Posted on behalf of Carolin Crawford
Fifty years ago, four young men with newly minted PhDs left England for the California Institute of Technology. They were embarking on what turned out to be long and successful lives in astronomy. California afforded Donald Lynden-Bell, Roger Griffin, Wal Sargent and Neville Woolf opportunities — to probe the heavens, through access to the world’s best telescopes at Mount Wilson and Mount Palomar, and to explore the astonishing landscapes of the western United States on the road.
Star Men, a documentary film on the four astronomers by Alison E. Rose, premiers on 3 September at the 35th Cambridge Film Festival. For the film, Rose joined them as they reunited for a final road trip, along with the Union Jack flag that features in many photos from their original forays. (The fifth original member, John Hazlehurst, was unable to make the reunion.) Their journey is partly a nostalgic return to the giant telescopes, and a chance to repeat the ‘best’ hike they undertook, through arid, dusty canyons to Rainbow Bridge National Monument in Utah. More, it is a rare chance to reflect on the changes the years have wrought, on the men and their science.
The 1960s marked the start of modern astronomy. Game-changing observations, theory and technological advances then and in subsequent decades would begin to transform the face of the field. Quasars, the cosmic microwave background and pulsars were all discovered serendipitously; structure on the largest scales was traced around the voids of space; new generations of giant, segmented mirror telescopes began to scan the skies; spectrometric techniques started to reveal the presence of planets beyond our Solar System; new astronomies conquered invisible wavebands. Lynden-Bell, Griffin, Sargent and Woolf each played a significant part in this game of progress – in their separate roles as theorist, instrumentalist, observer and telescope visionary, respectively.
In the film, the four reminisce about their shared experiences, such as the joy of riding the prime focus cage to guide the motion of the 200-inch Hale Telescope at the Palomar Observatory for hours at a time, with only the stars and classical music for company. It is fascinating to hear Sargent, director of Mount Palomar from 1997 to 2000, express how he originally suffered from impostor syndrome. He confesses on screen to having been scared of the telescope for several years, doubting at first that his science was “good enough for such a grand machine”.
Spurred into science
This is not a film about the science or how science is done, although it discusses and describes of a range of astronomical phenomena, and is illustrated by sumptuous time-lapse sequences showing the Milky Way in all its glory crossing the night sky. Instead, it reveals how scientists live and breathe for their work. I was particularly entranced by what the four had to say about what triggered their youthful enthusiasm: books brought home by a mother in lieu of her salary as a cleaner; the unfettered view of the heavens afforded by wartime blackouts; an affinity for pondering mathematical problems when words were not easy to read; listening to Fred Hoyle’s radio lectures.
Necessarily, the film also exposes the consequences of ageing, as the four confront physical frailty, terminal illness, and the limitations and stark vulnerability of a body in its eighth decade. (Sargent died at 77 in 2012, seven months after the reunion.) There are brief but poignant musings on a range of subjects, from the worth of human spaceflight to religion, extra-terrestrial life and mortality. Yet their good humour and enthusiasm remain undimmed. I was humbled by their expressions of amazement, gratitude and joy at having spent a lifetime observing the Universe. They have enough of the boy still at their core – we witness brief glimpses of petulance, teasing and competitive behaviour – to continue asking the big questions. On their overnight camping trip, an opportunity for observing afforded by the dark suggests that the astronomers are still far better able to navigate their way around the sky than on the ground.
Star Men is, however, very much of its time – a privileged time, when astronomy could be a much more individualistic pursuit than it is now. Young, bright researchers of the late twentieth century century had comparatively easy access to some of the best telescopes, and pondered their science at a more considered pace than in today’s world of large collaborations, intense competition, giant facilities, satellites, sky surveys and data mining. What changes and discoveries will today’s more mixed generation of 25-year-old astronomers reflect on 50 years hence, I wonder?
Carolin Crawford is a communicator of science, astrophysicist researcher, lecturer and public astronomer based at the Institute of Astronomy and Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge. The 2015 Cambridge Film Festival runs from 3 to 13 September.
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