Life and death at Rochor Centre, Singapore

Built in the late 1970’s Rochor Center was recently listed as a landmark, and was supposed to be protected by the Urban Redevelopment Authority. But it will be demolished soon anyway, making way for yet another new multilane highway, one of those that make life in Singapore easier and more difficult at the same time.

Easier – because getting from one end of the city state to another will get smoother. More difficult – because it will make life noisier, towns more detached, and walking across the island even more infuriating, if not impossible. Cars will rule it to the fullest.

Rochor Centre, with its 180 busy shophouses, countless tiny offices, family lives staged across all 17 floors and void decks, something typically Singaporean –  all that will join countless spots and regions of the Singapore I love, that have been ground down by gentrification, the tendency of making things that have evolved naturally into something supposedly cozier and nicer. And lets not forget the cars – they will rule the place. It does not imply that Rochor Center was pretty in a regular kind of way, though…

In 2013 and 2014, while being an Outreach Fellow of Centre for Quantum Technologies, National University of Singapore, filming Reality Lost, I spent couple of days wandering at Rochor. I indulged my sentiment for things that are shabby and scruffy but, at the same time, displaying the full spectrum of life. The fact that I myself was brought up in a block of flats similar to Rochor might have something to do with it too.

Here are some pictures of the place I took then.

Julian Barbour’s arrows of time

“Many different phenomena in the Universe are time asymmetric and define an arrow of time that points in the same direction everywhere at all times. Attempts to explain how this arrow could arise from time-symmetric laws often invoke a ‘past hypothesis’: the initial condition with which the Universe came into existence must have been very special” – this is how Julian Barbour, Tim Koslowski, and Flavio Mercati open their paper titled “Identification of a gravitational arrow of time”.

In other words: for some funny reason once you make an omelette, you can’t go much backwards in terms of eggs used recreation. Time flows ruthlessly in one direction. Arrow of time stubbornly points into future. And the most common explanations of the phenomena focus on this very special moment of the beginning of the Universe. There must have been something unique, singular there that gave rise to time’s arrow over there/then, physicists say. They are not able say much more… At least at the moment.

Last year Julian Barbour, Tim Koslowski, and Flavio Mercati came across a completely different sort of explanation. They conclude that “the origin of time’s arrow is not necessarily to be sought in initial conditions but rather in the structure of the law which governs the Universe”.

I won’t tell you much more at the moment, because this is the very issue that “Bottom’s Dreams” is about. As you might have noticed Julian Barbour is one of the protagonists of Pioneers (trailer below), the documentary series committed by me, produced by POLITYKA weekly, and supported by Centre for Quantum Technologies, National University of Singapore. The movie will be released on DVD and VOD soon. It will explain everything you wanted to know about time. Well, almost everything.

Julian Barbour is a truly exceptional thinker, someone who for the last forty years has been following his own, independent scientific path. He is also the author of two groundbreaking books, “The Discovery of Dynamics: A Study from a Machian Point of View of the Discovery and the Structure of Dynamical Theories” and “The End of Time: The Next Revolution in Physics” – and a charming, friendly person, who always welcomes crude laymen like me.

Why am I writing this? Julian with his colleagues have been just awarded the Buchalter Cosmology Prize – for the very publication I mentioned above. It would be terribly patronizing for me to say: “I knew it!” So I will just say: Congratulations!

What’s interesting, we filmed “Bottom’s Dream” (trailer above) right after the paper was scheduled for publication in Physical Review Letters. It seems we pictured science in the making!

And here are some pictures that I took five or so years ago, during my first visit to South Newington in Oxfordshire, the Medieval origin village Julian spent happily most of his life in – a somewhat timeless piece of spacetime he has been drawing inspiration from.

The shameless case of self-promotion

A little bit of shameless self-promotion today.

Yes – I am proud to announce that I was awarded the Grand Press, which is a Polish equivalent of the Pulitzer prize (more here, in Polish).  The jury showed its appreciation of The Bomb That Shook the World, the movie on Roy Glauber, that we shot with Artur Ekert. Yes – it was a huge surprise. And yes – it wasn’t unpleasant a feeling.

tp_30_1418304327_viewBut my person is only a small part of the equation. The whole that thing wouldn’t happen, if it weren’t for all those wonderful, open, patient, and generous thinkers I had a privilege and pleasure of meeting during the last 10 years of my work for POLITYKA weekly, and for Centre for Quantum Technologies, NUS. They prove that science, this elaborate procedure of scratching the surface of reality, is a thrill.

These are the people (a bunch of portraits below) that made me think. Some of them I am honored to call friends. Artur, it’s about you – many thanks for all the support!

There also are Joanna Zimakowska and Andrzej Gorzym, whom I had a chance of collaborating with for years – those two highly underappreciated masters of science  popularization in Poland. There is Lech Będkowski, too, the editor that is called, and a man of an endless charm.

There are Jadwiga Kucharczyk, the finance director, Jerzy Baczyński and Jacek Poprzeczko, editors-in-chief of POLITYKA, for whom an old fashioned term of “the mission” hasn’t lost its meaning. And, last but definitely not least, there is Piotr Zmelonek, the publishing director of the weekly, who trusted my crazy idea of shooting Pioneers, which the awarded movie is a part of.

I owe you all an enormous debt of gratitude!

Invisible cities of Syria

Invisible cities. The metropolis of Damascus, intellectual hub of Aleppo, steamy waterfronts Latakia, winding streets of tiny Ma’loula – places that are now suspended in semi-being, the state of war-not-war, bombed and raided again and again, waiting for a good change that will never come. Syria, the country that several decades ago was cut out, as many other in the region, along pencil drawn lines that didn’t reflect historical divisions – now is being disassembled, erased, smudged out of the Middle East map, making millions of honest and hard working people refugees for life.

I took those pictures almost 20 years ago, during the first visit to the place where all the paths of our civilization used to cross, where three great religions were born and matured, before falling into doctrines, solidifying into blocks of religions. It was one of the constitutive experiences of my life.

I went to Syria again, couple years later, only to find the same open, hospitable people. I went again to meet friends. Are they still there? How many members of their families are still alive?

Photo archeology

I took these pictures in 1995, during my first, mind blowing, visit to New York City and New Orleans. Then I spent countless hours in the darkroom at the University of Marie Curie-Sklodowska, playing with grain, tonal ranges, experimenting with over-magnification, fighting with old and heavy Soviet made enlargers.

Pure fun. Or no – a kind of meditation rather. And I miss this analogue, deeply physical routine.

I need a darkroom. Anybody?

Daniel C. Dennett: The Man Who Changed the Way We Think About the Mind

We filmed this episode of Pioneers a year ago, on the Little Deer Isle in Maine. Daniel C. Dennett, a wonderful man who happens to be one of the greatest and busiest philosophers on the planet Earth, generously granted me almost two days of his time, which I’m thoroughly and sincerely thankful for.

We met at his new summer house, we rallied in his old but trusty VW Beetle around the isle, trying to capture the essence of Daniel Dennett’s views on the phenomenas of consciousness, free will, and the meaning (as well as the origin) of life. We succeeded, I think – which wouldn’t be possible without a tremendous support of Daniel’s dearest friend, the closest partner, and wife in one energetic person. Many thanks, Susan!

And here’s the outcome – the movie, the second episode of my documentary series Pioneers: The Man Who Changed the Way We Think About the Mind a.k.a. Do Lobster Have Free Will?

It has been just released on DVD, and is available here (in English, with Polish subtitles). You can also access it from wherever you are as a VOD, on Vimeo. By the way – the DVD cover was beautifully designed by Magdalena Kuc.

The first wave of the feedback (and sales reports) is more than encouraging, and makes us – me and POLITYKA weekly, the producer of the series – think optimistically about the premieres of the following episodes of the series (the one on mathematician Gregory Chaitin, and one on Julian Barbour’s physics of time). People seem to buy the idea, which is truly promising! Thank you! 

If there are literally thousands of people interested in philosophy of mind, willing to invest their own money into a movie about it – we (humanity) might be not entirely doomed.

Since a film documentary series is something we haven’t tried before, a high risk little project, I feel both relieved, proud – and thankful to all the people who believed in it and made it happen: Jadwiga Kucharczyk, Jerzy Baczyński, Jacek Poprzeczko, Piotr Zmelonek (the man who never sleeps), Edwin Bendyk (all from POLITYKA), and Artur Ekert (Centre for Quantum Technologies, National University of Singapore).  And there is Scott Johnson too, of course – a New York City based composer fascinated by the persona of Daniel C. Dennett, the author of the original music for the episode.

With no professional short film forms maker in sight I had to commit a trailer by myself – and here’s the result (below). 

Some time later I was kindly asked to make another one, more user friendly, which I tried too (below). Have a look – that’s why they have specialized trailer directors in Hollywood. But those two do their job, I hope.

And here are a few snapshots taken during that autumn filming trip in 2015, in misty Maine, on the way back to Boston.

PS The Bomb That Shook the World, the first episode of Pioneers, the one on Roy Glauber, has been just awarded the Grand Press, a Polish equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize! More about it here – only in Polish though.

A night in Malacca

Two years ago Artur Ekert, a friend who is a renowned physicist by day and crazy pilot by night took me for an unforgettable ride. We flew his old Cessna from Johor in Malaysia up North, along the shores of the Malacca Strait, to, well, Malacca.

The latter is one of those places whose name automatically and subconsciously triggers some, usually imaginary, memories from a distant childhood – brings to life verses of the books long forgotten… those of the pirates of the Southern Seas, etc…

In other words – it was a pure joy to circle above this ancient trading hub, and then to walk the streets of the city, which, despite quite a heavy influx of tourists, remains surprisingly authentic and unspoiled. I was lucky – due to a storm forecasts we got grounded, couldn’t fly back on the same day, and “had” to spend a night in Malacca. This chaotic side of nature is something I cherish.

Since Ewa Jalochowska, an art historian and a writer, who happens to be my wife, is preparing a lecture on the Peranakan (as it is known in Singapore) and Baba Nyonya (in Malaysia) culture, I was obliged to dig into the archives, looking for the photos taken during that trip. And here’s a sample output.

Night patrol in Nixon, Nevada

This one of those fantastic, touching stories that haven’t been reported properly yet. For some reasons they weren’t published yet, or, due to the ruthless economy of paper publications, were deleted from feature reportages – but weren’t forgotten. I would like to launch the process of excavating them, bit by bit. I feel indebted to people I had a privilege of meeting of while driving back roads. 

Say – this one.

I met Michael Gagne in Nixon, Nevada, the seat of tribal government of the Paiute Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation, home of 400 souls or so troubled by poverty and addictions. After filling a special forms and declaring that I won’t sue anyone in case of my sudden death, I went for a night patrol with Mike.

He had dozens of stories to tell – stories of the man who saw and heard a lot, even too much, when he served as a LAPD officer. He told me also about the science-fiction book he was planning to write, an amazing tale of a time and space traveller, details of which I unfortunately almost forgot…

It was 2009. I’ve tried to track him down, to catch up, follow the story line – in vain. He left Nixon, hit the road again, I guess.

Mike, are you there somewhere?

This is a personal website of Karol Jalochowski, a science journalist, reporter, and documentary film maker of POLITYKA weekly (supported by CQT/NUS).