Saturday, 10 January 2009


We saw a great science documentary last night, Blast!, a Storyville production about the "Balloon-borne Large Aperture Submillimeter Telescope", BLAST.

The telescope uses radiation in the far infra-red to microwave band to image young stars shrouded by dust as well as the evolution of so-called starburst galaxies, those in the heavy star-formation part of their history. Radiation in this band is impossible to measure at ground level because of atmospheric absorption, so the BLAST telescope was built to be carried by balloon at high altitude, hence the acronym.

Although there was a fair bit of discussion about the science, it took a backseat to the exciting human story of the BLAST observations. After beginning with a flashforward to a seemingly disastrous Antarctic launch of BLAST, the film follows a multi-institute team of scientists through launch cycles in Sweden (launch 1) and Antarctica (launch 2). Many scientists (including students) are interviewed but attention focuses on two of the PIs, and much of the tale's drama comes from watching their reactions to the unfolding events.

These include prolonged periods of bad weather that prevent launch; an errant balloon path from the Sweden launch that takes the recovery team deep into the Arctic; a focusing problem on the Sweden flight that blurs the data; the near-complete destruction of the telescope during its Arctic recovery; the separation from family endured by the scientists; the botched Antarctic launch already alluded to; and to top it off, a failed parachute release that leads to the telescope being dragged 200 km over the Antarctic ice before it can be recovered. The latter incident is particularly traumatic for the scientists because, while the limited flight data showed the mission to be a success, the astronomical data collected is stored on hard-drives contained within the telescope. So its successful recovery is absolutely paramount - no mean feat in the Antarctic wastes.

Overall, it's one of those stories with so much drama (agony and ecstasy) that you couldn't make it up. The loss of the telescope in Antarctica is particularly wrenching. The film maker does a brilliant job here of presenting the viewer with a record that tracks the scientists as the euphoria that comes from knowing the telescope is firing on all cylinders gives way to utter desolation as the recovery plans (like the telescope) fall into pieces.

The film maker also does a good job presenting science as a living, breathing job. As soon as BLAST is over, the researchers are discussing how to deal with the collected data. Their small team can't handle all of it, so they calculatedly cherry-pick the best bits, farming the rest out to the community to sort out. Then it's onto the next project ... As a working scientist, I can testify that this is exactly how it is. Science documentaries frequently present a subject as a "done deal", with only an occasional nod to the preliminary nature of any work, and the fact that research just keeps marching forwards. So this documentary was a joy to see, but that's Storyville all over really. They're always worth watching.

In passing, there's even room in the documentary for occasional theological asides. The two PIs the film focuses on work well together, but couldn't be more different in this aspect. One is agnostic about any deeper meaning to the work, while the other is fervently Christian, and sees the work as both illuminating God's handiwork, and even watched over by the Good Lord. This latter point becomes particularly pertinent as the Antarctic drama unfolds.

Obviously, I'd side with the first PI, but the second PI isn't a crazy, although I'm always struck by the specificity of the faith of scientists. I can certainly accept that the universe may have been built by "a higher power" (insofar as this, while not demonstrable, is at least possible), but how one draws succour from this for a particular faith is completely unclear to me. Just be a deist and be done with it!

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