October 2, 2014

Review: Blast! A Film by Paul Devlin.

BLAST...Astrophysics Indiana Jones Style!

BLAST...Astrophysics Indiana Jones Style!

Blast! Can be seen as a documentary that was 13.7 billion years in the making. Directed by Paul Devlin, Blast! follows the exploits of a group of astrophysicists as they break new ground with a unique balloon borne telescope. BLAST stands for Balloon-Borne, Large Aperture Sub-millimeter Telescope. As reported earlier this week in our post “Antarctic Astronomy”, “Sub-millimeter” is the name loosely given to the wavelengths roughly between microwave and infra-red. Much emerging astronomy is conducted in this band, were intergalactic dust and emission nebula really show their stuff. However, getting an instrument package above our atmosphere is vital to this field of research, as water vapor tends to absorb or scatter wavelengths at these frequencies. BLAST is an economical way to do this, and at the beginning of the documentary, our brave band of scientists out of the University of Pennsylvania venture to Sweden and the Arctic.The scenes are interspersed with first rate cosmology graphics, and the documentary does a very good job overall of capturing the drama and excitement of what may be considered by some as an exotic and arcane field of science.

A closeup of the 2nd mirror. (Credit: Don Wiebe).

A closeup of the 2nd mirror. (Credit: Don Wiebe).

Exclusively grad student built, BLAST gives you the feel of “down and dirty” hands on science. There are no specialists or engineers attached to the project; the students themselves must troubleshoot any problems that occur. After numerous delays, BLAST is released into the Arctic skies. The results of this first run, however, are less than dramatic; after a 4 day flight, BLAST is recovered from the Canadian Arctic tundra. “The entire project is now sitting on a hard drive, out in the snow,” quips one astrophysicist. We thought that the job description of “Polar Bear spotter” was one of the coolest we’ve heard in a while. Unfortunately, the original 2-meter mirror cracked on transport back to civilization; undeterred, the team journeys next to Antarctic for the 2006 season with a new aluminum coated mirror. The precious hard drive is backed up in triplicate and sent one each by land, sea, and air to avoid possible destruction.

The Blast! Team! (Credit: Mark Halpern).

The Blast! Team! (Credit: Mark Halpern).

One unique aspect of the film that has been much commented on in the blog-o-sphere is the religious views voiced by some of the researchers. Scientists are indeed human, and while skeptics at heart, have their own beliefs and opinions which are as diverse as the rest of us. The film does not back away from this, and instead allows the astronomers to share some of their beliefs about the universe and their work with the camera. This very human aspect of science and spirituality is refreshing, and adds an extra dimension to the roles of scientists. The toll this type of remote research takes on the families is also shown in depth.

Launch! (Credit: Mark Halpern).

Launch! (Credit: Mark Halpern).

Tensions mount at the NASA Balloon Launch facility outside of McMurdo, as BLAST finally takes flight a third time. “I take it the star cameras working, because you don’t look like the living dead!” States one tired grad student. This is perhaps the greatest line of the entire flick for us here at Astroguyz HQ. The idea is for the prevailing weather patterns to carry the instrument package aloft, circle the pole, and cut the cables roughly in the vicinity of McMurdo station, but in the realm of field science, things rarely go as planned. After an 11 day flight in December, 2006, BLAST is sent plummeting to the Antarctic ice sheet and is instead dragged by its drogue chute for over 120 miles!

The climax of the film has the scientists airborne desperately searching for the tiny pressure vessel containing the hard drive. We won’t give out any spoilers here, suffice to say, that BLAST was ultimately a success!

In the end, BLAST has given us a unique insight and perspective into the sub-millimeter skies in the northern and southern hemispheres, constructing a fascinating all sky map at this wave length. This will compliment other space-borne and ground observatories, such as IRAS and the Atacama Cosmology Telescope (ACT). Look for data from BLAST being sited in doctoral publications for years to come, and definitely search out this unique documentary! Its a rare glimpse of astrophysicists away from the chalkboards and laptops (okay, maybe a few laptops) and out in the field…

So where, might you ask, might I see this flick? Netflix currently shows it as “Saved”…Amazon is lagging but of course, its always worth checking for. The Blast! The Movie website has an interactive map with screenings, and you can also follow them on Twitter. Your best bet to successfully add this to your astrophysical DVD collection is to buy it from the site…sales start in September. Spread the word; let’s make more cosmologists into action heroes!

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An overlay of a southern hemisphere sky as seen by BLAST! (Credit: Schlegel et al 1998).

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