Filmmaker Paul Devlin grew up in a family of scientists. He spent summers at the high-energy accelerator, Fermilab, where his particle physicist father was on the team searching for the top quark. One brother attended MIT and the other, Mark, became a prominent astrophysicist at the University of Pennsylvania.
Mark invited Paul to Arctic Sweden to document the launch of Mark’s groundbreaking telescope, BLAST - Balloon-borne, Large Aperture, Sub-millimeter Telescope. BLAST is designed to gather information on how our universe evolved by collecting the very faint sub-milimeter light from thousands of the earliest galaxies ever detected. To see these celestial births, the telescope must go through a risky launch on a NASA high-altitude balloon and float above the atmosphere for several days before it lands in Arctic Canada.
When Paul arrives in Sweden, tensions within the collaboration are high as technical obstacles and the worst weather in decades have delayed the experiment for weeks. After a turbulent launch the scientists are devastated to discover that the telescope has a fatal flaw during its 4 days afloat. Then, a harrowing recovery in the Inuit polar bear country of Arctic Canada results in catastrophic destruction, forcing the scientists to try all over again on the ice in Antarctica.
Eighteen months after the disasters in Sweden and Canada, Mark and his team head to McMurdo Station, Antarctica, the most remote research base on the planet. Having learned from mistakes in Sweden, the scientists cautiously anticipate success. “I can’t think of anything that really went wrong… so far” declares Mark just prior to launching the multi-million dollar telescope above the atmosphere for the second time.
Apparently Mark spoke too soon. Will BLAST crash during the launch? Can its precious data survive being dragged 120 miles across the Antarctic ice?
The natural suspense of the BLAST process a group of scientists overcoming one obstacle after another to unlock the secrets of the cosmos keeps the tension of the film’s narrative taut. Cliffhangers allow the story to diverge into vignettes of the science and goals of BLAST. Sophisticated, visually appealing animations illuminate fascinating concepts in a captivating, accessible way.
Moreover, BLAST threads through its narrative a dialogue on science and faith between two lead scientists – one an agnostic and the other a Christian. Mark Devlin and his colleague Barth Netterfield (U. of Toronto) represent opposing sides of a theological argument. Mark, an adventuring instrumentalist, has utter faith in the ability of science to answer the most difficult questions confirming his non-theistic view of the Universe. Barth, a nerdish software genius, is also a devout Christian with a refreshing outlook on the tension between science and religion. Barth views his scientific pursuit as an opportunity to peer into the mind of God. This candor has also allowed BLAST! to ignite debate and to inspire general audiences to reconsider the relationship between science and faith.
BLAST! also introduces audiences to the team of young graduate students as they candidly document each other during the early assembly process in Antarctica. As Mark says, “You can’t learn this stuff in a classroom, you gotta DO it.” Scientific ballooning is the training ground that develops future leaders of NASA.
For many people, complex scientific investigation seems obscure and impersonal. BLAST! immerses us in the random, haphazard, personal side of this high stakes world, both marred and enhanced by fallible human nature. The film offers insight into the motivations of passionate scientists, pursuing groundbreaking research, seeking to answer the most basic of human questions - How did we get here?