BLAST! (2008)

Director: Paul Devlin

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

UNESCO and the International Astronomical Union have declared 2009 the International Year of Astronomy, and planetariums and astrophysics-related organizations and museums around the globe have been working to promote the wonders that hover above us in the sky, as well as the ways we explore the universe and what we’ve discovered. Doing their part, producer Claire Missanelli and director Paul Devlin followed Paul’s brother Mark, the Reese W. Flower Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Pennsylvania, to Sweden and Antarctica as he spearheaded a team dedicated to investigating the oldest stars in the universe using a balloon-borne large aperture submillimeter telescope, or BLAST. Doing its part, Facets arranged a week-long run for the film and helpfully promoted it to children as well as adults.

As a lifelong astrophysics groupie, I watched this film with all the relish I bring to my periodic treks to the Adler Planetarium & Astronomy Museum to see one of their sky shows. It far exceeded my expectations.

The film opens with a large land vehicle moving the gondola that contains the telescope (the “payload”) into position on the thick expanse of ice near Antarctica’s McMurdo Station. The balloon has been inflated and sent aloft. When the time to release the payload comes, it gets stuck on the vehicle’s mechanical arm. Expletives not deleted ensue.

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Flashback about a year to Sweden’s Esrange Space Center, which lies well within the Arctic Circle, and an explanation of the BLAST mission—to try to understand the origins of the universe. Dr. Devlin explains that science fiction has long toyed with the idea of time travel. He says that physical travel into the past is impossible. However, light traveling from the far-distant reaches of space where the universe began takes billions of years to reach Earth. Therefore, telescopic images of the heavenly bodies in these regions literally show us what the universe looked like when it began. Devlin further explains that using a balloon to carry the telescope above the distorting effects of the atmosphere is risky because of the many variables (weather, wind, airborne debris, etc.) that can interfere with the flight, but that it is far less expensive and far easier to get done quickly. For cash-strapped astrophysics programs, a BLAST is a viable alternative.

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Sweden is chosen for the launch site because of its position relative to the stars the scientists want to watch, its 24 hours of daylight, and its launch facilities. Graduate students from UPenn are brought in to help design and assemble the telescope and gondola. A pressure container on the gondola will carry hard drives to record the images the telescope captures. The flight will take 7–11 days, and NASA, which is cooperating on the mission, will release the balloon remotely and drop the BLAST into an accessible area in Canada.

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Unfortunately, the mission runs into several bumps. Rain delays the launch for four weeks, threatening the mission because the Earth’s rotation will take them out of the angle the scientists need to record the data they want. When the BLAST finally does launch, readings indicate that the telescope is out of focus. Finally, when NASA releases the balloon, the payload ends up 250 kilometers from where it was supposed to land. The scientists must take an Inuit guide packing a gun to protect them from polar bears, and the payload will have to be airlifted out, a risky proposition for the delicate $500,000 mirror the team hopes to reuse in a second, more successful flight in Antarctica—and that’s where we came in. It would ruin the genuine drama of the film to reveal much about the second launch. All I’ll say is that it had me on the edge of my seat all the way.

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BLAST! is much more than the science it describes in easy-to-understand terms and perfectly handled computer animation. Questions of the existence of God are addressed, as Devlin’s skepticism is countered by Dr. Barth Netterfield, a Canadian astrophysicist at the University of Toronto who sees the order in the universe as proof of God’s existence. I found this aspect of the film especially interesting because, coincidentally, I am currently making my way through six interviews Jonathan Miller did with several prominent men who are avowed atheists for his BBC series “Atheism: A History of Disbelief.” Arguments that came up in these interviews, especially those made by British biologist Richard Dawkins, are echoed in BLAST!, particularly Devlin’s reference to being unable to apply the scientific method to proving the existence of God.

Director Devlin also takes us inside his brother’s family life, as Mark, unable to return home for Thanksgiving, faces the cold silence of his 6-year-old son on the other end of the telephone. Devlin recounts the many lengthy absences of his own scientist father, and reflects ruefully on history repeating itself with his own family.

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The film showcases the one female member of the BLAST team, UPenn grad student Marie Rex, in what seemed an apparent attempt to provide girls and women in the audience with a role model. This admirable effort was undercut by two things: one can’t really disguise the fact that she was the lone female in a sea of white male faces, and during an interview in which Rex reveled in having some time alone to work on the telescope, an interviewer behind the camera joked that it was like time alone with her boyfriend, right? I don’t mean to be humorless about this, but would a male physicist be questioned this way and would it have made it into the film? People of color have reason to complain as well, though an African American did head up the NASA ground crew.

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But I don’t wish to belabor these negatives, which the film could only record, not correct, because BLAST! is a success on every level. The questions being asked by these astrophysicists are profound, the data collection dramatic and visually intriguing, and the scenery on Earth and in space awe-inspiring. There are moments of humor, such as when the team rides out to the launch site in Antarctica on Ivan the Terra Bus. The personal stories and the high highs and the low lows of success and failure are illuminating and interesting. The BLAST! website has a lot of information, including upcoming screenings around the country.

  • Greg F spoke:
    1st/10/2009 to 10:51 am

    You’re an astrophysics junkie too? I didn’t know that. You know I am right? I’ve mentioned my love of science and astronomy a few times on my blog. Thanks for the heads up on this. I’m usually out of the loop on documentaries outside of the political ones despite my love for them. Like Gabriel Over the White House this will not go on a three year waiting list but will be watched tomorrow morning (online, thanks to your link). I can hardly wait.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    1st/10/2009 to 11:24 am

    Greg – If I had been better at math, I would have pursued a career in physics. (On Facebook, that’s the answer to one of the “How Well Do You Know Marilyn Ferdinand?” questions.) I took an astronomy class in college that I nearly flunked, but I still loved it.

  • Rick spoke:
    2nd/10/2009 to 5:37 pm

    Thank you for the pointer, Marilyn. Like Greg, I’ll see this courtesy of your link. Back in biosystems grad school, in the late seventies and early eighties, I had an 8-inch Newtonian, and spent a lot of time looking at the sky, and a lot of time reading up on astrophysics (I’m now hopelessly out of date on the latest research and etc.)
    By the way, I’ve always found the “order in nature” argument among the weakest for the existence of God. Perhaps because I know very well there are other ways that order can be achieved.

  • Joe Valdez spoke:
    2nd/10/2009 to 7:42 pm

    Your comment about the crack Marie Rex gets from the camera crew perfectly illustrates why men vastly outnumber women in the sciences. Women have social lives. They have jobs, but based on what I’ve seen and heard, women don’t want to BE their jobs.
    The hyper focus that it takes to be a geek, while sacrificing relationships, a healthy diet and hygiene does not seem to appeal to many women, as far as I can see. It’s time the sciences were introduced to a different type of geek.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    2nd/10/2009 to 8:55 pm

    Joe – There may be something in what you say, but in fact, there’s a lot of evidence that girls are steered away from math and science in school. I’ve actually known a lot of women in business who’d rather be at work than at home with their families.

  • Matthew Truch spoke:
    27th/12/2009 to 11:30 am

    Joe – As the member of the “camera crew” who made that “crack”, I can fully understand where all the comments on this matter are coming from. It was one of the most “interesting” parts of being recorded for a documentary… parts of your everyday life are cut, edited, and spliced together to make a movie because a movie can’t show you everything. They don’t show you that the “camera crew” were Marie’s friends (at least fellow grad students, but I’m proud to call Marie a friend), nor do they show you that previously, other aspects of the project are referred to as some of the male grad students’ girlfriends. It’s an inside joke we have to refer to the things that keep us away from our significant others late at night when we’re pulling the stereotypical grad students’ long hours.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    27th/12/2009 to 11:41 am

    Matthew – Thanks for stopping by. The work you and your colleagues did on this project is to be commended, and I find your revelation of the source of this humor enlightening. It’s a classic “taken out of context” moment, and one I think you have reason to complain about. Unfortunately, it’s all too comprehensible to me why this edit was made as it was, and certainly doesn’t reflect on you.

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