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.
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