Field of Science

Of games and fantasy. And science.

Before one starts to think that my entire life revolves around protists and other obscure lifeforms, I do actually have a life on the side too. It involves entirely ungeeky things like anime+manga, discussing the Chromalveolate hypothesis after a couple pitchers, exploring evolutionary theory in the humanities (hey, it's not protist-related...), wasting hours in various domains of the internet, procrastinating like a pro and, recently, attending a video game orchestra concert. As for this 'physical exercise' thing some weird people engage in, loading/unloading the autoclave is hard work. Sort of. I do occasionally go out hiking and stuff, but that involves actually leaving campus, which is, well, scary. Actually, it involves getting my ass out of my room, which violates Newton's First Law. I'm rather scared of physics, so I try not to break its laws too much...

Ok, so upon further examination, my life does revolve around protists, school and research. And, of course, procrastination. But I think most people's lives revolve around the latter...

Luckily, I don't have any gaming consoles. Or games, for that matter. Imagine how many hours of potential productivity would be brutally massacred were that the case! The fantasy RPG genre appeals to me beyond self-restraint were I to have access to it. And MMORPGs would be a death blow to my a child in the 90's, I've witnessed the golden age of computer and video games. Got my first computer in '93. My time was divided between gaming, building small empires out of Lego and screwing around outside (abusing playing with insects: was definitely enamoured with small things already!). My parents controlled the gaming part quite viciously, trying to save me from my fate to become a nerd. You judge whether that was effective at all.

Around the mid-90's there were all those RPG quest games, and we would play as a family (Russian computer engineers...yeah.) Later on, I would role play fantasy worlds and characters by myself. I had a bunch of simulation games like SimAnt, SimLife, SimCity, etc. which I was obsessed with. Countless hours were spent imaging I was in some fantasy alien world in another dimension somewhere. Towards the late 90's, I got access to 3D modelling software (RayDream Studio, Infini-D, Bryce), and went wild with that. Especially Bryce - you could go around creating all sorts of cool landscapes and cities and worlds... and then, in camera view, wander about and stop to render a frame here and there, pretending you were an actual character walking around!

I tried making animations, but this being late 90's, personal computers were still too slow to handle most of the rendering - a 1min movie would take a whole day or two to render, and I lacked the patience to wait and let it run. Also, 3D animation is waaay harder than it looks! You have to define paths for each object and link them in special ways and arrange the key frames in a way that makes sense, and first of all, make a realistic looking 3D object to begin with! Also, what is sometimes missed in 3D art is that important objective to create imperfections - the mathematical world of modeling is perfect, and thus rather unnatural and irritating to the brain. There are too many identical shapes and patterns, which our sight overreacts to. Creating those imperfections can be fun, but is also painfully time consuming (which is why most animations seem to happen in some perfect universe of sleek perfection and perfectness, somewhere). You gotta appreciate some of the masterpieces of 3D CG art - it is NOT easy!

I never had a gaming console, and for good reason - if a bare modeling program was enough to keep me engrossed in imaginary worlds for hours on end, video games could've easily taken over my life. What I do regret is not having discovered D&D and other tabletop RPGs until much later - role playing with other people would've been so much fun! Guess the schools I went to weren't particularly geeky or anything...

Then in highschool came anime and manga, and the obligatory obsession with anything Japanese. For some reason, Japanese fantasy tends to be diversy and creative compared to the average Western counterpart. Also, Japanese stuff tends to be relatively secular, whereas a lot of Western works involve angels, demons and churches and an atmosphere of contempt towards 'Pagan' elements. Perhaps being unfamiliar with the Japanese religions makes you oblivious to the religious undertones, whereas Western angels and demons were automatically associated with Christianity to some extent. I was brought up to be wary of religion, and avoid it at all costs. My fantasy worlds did involve myths and gods, but it was nothing deeply spiritual or religious - I guess my cultures were deistic and pantheistic rather than theistic. The only reason religions were present there was as an excuse to create sophisticated temples and various other structures that otherwise have no practical reason to exist whatsoever. But deeply religious elements in art really bugged me. (and still do)

Also, being a foreign culture to us, Japan itself is a bit of a fantasy world to begin with. So what is fantasy to them is REALLY fantasy-on-crack to us. If we were to come across extraterrestrial intelligent beings, and asked them to share some of their mythologies and sci fi novels with us, the result would probably be quite surreal. Perhaps even too surreal for our understanding... at least humans are all pretty similar to each other, so we can still understand! ^_^

The concept of a foreign mythical world seems to be almost universally appealing to us. (Hmmm, a research topic for some neuropsychologists?) Vast resources (but not vast enough) are being spent on space and deep sea exploration; science is an exploration of the 'design' features and specs of our environment; we invest much effort into exploring to design space of our own creativity through creating art. We immerse ourselves into emulations of what we imagine to be past civilisations. We ingest substances that send us to other planes of existence. To my knowledge, virtually every culture on earth has a way of escaping reality, via psychoactive chemicals, trance, sensory deprivation, whatever. We truly do thirst for fresh unusual sensory input. In other words, curiosity? Somehow, our brain just turns out to be quite unsatisfied with itself.

Perhaps there's actually no real adaptive advantage to any of that, our innate curiosity may be an inherent feature of intelligence or just a mere byproduct of something else. In any case, we're stuck with it. It is dangerous, to some extent maladaptive even, and the wiser members of the population learn to cull it and function with the rest of society. And there is no need to feel sorry for them - what they sacrifice in intellectual adventures they regain in personal security and happiness. I almost envy them. Practical people get much further in life than a fuzzbrain like me ever would. But, for whatever reason, I never really grew up, so now I'm stuck with an obsessive-compulsive pursuit of curiosity.

The line between fantasy and science is rather blurry - at first glance, science pursues Truth while fantasy pursues Mystery. I think that is a rather simplistic view of things. Yes, we try to model the world around us in a way most likely to generate accurate predictions (ie. the model is modified to match further sensory inputs). You can probably tell I'm not much of a follower of the whole philosophical Truth concept. Most of us in science really aren't, I'd imagine. But I do like the idea of being able to make accurate predictions, so I remain a monist and a materialist. So far, quite different from the modeling of the imagined that fantasy goes after. Science investigates what is, fantasy investigates what could be.

But how do we investigate what is? Remember how the Scientific Method works? You make a prediction, and test it against further data, right? You can only reject predictions that disagree with the data input, but not prove predictions that don't, for data input is infinite (reads: we'll never know everything). But what are predictions? What are hypotheses? Do we spend a portion of our rigorously scientific careers fantasising over what could be? Wait, do we actually use imagination, fantasy, to do science?

Now what about fantasy? We can't really create much from scratch - we need input to generate
(recombine) further ideas. To imagine what could be, we must first know something about what is. A good writer (or any other artist, for that matter) dedicates a significant amount of time and effort to learning stuff, to examining the present world as it is now. In a way, they are doing science in order to subsequently create art!

I guess the only difference is that we root our fantasy in science, whereas they root their science in fantasy!

The divide between science and fantasy, reality and imagination, matter and mind... is a rather fuzzy one when you look closer. Perhaps even nonexistant.

Again, that is not to say that bare imagination is on equal footing with good science in terms of making predictions about future events, not is science on equal footing with good imagination in inspiring good thinking. But science and fantasy are but two sides of one coin - two stages in the life cycle of human creativity.

This post topic was inspired by an orchestra concert my friends and I recently attended: Distant Worlds - Music of Final Fantasy, composed by Nobuo Uematsu. It was a pure radiant flaming ball of AWESOME, the whole evening! ^_^ FF has some of the best gaming music out there! I find it quite interesting how Japan managed to resurrect what seems to be a stale dying art form in its native Europe (ie orchestra music) into what is loved and appreciated by fans of younger ages. They're good at innovating - while we Europeans grab on to the past with all our strength and passion (and 'torture' small children by dragging them along to classical music concerts), the Japanese made it into a modern, relevant, artform, that people go to enjoy by their own will. Yet another case of tradition being preserved through adaptation and innovation, rather than stubborn wailing about the days long past.

Some people whine about the blasphemy that is using the sacred orchestra to play 8bit video game music, but I really don't see what's wrong with combining and blending genres, provided it's done well. After all, isn't that pretty much what evolution has been doing all along?

Some wonderful tracks: (semi-legally on youtube...)
Terra's Theme (FFVI) (obsessed with it at the moment)
Ronfaure (FFXI)
Not Alone (FFVIII)
At Zanarkand (FFX)
Opera "Maria and Draco" (FFVI)
Aerith's Theme (FFVII)
Up to you to find the others. Happy Youtube surfing =P


  1. Wow, a blogger after my own heart. Unfortunately, I own many gaming consoles, which do interfere with productivity - I've already determined that the postdoc is rather incompatible with playing lots of Japanese RPGs. Those designers truly have no respect for people's time...

    On the subject of anime, I was really into it in highschool, but fell out of it somewhat in university. I've relatively recently re-discovered it though. Much like Western television, anime runs the gamut between art and garbage, and I think that several of my friends who hate the stuff have only ever been exposed to the garbage.

    I'm actually surprised by how few geeks I've met in grad school. Seriously, during my Ph.D. there were two other gamers that I knew, and that was it. Cripes, maybe I should have gone into the Maths or Physics or something...

  2. Much like Western television, anime runs the gamut between art and garbage

    Just like biological 'designs' have a >99% extinction rate, human creations also seem to have a 99% failure rate...

    We seem to have more gaming/anime geeks in biol here, but that might be because I tend to hang out with Asians a lot. Actually, I don't really have very many white friends, come to think of it...weird! Besides, we're only 30min away from [s]Hong Kong[/s]* Richmond, BC. XP

    *damn you Blogger, I demand my strikethrough capabilities! >.<

  3. That's not to say there aren't white people obsessing over anime. But it does tend to be more commonplace/familiar among asian circles... [/disclaimer] (before people jump at me for 'generalising'...)

  4. Ah, yeah. I also noted a distinct increase in the number of anime buffs when I was living in Hongcouver. Come to think of it, I did watch a lot of Anime during my M.Sc. at SFU, and I had a much higher proportion of non-white friends. I'd like to move back there someday... minus the damned rain...

  5. oh wow...thats all so correct! My parents kept me away from conmputer games as well (thank god or I'd have entered those worlds and never came out). And the point about fantasy on-crack, well, have you ever *seen* Spirited Away?

    In terms of fantasy and science though, I'd say the similarity is in the way we deal with them, and the way we view them. I'm guessing you, like me, treat your little tiny microbe world the same way you thought about the fantasy worlds, except this ones better because it's actully *real* and people will pay you to geek out on it. :)

    I miss lego...

  6. I've seen most of Miyazaki's films, and worship him accordingly. He's definitely one of the saints of the Church of Awsum. I even OWN some of his animations LEGALLY! o_O (that's the highest honour these days, eh?)

    Although admittedly, his films aren't dark enough for me; but I guess that's kind of his point - he's good at bringing feelings of childhood back into adults - you actually feel like a kid while watching them! Which is nice when you spend the rest of your day all cynical and critical of everything and everyone...

    And he does his stuff using traditional methods (ie. not CGI)! Amazing for these days...

    Now if he'd randomly come out of retirement again and make a masterpiece of cynical dark fantasy mindfuck, that would be just epic!


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