Science, faith and failure are chronicled in a documentary about the balloon-borne telescope BLAST.
The documentary film BLAST! follows cosmologist Mark Devlin's journey from Sweden to Antarctica as he and his team launch a balloon-borne telescope to study galaxy formation in the early Universe. As research from the telescope — known as BLAST (the Balloon-borne Large Aperture Submillimeter Telescope) — is published in this week's Nature1, documentary-maker Paul Devlin explains what he has learned from filming his brother Mark's expeditions.
How did you come to film your brother's work?
It was a casual invitation. He said, "Why not make a movie about my telescope?" I was sceptical, but once I got to Sweden, the delays and the drama of the first launch sucked me in.
Were you surprised by the number of setbacks?
I think everyone was. In Sweden the weather was a constant torment. There were software glitches, and somebody stepped on the camera that uses the stars to orient the telescope. Then there were the catastrophic things, like discovering after launch that the telescope was out of focus. The second mission in Antarctica went smoothly — maybe because they had made all the mistakes already — until at the last minute the balloon almost crashed because someone's glove got stuck on it. And then one little mechanism that didn't work almost destroyed the whole thing. It's not uncommon to experience that kind of failure in scientific endeavour.
Was it hard to strike a balance between storytelling and science?
It's an adventure story about the scientists. I took my cues from classic Hollywood structure: it starts with a disaster, and the rest of the film is about the researchers climbing up from the abyss to redeem themselves. The science lets the audience understand their motivations and mistakes.
It was the hardest edit I've ever done. In early cuts of the film we had a lot more on the science, on how the telescope worked. But in dozens of test screenings we found the focus had to be on the story. I had 200 hours of footage showing the research unfolding on the ground. When the telescope's mirror was destroyed, we don't have a talking head saying how bad it was, we document the moment they discovered it.
What do you hope audiences will take away from the film?
We wanted to show that scientists are not either mad geniuses trying to destroy the world or nerds in lab coats. Kids learning about a career in science don't necessarily think it could lead them to launch a telescope on a balloon in Antarctica. But there are a lot of wild possibilities that could come as a result of pursuing science. If ten years from now a scientist came up to me and said they were inspired by the movie, it would be worth it.
How would you compare your own film-making with your brother's work in astronomy?
The parallels were ongoing and extraordinary. At every step we would marvel at how similar our paths were. Science can be entrepreneurial and independent, the way that film-making is. Post-production is a bit like publishing a paper: you have all the results but now you have to make something that people care about. The success of his project determined the success of my project, so our destinies were intertwined. Neither of us knew how it was going to turn out. We were both making a leap of faith.
The film highlights the religious beliefs of its two lead scientists — how did they differ?
Astrophysicist Barth Netterfield has managed to reconcile his Christian faith with his scientific pursuits. My brother Mark, an agnostic, was the perfect foil. In the United States, some scientists — who are perhaps defensive given the debate about creationism — have objected that we did not discredit Barth's views. Their vehemence took us by surprise. But it's who he is, and at some point it is ludicrous to ignore it. Plus, how do you get through that kind of work without having faith? When the team found the telescope's lost data capsule in the Antarctic ice, it did feel like a miracle. I would guess that Barth wasn't the only one who was praying.
Devlin, M. J. et al. Nature 458, 737–739 (2009).