If I Had Written the Score to Interstellar

If I was Hans Zimmer, I would be a bit annoyed.

What is arguably the best score Hans Zimmer has ever written, the music for Interstellar, has thrilled me to my core. However, I came to that conclusion by an indirect route.

Like many of you, I saw the movie in all it’s cinematic glory when it was released in 2014. But it was not until 2017 that I fell in love with it, both the movie and the score.

In preparation for an after-dinner talk to a panel of the American Heart Association’s 2017 Science Conference, I was looking for an inspirational way, preferably with great video and sound, to describe the sport of competitive free diving. This past summer I had the opportunity to meet some of the world’s best free divers and free diving instructors in a Colloquium put together by the University of California at San Diego, Center of Excellence in Scientific Diving.

I had pretty much given up on finding something to help me illustrate the beauty, and challenges, of competitive free diving. That changed, however,  when I came across a posting from a group of tactical military divers. In a short 3-minute video the young French diver Arnaud Jerald set his personal free diving (CWT, Constant Weight Dive  discipline) record of 92 meters in a competition in Turkey. He placed third in a field which included world record holders in the same event.

Three things made the diving video great, in my opinion: 1) the subject matter which vividly shows a human activity little known by most people, and understood by even fewer; 2) steady and clear video produced by a new underwater camera, the Diveye, and 3) the accompanying music.

A film score is only successful if it aids the audience in generating an emotional response to a movie scene. In that respect, a great movie hinges not only on good acting and script, but on an almost telepathic connection between the film director/producer and music director/composer.

In the free diving video clip, the accompanying music swelled in concert with the audience’s tension, generated perhaps unconsciously in response to the drama of the moment. And then there was organ music at just the right point. For me a pipe organ truly is the most impressive and grand of any musical instrument.

And just when the cinematic moment was right,  you could hear the heart beats, helping us realize what a strain it must have been on young Jerald’s heart as he reached his deepest depth, far from the surface, and air.

Indeed, when I gave the presentation, the video clip seemed to have the effect on the audience that I was looking for. But afterwards, I was relieved that no one had asked me where that music came from. I had no idea.

I don’t recall what led me to Interstellar as the music source: it may have been a random playing of movie soundtracks on a music streaming service, but once I heard a snippet, I recognized it. “That’s it!” I shouted to no one in particular.

It wasn’t just me; my family, including a nine-year old granddaughter had heard me rehearse my talk many times, and they also immediately recognized the similarity between the free diving video, and part of the Interstellar soundtrack.

The closest musical correlation to the diving video was the “Mountains” track in the movie soundtrack. Strangely, the match was not perfect. In fact the differences were easily notable, a fact I discovered after I bought both the movie and the Hans Zimmer soundtrack. And I must note, I think the music in the diving video is better.

Perhaps the full music was present in the original version of the movie, and perhaps some fancy mixing in the sound room deleted it. If so, too bad. But I must admit, the quiet musical nuances would have been missed during the cacophonous sound of a 4000 foot tall tidal wave sweeping upon a tiny spacecraft. There was lots of shouting and screaming.

As for my opinion that Hans Zimmer might be annoyed, well, I suggest you watch the portion of the full movie where the Mountain track rises to prominence. That is the part where the tidal wave, initially mistaken as mountains, appears on the horizon of the first planet the Horizon space craft landed on outside of our galaxy.

As exciting as the action was, and as wonderfully crafted the dialog and acting, it obscured the finer points of the music. Fortunately, the free diving video, coming as it does with no dialog at all, puts the music in the perspective that I, at least, can completely enjoy.

I find it fitting that in both videos, the incredibly powerful music was used to showcase humans extending themselves to their absolute limits. Of course, one of those stories is fictional, and the other is real.




A Matter of Chance: Music Makes the Video

I was recently asked to give a 30-minute after-dinner talk to the 3CPR Resuscitation Panel of the American Heart Association at their annual scientific meeting in Anaheim, CA. In the audience were scientists, cardiologists, anesthesiologists, anesthetists, emergency physicians, and resuscitation technicians. It was a multimedia event with professionally managed sound and video.

Knowing that the group would be well acquainted with the role of chance in medical procedures, I chose to use a segue from medicine into the topic of extreme adventures in military and civilian diving. The focus of the talk was on how chance can turn adventures into mis-adventures.

I revealed three areas where Navy Biomedical Research is expanding the boundaries of the state of the art in military and civilian diving. One area was in deep saturation diving, another was polar ice diving, and the third was breath hold diving.

As an introduction to polar diving, I wanted to create a video travelogue of my National Science Foundation-sponsored research and teaching trips to the Arctic (Svalbard) and Antarctica (McMurdo Station and vicinity.) These projects were spearheaded by the Smithsonian Institution, and my participation was funded in part by the U.S. Navy.

To begin the preparation of the video, I assembled my most relevant photos, and those taken by various team mates, and imported them into my favorite video editing software, which happens to be Cyberlink Director.

Then I went looking for potential sound tracks for the approximately 5 minute video. Considering the topic, I thought Disney’s Frozen would have familiar themes that might be acceptable. I rejected a number of YouTube videos of music from Frozen; most were too close to the original and included vocal tracks. Finally I came across the “Let It Go Orchestral Suite” composed by the “Twin Composers,” Andrew and Jared DePolo.

It was perfect for my application. I extracted the audio track from the Suite as shown on YouTube, imported it into Director, and lined it up with the nascent video track which included all images and other video segments.

To match the music to the video, I simply cut back on the duration for each of 97 images, keeping the other 5 videos in their native length. By experimentation, I found that 3.21 seconds per image resulted in the last image fading out as the music came to a close and the end credits began to roll.

On the first run through of the new video, I couldn’t find anything to complain about; which for me is rare. So I ran it again and again, eventually creating an mp4 file which would play on a large screen and home audio system. But I couldn’t help notice that the gorgeous score would sweeten at interesting times, and serendipitously change its musical theme just as the video subject matter was changing.

How fortunate, I thought. It was then that I began to realize that “chance” had worked its way into the production effort, in an unexpected way.

First, the music seemed to my ear to be written in 4/4 time, with each measure lasting 3.2 seconds, precisely, and purely by happenstance matching the image change rate. At a resulting 0.8 seconds per beat, or 75 beats per minute, that placed the sensed tempo in the adagietto range, which seemed appropriate for the theme of the music. (Without seeing the score, I’m just guessing about the tempo and timing. But that’s how it felt to me.)

The timing coincidence was rather subtle at first, but as the finale began building at the 3:39 minute mark, the force of the down beat for each measure became more notable, and the coincidence with image changes became more remarkable. There was absolutely nothing I could do to improve it.

In some cases the technical dissection of music can be a distraction from the beauty of the music, but I’ve done it here merely to point out that sometimes you just luck out. In this case it truly was a matter of chance.

In my mind, the DePolo Orchestral Suite makes the video. Hope you enjoy the show.

To learn more about these composers and their music, follow this link. 


Cereal Was Almost the Death of Me

This year, 2017, marks the 120th year that Grape Nuts cereal has been in existence. Generations have been raised on it, and as the 1921 ad would suggest, it seems to help little bodies grow big and strong. As the Post company says, “There’s a Reason” for the cereal’s success.

However, through some weird quirk, some random juxtaposition of breath and nerves, a single, tiny particle of this delicious blend of barley and wheat almost killed me.

Or so it seemed at the time.

I consider Grape Nuts part of a paleo diet, of sorts. As cereals go, it’s primitive. It is merely ground bits of grain that never needed to be squeezed into flakes, or coated with sugar or artificial flavorings. For me, it’s like getting back to the basics of breakfast, or in this particular case, an evening snack.

On the night of my close call, while my wife was watching TV, I settled into my home office to edit my newest book while I snacked on a demi-bowl of Grape Nuts, wet with skim milk.

No doubt your parents lectured you repeatedly about the dangers of talking with food in your mouth. Well, in adherence to my parent’s scolding, I was not talking when it happened. I was quietly reading, and breathing.

And then, in an instant, I could not breathe, at all. I could not speak or yell out. I could not swear, or call for help. No air could enter or leave my lungs.

As I looked to the doorway, terrified, half hoping for my guardian angel to appear and magically save me, I realized that if I didn’t do something, quick, I would die. I was most unexpectedly suffocating.

I stood up, planning to head to the bathroom out of some strange thought that it might be my salvation, or at least an easier place to clean up the vomitus mess or whatever else follows death by asphyxiation. And as I reached the door frame a scant twelve feet away from where I’d been sitting, I could feel myself becoming faint.

This could not be happening. What an inglorious way to die.

With all the fortitude I could muster, I was determined to make it into the bathroom before I passed out. A second later, I was bent over a sink, supporting my upper body with my hands, trying with all my might to pull air into my lungs.

Finally, I found that with almost superhuman effort I could squeeze a little air through whatever was blocking its flow. The result was a high pitched nonhuman sounding squeal, a falsetto screech higher than even a little girl can produce. Physicians call it stridor, which sounds like this.

But at least it was something. Again and again I managed to suck in just enough air to keep me alive, one loud screech after another.

In the meanwhile, my greatly concerned wife was asking, “Are you OK, are you OK?”

No, I was not at all OK, but I could not communicate that fact, other than to make that hellish shriek. But with each shriek a few more oxygen molecules entered my oxygen-starved lungs.

And as the fog of impending collapse slowly began to clear, I was finally able to cough.

After that cough, there lay in the sink a tiny granule of cereal, presumably the little spec that landed in a sensitive spot in my larynx or “voice box”, triggering the spasm which tightly closed my vocal cords. With the cords, or more properly “vocal folds”, closed, air cannot enter the lungs. 

Under normal conditions, a person can hold their breath for two to three minutes without losing consciousness. But as I later analyzed what had happened, I realized that the particle of cereal was most likely sucked into my airway when I was just beginning to inhale, at the bottom of my “tidal volume.” So my lungs were not full of air.

Logically, when involuntarily holding your breath with lungs only partially inflated, the 2-3 minute rule may not apply. So, there was a chance that I was about to lose consciousness from hypoxia.

As I later discovered, laryngeal spasm is short-lived, and resolves within a few minutes, leaving the terrified victim shocked but relieved to be able to breathe again.

The aftermath of this incident was that I now realize how little we appreciate the simple act of breathing. For our entire lives we never think about it. It just happens.

Until it doesn’t.


I still enjoy my Grape Nuts, and highly recommend it to anyone looking for the simple pleasures of life. But at the same time, I’m now a little more careful when I’m eating, especially if my attention is directed towards something else. Multitasking while eating can be scary.


Living Off Universal Energy. Really?

By stuart Burns from Erith, England (_MG_7185 Uploaded by snowmanradio), via Wikimedia Commons

I thought I was misreading the title of the news article. I adjusted my glasses, then looked again.

Sure enough, the news headlines this past week actually reported on a young couple, reportedly a Breatharian couple, who claimed they had no need for food. They lived off of Universal energy, whatever that is. Most amazingly, the news-hungry press actually reported the story, obviously without a bit of fact checking.

As a physiologist, I know that is a patently ridiculous claim. It is impossible for humans to survive without eating. And as a science fiction author, I know it is not even good science fiction. The best science fiction maintains at least a little scientific accuracy.

Could it be fantasy? Maybe, but the story was reported as being true, with no hint of tongue-in-cheek.

However, it did remind me of a revelation of sorts from a few months ago, coming to me in a split second after a quick glance to the side of the road. What attracted my attention as I passed by at 55 miles per hour was a gorgeous white egret, like the one pictured, foraging for frogs and tadpoles in a ditch recently filled to overflowing with water from several days of downpours.

And then it struck me: wouldn’t it be nice if things did not have to die so that other things can live?

Now that’s a fantasy for you. Of course life is predicated upon death. Big animals eat smaller and weaker animals. Physicality cannot exist without death; you cannot live in the body unless something else dies. That’s life, pure and simple. It sucks to be the little guy.

But what about after life? Well, at the risk of turning in my scientific credentials, I will admit I do believe in an after-life, Heaven if you will, for reasons which I will not go into here. But it struck me in that brief moment of observing a beautiful bird, that only in a spiritual realm could energy exist without the simultaneous extinguishment of life.

To my way of thinking, that may be the single greatest distinction between the spiritual realm and the physical realm.

So thank-you Breatharian couple, practitioners of Inedia, for helping me remember my roadside revelation. Perhaps there is a place in some alien realm where beautiful birds, and beautiful frogs, and even humans can coexist without one eating the other. Maybe there is some parallel universe where our laws of physics don’t apply.

Perhaps we will someday discover that parallel universe, and call it Heaven.

















DNA: A Matter of Trust

In combat, we trust our buddies with our lives. We have their back and they have ours. When submitting to surgery, we trust the medical team with our lives, and usually that trust is not betrayed. But should we be willing to trust strangers with our very essence, our DNA?

Recently I was trying to solve a plot problem in the science fiction thriller, Triangle. The storyline relied on a particular individual being singled out by the government for monitoring, not for what he had done, but for who he was.

After finishing the novel, I went back to tie up loose ends in the plot. One such loose end involved a question: How could the government know that this one person out of millions had an unrecognized super power? He was a main character in the book and so I could not ignore that question. Certainly it helps the reader suspend disbelief if the plot elements are plausible, at least superficially.

I did not have to puzzle over that question very long before an advertisement for Ancestry DNA popped up on my computer screen.

That was it!

And so the following text flowed quickly.

The characters in this conversation are Sally Simpkin  (AKA Pippi Longstocking) and Joshua Nilsson, identified below by their initials. She was trying to explain to Nilsson why she and her employers had been monitoring him.

SS: “[The government] detected that you had a high probability of having certain prescient capabilities.”
JN: “Forgive me for being a bit skeptical. Why can’t you tell me [how]?”
SS: “I’m not even cleared to know the process. I just took the assignment. It had something to do with a DNA sample you submitted.”
JN: “DNA? The only DNA I’ve submitted was for genealogy research.”

Triangle was published on May 21, 2017. On May 25, the following BBC headline appeared in my browser.

Ancestry.com denies exploiting users’ DNA. “A leading genealogy service, Ancestry.com, has denied exploiting users’ DNA following criticism of its terms and conditions.”

So, is this author also prescient like Nilsson? Or is this blogger merely a bit jaded.

Genealogy services have a difficult time competing in the world market. After all, there are only so many retired folks trying to trace their family history and solidify their genetic place in the world before their demise. Speaking for myself, I started my genealogy research years ago, picking it up from my grandmothers who told tales of Civil War Colonels and Carpet Bagger treachery, and murder. In fact, I’ve posted on this blog before about some of my discoveries.

With the advent of computers and the availability of free records from the Mormon Church, the ease of doing genealogical research exploded. Some of the software and services were either free or inexpensive. Of course, “free” doesn’t do much for a service provider’s cash flow. So, into each CEO’s mind comes, sooner or later, thoughts of monetization. How could Facebook’s Zuckerberg and others turn a free service into something that can make them gazillions? In the case of genealogy services, they started by charging a monthly access fee, and in one case, by enticing viewers to keep paying fees by waving images of fig leaves to attract their attention. That was a strange but brilliant ploy that worked very well on this researcher.

The next step in monetization is now universal: sell ads to companies who want access to the growing body of amateur genealogists. The final ploy, and by far the most ethically troubling, is selling information about users of computer services. First there were those pesky cookies, but now there is blood, or saliva more exactly.

For some companies, it is not enough to know what users search for. There is now a market for information about who you are, your very genetic essence, which is hidden even to you. But some companies like 23andme, Ancestry, MyHeritage, GPS Origins, Living DNA, and Family Tree DNA, let you take a peek into your genes, for a price.

The ironic thing is, this most personal information is not only freely given, but people actually pay the DNA harvesters to harvest their most sacred self. And of course, once that has been done, your genetic-identity can be sold (read the fine pint). While we are urged to protect ourselves from identity theft, isn’t it odd that we are at the same time being enticed into giving away our most precious identity of all, our DNA? And we seem to be doing so gladly, blithely unaware of the implications for us and our progeny.

But don’t let the natural skeptic in me show through too strongly. I do, after all, have faith that everything we’re being asked to store in the “cloud” is actually as secure as cloud storage facilities (whatever those are) claim. And I’m sure the secrets buried deep in our genes are forever kept private, and safe from hackers.

But then, there is that troubling Orwellian Consent Form.

Oh well, Sally Simpkin’s monitoring assignment in Triangle is purely fictional. Surely, no government would really have an interest in our genes.

Or would it?