9 Sep 2020

Latif Nasser - We're connected to each other and the universe

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 3:10 pm on 9 September 2020

Dust from the Sahara Desert feeds tiny creatures in the ocean thousands of kilometres away. Watching migratory birds can predict hurricanes.

Dr Latif Nasser explores the surprising ways we are all linked to each other and the universe in his new Netflix series, Connected: The Hidden Science of Everything.

“It’s a science show but it’s also a travel show. I get to hop-scotch all over the world and look over the shoulders of incredible scientists, discovering the things they’re discovering, in the places they are actually discovering them,” Nasser tells Jesse Mulligan.

The challenge of mystery drew Nasser into science. He cites the example of the Tanganyika laughter epidemic of 1962, said to have occurred in or near the village of Kashasha on the western coast of Lake Victoria in Tanzania. Scientists couldn’t explain why young people would start to laugh and cry uncontrollably, although some theorized that it was an example of mass hysteria.

“To me the thing that was interesting about it is this – sometimes there are things in our world that are deeply, deeply mysterious. Covid in some ways is one of those things, these things puncture a hole in our reality, our day-to-day lives and kind of the way we make sense of that.

“The question is how do we use science as a way to help mitigate that and solve those mysteries. Sometimes it can and sometimes it can’t. I’m really drawn to that. Finding order in the chaos, finding meaning in the void.”

Choosing the topics for the series was based on subjective preference, so long as it was of interest and served to demonstrate the inter-connectedness of the world.

“It’s the things that tickle me, delight me, seduce me. I feel like there are stories out there that you just can’t shake. They are either a doorway into a whole world you never even thought of, or it’s a way of reframing something you thought you knew and all of a sudden you realised you don’t know at all.”

During a time of economic chaos and Covid-19 deaths and lockdowns, stories that show the positive sides to our connection with the planet are important, he says. Production of the show ended in the early days of Covid and as the pandemic grow in significance, the theme of connection becomes more obvious for the public, he says.

“We thought ‘who is going to watch this show?’ This thesis that we had ‘we’re all connected to each other in these surprising ways’.

“That’s now patently obvious… and yet re-watching the show and hearing the reactions of people to it since we released it, in a way I think we all feel now is like there is a thing that connecting us and it’s scary and terrifying, a thing that trying to kill us – this virus.

“In a way this I hope and for some people it’s proven be, it’s a reminder that there are other things that connect us that are beautiful, poetic, strange and mysterious and not trying to kill us.”

In episode one of the series, Nasser explores the sometimes cute, but often creepy ways surveillance pervades our lives. It begins with a shot of him watching his own child on the baby monitor.

“After we did that episode my kid came to me and he was like ‘dada I don’t like the monitor, I don’t want it anymore’ and I just buckled immediately… it’s seemed that the first in a lifetime of surveillance – of being watched and tracked. How does that feel now, especially in the ways we are going online and how should that feel?”

The series talks to a French journalist who shows Nasser the 800 pages of data that the dating app Tinder had stored about her and her dating and ‘swiping’ habits.

It showed the extent to which tech firms reach into our private lives without most of us fully knowing. It also explores the ‘privacy paradox’ – where we all say we value our privacy but tacitly or explicit allow our most private information to be plundered online.

“They have that about everyone of us. Even if you’re not on dating apps, with Amazon or whatever, it’s all there. We kind of know it, but we don’t really know it and somehow we act as if that’s not the case.”

In another episode the series shows how birds can predict severe weather by their migration, which Nasser says is a sobering acknowledgment that for all our technological advances nature is still more sophisticated in ways we don’t fully understand.

“It’s a kind of intellectual humility. We think we are so smart and know everything and sometimes we do know quite a bit, but there’s always more questions and stuff we are totally wrong about. We are just not going to realise it until 100 years from now.”

In an episode called 'Dust', Nasser looks at the intricate roles dust play in the world. A speck of dust seems insignificant, but a swarm of it can do everything from generating oxygen to tempering hurricanes to fertilizing the rain forest.

When taking a breath, Nasser says, in the episode, we are breathing in somewhere else. Again underlining the inter-connectedness of everything and is an apt way of describing our predicament with the pandemic and the need for a type of solidarity and collectivism to move beyond it.

“Right now I feel that there is a mood in this planet, so many of the world leaders want to wall-off their countries and close off their economies and prevent migrants from going here and there. That’s not how it works. We really are all in it together and the problems we face, like Covid, are massive ones that we all need to work together to solve.”

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