Beating the Avatar Blues

When the movie Avatar was released in late 2009, a strange thing happened with many people who saw it. They got depressed, even suicidal.

It wasn’t because they disliked the movie, but because they liked it so much, they wanted to live in a gorgeous, almost utopian, world like Pandora, rather than on planet Earth. Pandora, the fictitious alien moon portrayed in the movie, has an amazing natural beauty, and human-like inhabitants (the Na’vi) living in peaceful harmony with it.

Unlike the Na’vi, humanity as a whole is not very good at taking care of its own planet. In fact, we are doing a pretty good job at messing it up rather badly. And that is depressing.

On the other hand, we’re becoming increasingly aware that we’re making a mess of things, and we’ve come to realize that we should be more careful with our natural environment. After all, as the Na’vi understand very well, we as a species very much depend on nature for our own well-being and survival.

I believe there still is a chance that we can avoid a self-made disaster, and bring about a real change. But it will largely depend on significantly increasing our collective awareness. Movies like Avatar can help. But more so, there are at least two important things we can all do contribute to increased awareness.

First, we can develop a stronger appreciation for the natural beauty we still have left. And second, we can make an effort to better understand it, which is also essential for our attempts to preserve it.

The beauty of nature

Nature inspires us with its seemingly infinite beauty and diversity. As a “wandering scientist,” I have been lucky enough to have worked in many places around the world. I’ve had the opportunity to admire the natural beauty of these places, and to capture some of it on camera.

Sometimes these were big and imposing sights, such as these snow-covered mountains in the Swiss Alps.

At other times they were very little things, like this olive-backed sunbird on a spathodea flower in Singapore.

Occasionally there were surprising encounters, like this fallow deer on a grassy sand dune in The Netherlands.

And frequently there was something to be enjoyed closer to home or the office, like this sunset in New Mexico, USA.

No, these aren’t the glowing flowers or floating islands of Pandora, but to me all of these sights and encounters are equally impressive. Or perhaps even more so, because they are real, and they are here on Earth. The more we pay attention to the beauty that is (still) around us, the more we will learn to appreciate it.

The science of nature

Moreover, not only is it a pleasure to simply admire the natural beauty of this world, but also to try and understand the basic principles and processes that give rise to it. My personal appreciation for nature has increased tremendously from having studied some of its basic principles for many years as a scientist. And some of these principles turn out to be surprisingly simple. We tend to think that complex patterns, structures, and behaviors necessarily need to have complex causes. But nature seems to be a master at creating complexity and diversity with relatively simple means.

Understanding these basic principles is essential in helping to preserve whatever natural beauty and diversity we still have left. If you want to properly maintain or fix your car, you take it to a competent mechanic. In the same way, science strives to contribute to a better understanding, and therefore proper care, of the natural world.

It is therefore important that science is conveyed to the general public in an engaging and easy to understand way, to foster an increased awareness about—and appreciation of and care for—the world in which we live.

With such an increased awareness and appreciation, we may actually be able to beat the Avatar blues.

Wim Hordijk (@WanderingWim) describes himself as “a computer scientist by training, an evolutionist by historical accident, an academic against better judgment, and a professional wanderer by choice.” He is most interested in the interface of computation and biology, especially focusing on emergence, evolution, and origin of life.

All images © Wim Hordijk, except main image at top, © 2007 Twentieth Century Fox.