Don’t Mess With Me

There is a brilliant line in the equally brilliant 2008 film, Gran Torino. A line custom-made for Clint Eastwood’s grizzly drawl: “Ever notice how you come across somebody once in a while you shouldn’t have messed with?” says Clintwood’s Walt Kowalski to a street thug some 50 years his junior, “That’s me.” History is full of folks who should not have been messed with. Good or bad, righteous or evil – there have been some proper badass mofos, who unleashed seven and a half circles of Hell upon those foolish enough to cross them. Here are five of the best…

'I came, I saw, I pretty much won at being awesome.'

1. Julius Caesar
(Roman – 100-44BC)
World-conqueror, Egyptian hottie-puller and resident Senate pincushion.

Who else’s name in history is synonymous with unquestioned supreme rule AND an alternate birthing procedure? That’s some honour, but one worthy of Gaius Julius Caesar. The man was one of those very rare figures in history who simply excelled at everything (except maybe listening, but more on that later). He was as shrewd a politician as he was gifted a writer and brilliant a general. The fact that he not only brought the biggest civilisation in the world at the time under his reigns; won the hearts and minds of its populace and did the dirtius maximuswith Cleopatra – the sauciest minx in recorded history – testifies to the all-round awesomeness of this man.

Caesar’s formative years were not quite your average coming-of-age. As the nephew of General Marius, he was picked on by the dictator Sulla (an opponent of Marius), stripped of his inheritance and forced to leaveRomefor his own safety – returning only once Sulla was dead. With that chip on his shoulder, Caesar entered military life, politics and nobility – with prodigious success. He forged and outrageously successful reputation as a general after conquering the long-embedded thorn inRome’s backside – Gaul. He also entered into an unprecedented political alliance with contemporaries, Crassus and Pompey, now known as the First Triumvirate. Caesar used his allies for his own ends, Crassus for money and Pompey for influence over the Senate. But as Caesar amassed an ever-expanding and unbreakably loyal army and with it, power and wealth, the Senate grew worried that he’d set his sights onRomeitself. They were right. Julius, a big fan of Alexander the Great, wanted more than just a governor’s post – he wanted ultimate power.

So the Senate planted Pompey – a hugely successful general in his own right – in their corner and told Caesar that marching into Rome with his would lead to his decimation at the hands of their boy, Pomps. Caesar brushed the threat aside like crumbs on his sleeve (if he had sleeves) and crossed the Rubicon River (giving birth to the metaphor) intoRome. Once there, he proceeded to kick Pompey’s sorry arse all over Europe – fromItaly,Spain,Greeceand eventually to Egypt (where he stopped to pursue a fling with Cleopatra and settle some Egyptian political affairs – just ‘cos).

After dusting Pompey’s final legions, he returned to Romewhere his opponents in the Senate scarpered like frightened pigeons. He took supreme control of Rome, single-handedly ending its long history as a Republic and beginning its era as an Empire. He set up sweeping political reforms, not only to protect his grasp on power (from then on all future Emperors were given the title ‘Caesar’) but to protect Rome’s future itself. He was famously assassinated after four years as Rome’s leader, but the impact of his military successes, his political reforms and straight-up awesomeness ensured Rome would go on to become the greatest empire in all of time. Veni, vidi, vici – bitches.

Who messed with him: Cicilian Pirates
In 75BC aged just 25 and already a Senator (thanks to a Civic Crown earned in battle) Caesar was captured by Cicilian pirates en route to Rhodes. The pirates held Caesar to ransom for 20 talents of silver, to which Julius scoffed and told them to demand 50. During the 38 days he was captive, Caesar built a rapport with the pirates, who were somewhat taken by his charm. He joked with them and read them poems and speeches he wrote. He even laughed that he would have them all executed, which they all took as humorous banter. After the ransom was paid and he was released, Caesar immediately rounded some ships and sailed directly back to the pirates’ location, where he found and arrested them all, taking back his ransom and some. When the local governor took too long to decide the pirates’ fate, Caesar took his captors from prison and executed the lot, just as he had joked he would. So, basically, Caesar performed some sort of reverse Stockholm Syndrome situation on vicious pirates that captured him, made them love him even though he told them he’d kill them and then he killed them. It must have been some toga he wore with balls like that.

His Fate…
Caesar eventually became the most powerful man in the Western world, but he was not immune to sneaky assassination plots and daggers. Many tales are told of the numerous sooth-sayer warnings about his impending doom on the Ides of March, but he chose not to heed these warnings and was stabbed by a cluster of pissed-off Senators led by Brutus and Cassius when he entered the Senate that fateful day.

'Just because I can't see you doesn't mean I won't mess your shit up.'

2. Enrico Dandolo
(Venetian, 1107 – 1205)
Old, blind and bitter Venetian leader who gave the Byzantine the ol’ what for.

The proverb ‘revenge is a dish best served cold’ suggests to those seeking vengeance to be patient, to bide time until the opportunity to smite your wrongdoer best presents itself. Though for Enrico Dandolo, the Venetian doge who waited 33 years to get his back, well, his revenge was not so much cold as  incredibly stale and probably disgustingly mouldy – but in any case, utterly devastating.

Enrico Dandolo was part of a politically-influential family in the Venetian republic during the height of the watery city’s power. It was also the period when the Christian Church was struggling to balance itself between the Holy Roman Empire in the West and theByzantine Empirein the East. The Byzantine government had seized a whole lot of Venetian property for no other reason than being jerks, and so Dandolo was sent in 1171 as a Venetian ambassador toConstantinopleto try and sort out the mess.

Again, for no apparent reason other than previously mentioned jerkness, the Byzantines refused to listen to the Venetian’s demands and instead chased the gondola-paddlers back home, blinding Dandolo in the process. Although he knew corneas would never again be filled with the ornate magnificence that is St Marco’s Cathedral ever again, Dandolo buried his bitter hatred for the Byzantines and carried on with his diplomatic duties. Some 14 years after the incident, he helped forge a treaty betweenVeniceandConstantinople– a treaty that would be useful for Dandolo in years to come…

In 1202, it was that time again – another Crusade to theHoly Land. This was the fourth and the mission was (surprise) to wrest control ofJerusalemfrom the Muslims. But as the Knights gathered in theportofVenice, they realised they had no more money to fund a full-blown invasion. Just as they were about to pack their shields and head back to their castles, Enrico Dandolo, now well in his nineties and the doge (governor) of Venice, stepped in and announced he would not only bankroll the fourth crusade – but his blind, old arse would be riding up front and centre. And so the army set off toEgypt, from where they planned to launch their campaign againstJerusalem. Except, they didn’t head toEgypt. No, Dandolo diverted the invading forces toConstantinople– their Christian allies of the East. Dandolo, blinded by both rage and the horrible things the Byzantines did to his eyes many, many years ago, orchestrated a full-blown sneak attack against an allied city – and not just any city, Constantinople . Big, impenetrableConstantinople. The crusaders eventually broke in and sacked the place, and in the process knocked the Byzantine army a heavy blow and set the empire itself on its spiral into oblivion.

Who messed with him? The Byzantines
When Enrico Dandelo was born, the Great Schism between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches was already straining relationships between the Byzantines and the Western European powers. But it was all on a theological grounds – i.e. ‘we’re better mates with God than you’, ‘your prayers suck and ours are awesome’, etc. When the Byzantine emperor Manuel I Komnenos started pestering the Italians, tensions increased, but everything was handled politically… even Dandolo’s blinding was an incident that blew over – for everyone but Enrico of course. Fast forward three and a half decades and Enrico, now the most powerful man inVenice, sent a surprise assault onConstantinople and brought the entire empire to its knees.

His fate…
One year afterConstantinople was sacked, Dandolo died of natural causes. It seems that his soul was not able to rest until he exacted his revenge, he was 90-odd years old anyhow – ancient by medieval standards.

'Fear my spiky hat and moustache!'

3. Genghis Khan
(Mongolian 1162-1227)
Founder of the biggest, baddest empire ever, lover of beheadings.

More than a millennium after the great Julius Caesar propelledRometowards empirical greatness, over in the wild Central Asian steppes another man would rise to do the exact same thing – only bigger… and nastier. Temujin, later Genghis Khan, was born into the ruling family of the Khamag Mongol tribe – one of the many disparate, nomadic tribes wandering the vast expanses ofCentral Asia. Genghis’s childhood was pretty messed up. His dad was poisoned by a rival clan; he and his family were cast out into poverty; he was imprisoned for killing his half-brother during a dispute; and then he was enslaved. With a little help from his dad’s old allies, he was rescued and reunited with his mother, who taught him a thing or two about being a leader – and a straight-up badass.

Genghis eventually rose to leadership and successfully united the tribes and combined the warrior forces to conquer a number of hostile clans in the region. By 1206, he had established the Mongolian Empire and became the first ‘Khan’ (king). He had turned what was once a rabble of raggedy-arse tribal warriors into a disciplined, fierce and angry army. Like Caesar, he treated his army well. He divided spoils of war amongst his soldiers and rewarded loyalty with promotion and bonuses.

Genghis could have sat back after that, comfortable as the beloved leader of an empire, with a harem packed to its silken ceiling with comely concubines. But his fascination with the military and craving for expansion was insatiable. With several brilliant generals under him (including Subutai – one of the greatest generals in the history of the world) Khan set sights to conquer all horizons. The Mongols were unstoppable. Under Genghis and the ‘dogs of war’ (his crack generals), the Mongolian army burst out in all directions from its central Asian nucleus like an exploding star. They decimated everyone and everything it their path, leaving only severed heads and smouldering ruin behind. The Mongol’a success was down to its combination of revolutionary siege tactics and downright brutality. While Khan bestowed benevolent moral codes for his people (he banned theft, female slavery, fighting and even protected animals from unseasonal hunting), he showed his enemies no quarter. One of his favourite games was what he called ‘measuring against the linchpin’, whereby after capturing a settlement; he would force all civilian male captives to walk behind a wagon. Anyone who stood taller than the linchpin (a bolt on the back of the wagon) was instantly beheaded. It was to both prevent any counter-uprising by older males and to scare the bejesus out of future targets.

By his death, Genghis had conquered at least half of Asia, from theSea of Japanto the Caspian. Like Caesar, he established lineage rule, and his son, Ogedai picked up where his old man left off. The  empire would eventually go on to become the largest contiguous empire the world has ever seen – covering 24 million square kilometres, or 16 per cent of the world’s land area – and one quarter of the world’s population. They also were perhaps the most brutal – it’s estimated 40 million people fell to the sword of a Mongolian. Forty. Million. Even Caesar would take off his wreath to that.

Who crossed him: The Khwarezmian Dynasty
While it would make sense to list Jamukha – the childhood friend and blood brother of Genghis Khan who eventually became his jealous rival and fought Genghis for Mongolian leadership (only to lose and have his back broken like a piece of balsa wood) – there is another, more brazen example of foolishness in raising the ire of great Genghis. When the Mongolian army reached the middle east – Genghis Khan thought to establish a commercial relationship with the neighbouring Khwarezmians- instead of just conquering them, which was getting a little passé by now. He sent a trade caravan to the city of Otrar, but the local governor was mistrustful of the gesture. He took the goods and arrested the merchants – some 500 men. Genghis wasn’t exactly pleased, but sent a three-man diplomatic team to the Khwarezmian leader, Shah Ala ad-Din Muhammad to ask for his men to be freed and for them to all forget this little misunderstanding over some strawberry yak milk. But the Shah responded by shaving the heads of two of the messengers and beheading the third – as well as ordering the execution of the imprisoned merchants. With that, Genghis took off his diplomacy pants, did a few power-squats and put on his genocide trousers. He stormed in Khwarezmia with 200,000 of his most grizzled veterans, led by his best generals, and annihilated it. He literally erased the empire from history.  As for the govenor of Otrar, he (apparently) had molten silver poured into his eyes and mouth, while the Shah died of fright after escaping to a tiny island in the Caspian.

His Fate…
Debate rages over the true cause of Genghis Khan’s death, but all seem to agree it was around 1227, when he was 65 years old. Some say he was killed in battle, some say he fell of his horse and others suggest he died after being castrated (understandably so).

'A storm?' pfft, I'll destroy it with my cutlass.'

4. Edward Low
(English 1690 – 1794)
Posterboy for acts of piracy and cruel and unusual punishment.

When you think of a pirate, you either think of Blackbeard or Johnny Depp. Though, neither Blackbeard (surprisingly) nor Depp (unsurprisingly) embody the true brutality of a rogue pirate captain. That honour belongs to the scurviest of scurvy dogs, Edward ‘Ned’ Low. Lacking conscience and compassion, Low’s name is remembered for his sheer ruthlessness. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle described him as a man of “amazing and grotesque brutality”. That about sums Neddy Boy up. On his first outing as a rookie pirate stealing logs in Honduras, Low took umbrage at the captain’s announcement that there was little food for rations. Young Ned grabbed a musket and fired a round at the captain, missing him and nailing a comrade in the neck. Low and 12 others were punished for mutinous behaviour by being cast off a dingy to die. But die he didn’t. Instead armed only with anger and a belly of rum, he and his rowboat posse attacked the next ship to pass by. Low disposed the ship’s captain and commandeered his first vessel, on which he boldly “declared war on all the world.”

The Captain Low vs the World theatre of war was mainly off the American East Coast, but in a few short years, he and his crew of miscreants had captured around 100 ships, mostly sloops and fishing vessels, with a few skirmishes with French and British Man-O-Wars for good measure. But Low’s name was not made for his pirate conquests, but rather the merciless treatment of those unfortunate enough to stand in his way. As he went about amassing ships and booty, Low also amassed a terrifying rap sheet filled with counts of torture and grievous bodily harm.  Low’s cutlass would go on to slice off many a limb and facial feature. He took delight in personally hacking captured crews to diced pieces and burning ship cooks alive. Low’s infamy equalled his ruthlessness and it took him precious little time to become one of the most feared pirates in the Seven Seas, and the most wanted.

Eventually even his own crew became distrustful and anxious of his unpredictable violence. Low’s last instance of evil (shooting his first mate in his sleep) caused his crew to mutiny and toss him overboard, marooned in a leaky dingy – bringing his brief but legendary pirate career full circle.

Who messed with him: The Portuguese Captain of the Victoria
Possibly the most upsetting example of Low’s infamous cruelty was during the capture of a Portuguese ship in 1723. When the Portuguese captain denied Low a haul of gold to by dropping it into the sea, Ned reacted in a fit of fury by slashing off the captain’s lips with a cutlass, broiling them, and forcing the victim to eat them while still hot. He then slaughtered the crew and left the ship floating, deserted. Pretty haaarrggh-sh (sorry, had to get one in somewhere).

His fate…
Low’s demise is disputed. The National Maritime Museum (maybe the most reputable source) says Low escaped into anonymity in Brazil, while other sources say he was picked up by a French ship, where he was recognized, chucked in the brig and hanged. In any case, he’s in pirate Hell now – no doubt loving it.

'So many heads to shoot - so few bullets!'

5. Simo Hayha
(Finnish 1905 – 2002)
Sniper extraordinaire,  Call of Duty nerd hero.

Amidst the madness of World War Two, the Soviet Russian juggernaut reinvoked its century-long desire to take over neighbouringFinland. Just two months after the war began, Soviet troops kicked off the Winter War when they crossed the Russia-Finland border with three times the manpower, 30 times the aircraft and 100 times the tanks of the itty-bitty Finnish army. But, while the Red Army had the sheer numbers, the Finns had Simo Hayha – possibly the deadliest man to ever wield a sniper rifle.

The Soviet advance was slowed by masculinity-shrinking frosty weather, dense forestation and punishing terrain; just why they really persisted is a mystery considering the Russian’s backyard is twice the size ofEuropeitself – with all the forests and frozen wasteland you’d ever want. In any case, if the Soviets thought the weather was bad, they were rudely shocked once Simo Hayha locked and loaded to unleash enough damage to make John Rambo wee his khakis. A farmer-turned soldier, Hayha was an extraordinarily proficient sniper, boasting robotic accuracy and ninja-like stealth. He was a one-man army, clocking up an unbelievable total of 505 confirmed sniper kills, plus more than 200 kills with a sub-machine gun. That’s not human – that’s video game stuff. Whole battalions struggle to inflict that level of hurt.

Simo was a master of concealment. He wore an all-white camo suit, compacted snow around him (so it wouldn’t move when he fired) and kept snow in his mouth to suppress visible vapour from his breath. What makes his natural disaster of a body-count even more gobsmacking is the fact he used inferior old-school iron-sights because telescopic ones could give off a glint of sunlight glare, a lesson he learned after popping several Russian snipers for that very reason. Hayha was a fearsome spectre, nicknamed the ‘White Death’ amongst Red Army ranks. They tried to eliminate him with counter-snipers, whom were dispatched effortlessly by Hayha; and then even artillery strikes on suspected positions. But Simo was too cunning, the ultimate role-model for what Call of Duty players would call a ‘camper’, picking spot after spot to hide, kill and move on. Eventually, a lucky Soviet potshot struck the Finn in the head. It was an incendiary bullet that reportedly took half of his face with it. But it didn’t kill him. No-one that badass dies of something as wimpy as an explosive bullet to the face. Hayha regained consciousness a week later – the dayRussia threw its hands up and declared peace (March 13, 1940). Hayha’s chest was festooned with medals and fast-tracked up the army’s ranks. Seven-hundred plus kills in less than 100 days of service. A dutiful and unlikely hero to his country and a devastating silent menace to his enemies. Definitely no noob.

Who Messed with him: Soviet Russia
The Soviets were foolish to invadeFinland and they suffered an embarrassing loss. Hayha was the ultimate example of many brave Finns who obstinately refused to yield to the Russians. The moment communist boots trod on his native soil, Hayha was Mr Homeland Defence. Any Russian foolish enough to wander within 500 metres of Hayha’s muzzle was rewarded with a bullet between the eyeballs. The Finns had worked hard against both the Swedes and the Russians for their independence in the previous centuries and they weren’t about to give up their newfound sovereignty that easy.

His Fate
He survived a shot to the head and even though it disfigured his face, he went on to live a long and happy life as a moose hunter and dog breeder. He lived to the ripe old age of 96.

The Thrill of Discovery

On the morning of 3 September, 1928, Scottish biologist Alexander Fleming returned from a month-long holiday to his dusty work bench, deep within the bowels of St Mary’s Hospital in London. A veteran medic of World War One, Professor Fleming came back ready to clear out a stack of old petri dishes containing colonies of the boil-causing Staphylococcus bacteria that he left and failed to disinfect before breaking out his Hawaiian shirt and sandals. But just as he set about tossing  what he considered ruined specimens, he noticed something peculiar in one of the dishes. A stinky little blob of mould. He peeked in closely and noticed that the area surrounding this mould was clear. The bacteria was absent where the mould was present – it had killed the germs. Completely by accident, Fleming had discovered Penicillin, the antibiotic that has saved millions of lives and won him the Nobel Prize. Thanks to Fleming’s mouldy lab supplies, a sneeze is no longer feared as a death knell. It’s one of the most famous stories in science – not least for the discovery’s profound influence in medicine, but for the fortuitous circumstances around it.

Some 83 years later, scientists working at the Swiss physics laboratory superpower, CERN and the Gran Sasso lab in Italy announced they may have discovered particles that travel faster than the speed of light – by accident. This news in September shook the science world to the ground – someone was actually saying they just disproved Einstein’s famous theorem – that no object can travel faster than light. None. Ever. Full-stop. But the gospel according to Albert is now under scrutiny after these recent claims from the scientists. Basically, neutrinos (sub-atomic particles) were shot down a huge subterranean tube into a particle detector some 730 km away. When the scientists registered the results, the data showed – shockingly – that the neutrinos had arrived at the end of their journey in a brisk 2.43 milliseconds – some 60 nanoseconds faster than the speed of light. The results are still in dispute, but the incredible part of this story (well,  maybe the second-most incredible) is that the scientists weren’t conducting the world’s tiniest race between light and neutrinos, they had actually set the experiment to try and convert the neutrinos into another type of neutrino. Testing the little particle’s top-speed was never part of the road test; this experiment was never going for glory. Unlike Fleming’s world changing work eight decades ago, this kind of  accidental discovery is getting rare in high-end modern science.

Alexander Fleming's lab

Alexander Fleming's lab. (PHOTO:

Science is the beautiful pursuit of knowledge. The endeavour of science can be laborious to be frustrating and can sometimes be overwhelming. But human inquisitive instinct forbids us from abandoning the chase for enlightenment – and the paths it takes us (opposed to path we try to take) are breathtaking. Discovery is the scientist’s opiate – an addictive, all-consuming habit. Every new microbe discovered through the lens of a microscope; every detection of an unusual orbital path of a planet’s satellite; every new piece fitted into the genetic puzzle – it all goes towards the great bank of human knowledge, expanding as fast as the universe it is chasing.

This year is the International Year of Chemistry, last year was the year of Biodiversity, 2009 was the International Year of Astronomy and 2008 was the International Year of the Potato, so starchy foods and science are clearly at the top of the global agenda. Discovery is the force driving a scientist, but with it carries a paradox that is as old as recorded science itself. How are you to expect the unexpected?

Greek philosopher Plato argued thousands of years ago, that true originality is impossible to achieve without chance. In Plato’s Dialogues, Meno throws a curly question at Socrates:  “How will you inquire into a thing when you are wholly ignorant of what it is? Even if you happen to bump right into it, how will you know it is the thing you did not know?” Socrates serenely strokes his beard and responds, sagely, “A man cannot search either for what he knows or for what he does not know. He cannot search for what he knows – since he knows it, there is no need to search – nor for what he does not know, for he does not know what to look for.”

Unfortunately for those gunning for some Nobel bling, Socrates’ logic is acute. While other legendary thinkers such as Aristotle and Michael Polanyi point to things such as tacit knowledge (think riding a bicycle, or speaking a native language) as a fly in Plato’s paradox ointment; science as a discipline is somewhat of a prison for knowledge. It requires boundaries, rules, precision, control. Big money for research grants comes with big responsibility. Scientists can become accountable to fidgety investors who bear little tolerance for uncertainty. the  very kind of serendipity that lead Fleming to penicillin. There are few these days who’d happily hand over their money to your typical, frizzy-haired mad scientist. Predictability and control is safer.

As if in some exclusive club of science – in order to be a ‘fact’, an idea or theory or thing needs the backing of other, certified, facts. Without it, the numbers at the end of an equation will be worth nothing more than the chalk dust it’s scribbled in. By logic, if a scientist proves their hypothesis – does that warrant a new discovery, or is it simply theoretical confirmation? If they do not, is that a failure in the labs? Well, as most things are when discussed in that wonderfully grey philosophical realm – yes and no.

CERN laboratory

Meanwhile at CERN... (PHOTO: Scientific American)

A pioneer of molecular genetics, Max Delbrück , coined the  handy principle of  ‘limited sloppiness’,  which suggests researchers shouldn’t balk at making a minor miscalculation, or forgetting to disinfect a petri dish. “If you are too sloppy, then you never get reproducible results, and then you never can draw any conclusions,” said Professor Delbruck, “But if you are just a little sloppy, then when you see something startling you… nail it down.” It deftly sidesteps the knowledge paradox by placing just a little of the responsibility in the hands of fate. ‘Sloppiness’ isn’t an encouragement for scientists to just abandon the measuring beaker and just dump the whole bucket of acid in to ‘see what happens’, which, in most cases would probably be death or hideous scarring and irreversible blindness.  Rather, Delbruck meant there needs to be a degree of flexibility – to make sure that there is indeed room for the unexpected and to be perceptive enough to notice it – rather than dismiss as a failure to hit a hypothesis, and draw a line through it.

None have summed this idea up better than Claude Bernard, the brilliant French physiologist and early influencer of modern biomedical research. Bernard, described by historian Bernard Cohen  as one of the greatest scientists of all time, stressed the importance of free science some  150 years ago:  “Men who have excessive faith in their theories or ideas are not only ill prepared for making discoveries; they also make very poor observations,” he said. “Of necessity, they observe with a preconceived idea, and when they devise an experiment, they can see, in its results, only a confirmation of their theory. In this way they distort observations and often neglect very important facts because they do not further their aim.”

While this ideal still sits somewhat out of place in the measured and sterile world of modern science, it’s those researchers who recognise the pivotal role of chance who are better equipped to achieve their goals. Pure, random chance is rare, but opportunity is ever-present. Professor Fleming was, after all, deliberately searching for new anti-bacterial agents, and Charles Goodyear, the man who stumbled across the technique for vulcanising rubber by nonchalantly brushing his hands above a heated stove, had been furiously seeking such a thing for years. Archimedes (yes, another ancient Greek) was tasked with the tricky task of determining the density of a gold crown without melting it down. He famously bolted down the street sans toga in excitement when he twigged onto the theory of displacement by simply setting into his evening bath, probably to ponder about his conundrum. Had any of these men not possessed a ready and open mind, these windows of profound opportunity would have been lost in a laboratory bin, the bottom of a sponge, or underneath an ancient Greek rubber-ducky. It’s almost as if providence – a sworn enemy of science -cheekily lifted the covers off what they were looking for, but didn’t let them know when, nor where, nor what until that enlightened moment of ‘Eureka!’

Serendipitous discovery is responsible for some incredible things we take for granted today. Without a bit of fate we’d not have discovered the x-ray, plastic, radioactivity, pacemakers or helium. The world would be a lot less sweet (and the dental profession would go out of business) without coca cola, ice blocks, choc-chip cookies and artificial sweetener. Parties would be far less debauched without the accidental discoveries of brandy, LSD, Viagra and vaseline. In fact, the Nobel Prize itself may not even exist had Alfred Nobel not have clumsily spilled some nitro-glycerine onto some sawdust to discover dynamite (immediately after changing his soiled long-johns).

These discoveries literally changed the world. And it’s rare to use that phrase as fact, not cliche. Today, experimentation seems to be more about confirming a theory and less about sheer curiousity. The term: ‘modern science’ sheds the romantic connotation cultivated in the Enlightenment and replaces it with the sterile lab. Scientists are no longer hands-on visionaries but pedantic in goggles and lab coats. We’ve somewhat lost the idea of the scientist working for the joy of discovery and not with the burden of investor expectation upon their shoulders. It’s hard to imagine a researcher at CERN trying to explain the principle of limited sloppiness to those who have invested millions into the Large Hadron Collider. Will we ever discover this mysterious Higgs-Boson – the so-called god particle – exactly as outlined in their hypothesis? Or are we going to need a bit of luck to discover the origins of the universe? How can you look for something if you don’t know what it is, and then how do you find it if you can’t recognise it as what you were looking for?

Maybe it’s time the folk at CERN took a holiday, and maybe forget to turn the Collider off for a while.

Cowboys, Aliens and Some Third Genre Buzzword

There is a chorus-like bemoaning of Hollywood whenever the latest announcement out of tinsel town  includes the words: ‘remake,’ ‘sequel,’ ‘adaptation,’ or ‘Rob Schneider’. It’s true, why does every TV show from the 80s require a modern day movie version? Why does the world need another Pirates of the Caribbean? Well, truth be told, the world needs it, because Hollywood needs it.

For every filmic gem, Hollywood needs about a dozen brainless rolls of celluloid imprinted with dudes walking in slo-mo away from an all-engulfing fireball; two people falling in love despite at first hating eachother sooo much, and/or a dreadlocked Johnny Depp stumbling about muttering gibberish. Those are what make the money, those are what keep the cameras rolling on every set – whether it’s a groundbreaking auteur’s opus magnum… or Rocky 9: Sly Needs a New Pair of Shoes.

But wait, I haven’t even brought up the real point of this post… Cowboys and Aliens. Money-milking sequels I can understand; bland big-screen adaptations of dead TV shows I can tolerate; and Michael Bay’s career-long clip reel of explosions? Well, live and let live. But this, Cowboys and Aliens… this is a little sub-genre of a sub-genre that is just too much… it’s a McMovie.

It’s the most blatant, conspicuous cash-mill Hollywood can churn out. It’s a fast-food combo meal. It’s a movie that begins its life not as a story in the head of a screenplay writer, not as the true tale of an extraordinary event in history… not even the adventures of an someone with even a shred of personable charm… no, it’s a tagline padded out into 92 minutes of greasy, unfulfilling garbage. It’s as if particularly lazy producers write down a bunch of cinematic buzzwords, feed them to a dog and see which ones are shat out first. Then it becomes a movie. This time, Rover left a steaming pile of ‘Cowboy’ near a curly ‘Alien’ turd… next time, who knows? We might awake to find Hollywood’s latest executive producer has left us a fresh ‘Robots and Stoic Film Noir Detectives’ on our slippers. Maybe we might find ourselves having to scoop up ‘Extreme Coming-of-Age Band of Lovable Misfits’ off the front lawn. It’s the film equivalent of a famous quote by Woody Allen. “In Beverly Hills,” said Woody, “they don’t throw their garbage away. They make it into television shows.”

Sadly, two formerly respectable actors put their names to this, as if to try and help people overlook the blatant ridiculousness promised by the title and see that Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford are involved. Harrison Ford’s age and possible dementia might explain why he’s willing to drop his career in the toilet, but what’s Daniel Craig’s excuse?

The foulest part of this? It worked. Cowboys and Aliens made $36.4 million on its opening weekend in the US and to date has grossed nearly $90 million. Gross indeed.

EDIT: Research informs me this is a comic book adaptation. Yet, as far as I can tell nobody wears a cape, meaning the comic book itself is a sham and my point still stands. Deal with it.