(Available on Netflix US)
“Powerful things, deep things.”
– Julian Monay, French archaeologist, on the Chauvet cave paintings.
Who were the Paleolithic artists that created such magnificent images in the Chauvet caves? We cannot see their faces, but by gazing at their ancient paintings we can peer into their minds. We see the same love of beauty and truth that we pursue in our present day lives.
The need to explore the universe around us is something deeply embedded in the human psyche. The disciplines of art and science are two very different, but connected manifestations of this genetic desire.
Two films currently on Netflix perfectly represent this connection:
Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) and Particle Fever (2013)
The subject matter of Cave of Forgotten Dreams lends itself well to poetic cinematography. In 1994, the oldest cave paintings known to man were discovered in the Ardèche Valley in south-central France. Documentary film-maker, Werner Herzog was given special access to the caves to make a film about these extraordinary paintings. Not mere etchings, but spectacular, elaborate panels that provide unique insight into the life of prehistoric man.
Theirs was a natural world populated by lions, rhino and buffalo; creatures which have long since disappeared from the European landscape.
What were their dreams? Herzog’s distinctive narration asks.
Set to a haunting soundtrack and gently illuminated by shimmering torch light, the camera performs wondrous panoramas across the herds of galloping horses and charging bison on the walls of the cave.
Herzog thoughtfully discusses the nature of existence and time:
“They speak to us from a familiar but distant universe.”
“Will we ever be able to understand the vision of the artists across the abyss of time?”
Particle Fever seems to think so. The 2013 documentary about the Large Hadron Collider explicitly draws a comparison between the primitive representations of nature on the walls of the Chauvet caves and the abstract equations physicists use today to explain the laws of nature.
“Why do human beings do science?” asks world-renowned physicist, Savas Dimopoulos in an interview in the film, “Why do they do art? The things that are least important for our survival are the things that make us human.”
“It could be nothing other than understanding everything.”
Humorous, light and incredibly insightful, Particle Fever follows a group of physicists in Cern, working on the construction of the Large Hadron Collider before it confirmed the existence of the Higgs boson in 2013. It also follows a group of theoretical physicists curiously awaiting the results.
At that point it was uncertain if any of their (the theoretical physicists) postulations about the nature of the universe were correct.
The Large Hadron Collider was a test of all their assumptions thus far.
It’s fascinating, throughout the film, to listen to the accounts of life as a scientist. How they often struggle to justify the economic utility of their work. The many failed attempts to get the LHC project off the ground and how it had already been obstructed once in Texas, when the Superconducting Super Collider project was shut down in 1993 by the US Congress, due to spending concerns.
No two disciplines are accused more of impracticality than art and science.
But few things are capable of inducing the intense feelings of wonder and awe that the very best of science and art is.
After the first particles were successfully smashed together, the data visualistion that was produced by The Large Hadron Collider is as sublime as any artistic masterpiece:
From hunter-gatherers to theoretical physicists, Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Particle Fever both gaze deeply into the mysteries of time and the origins of the universe. In a perfect union of the vast cosmos that is within us and all around us.
Right: “A Higgs boson produced by colliding protons decaying into hadron jets and electrons.”
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