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HotDocs: BLAST! review

by Eva Amsen

HotDocs is in full swing, and I saw BLAST! last night.

It was great, so I’m going to start out by mentioning that there is a second screening at HotDocs on Saturday April 26, at 4:30 PM at the Royal. (Tickets through the HotDocs box office.) They also signed a contract with the Discovery Channel, the BBC, and something in Sweden, so it will be aired on television too.

Synopsis: BLAST! follows a team of scientists who are launching a telescope on a balloon. The telescope takes pictures of far away galaxies to get more information on the origin of the universe.

What you get when you watch the doc is:

1. Basic astrophysics. I know very little about space, but I could easily follow what they were doing. I saw in the credits that they had a science writer work with them, but all the scientists in the film were also very good at explaining what they were doing and why it was relevant. They held up very well in the Q&A after the movie too. One scene on location in Sweden showed Barth Netterfield explaining the project to Swedish college students, and that was nicely edited into an animated explanation of what the telescope could detect.

2. A good idea of how much work goes into these huge experiments. Usually, you only hear about the successes and results of a project, but here you get to see everything that went wrong along the way. A lot of factors are out of their control – the weather, random technical difficulties – and have a huge effect on when they can launch the balloon and see their families at Christmas, as well as on the actual result of the project. I don’t want to spoil too much here, but things break, things get delayed, and things that should work don’t work so well after all. That’s pretty much a summary of every experiment ever carried out, but it’s a story rarely told outside of research, so it’s wonderful to see it on screen.
It’s not all misery: you can see their faces light up when things do work, and that’s just as much part of the story. You can say “it’s just a job”, but it’s very hard for any scientist to not have their work affect their overall mood, and especially hard if you’re far away from home with only your colleagues around you all day.

3. Locations! The gondola that housed the telescope was equipped with solar panels that charged the electronics on board, so to take in as many hours of sun as possible, they launched the balloon near the poles. The first time in the Arctic, in north Sweden, after which the balloon crossed the Atlantic and landed in northern Canada near an Inuit village. The second time the balloon was launched at and landed in Antarctica, close to McMurdo. (There are also location shots at UPenn and UofT, but those pale in comparison to the polar regions.)

4. Some discussion about religion and science. Netterfield believes in a Christian God as long as there is no evidence against one, but doesn’t feel that his work in searching for the origin of the universe is at all at odds with that. His religion actually seemed to be the driving force behind his curiosity about how the universe came to be. Mark Devlin, when asked about his religious views, appeared to be agnostic, yet both researchers were working on the same project and asking the same questions and putting equal value into the scientific data.

5. Graduate students at work! In the big picture, these students were working on “finding the origin of the universe”, but when it actually came down to it, they were just fiddling with a tiny part of this telescope that got launched twice and might not even have gotten the data they want. It’s a scary project in terms of getting results. Plus, data analysis is a whole different story, and only briefly touched on during the film. I asked about publications in the Q&A, and learned that the group has two papers coming out before the end of this year, and a bunch of data still left to analyze. Mark Devlin said they could easily write 42 papers with the material they collected, but had to make a choice.

All in all, BLAST! was a blast! I loved that it was so very much focused on the work, not just on the results. The film had some animations to explain basic astrophysics concepts, but it also showed what the actual measurements from the telescope looked like (just graphs and numbers) and it emphasized how much work there was still left in actually interpreting the data. There are also some great shots of scientists being either sad or happy depending on how the research went that day, and everyone being bored and irritated when they have to wait for the weather to change. That’s science in action.

The Q&A was recorded, I think, for the behind the scenes part of the BLAST! website, but that seems to require a subscription. If they put it up on a publicly accessible place I’ll link to it, because the audience asked amazing questions. It was full of science-minded folks, and the two PI’s plus three grad students were on stage to answer questions, so it was more like the Q&A of a scientific conference than that of a movie screening. The film maker, Paul Devlin (yes, the Devlins are brothers) actually only got to answer one or two questions himself. Everything else was aimed at the scientists.


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Maria April 23, 2008 - 11:17 AM

We met Paul Devlin at the party, he came and talked to us. I guess that’s where you were when I called you, eh.

Eva April 23, 2008 - 11:49 AM

Yes, I was watching this. Good thing I turned my phone off…

Renee April 24, 2008 - 8:04 PM

Great movie. From a scenery perspective Awesome! From human interest one can identify with the sacrifices such scientific commitment demands. (maybe a little less of the “at home” struggles) Scientifically it gave a lot of good leading edge information. Interesting to see the blend of failure and success that all great discoveries encompass.

BLAST! to Air on the Discovery Channel — Toronto Screen Shots February 19, 2009 - 6:57 AM

[…] science blogger Eva Amsen was also enthusiastic: All in all, BLAST! was a blast! I loved that it was so very much focused on the work, not just on […]

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