forms or patterns that we can recognize. The best example of such chaotic systems are biological systems. A living cell is the perfect example of a chaotic system.

A cell lives through the culmination of various chaotic events that eventually take an ordered recognizable pattern. The same holds true for the theory of evolution. Evolution is again the culmination of random events that somehow occurred at the right place at the right time and manifested in the form of a creature that was best suited for that environment. Achieving such order from a chaotic universe seems to be very easy but in reality the probability of such events occurring is very slim or in layman terms a "miracle". This is exactly what saved Avatar Singh when the bullet hit his throat. This chaotic event could have certainly killed him but he survived through a "miraculous event". The underlying message in this movie is about how we perceive these very miracles or events of low probability. A rational person or in Tamil "pakutharivalan" will try and understand it as a mathematical phenomenon whereas a religious person can be reductionist and call it a miracle. Both ways we cannot exclude miracles from occurring. The end of the movie is also punctuated by a series of catastrophic or chaotic events which can be classified as miracles, that bring about order to underline this point. This finally brings me to the point I was trying to make about Asimov's great short story "THE LAST QUESTION". How does his story end? What is Asimov's answer to the last question? Why does it remind me of Dasavatharam's theme?

"The stars and Galaxies died and snuffed out, and space grew black after ten trillion years of running down. One by one Man fused with AC, each physical body losing its mental identity in a manner that was somehow not a loss but a gain.
Man's last mind paused before fusion, looking over a space that included nothing but the dregs of one last dark star and nothing besides but incredibly thin matter, agitated randomly by the tag ends of heat wearing out, asymptotically, to the absolute zero. Man said, "AC, is this the end? Can this chaos not be reversed into the Universe once more? Can that not be done?" AC said, "THERE IS AS YET INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER."

Man's last mind fused and only AC existed -- and that in hyperspace. Matter and energy had ended and with it, space and time. Even AC existed only for the sake of the one last question that it had never answered from the time a half-drunken computer ten trillion years before had asked the question of a computer that was to AC far less than was a man to Man. All other questions had been answered, and until this last question was answered also, AC might not release his consciousness. All collected data had come to a final end. Nothing was left to be collected. But all collected data had yet to be completely correlated and put together in all possible relationships. A timeless interval was spent in doing that.
And it came to pass that AC learned how to reverse the direction of entropy.

But there was now no man to whom AC might give the answer of the last question. No matter. The answer -- by demonstration -- would take care of that, too.
For another timeless interval, AC thought how best to do this. Carefully, AC organized the program. The consciousness of AC encompassed all of what had once been a Universe and brooded over what was now Chaos. Step by step, it must be done.

And there was light----

Thus the last question also ends in a "miracle". The miracle of creation!!

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Dasavatharam- "The butterfly effect"

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I watched Dasavatharam yesterday and decided to write my own little review for the movie. I am not going to reveal anything about the plot just in case any of you haven't seen it but I am going to put forth my views on what I think the movie was about. I am also not going to talk about the technical aspects like digital effects and special effects for those are not aspects of the movie that I was most interested in . What stands out is the brilliance of this movie to singularly focus and try to portray through various random sequences of events the complexity of life and the universe itself. As it is explained clearly in the beginning of the movie, this movie is about "chaos theory" or the butterfly effect. Lord Vishnu or the "preserver" according to the Hindu mythology takes an avatar or a form of life whenever the world is in chaos. Chaos here is the key word both for the movie as well as the avatars of lord Vishnu. The avatars of Vishnu if you remember were meant to restore order but looking at it in retrospect, Vishnu always created chaos and the chaos always culminated in some random order which was decided by the "karma" of people of those times. You might wonder why I am rambling on and on about Vishnu's avatars, the crux of Dasavatharam is buried in understanding the avatars of lord Vishnu. The movie also tries to fight disorderliness but what remains is only chaos culminating in a massive 'tsunami' of events. Writing the screenplay for such a difficult concept must be a very hard job ( I am no expert, please correct me if I am wrong).
I went to watch the movie after having read dozens of reviews that loved the movie and reviews that simply hated it. The movie is super good or super bad as it has been portrayed in the reviews, but it is certainly a trend setter, a unique movie in the annals of Indian cinema which stands out for its simplicity of presentation of such complex philosophical problems. Is there God? Is the world a result of an intelligent design? Are events result of random occurrences or can they be predestined? These are some of the questions that this wonderful movie tries to address. The movie does not try to prove or disprove the existence or the non-existence of God. It just tries to show that life is an unpredictable random event and that all events including evolution of man are not intelligent design but a product of events that were selected out of chaos. Throughout the movie one can see people revolting and trying to cause paradigm shifts in the society for various reasons like religious belief, caste, global warming, biological warfare, illegal removal of top soil etc. The simplicity and subtlety with which such problems are dealt with this in the movie are new and a breath of fresh air. I was surprised to see a few reviews that tried to simplify the movie into two parts. Yes the plot is simple but the philosophy underlying it is very deep. It was a very emotionally and mentally gratifying feeling watching this wonderful movie unfold. I was left wondering if I had missed some nuances during the non-stop first half. The second half of the movie is a bit long because it nose-dives into the central theme of the movie without warning by the introduction of a dalit character. These are minor flaws compared to the herculean effort that the makers of the movie have accomplished by intertwining events and the 10 avatars together. Some of the reviews for this movie asked why 10 avatars? 10 because it is the Unique Selling Point of the movie. One cannot package such complex philosophical and spiritual material without such a USP. The 10 roles also have their own significance. Each one very carefully studied and executed. Finally I would like to finish this rather longish review by saying that Dasavatharam is something to be experienced, analyzed and marvelled at for there are very few movies that are even worth watching these days.