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Physics on film

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Margaret Harris: July 2009 Archives

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Image of the European Very Large Telescope credit ESO/Y Beletsky

If the telescope had never been invented, the known universe would consist of six planets, one moon, and a few thousand stars. It’s therefore fitting that one of the “official” products of the International Year of Astronomy 2009 (IYA2009) should be a film history of this astoundingly important device.

Unfortunately, Eyes on the Skies is not so much a film as an hour-long public relations special, with the sheer weight of official approval — it’s a joint production of IYA2009, the International Astronomical Union, the European Space Agency, and the European Southern Observatory — tending to smother its occasional flashes of character. True, there are a few exceptions, particularly in the first two chapters, which cover the telescope’s history from Galileo’s sketches to the 5 m Hale Telescope on Mount Palomar in California. We learn, for example, that legal disputes prevented anyone from earning a patent on the telescope, and that William Herschel’s biggest scope required four servants to operate its complicated system of ropes and pulleys. A little later, presenter Joe Liske of the European Southern Observatory — known here, rather cringe-makingly, as “Dr J” — does a fine job of explaining in simple terms why reflecting telescopes can be bigger than refractors.

Once we reach the modern era, however, the slick artists’ impressions take over. At this point, Eyes on the Skies becomes a visually-stunning laundry list of ambitious projects, and its determination not to leave any of them out detracts from the overall story. The film’s website suggests that it could be shown at “public events carried out by educators, science centres, planetariums, amateur astronomers etc.”, but even with this audience in mind, one suspects that its producers might have been better off just sticking microphones in front of a handful of astronomers and asking them about their work. Indeed, the diverse group of bloggers over at IYA2009’s own Cosmic Diary website would have been a good place to start. In their case, “official” status has not lessened their passion or creativity, and they are far better ambassadors for astronomy than this beautiful but bland production.

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Scaffolding on the LHC’s ATLAS detector during construction. Credit: CERN

It may seem odd to think of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) as a “time machine”. After all, in its usual science-fiction sense, the phrase refers to a telephone-booth-sized device you climb into before zooming off to explore the future, like the hero of H G Wells’ novel. Yet as filmmaker Yariv Friedman points out in The Time Machine, the LHC should allow physicists to study what happened in the instant after the Big Bang — thereby transporting them, in some sense, through 13.7 billion years of cosmic history.

Friedman’s documentary on this real-life time machine follows a multilingual team of scientists through the final stages of the collider’s construction, where footage taken inside the ATLAS detector offers ample proof of its complexity. Here, even the scaffolding looks complicated, like a giant adventure playground crawling with hard-hatted engineers and physicists. Interviews with scientists offer glimpses of the non-technical challenges; one team leader describes his task as “management by coffee…you have to drink a lot of coffee with a lot of different people to get to the end product”.

The most telling comments, however, come in the run-up to the collider’s gala opening in September 2008. ATLAS’ technical coordinator declares that the LHC will work because “behind every nut or bolt is someone who cares”, while another scientist confesses that he cried when he saw the first particle traces. After this initial success, the shutdown nine days later, “felt like a kick in the teeth,” admits project manager Lyn Evans. Like the project it chronicles, The Time Machine doesn’t quite get off the ground within its hourlong running time, but there’s some great material in this near-miss.

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How salaries stack up. Credit: PayScale

By Margaret Harris

Here’s a rare bit of economic good news: people with physics degrees earn more, on average, than their fellow graduates in all but a handful of disciplines.

According to this study by the US website PayScale, physicists are the sixth-highest-earning group of graduates, with a median salary of $98,800 (just under £60k) after at least 10 years in the workforce. Indeed, physics was one of only three non-engineering majors to crack the top ten, along with computer science and economics. Starting salaries for physicists aren’t bad either: $51,100, or a respectable 14th on the same list of 75 different subjects.

In addition to looking at degree subject, the study also ranked 320 US colleges and universities according to their graduates’ salaries. Readers familiar with the US educational system will find some fascinating results in the list; for example, graduates of Loma Linda University, a religious college in southern California, have the highest median starting salary, while Dartmouth College grads earn the most at mid-career.

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The CFHT dome at night. Credit: Jean-Charles Cuillandre

By Margaret Harris

We’ve received several more physics-related films in the months since the film review series that appeared on physicsworld.com earlier this year, so we’ve decided to run a new batch of reviews over the next couple of weeks. First up: Hawaiian Starlight by Jean-Charles Cuillandre.

With its sweeping panoramas of galaxies, nebula and the cluster of telescopes perched atop Hawaii’s Mauna Kea volcano, Hawaiian Starlight is the ultimate astronomy screen-saver. At least, that’s how it comes across if you watch it on a computer screen in a brightly-lit office. On a big screen in a dark room — perhaps with a drink, and the right group of friends — I suspect it would be a near-spiritual experience. Throughout the film’s 43-minute running time, images of interstellar objects alternate with time-lapse footage of the telescopes that took them. And that’s it. There is no voice-over, no gesturing science “personality” to ram home the significance of what you’re watching, nor even much text. It is just you, the stars, the scopes, and a curiously hypnotic soundtrack borrowed from the Halo video game series. It’s marvellous.

Part of the marvel is the sheer dedication of filmmaker Jean-Charles Cuillandre, an astronomer at the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope who spent seven years collecting footage of telescopes and the Mauna Kea landscape. The resulting time-lapse movies make up the bulk of the film, and range from simply beautiful to delightfully whimsical. At 1000 times normal speed, a telescope dome opening and closing bears a striking resemblance to Pac-Man, and “cute” is really the only word for a sequence in which three sub-millimetre telescopes twitch in time with the music.

But for the most part, this film inspires wonder rather than giggles. We all know the official reasons for placing telescopes on remote mountaintops: clear skies, thin atmosphere, and low light pollution make for better images. Watching Hawaiian Starlight, however, one wonders whether more subtle factors could play a role: the awesome environment of Mauna Kea’s summit must surely encourage its scientific visitors to think deeply about the universe.