Scientific exploration made easy … to understand


on June 12, 2009 by John P. McCarthy

Paul Devlin’s documentary lives up to its wonky-dynamic title, the acronym for Balloon-borne, Large Aperture, Sub-millimeter Telescope (plus exclamation point). Combining hard science, human interest and suspense, BLAST! is a stimulating introduction to astrophysics and a fine tribute to scientists of all stripes who engage in taxing fieldwork. The movie’s pedagogical value makes it a natural for unspooling in educational settings and at specialty festivals. After a targeted theatrical run, look for it to pop up on television in both domestic and international markets.

“Welcome to Astrophysics Indiana Jones Style” is a typical tagline exaggeration, but it’s justified because the scientists we encounter are more intrepid than most professional researchers and certainly the majority of their stargazing colleagues. Paul Devlin, an Emmy-winning sports-TV editor whose previous feature films were about the post-Soviet energy crisis in Tbilisi, Georgia and a competitive poetry-reading contest, found his latest subject close to home. His brother Mark, who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, invited Paul to document the NASA-sponsored project he was overseeing with Barth Netterfield of the University of Toronto.

Low tech but ambitious, the professors’ enterprise involved sending a telescope into the atmosphere tethered to a balloon, a cheaper alternative to satellite launching and yet one with significant scientific advantages. The aim was to learn how stars form by mapping interstellar dust in distant galleries. The device and the data they hoped to gather with it would function as a time machine by offering glimpses of how the universe looked billions of years ago. Devlin and Nutterfield explain how that’s possible in lucid and succinct fashion, thereby making the film’s scientific underpinnings readily graspable and even more transfixing.

Palpable dramatic tension surrounds the launches and whether the mechanism will actually work once airborne. At the outset, we watch a failed lift-off in Antarctica before the scene switches to Sweden eighteen months earlier. There, at a facility in the artic north of the country, a launch attempt is plagued by weather delays and tension between the scientific team—including a cadre of grad students—and meteorologists, with NASA site managers running interference. After many frustrating weeks the telescope does get aloft, but there are problems. The extent of the difficulties are only discovered when Mark travels to where the rig landed in a remote spot in Canada and, polar bear spotter in tow, retrieves the instrument and the all-important hard drive containing the mission’s data.

Antarctica becomes the movie’s focal point once again as the team then travels to McMurdo Station, the American outpost where conditions will presumably prove more conducive. The outcome of the Swedish foray and the image of the failed Antarctica attempt linger in the viewer’s mind as the team prepares for another launch. Their painstaking efforts are chronicled along with snippets that reveal what extended stays are like on the isolated base. As Nutterfield proclaims for the camera, “Step by step we stumble away from abject failure…and that’s on a good day.”

Adding to the film’s emotional texture, Devlin shows the personal sacrifices made by the team. He zeros in on his brother, Mark, who is aching to make it home to his young sons and wife in Philly before Christmas. (He estimates he’s apart from his family 160 days of the year.) Everything depends on weather conditions and other factors beyond his control. Also enhancing the drama are the movie’s brief, intermittent looks at a thorny topic: the compatibility of science and religion. Nutterfield makes no bones about being a devout Christian, whereas the practical-minded Devlin is agnostic. They seem to have agreed to disagree, but Nutterfield’s eloquent avowals—he believes he’s learning about God, the artist—and the scientific content of their work puts value to the idea that there’s anything mutually exclusive about science and religious faith, at least practically speaking. The fact they’re engaged in cosmology and are asking ultimate questions about the universe gives the entire subject greater relevance and poignancy.

Devlin, the director/producer/editor, makes use of wonderfully clear and informative graphics designed by Christine Moh and Bob Mickens, founders of a multimedia firm called Artifactuality. Other technical aspects of the film are more than adequate, if not as outstanding. Overall, BLAST! isn’t quite the sensitive instrument that the sub-millimeter Telescope proves to be, but it’s certainly sharp enough for a lay audience—cinematically and scientifically. One way to describe the success of the project without spoiling what proves to be a riveting conclusion is to summon a statistic provided by Devlin the astrophysicist. 96% of the universe remains a mystery to man. Let’s hope future documentaries detailing that undiscovered portion are as fascinating as this one.

Distributor: Devlin Productions
Director: Paul Devlin
Writer: Emily Kagan
Producers: Claire Missanelli and Paul Devlin
Genre: Documentary
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 74 min
Release date: June 12 NY

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