Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Astro Nought

Z Is For Zero - So Start The Countdown Now

Photographs copyright: DAVID McMAHON


It’s a strange word, zero. When you look at it numerically it has no value. But when you look at it in everyday English phraseology, it takes on a different complexion altogether.

For instance, we use the phrase ``zero hour’’ to indicate critical timing or the launch of a crucial project. A few years ago, I read something that really intrigued me, especially because of its relevance to space exploration, something that has been a part of our minds since the Space Race began.

You know how the countdown to the launch of a space mission always goes backwards? It was something I just accepted as I followed, with bated breath, the progress of the Apollo missions that led to the 1969 lunar landing.

Then I discovered that the notion of the reverse countdown stemmed from a 1929 German movie called Girl In The Moon. Fritz Lang, the director of the movie, wanted to enhance the suspense of the scene and wondered how best this could be done. He hit on the idea of reversing the traditional count from one to ten - and the scene is generally acknowledged as being the trend-setter for all space missions.

So why the reverse count? According to film historians, this is what he said: "It came from a dire necessity. I said, 'If I count 1, 2, 3, 4, 10, 50, 100, an audience doesn't know when it will go off, but if I count down - 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, ZERO - then they will know. Thus the countdown."


While zero is an easy concept to evaluate and define, the word infinity is harder to explain. It encompasses everything, yet it cannot really be classed as a mathematical entity. When I was a kid and I heard the word infinity, I always thought of the focal plane on a camera, but that changed after the release of the computer-animation film Toy Story and its sequel, Toy Story 2.

There is something very endearing about Buzz Lightyear and his slogan "To infinity and beyond".

There is something of Buzz in all of us. He embodies adventure, he embodies nobility, he embodies a questing spirit. And like us, he has foibles too. He embodies a certain naivety, he embodies an inability to understand why anyone would want to harm him, he embodies the simple spirit that does not recognise severe limitations.

Like Buzz, we are all endowed with super powers at some time in our lives. And like Buzz, we all realise occasionally that an indomitable spirit alone is not always sufficient to achieve the impossible.

Buzz Lightyear touches us all in many ways. And of course, as someone who spent many happy years at a boarding school in the beautiful Himalayan tourist attraction of Darjeeling, I am always delighted by the reference to the little town in the scene where Buzz is "Mrs Nesbitt", is very much the worse for wear after one too many cups of tea.

And yes, space exploration, such a part of my childhood, still gives me a buzz. But I sometimes wonder if, during all those tense pre-launch moments at NASA mission control, anyone thinks of Fritz Lang and his great idea.


For the home of ABC Wednesday, go to Mrs Nesbitt's Place.

30 comments:

Pat - An Arkansas Stamper said...

Wonderful post, Mr. Mc! I'm happy to learn the origin of the reverse countdown, as well as to read your insightful thoughts on Buzz Lightyear.

Tink *~*~* said...

That might be all well and good, but what does Jesse think? ;)

Tink *~*~*
My Mobile Adventures *~*~*

Hammer said...

Buzz lightyear is awesome. I watch the cartoon series with my kids and find myself just as entertained.

You're right many of us do identify with the spirit of the character.

ces said...

hi david!
these are wonderfully done shots and article as well! i do the countdown backwards when i ask my kids to do something:)

SandyCarlson said...

You do know how to make things fun, David!

Jules~ said...

Buzz Lightyear is a fun little toy guy. I love all of those cartoons. After Toy Story, I got hooked with The Incredibles. Now my current favorite is Meet the Robinsons.

I never knew that about the NASA countdown. Interesting and true to the fact that if we were to count up insead of down...no one would know when the finale is.

Baino said...

Haha well there you go. I did not know that. Now can you explaing "T minus X Seconds?". That would really give me a buzz! (I'm easily pleased these days!)

Hilary said...

You put a lot of fun and knowledge into everything you do.. what a blast(off)!

Jeff B said...

Life imitating art again. How many times has Hollywood inspired an individual or organization to new ideas?

Nessa said...

I have no smart ass comment for this one. I find the origins of sayings interesting.

Merisi said...

Interesting story, thank you!
May I point out that Fritz Lang was born in Vienna, Austria? He was already enrolled at the Technical University here, when he decided he'd rather persue his dream of becoming an artist. He started his career in film in Germany, but left the country overnight, after the Nazi Ministry of Propaganda offered him a position as head of production at the UFA Studios, even though the same ministry had banned his latest film, "Doctor Mabuse's Testament", only a few days earlier.

holly said...

i hereby promise to always think of fritz lang in countdown situations. i know now that he would want it that way.

Katney said...

One of my grandsons went about a year refusing to wear any shirt that did not have Buzz Lightyear on it.

His brother, at the time, would not wear a T=shirt--only button down collar shirts.

One was about four and the other seven at the time.

Has nothing to do with zero or z--but it came to mind.

Of course, I could have mentioned how excited my son the mathematician was when he reported that his daughter understood the concept of zero instead.

Chuck said...

You are such a riot. It was nice to see Buzz Lightyear again ~ it's been a long time. Thx for the enlightenment as well and enjoy your eve. *group hug*

CrazyCath said...

What a fantastic post! That is one of your best (for me)on a number of levels Mr. M! You fulfil the Z requirement well and truly, and I learned a bit of history, science, philosophy and media not to mention appreciating the angles of those shots - fantastic. And it's fun. :0)
You've packed this post and I love Buzz's catchphrase too. It's like the "you can do or be anything you want" sentiment or "nothing's impossible".

RiverPoet said...

I always loved the song from Schoolhouse Rock, "Zero, My Hero." Check it out sometime. Peace - D

(formerly Momma)

willow said...

My daughter once dated a guy that looked exactly like Buzz Lightyear.

MamaGeek said...

Oh I loved this David. Then again I am partial to ANYTHING with Buzz Lightyear in it!

So are you officially BACK? WOOT!

Texas Travelers said...

Great post and thanks for the information.

Well done.

ZZ's are Tops.
Come visit,
Troy and Martha

Maggie May said...

That was a really good post! Colourful too!

picturing said...

hi hi...cute zero.

Visit me in here Thanks

Juliana RW said...

nice creative Z photos.

Mine in here At My Imaginary. Thanks

Shrinky said...

What a facinating and enjoyable post David, I had no idea, never even gave it any thought at all, as to the origin of the reverse count down. Smile.

Bear Naked said...

Thank you for telling us about the origin of the reverse countdown.
Very informative.

Bear((( )))

babooshka said...

To infinity and beyond! Excellent and inciteful post on the explanation of zero. As for the pics. amusing as always.

Mima said...

I think that has to be my new fact for the day - that the reverse count down originally came from a film! I wonder how many other inventions have ended up being named due to the early sci-fi books and things!

Love the Buzz photos, I think that today I am ready to follow him to infinity even if maybe not beyond!

Liz said...

That was interesting. Makes sense too. And I love Buzz!

Denise said...

Ahh! Buzz, as he once said "More tea Mrs Nesbitt!" LOL!

John said...

What a great and funny Z post, David!

Colin Campbell said...

Great memories. My son was a big fan for about three years. That said, Buzz is so yesterday now. Sad in a way.