Friday 21 November 2008

Ballooning humanity

BLAST! (2008), directed by Paul Devlin

With an edgy acoustic soundtrack and plenty of CGI, this documentary follows a team of scientists lead by Dr Mark Devlin in their quest to map the nether reaches of our universe. The actual BLAST! itself is a curious balloon-floated device, equipped with mirrors and lenses capable of viewing far distant galaxies. The idea is to send this thing up to the edge of the atmosphere where it will scan the skies for distant traces of light. Hopefully, this will give us our first truly detailed view of the millions of other galaxies in our universe.

So far so good, but it soon becomes apparent that BLAST! isn’t really a traditional educational documentary. Despite an introduction into the basics of galactic structure and regular updates on the background science, the main focus is the practical process of setting up the experiment rather than the specific science of it. The science, indeed, settles mainly on the periphery: technical issues that plague the first launch play a major role in feeding the human interest into the lives of the leading protagonists. Mark, son of a prominent physicist himself, is continuing the family tradition of pursuing his own unique project, juggling this ambition around the everyday stresses of being a husband and father, and teaching postgraduate students at the University of Pennsylvania. Bart, co-founder of the project, fellow university lecturer and professed Christian is driven by a desire to understand the complexities of God’s creation, and to reconcile his faith with his pursuit of worldly knowledge. The postgraduates themselves, the young, energetic future brains of NASA, are fully committed to some of their first practical experience in their future careers. All this, set in the context of some impressive shots of Antarctic scenery, and dramatic clips of the adrenaline pumping launches.

Given these different angles, one could be forgiven for mistaking BLAST! as a drama and getting lost in the plot. The personal importance of the experiment to the lives of those involved is the central theme of the film, which at times boils over into genuine desperation and elation over its ups and downs. But despite the heavy focus on the emotional strains of those involved, the film avoids descending into farce. We are reminded by useful commentaries throughout not only of the overall ambitions of this experiment, but also the more worldly aspirations of astrophysics as a general discipline. Interspersed between scientific knowledge, the goings on of the project and the lives of those participating in it, historical blurbs on the role of astrophysics in our past punctuate the tale, alongside broader arguments about the social and cultural ramifications of the subject today. Mark’s commentary frequently touches upon some of the deeper philosophical questions that lie behind the discipline and its relation to mankind.

‘... humans are basically curious, and if there’s a question out there that can be answered, then I think that humans want to know’

The BLAST! experiment becomes merely a focal point around which a more general position on the nature of scientific enquiry is formed. The science BLAST! is a living, breathing entity, brought down to the individual levels of those involved in the processes, but managing to retain a foundation in the deeper arguments surrounding technological and social progression. The conclusion of the film is a philosophical vindification of scientific pursuit and its underlying importance in the development of human society. Mark himself developed these ideas further in an interview I conducted after the screening.

‘We wanted this to be an accessible film, something that kids could watch. Most representations of scientists in the media today are pretty negative, we’re either geeks or we’re involved in some kind of evil plot. We wanted to show the sacrifice involved in these kinds of projects, without playing to the traditional stereotypes.

‘There seems to be a really hostile environment towards science today. We have a real problem back in the US. People just close their eyes to reality. They’re happy enough with all their mobile phones and modern technology, but when it comes to the work which makes all that possible, they don’t wanna know. Scientists get a lot of crap from people sometimes.

‘There are political problems for scientists, too. Even when politicians talk about increasing the budget for science, there’s usually no real focus on actual scientific needs. I think there is a feeling amongst scientists that we’re under appreciated. Without the funding, without progress, the ‘next’ big-thing that could drive our economies may never happen, and we wouldn’t even know we missed it. The effects of not funding science are very difficult to measure.

‘You can’t legislate for scientific advancement. You can’t demand creativity. Science is like any art. Tailoring the funding to specific projects just narrows the boundaries of what we can achieve.’

This film provides an optimistic and thoroughly humane outlook on scientific culture and practice, and an ambitious perspective on its potential for increasing our awareness of being. Taking the experiment down to the core questions of human nature and history, it avoids getting lost in data and effectively brings home the point. The focus upon individuals is necessary, it reinforces the argument that rational enquiry and experimentation aren’t the solitary pursuits of a few boffins and social outcasts, but one of the most universal compulsions of an inquisitive human mind. We may still be some distance away from à scientifically literate public, but this film is at least a thoughtful step in the right direction. A refreshing take, if you will, not only upon scientists and the practice of their art, but also on humanity as a whole, and our capacity for expanding the frontiers of our knowledge.

Enjoyed this article? Share it with others.


The Times BFI 53rd London Film Festival

Internet Movie Database
IMDB - does exactly what it says on the tin

British Film Institute’s Finest

BFI’s Sight and Sound
World cinema eating its heart out

They shoot pictures, don’t they?
Dedicated to the art of directing

Barbican Film
Some of the most innovative films in town

ICA Film
Independent, political and art-house gorge-fest

National Media Museum
Not nearly as bad as it sounds

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.