Published: June 15, 2011
If asked to imagine an astrophysicist at work, your mind no doubt promptly creates a generic scene of a guy with glasses sitting in front of a computer unpacking some hyper-complex calculation while chewing on a pen. You probably don’t imagine said hypothetical astrophysicist soldering wires in a remote area of Sweden, helicoptering into polar bear territory in far northern Canada, or clambering across Antarctic ice. One of the many pleasant surprises found in the documentary BLAST! is the level of good-old-fashioned adventure involved in a team of scientists’ attempt to launch a telescope by balloon.
The full name of the telescope, as the frequent but fairly breezy scientific explication notes, is the Balloon-borne, Large-Aperture Submillimeter Telescope (BLAST), the brainchild of the University of Pennsylvania’s Mark Devlin and the University of Toronto’s Barth Netterfield, among others. Once in the Earth’s upper atmosphere, the plan goes, the satellite will collect faint light from unimaginably distant galaxies, allowing researchers to look not only out into the universe, but back into the universe, following the light from the farthest stars back in time to the beginning of the universe and of time itself with the Big Bang. But first they have to get their instrument up above Earth’s light-blocking atmosphere, and rockets are prohibitively expensive, leading to the “balloon-borne” part and fully staffed expeditions to Sweden and, later, the bottom of the world.
Devlin and Netterfield serve as the primary protagonists, and director Paul Devlin (Mark’s brother) even finds time to examine the idea of God in science through the contrast between Netterfield’s deep religious faith and Devlin’s pleasant agnosticism. While there’s no juiced-up conflict here, there is a surprising amount of mild suspense and drama as weather stalls the first launch, then instrument problems dumb down the data. A second attempt with improved equipment is planned for Antarctica, but, well, nothing is ever easy in Antarctica.
The extras menu features a short clip of a visit to the telescope team from director Werner Herzog, filming his Antarctica doc Encounters at the End of the World at the same time, and thinking about BLAST! in comparison to Herzog’s work proves illuminating. Whereas the German auteur looks at the universe and sees beauty, mystery, terror, and awe, the plucky scientists of the BLAST project spend their career going to extreme lengths to carefully plumb those mysteries, and even if they can’t entirely relieve any metaphysical terrors, there’s plenty of beauty and awe left to go around.
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