Wednesday, April 13, 2011
A 30,000 Year Tradition
One of my very very favourite film makers was on NPR with one of my favourite writers the other day. I was so excited my emotions ran high. They were meeting to have a conversation about art and science. It was exhilarating to hear a conversation about painting and non-verbal langauge...
So few people are interested in painting. So few people collect or buy paintings for their homes...that I found this conversation so much fun. And like many artists, we have studiedand wondered about the life and technical aspects of being an artist who did cave paintings. What was it like to haul out into a cave...what were they saying and how wonderful this non-verbal language may touch us all the way to today! Some artists are still seeing themselves as in the tradition of these cave painters and locking horns with them to contemporary times now.
A charming conversation between Cormac McCarthy, Werner Herzog and Lawrence Krauss can be heard here. I really recommend listening to it because at one point Hertzog reads an excerpt of one of McCarthy's work and it is quite lovely to listen to. I have copied NPRs trranscript here for my own record...I like to listen and then read the transcript.
IRA FLATOW, host:
This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
Albert Einstein once wrote: The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. So the unknown, the mysterious, is where art and science meet.
What do art and science have in common there? This hour we're going to explore that mysterious connection between art and science and how that relates to human origins. Our guests include a novelist, a filmmaker and a physicist, and we'll be talking with them this hour about their work.
What does physics have to do with fiction or film? What does art have to tell us about science, human origins and destiny? If you'd like to ask a question, our number is 1-800-989-8255. You can also tweet us, @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. Or go to our Facebook page, facebook/scifri, and get in on the discussions and question there.
Let me introduce my guests. Werner Herzog is a film director, producer and screenwriter. He is the director of over 50 films, including "Grizzly Man" and "The White Diamond," just to name a couple. His film "Encounters at the End of World," about scientists in Antarctica, was nominated for an Oscar. His latest film, "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," premieres this month. Thank you for joining us today, Werner.
Mr. WERNER HERZOG (Filmmaker): Thank you for having us.
FLATOW: You're welcome. Cormac McCarthy is a novelist and playwright. His books include "The Road," "No Country for Old Men," "All the Pretty Horses," "Blood Meridian" and many, many more, and several of those books have been adapted into award-winning films. McCarthy's also the recipient of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Thank you for being with us today.
Mr. CORMAC McCARTHY (Novelist): Pleased to be here.
FLATOW: You're welcome. Lawrence Krauss is a physicist and foundation professor and director of the Arizona State University Origin Project. The ASU Science and Culture Festival is taking place this weekend in Tempe, exploring the same theme of science, the arts and culture. His latest book is "Quantum Man: Richard Feynman's Life in Science." And they're all joining us from KJZZ in Tempe, Arizona. Lawrence, welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
Professor LAWRENCE KRAUSS (Arizona State University): It's always good to be back, Ira.
FLATOW: You were one of the catalysts for this meeting, for the meeting that's going on in Arizona. Where do you see the connection between science and art?
Prof. KRAUSS: Well, to me it's kind of obvious. They ask the same questions. Science addresses - really what it does at its best is force us to reassess our place in the cosmos. Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going?
And those are the very same questions that you get in art, literature, music. Every time you read a wonderful book or see a wonderful film, you come out of it with a different perspective of yourself, and too often, it seems to me, we forget that cultural aspect of science, and that's the reason we're celebrating it here.
And they come together in some sense in the notion of origins. Origins really is one place where, it seems to me, those two worlds connect the closest, because we all wonder about our origins in different ways.
And it's the forefront of science in almost every field and yet, of course, it's really what we're asking ourselves when we think about literature and art.
FLATOW: Werner, you always seem to have that kind of connection in the book -in the films that you make. Certainly you get into the science, and then you get into a larger question about humanity in there, don't you?
Mr. HERZOG: Well, in some of the films, yes, but it doesn't really apply to everything I do. When you look at the feature films, of course, they're of a different nature. But a good example of what you're alluding to is the film I made in Antarctica, "Encounters at the End of the World," and of course the most recent film in the cave in Southern France, where you really can observe the origins of the modern human soul, so to speak.
Art, figurative representation, apparently first traces of religion, there was music nearby - well, 400 kilometers away. Ivory flutes were found and just phenomenal things that did not occur to Neanderthal man, who roamed the landscape at the same time, 32,000 years ago. So there are profound questions and, of course, profound mysteries remaining.
FLATOW: Cormac McCarthy, most people may not know this, but I understand you are very interested in science also. Tell us about your relationship, for example, with the Santa Fe Institute.
Mr. McCARTHY: Well, I met Murray Gell-Mann about 25 years ago, and I'd been interested in science at that time, particularly physics, and after meeting Murray and a number of other physicists, I became more interested, and I was invited to come to the Santa Fe Institute, where I've been for - oh, I don't know, about a dozen years. But my connection with him was even before that, because I lived in El Paso, and my brother and I used to come to various meetings and presentations at the institute.
And I think it kind of helps you to stay honest. You're talking about things which are factual and things about which there is agreement. It's kind of hard to agreement about the arts at the - some of the awards programs really have a hard time getting any sort of consensus about who should get it, these awards in literature or the visual arts.
There's not - it's not easy to do. But if you're talking about a theory in physics, guess what? It's either true or it's not. And you will go to an experiment and to experimental people and tell them what you're looking for, and if they find it, then it's there, and if they don't, it's not. And that's -I kind of like that.
FLATOW: Lawrence, do you have a reaction to that?
Prof. KRAUSS: Well, yeah. I think it's fascinating to hear that because I think it's really important. One of the - you know, we - all of what we're talking about is human imagination, in a way. And in fact, to bring Feynman up, I guess, he said science is imagination in a straightjacket.
And I think - and we have to recognize that we, as humans, I guess, want to and love to imagine not only the world the way it is but the world as it might be. And many of us want the - hope that there are worlds that are better.
And that's great. I think that's really important. But there are two aspects to it. One is we have to accept that the world we live in is what it is. And if people would just recognize that the world is the way it is whether we like it or not, I think it would change a lot the way people behave.
But at the same time, I think we should - we need to recognize also that sometimes the actual universe is more fascinating than even our imagination, and it can spur - it can spur our imagination not just as scientists, but I also, I suspect, as - for artists. And that's why I think it's another good reason to sort of keep up with some of the fantastic things that are happening in the world.
Because I think if all three of us were locked in a room without any access to information about how the world behaved, that none of our work would be as -hopefully, well, I suspect as creative or interesting as it might be.
FLATOW: Do you think when you bring scientists and artists and writers together, they actually inspire each other, give each other ideas?
Prof. KRAUSS: Well, these two gentlemen have inspired me for many years in many different ways. So there's no doubt about it. I can say I'm inspired. They can speak for themselves.
Mr. HERZOG: Well, for me, for example, a film like "Fitzcarraldo," where I moved a huge ship over a mountain in the Amazon jungle, actually started out in Brittany, at the coast of - the northwestern coast of France, where you have (unintelligible) Neolithic, huge slabs of stone erected. But there are thousands of them in parallel rows.
And I was sitting there and I tried to figure out how would I do it as a Neolithic person, without the modern machinery, and of course I came up with a method, which in essence is how I moved the ship over the mountains.
And it made me very angry because a pseudo-scientist had postulated that these stones were so heavy that only ancient astronauts from different planets could have done it. And I thought: This is so completely and utterly idiotic. It just itched me, and I wanted to find out. And it led to a way, how to move a ship over a mountain.
FLATOW: And you, as a filmmaker, by making a documentary or showing how this could actually be done without the need for aliens, can influence a large public that might not listen to scientists speak about it, because your -through film.
Prof. KRAUSS: Yeah, I just jump in. I think that's the point. I think the public is intimidated by science, but they love great books and great film. And to the extent that those can in some sense lead people to think about those questions in a realistic way, that's great.
FLATOW: Cormac, when you hang around scientists, do they make you optimistic or pessimistic?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. McCARTHY: Well, some of my friends would probably tell you that making me pessimistic would be a difficult chore indeed. But I'm - I don't know. I'm not - I'm pessimistic about a lot of things, but as Lawrence has quoted me as saying, there's no reason to be miserable about it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. KRAUSS: It's one of my favorite quotes.
Mr. McCARTHY: I don't know. The other thing we talked about a few minutes ago was how bad we are at prognostications. So the fact that I take a pretty dreary view of the future is cheering because I think, you know, the chances are that I'm wrong.
FLATOW: Well, certainly reading "The Road," one hopes so, that you're wrong about that future scenario.
Mr. HERZOG: I think Cormac is not wrong, because it's quite evident that human beings, as a species, will vanish and fairly quickly. When I say quickly, maybe in two or three thousand years, maybe 30,000 years, maybe 300,000, but not much more, because we are much more vulnerable than other species, despite a certain amount of intelligence.
It doesn't make me nervous that fairly soon we'll have a planet which doesn't contain human beings.
Prof. KRAUSS: Well, you know, it's interesting you say that, because I flip back and forth as a scientist between - you know, I think there are days when -I don't know whether I've ever imagined a future quite as bleak as "The Road," but maybe.
But - you know, because I think, you know, humanity as an ensemble hasn't demonstrated a lot of intelligence about behaving in a way that globally impacts on the planet in a healthy way.
But at the same time, I agree with Werner, but I'm not so sure we'll vanish because we've destroyed ourselves. We may vanish...
Mr. HERZOG: No, for other reasons. I'm not speaking of self-destruction, which could happen, of course, but that many events thinkable out there which would instantly wipe us out.
Prof. KRAUSS: Oh, absolutely. That's likely to happen. That will inevitably happen anyway. But I think there might be a rosier future. Just let me throw one thing in which I think is rosy.
FLATOW: Lawrence, let me let you hold that because we have to go to a break, and a rosy future would be a good way to start the next segment.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: So stay with us. We're talking about the future with Werner Herzog, Lawrence Krauss and Cormac McCarthy. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Tweet us, @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. You may never see these three together in a room again. So here's your opportunity to talk with them. We'll get back. You can, as I say, tweet us, @scifri. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.
(Soundbite of music)
FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
We're talking this hour about science, art and human origins with my guests: Werner Herzog, director of many films. His latest film is "Cave of Forgotten Dreams." Cormac McCarthy, novelist and playwright - his latest novel, "The Road," won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Lawrence Krauss, foundation professor and director of the ASU Origins Project.
Our number, 1-800-989-8255. And when I rudely interrupted Lawrence, as I do many times, even in real life over a beer...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. KRAUSS: Martini.
FLATOW: He was telling about his vision of a rosier future than the one in "The Road."
Prof. KRAUSS: Well, yeah, I'm not sure it's the rosy future that some people would think about. But, you know, I've talked about the fact that, you know, we imagine we are the pinnacle of evolution, but I doubt that's the case.
And in fact, I think it's quite clear to me in the long run that I think computers will one day be - if we persist as a species to develop them - will one day become self-aware and conscious, and it'll be obvious to me that they're much, much - they'll probably be much superior to us, and biology will have to, in some way, adapt to them.
And you know, movies always show the computers as being bad, but I don't know why that would be the case. If they're self-aware, I doubt they'll be any worse than we are.
And my friend, Frank Wilchek(ph), asks - well, he wants to know if they do physics the same way. So I think, you know, we may disappear as a species just because we become irrelevant, as well as being destroyed. But I don't think that's a bad thing. That's just - that may be the future.
And I think, you know, I think where I really would agree with what - certainly what Werner said, in some sense, is that we shouldn't be - and with Cormac - we shouldn't be depressed if we disappear. We should be thrilled that we're here right now.
I see no purpose in the universe, from science, and that doesn't depress me. That just means we should make the most of our brief moment in the sun.
FLATOW: We have a question here from a listener who called in asking about both of you, and he's wondering where some of your ideas come from, and he gave us this little phone clip.
KIRON(ph): Hello, this is Kiron in Galway. And my question is to both Cormac McCarthy and Werner Herzog. And both of you have created works of art in which the universe is depicted as harsh, unforgiving and indifferent to human concerns. To what extent is such a vision shaped by scientific ideas? And does complexity science offer us a different view of our place in the universe?
FLATOW: There you go. Cormac, what is complexity science?
Mr. McCARTHY: Well, we talked about that coming over. I don't think you can ask any 10 people in science what complexity is and get a consistent view. I'm not going to go into it. The Santa Fe Institute basically deals with complexity in different disciplines. And there is a common thread to it, but it's kind of hard to come up with something that would satisfy everybody.
As far as being - as far as painting the world as grim, I don't know. If you look at classical literature, the core of literature is the idea of tragedy, and that's - you know, you don't really learn much from the good things that happen to you.
But tragedy is at the core of human experience, and it's what we have to deal with. That's what makes life difficult, and that's what we know about. It's what we want to know how to deal with. It's unavoidable. There's nothing you can do to forestall it. So how do you deal with it? And all classical literature has to do with things that happen to people they really rather hadn't.
FLATOW: Werner, let's talk about your latest film, "Cave of Forgotten Dreams."
Mr. HERZOG: Well, I'd like to answer the question.
FLATOW: Oh sure.
Mr. HERZOG: Part of the question first because there was an interesting aspect in it at the end. Our place in the universe, well, it is here. And that's the place we have and nothing else. Everything else is unfriendly. We cannot flee from our planet, I mean go to any other planet in the solar system. It's just not inviting.
And the next planet from there, the next star out there, is only four and a half light-years away, but with the fastest speed, we can never reach so far. It would take 110,000 years just to go there, hundreds and hundreds of generations. They wouldnt even know where they were going.
There would be incest and madness and murder and whatever en route. So it's not pleasant to move. And Lawrence, I hope you agree. We cannot dissolve into particles of light, like in "Star Trek"...
Prof. KRAUSS: Absolutely.
Mr. HERZOG: ...and beam ourselves somewhere.
Prof. KRAUSS: I wish we could. Every time I'm in an airport terminal, I wish I could.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HERZOG: This is our place, this is our place, and we'd better take care of it. And sometimes, of course, you can be disgruntled. In a way, for example, I've worked in the jungle, and after real hardship I came to the conclusion: Yes, I love the jungle, however against my better judgment. But...
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: Well, your new film shows the triumph of the human experience.
Mr. HERZOG: It does, yes, because yes, because you have to imagine that only 73, 74 thousand years ago a gigantic volcanic explosion took place in Sumatra, which almost wiped out the entire human race. That was the so-called bottleneck, still disputed among scientists.
But the population, the number of human beings shrank to under 10,000, maybe only 2,000, started to recover, and then, of course, there was the Ice Age, you have to imagine 35,000 years ago. So almost all of Europe was covered by ice, the Alp mountains under 3,000 meters, which means 9,000 feet, of ice.
Further north, ice had bound so much water that you could walk as a hunter from Paris to London dry - because the level of the ocean was 100 meters lower. So you could walk across the British Islands.
And a completely, utterly different world, and yet this world, which was filled with wooly rhinos, mammoths, lions in southern France, all of a sudden shows us this is where we came from, where our spirit, our nature, modern humans all began.
Prof. KRAUSS: Well, you know, I want to jump in because there's an - we're going to have a panel before Werner's film with Curtis Marion(ph), here at ASU, who's actually one of the people who studied that bottleneck and is leading a program to try and understand the origin of modern humans.
And what does it mean to be modern? And we actually had a meeting about that. And it's not even clear - it's not even clear what makes modern humans unique. And trying to - and getting this direct window on humans 30,000 years ago is just fascinating.
I saw the movie, and it - I had no idea of the level of cultural development at that time. It's just amazing.
Mr. HERZOG: Neanderthals were not cultured. They were not modern. And they apparently perished. It's pretty much established that we have a small percentage of our genes. Maybe three percent, still disputed, might be Neanderthal.
Maybe the Neanderthal men went out to snatch away Homo sapiens, women, and have fornication, and we got some genes. And they were hunted down by superior hunters.
Prof. KRAUSS: I've often wondered, though. Do you think it's - if it's true, and I still don't know if we know whether Neanderthals had culture, because I think there's some burial sites where Neanderthals do have some flowers in a burial site, but if they do...
Mr. HERZOG: Well, it could have been pollen findings. It could have been anything.
Prof. KRAUSS: It could've been. But the question is - I wonder whether - I've often wondered whether it was positive for us that we seem to have culture or negative? Would we have been - you know, we seem to have survived, but is that an accident, or...
Mr. HERZOG: No, I would like to be in the existence of culture - and technology, by the way. I'm not against technology. And it's mindboggling how 35,000 years ago ivory flute was made. It was actually carved out of the tusk of a mammoth, as thin as a pencil, then spliced in half with a flint stone, then hollowed out and glued back together. And, of course, you have the finger holes. And the finger holes are so precisely placed that you have pentatonic tonality, as today.
Prof. KRAUSS: Wow.
FLATOW: Cormac, did you want to jump in there, say something?
Mr. McCARTHY: Well, the interesting thing about the caves to me is the longevity of this school of art. The oldest the oldest we know of, by no means are we to therefore say that the Chauvet caves are the oldest there are -they're just the oldest we've seen.
But going back 32,000 years, and then you come all the way up through the Magdalenian Period to 11,000 years ago, this is 20,000 years. And the paintings are - they're the same. The perspectives that they use, the style that they use, the things that they use to show, for instance, that a leg of an animal is narrow in the fore view than the rear view is disconnected it from the body, all of these things persevered.
And if you look at the - if you look at the cave paintings at Chauvet, they're really just the same: the same school of thought, the same school of art, the same type of work. That's astonishing that you could have a school of art unchanged for 20,000 years. I've never heard anybody's view about that. I would be interested to know what the people who've studied this, what they think about that. Obviously, there's a culture here. Artifacts come from cultures. You have to have the culture first and, obviously, there is a very strong, a very rich culture that endured for thousands and thousands of years, and nobody seems to know anything about it. I think that's astonishing.
Then you see - when you get to the earliest so-called cities, communities like Caltalhoyuk, the first thing you see are paintings of bulls on the walls. They're not as good, were already in a state of decline, but that's amazing. That's just amazing.
Prof. KRAUSS: One of the things that amaze me - and I don't know if Werner wants to comment either - I - that's surprised me - I was picking on that - was in this particular cave there's evidence that the art was added to over 5,000-year period, right? And that's just amazing to me, think back 5,000 years from now, what has persisted over that amount of time.
Mr. WERNER: Yeah. Well, it's even was stunning because through radiocarbon dating, we can be fairly precise in dating, for example, a charcoal painting.
Mr. WERNER: And you have a case where a painter depicted a reindeer, somebody completed the picture, and it's established 5,000 years later. This is completely mindboggling.
Mr. McCARTHY: The other thing...
Mr. WERNER: The absence of notion of time.
Mr. McCARTHY: The other thing that people don't seemed to talk about is - you know, you didn't just suddenly go into a cave and start painting bulls. You had to learn how to do it somewhere. So obviously, there was a school of painting and this was probably done in the open air and people were trained to be painters. And - by the time they were allowed to go into the caves and actually make a painting on a wall in the cave, guess what, they were pretty good painters. And no one has found any traces of inept work.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WERNER: Yeah. (Unintelligible). I have been puzzled by one thing that's in Altamira in Northern Spain, in the Pyrenees, the wonderful bison. And there's one crouching bison, which is very significant in the tablet. A clay tablet was found with basically - I mean, a small - let's say, five inches across in diameter - and it has exactly the same figuration - configuration of legs and crouching. So my question to the scientists was, could it be that there was some sort of a basic pattern and a traveling artist would move from place to place, because in other caves this type of bison crouching was found as well? Of course, it's - we don't have an answer.
Prof. KRAUSS: He'd had to travel a long way.
Mr. WERNER: It would be too (unintelligible). Yes.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: We're talking about science in the arts and the culture this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR, talking with Werner Herzog, Cormac McCarthy and Lawrence Krauss. Our number, 1-800-989-8255.
It's interesting, these caves at Chauvet, it was - it's a fascinating documentary, Werner. It's just terrific. I didn't get to see it in 3D, but I understand there's a 3D version of it.
Mr. WERNER: Well, it's imperative to see it in 3D.
FLATOW: Yeah. I'm...
Mr. WERNER: It was shot in 3D and should be seen in 3D if possible.
FLATOW: Yeah. But you talked about the cave drawing technique in there. And one of the fascinating illustrations in the cave is the attempt by the artist to show the animals moving - in movement.
Mr. WERNER: Yes. There's a galloping bison depicted with eight legs. Then, there's a rhino, a wooly rhino, and you see eight phases of movement forward, almost like a proto-animation film. In a way, it's kind of really stunning to see that.
Mr. McCARTHY: Another thing that is unusual is how the species depicted change over time. The Chauvet caves are unusual and they do show predators, particularly lions. By the time we get to Lascaux and the caves where the paintings were done 15,000 years ago, there are almost no predators. There's a - there are a couple of bears. I think there's a wolf somewhere.
Prof. KRAUSS: Horses more than anything.
Mr. McCARTHY: The horses constitute about 30 percent of the depictions. But the - according to the middens, the principal food item was reindeer, and they are almost nonexistent as paintings. So I had no idea what any of that any of that means, but I'm happy to no one else does either.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. KRAUSS: Well, you know, that's right. I mean, I think it's the sense I got from - what you just mentioned, is that these are fascinating questions. There are questions we may know - never know the answer to. But, you know, it's just - it fuels our speculation to wonder, what were their forgotten dreams as Werner's titled his film...
Mr. WERNER: Yeah. When you speak about forgotten dreams, you know, there's one stunning piece unearthed, a rock pendant. The only partial human depiction, the lower part of a female body, naked, the pubic area visible, and the bison somehow embracing the female. And 32,000 years later, you have Picasso drawing paintings and doing prints of the Minotaur and the female.
Mr. McCARTHY: You know what Picasso said when he came up out of Lascaux after the war?
Mr. WERNER: Yes.
Mr. McCARTHY: He said, we've learned nothing. I think, well...
Mr. WERNER: Exactly. I remember that...
Prof. KRAUSS: I was taken when I looked at the images in your film at how modern they were in that sense, and how they reminded me of Picasso.
Mr. McCARTHY: Yes.
Prof. KRAUSS: At the same time, you know, I actually began one of my books with another piece of art in a cave, in a German cave, that figurine...
Mr. HERZOG: Yes.
Prof. KRAUSS: ...that's even older, I think.
Mr. HERZOG: The
. The Venus of Willendorf. Yeah.
Prof. KRAUSS: And - yeah. With the head of a lion and the body of a man. That's the one I'm thinking of.
Mr. McCARTHY: That's different. That's different.
Mr. HERZOG: I know that it's a different one. It's not Venus. It's actually a male, apparently a male, a lion head in the human body.
Prof. KRAUSS: And I wonder what - why did they produce that? And it seemed to me that, at some point, it's - one of the possibilities is that it's a person saying, look, there are lions and there are people here. So maybe somewhere else - maybe somewhere over the rainbow, somewhere - is a place where there are lion people. And to me that's the kind of speculation that fuels science...
Prof. KRAUSS: ...which is to ask, what are the possibilities?
Mr. McCARTHY: Some of the paintings overlap between animals and other figures.
FLATOW: Well, I have to jump - gentlemen, I have to jump in here because we have to take a break. But we'll get back to this, talking with Werner Herzog, especially about his latest film, "Cave of Forgotten Dreams." That's what the images we're talking about there. Also with us is Cormac McCarthy and Lawrence Krauss.
Our number: 1-800-989-8255. And you can tweet us: @scifri. We'll be back with the discussion after this break. Don't go away.
I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.
(Soundbite of music)
FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
We're talking this hour about science, art and culture and the origins of it with my guests. Cormac McCarthy, novelist and playwright. His latest book is "The Road." He's won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007. Lawrence Krauss, a physicist and foundation professor and director of the Arizona State University Origins Project. And also Werner Herzog, who is a film director, producer and screenwriter. And we've been focusing in on his latest film, "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," which premieres this month.
And a synopsis of it, Werner, how would you - for people who are just tuning in, what would you say the film is?
Mr. HERZOG: Well, it is looking into a deep abyss of time with a camera, going into the cave probably nobody will ever be allowed again because they - I think they will shut it down like Lascaux, the most famous so far because too many human beings in there left mold. The exhalation, the breath of humans, left a mold on the walls that cannot be controlled easily. So it's just a penetration into an abyss...
Mr. McCARTHY: You could visit them with naval rebreathers.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: And where is this - where are they located, the caves?
Mr. HERZOG: It's one cave with two branches. It is in the south of France, not very far from the Rhone River in the gorge of the Ardeche River. You have to check it out on a map...
Mr. HERZOG: ...but it's Southern France.
FLATOW: And they believe, from watching your film, that - they believe there may be more of these caves that are...
Mr. HERZOG: Well, we can speculate. Maybe, hopefully. It would be great. I don't know.
FLATOW: I want to play a little clip from your film. This clip is - describes the reaction of one of the scientists talking about his experience in this magnificent cave.
(Soundbite of movie, "The Cave of Forgotten Dreams")
Mr. JULIAN MONAY (Archaeologist): It was the first time I entered to film a cave. It's a chance to get in during five days, and it was so powerful. Then every night, I was dreaming of lions, and every day was the same shock for me. It was an emotional shock. I mean, I'm a scientist, but a human too. And after five days, I decided not to go back in the cave because I needed time just to relax and take time to...
Unidentified Man: To absorb it?
Mr. MONAY: ...to absorb it. Yeah.
FLATOW: Wow. Werner, who was that scientist?
Mr. HERZOG: Well, a younger generation archaeologist who was very fascinating because he started his career as a circus man. And I immediately asked him, a lion tamer? No. He was a juggler in a unicycle. But very, very fascinating people there. And what is so fascinating that it looks as if an entire world was articulated and almost invented because the animals, they look realistic and yet they looked like an invention, something - a figment of our own fantasies.
And the same thing - and I would like to shift a little bit to Cormac's work because he invents entire landscapes. He invents horses in a way we have never seen - heard them being described. By dint of declaration, Cormac McCarthy creates a whole landscape that has been unknown to all of us, even though it seems to exist like, let's say, Faulkner and others invented and described the Deep South; someone like Joseph Conrad describes the Congo and the jungle and the mysteries.
And so all of us suddenly have literature here, which is not unprecedented because we have something of the caliber of your writing. We see it, for example, in the last two pages of "Moby Dick," Melville. We see it in the best of Faulkner. We see it in the best of my great favorite writer of the 20th century who wrote, for example, "Typhoon," "The Nigger of the Narcissus."
Mr. McCARTHY: Conrad.
Mr. HERZOG: Of course, Joseph Conrad, whose language, originally, wasn't even English, such a great stylist. And for decades, we have not seen literature and prose and style that you are writing, period.
Mr. McCARTHY: Well, you're very complimentary. I don't know. I was thinking this morning about, I have to reread Faulkner's story, "Spotted Horses," because it occurs to me that what is so engaging about that tale is just the sheer exuberance and exaggeration of it. I mean, these mad, wild horses that have gotten loose from the barn and are running across the countryside and one crosses a bridge and it meets a wagon coming the other way. And I think he describes it as scrambling along the single tree like a squirrel. Well now, that's not really quite possible, but it's just very fetching.
Spotted horses, these were horses from the Southwest. I don't know how far back spotted horses go. I know that one of the famous depictions in the caves is at Pech Merle. There are two spotted horses and their - some of the spots are gray and some are red, but they're just extraordinary. And the strange thing about them, as you think about the hands-on experience of making these paintings, those dots, the spots on the horses were made with fingertips.
FLATOW: Yeah. Yes.
Mr. McCARTHY: You can see the whirls of the fingers in the paint. I don't know what that's about. That's - it's just very interesting.
Prof. KRAUSS: You know, as you try and speculate on this, the imaginary world that you create - the real world that you documented...
Mr. HERZOG: But it is related to a real world, but there's a force of declaration.
Prof. KRAUSS: But I can...
Mr. HERZOG: A dent of declaration. All of the sudden, it comes into existence as a piece of language.
Prof. KRAUSS: But there is a similarity, and I really related to what that scientist was saying. In some sense, you know, he was - when one - what you don't realize is, sometimes, when you try and confront the real world, as a scientist, it's terrifying because it forces you to throw away a lot of things you believe. And sometimes, you have to go away from it. And I think - that's what I mean. I think the convergence of science and art in the sense that if -that what that science was saying is confronted with the reality of those caves (unintelligible). It was difficult for him to deal with.
And I - and even as a theoretical physicist, sometimes just alone at night, confronted with the possibility that the real universe might actually correspond to something you're thinking about is terrifying. And I think there's...
Mr. HERZOG: And, of course, it is, because it's not friendly just be - imagined to be being sucked into a black hole or even landing on the sun, which looks so benign and beautiful, and there's hundreds of thousands of atomic explosions boiling every second.
Prof. KRAUSS: And in some ways, we have to realize that, yet, once again, we have to confront our own, in some sense, an unfriendly universe potentially, but also our own insignificance in a cosmic sense, and what significance we make of ourselves. To me, part of it is our ability to - this amazing gift we have to appreciate the universe and imagine it not just as it is but as it might be in order to understand ourselves better. That's why I find this connection.
Mr. HERZOG: But Cormac gives the universe, and the universe that he describes, in this case, the border area between Texas and Mexico. And I'd like just to read one passage because - from "All the Pretty Horses." I can't help it because it's so beautiful.
Prof. KRAUSS: Good idea.
Mr. HERZOG: And the leading character, John Grady, at the end witnesses the funeral of his - of an old Mexican lady who raised the family. He stood hat in hand over the unmarked Earth, this woman who had worked for his family 50 years. She had cared for his mother as a baby, and she had worked for his family long before his mother was born.
And she had known and cared for the wild Grady boys who were his mother's (unintelligible) and who had all died so long ago. And he stood holding his hat. And he called her his abuela, and he said goodbye to her in Spanish, and then turned and put his hat and turned his wet face to the wind. And for a moment, he held out his hands as if to steady himself, as if to bless the ground there or, perhaps, as if to slow the world that was rushing away and seemed to care nothing for the old and the young, or rich or poor, or dark or pale, or he or she, nothing for their struggles, nothing for their names, nothing for the living or the dead.
In four days riding, he crossed the Pecos at Iraan, Texas, and rode up to the river breaks, where the pumpjacks in the Yates Field ranged against the skyline rows and dipped like mechanical birds, like great primitive birds welded up out of iron by hearsay, by hearsay - listen to that - by hearsay in a land, perhaps, where such birds once had been.
It's just totally amazing. And then shortly - later, the desert he rode was red and red the dust he raised, the small dust that powered the legs of the horse he rode, the horse he led. In the evening, the wind came up and reddened all the sky before him. There were a few cattle in that country because it was barren country indeed. Yet he came at evening upon a solitary bull rolling in the dust against the blood-red sunset, like an animal in sacrificial torment.
Prof. KRAUSS: Well, I have to say...
Mr. HERZOG: So...
Prof. KRAUSS: I have to say...
FLATOW: I think we've set a landmark here. Werner Herzog reading Corman(ph) McCarthy Cormac McCarthy.
Prof. KRAUSS: I just want to say that was the purpose of my event, was to bring Werner to read Cormac. It's amazing.
Mr. HERZOG: It cannot get any better and, for decades, we have not had this language in American literature.
Mr. McCARTHY: Well, thank you. You're very kind. I think we should pick on Lawrence, not just because it's his book.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. KRAUSS: Well, let me...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. McCARTHY: And I have to say, it's just very, very good. It's - what you -it's supposedly a biography of Richard Feynman, but it's not that at all. It's a story of Feynman's science, particularly QED. It picks up at the beginning in high school and takes you through not so much Feynman as what he did, and it's just very, very well done.
FLATOW: Cormac, have you ever - being there at the Santa Fe Institute, do you ever, with your great facility with the English language, find yourself turning some of those research papers into better ones before they're published?
Mr. McCARTHY: Oh, I do. I fight with them all the time. I say you have to you have to give rid of these exclamation points and these semicolons. I won't speak to you until you do.
Prof. KRAUSS: I have to say that's Cormac - we have spoken in phone about my book and he said, I've got it and I - there are some suggestions I want to make for the next edition, but you have to get rid of all your exclamation marks.
Mr. HERZOG: But Cormac...
FLATOW: Let me just, let me just jump in and...
Mr. HERZOG: ...I think from either side we go - we should go straight at Lawrence's jugular because...
Prof. KRAUSS: Oh, great.
Mr. HERZOG: ...because only two days ago, a day ago, there was reports of a mysterious finding, possibly even a new form of force in the universe and we just want to know what do you think about it.
Prof. KRAUSS: Well, can you describe it?
FLATOW: Lawrence, Lawrence, let me just jump in here and remind everybody that this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow with Lawrence Krauss, Cormac McCarthy and Werner Herzog.
Lawrence, do you want to fill us in on that?
Prof. KRAUSS: Well, it's a fascinating, a tantalizing bump seen at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory - a statistical bump...
Mr. HERZOG: Statistical bump. Yes.
Prof. KRAUSS: ...and I suspect - and if it's true, it means much of what we think about the fundamental force of nature is wrong, which is probably not true, and we were just talking about that before.
It's exciting, but we have to realize that we have to wait and see, and most of our ideas are wrong. And so the most exciting thing would be if this bump that shouldn't be there is there because it means most of our ideas are wrong. And if you're a theoretical physicist, that's exactly what you want to be the case because it means there's a lot more out there to discover.
Mr. HERZOG: I hope they are wrong. I hope they are wrong because I feel comfortable with the explanation of forces (unintelligible)
FLATOW: What bump? Give us an idea, Lawrence, what do you mean by a bump that's there?
Prof. KRAUSS: Well, what the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory does in the Tevatron, which was, until the Large Hadron Collider, the most energetic accelerator in the world, is bangs together protons and antiprotons together, smashes them together and sees what comes out, measuring the energy of the particles in a different - and their charges.
And if a particle is created that lives for a little while and then decays, what you'll see is a lot of particles coming out, but all with the energy associated with the mass of the particle that decays. So if you're looking to discover new particles, you look at the energy of the particles coming out, and you see if they all happen to lie a very small region. That means there's probably some intermediate particle that was created that lives for a while and then decays.
And that's, statistically, what they've seen at a tantalizing level. The Large Hadron Collider, of course, will explore it and it's...
FLATOW: And it doesn't fit theory anywhere?
Prof. KRAUSS: It doesn't fit theory anywhere. And, in fact, the interesting thing is, as Werner said, he want - he hopes it's wrong because I kind of feel like him in the jungle because I want it to be wrong even though I know it's probably not good for me.
(Soundbite of Laughter)
Mr. McCARTHY: Well, what they're looking for, principally, at the Large Hadron Collider, I think, is the Higgs boson. And if they don't find that, there's going to have to be a lot of revision done because that so-called Higgs mechanism is what's responsible for supplying the masses to the particles in the standard model. And if they don't find some way to get these masses into the particles, they're going to have to do a lot of re-writing with physics for the last 40 years.
Prof. KRAUSS: Absolutely. And, unfortunately, you know, it's sad for me because let's say they don't - we don't find that Large Hadron Collider, that in some sense would be the most interesting finding...
Mr. McCARTHY: It would be interesting indeed.
Prof. KRAUSS: But the trouble is, to get the government to fund another accelerator, if we say, we did this and we found nothing, isn't that exciting? It might be a hard sell.
Mr. HERZOG: But it's a great mystery and there's - and with certain things that have been established so far, it's easy to settle in. And we hope they are wrong, and the statistical little hiccup doesn't mean too much. For example, in pure mathematics, Riemann's hypothesis about distribution of prime numbers, let's hope he is right because otherwise every single theory in mathematics would collapse.
FLATOW: Gentlemen, we've ran out of time. Can we invite you back next time same place?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. KRAUSS: I'd love it.
FLATOW: Same station. Okay...
Mr. McCARTHY: We'll talk.
FLATOW: We'll, talk. Thank you all. Werner Herzog is a film director, producer and screenwriter. He has directed over 50 films, you know, "Grizzly Man," and "Encounters at the End of the World." His latest film is "Cave of Forgotten Dreams." It's in 3D. It opens April 29th nationwide. If you want to see these wonderful cave drawings and the history and the challenges and the dreams, it's a terrific film.
Cormac McCarthy, what can I say about him, he's a novelist and a playwright. His books include "The Road," "No Country for Old Men," "All the Pretty Horses." And McCarthy is also the recipient of the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. And now it sounds like he knows more about science than we thought he did. He's letting us know about that.
Laurence Krauss is a physicist foundation professor and director of the ASU Origins Project. His latest book is "Quantum Man: Richard Feynman's Life in Science." He is also head of the science and culture festival that's taking place all weekend at Arizona State University. You can drop in if there are any tickets left, and that's in Tempe.
Thank you all for taking time to be with us today. We'll meet you back here a year from now.
Mr. McCARTHY: Thank you, Ira.
Mr. HERZOG: Thank you.
Prof. KRAUSS: Thanks, Ira.
FLATOW: You're welcome.
Interview transcribed here