Hotdocs 2008 - Blast  PDF E-mail
Written by Adam A. Donaldson   
Antarctica has been kind of a theme for me at Hot Docs this year. The Saturday before, I checked out The Last Continent by Jean Lemire, a story of human adventure while pursuing science at the bottom of the world. But on this Saturday (incidentally, the same day as the TTC’s flash-strike), it was a globe-spanning pursuit of science that ended in Antarctica, albeit with its fair share of uncertainty.

The title of the movie comes from the name of its central scientific device: the Balloon-borne Large Aperture Submillimeter Telescope. Its goal is to look deeply into the universe’s past in order to see as close to it’s beginnings as possible. Instead of being launched by a rocket into orbit, the BLAST, as the name implies, is launched by balloon to travel 35 km up into the atmosphere. Doing this, as one of the scientists says, is a way of getting science done quickly and cheaply. It’s taken five years for this team comprised of scientists from the Universities of Pennsylvania, Toronto, Brown, Cardiff, Miami and British Columbia to get to the point where they are ready to launch; the start of the movie.

The film is seen from the point of view of Dr. Mark Devlin from U of Penn.; he’s one of the project’s leaders and happens to be the brother of director Paul Devlin. The movie opens with the attempted launch of BLAST near McMurdo Station in Antarctica. It’s a clear blue day with not a cloud in the sky. Conditions are perfect for the launch and Devlin himself remarks that, “I can’t think of anything that’s gone wrong today.” But before anything can, the film flashes back to the first launch of BLAST at a NASA research station in Sweden.

Initially, the launch is thought to be success, but when the BLAST is recovered on Victoria Island in Canada’s Northwest Territories they discover that some of the instrumentation had malfunctioned. Worse still, the telescopes very expensive, custom-made mirror was broken during the recovery operation. It’s nearly a year and a half later when the team tries again at McMurdo, but even then weather gets in the way, but when it is launched, a bizarre hiccup has the scientists wondering if they’re in for their second failure.

Blast! is more preoccupied with the science than The Last Continent, even though astrophysics is, arguably, not as accessible as the science around global warming. This might sound a little daunting if you’re not very sciencey but I actually had no problem following along with why BLAST is so important to our understanding of the universe. And if I can understand it… well, you know.

But that’s not to say that this is a science movie, there is quite a bit of background about how scientists work together and what kind of characters are on the project and how sometimes the work of science is a matter of improvisation as it is a matter of calculation. We also get a look at that weird kind of scientist humour; one device on the BLAST is clearly labelled as “Turney Thing”, while in Antarctica the main form of transportation is “Ivan the Terra-Bus.”

Part of the film deals with Dr. Devlin’s distance from his family, including an awkward moment where his eldest son refuses to talk to him by phone from Antarctica at Thanksgiving. But as interesting as segments involving Devlin’s family drama are, they almost feel like they’re part of different movie. There were also a few theological discussions that I also thought were a little out of place, although I admit it does add depth and helps renege the idea that science and faith are contradictory.

The best parts of this movie though are about the BLAST and all the work that this collection of professors and grad students has put into it. It’s an inspiration because of the international co-operation of the project and the sheer enthusiasm of these scientists in pursuit of answers literally as old as the universe itself. Plus, there’s a real sweat factor as the experiment takes flight; it’s not just all the prep work in launching it, but the fact that any one of a million things can happen to BLAST mid- or post-flight, compromising all the precious data inside.

I won’t tell you how it all turns out, but the U of T scientist that travelled down College to the Royal Theatre seemed pretty pleased with the film’s final result. What Blast! does well is translate the energy and excitement this group felt over their scientific pursuit to a general audience who may or may not be astrophysics savvy. It also shows that knowledge aside, the pursuit of scientific advancement can be as messy and unpredictable as any other profession.

For more information about BLAST! visit its website at: or look for it on TV later this year on BBC in Britain and Discovery in Canada.

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