BLAST and the Balloon

The Crazy (?) Life of Scientists

For the longest time, the stereotype of scientists as “loners” and “geeks” and “odd people struggling against the universe to discover new things” held sway in the media and Hollywood films. When I worked as a researcher in grad school, and even before that, really, I knew that these stereotypes were really pretty silly. They are a sort of “shorthand” that writers and filmmakers use to categorize people.  Yet, they’re wrong about as often as they’re right.  The scientists I know are pretty much decent human beings with families and jobs and they worry about the same things everybody else does — shopping, doing taxes, paying the bills.  At work, they are focused on their tasks, just as teachers and doctors and lawyers and bus drivers are.

It’s tough to find newspaper articles and films that get it right — particularly the films.  I’ve noticed that more writers are focusing on the people behind the science and usually we don’t see TOO many gross generalizations, although they’re out there. I’m guessing those stem from a) an unwillingness by the writer to dig a bit deeper to do a good job (or perhaps lack of time to do so), or b) a misunderstanding by the writer about the person who’s doing the science he/she is writing about, or c) laziness.  Blockbuster Hollywood films, on the other hand, just about NEVER get it right.  Drama is important, facts sometimes seem less so. The scientist is often so stereotyped that it’s not even laughable; I mean, aside from Contact or a very few others, I can’t recall too many movies that didn’t portray a scientist as something other than “one of them weird people.”

The BLAST instrument on a launch gondola in Antarctica. Image by Done Wiebe. (Click to embiggen.)
The BLAST instrument on a launch gondola in Antarctica. Image by Done Wiebe. (Click to embiggen.)

So, I was delighted the other night when I watched a ‘screener’ of a very cool film called “BLAST!”.  It’s about a group of scientists who figure out how to launch BLAST — the Balloon-borne Large-Aperture Submillimeter Telescope — an instrument they used in 2005 and 2006 to let them look at galaxies at submillimeter wavelengths. It was a pretty ambitious mission, and the film (made by Paul Devlin, brother of one of the mission PIs, Mark Devlin) follows these folks and their graduate students through Sweden, Canada, and Antartica as they build and launch the telescope. As I watched this film, I felt like I’d known these people all my life even though I’d only met maybe one of two of them in person. They weren’t different in philosophy and outlook and dedication to hard work from the scientists I’d worked with at CU, and from the scientists I know and work with today at MIT, in Hawai’i and elsewhere.

Heck, the way they solved the challenges they faced reminded me also of planetarium folk, who face equipment challenges in the service of science education. They’re a real-life example of the kind of excitement and terror that Hollywood can only make pale imitations of in trumped-up dramas (and, lest you think I”m some sort of snob, I DO enjoy a good movie, but when they’re about scientists, I’d love to see them portrayed less like evil geniuses and more like the human beings they are).

BLAST! is a film about scientists and the challenges they face that sometimes turn their lives crazy.  Sounds interesting. Sounds human. Sounds like fun!

You probably aren’t going to find this movie in your local cineplex, but it is showing in a variety of special venues (see this list). The producers are also making it available for screenings right now at universities and other facilities and events. And, starting this fall (2009), you can buy a copy of your own. For more information on BLAST! visit the project web page.


  1. Hi there,

    I looked over your blog and it looks really good. Do you ever do link exchanges on your blog roll? If you do, I’d like to exchange links with you.

    Let me know if you’re interested.


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