Fred Watson: Greatest Science Cinematography


On a cold, wintery day there was nothing better than to sit down and check out this year’s SCINEMA International Science Film Festival from the comfort of my own living room. To be honest, I’m not a great movie watcher, but I do know when I’ve seen something worthwhile, and the two films I selected (out of over 60 films!) both rank in that category. In fact, I’d place them among @StargazerFred’s Greatest Examples Of Science Cinematography.

OK, that’s an award I just made up, but you get my drift. They were good. Really good.

Sitting down with a cuppa, I chose two films whose blurb suggested they might cover topics I know something about from my own work. It turned out that both were far closer to the mark than I could have imagined.

Over the years, I have worked mostly in observatories – in particular, building and using cutting-edge instrumentation to map the heavens in three dimensions. So my first choice was no surprise – Cosmic Flows, by French filmmaker François-Xavier Vives. It promised a tour of some of the great telescopes that scientists are using to map the motions of galaxies in the Universe.

The very first scene told me that this was going to hit close to home. Stars rising and setting in time-lapse behind the dome of the 3.9 metre Anglo-Australian Telescope, which was, for 20 years, under my wing as Astronomer-in-Charge.

And the story soon introduced people I know – Professors Brent Tully, Renée Kraan-Korteweg, Tamara Davis and French astronomer Hélène Courtois. I knew Hélène as a PhD student when she came to Australia to use a fibre-optics instrument I had built to measure galaxies – something with the memorable acronym of FLAIR II.

Though the story visits many of the world’s great observatories, it winds up at a surprisingly modest telescope with a very special place in my life – the 1.2-metre United Kingdom Schmidt Telescope at Siding Spring Observatory. It was here in the early 1980s that I built the original FLAIR prototype for my own PhD project. And now, all these years later, the movie featured FLAIR’s great-great grandchild – a micro-robotic instrument called TAIPAN, currently being commissioned.

To enjoy this movie, you don’t need anything like the connection I’ve had with the subject matter. The cinematography is stunning, the explanations crystal clear, and the CGI graphics brilliant. It is absolutely up-to-date, even highlighting a radio telescope that hasn’t yet been built – the giant Square Kilometre Array, half of which will be in Australia.

Next, to the northern lights

Next in my mini-binge was Fire in the Sky, a film about the northern lights directed by Finland’s Simo Sipola. Why? Because Fire in the Sky was also the name of the winter expeditions to Arctic Scandinavia that my partner, Marnie Ogg, and I have led in recent years. Taking Aussies to the best locations for aurora borealis photography, our trips have also introduced us to researchers in institutions like the Swedish Institute of Space Physics at Kiruna, as well as the culture of the indigenous Sami people.

I thought I knew a lot about the physics of the aurora. But Fire in the Sky takes us straight to the cutting edge of research of the phenomenon – and in a totally viewer-friendly way. In the movie, we meet Professor Minna Palmroth of the University of Helsinki, whose research team has developed a detailed computer model of the Earth’s space environment called Vlasiator.

Vlasiator is all about modelling ‘space weather’ – the intensity of particle flow from the Sun to the Earth, which can have a profound effect on everything from satellites to power grids. Yet Palmroth tells us that our current ability to predict it is at the same level as Earthly weather forecasting was in the 1950s.

The film highlights new breakthroughs, promising much better forecasts. Visually, it is breathtaking, with the northern lights blazing over Arctic landscapes in marvellous time-lapsed colour.

And there is a sub-plot, too, concerning an accomplished amateur aurora photographer, with an unexpected twist at the end. Trust me – not to be missed…

SCINEMA runs until the end of August. To see these and over 60 other science films – absolutely free – from around the world, sign up on the SCINEMA website.

This article was first published on Australia’s Science Channel, the original news platform of The Royal Institution of Australia.

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