When you take in starlight with your eyes, your mind apparently lights up inside. That seems to be the consistent experience of the amateur astronomers profiled in "Seeing in the Dark," a PBS film by Timothy Ferris (Available on DVD).
The program takes on a tough challenge: to convey the sky via your TV screen without getting in the way of what the real sky can mean. As we hear from those who speak on-camera, observing with a telescope can simultaneously empower while making us feel ever so small. When confronted with the distances and powers of what they are seeing, sky-watchers are often humbled by their inability to put the sensation into words. Timothy Ferris, fortunately, is not. "To see a galaxy," he says, "is to see Time."
This is not your standard one-dimensional, expository science documentary. "Seeing in the Dark" is more like a reality show from inside a love affair. It's roughly equal parts historical biography, contemporary people profile, gee-whiz technology explainer and dazzling art-show. It meditates on thought and muses about music. And Professor Ferris can't resist teaching a few astrophysics lessons (nor should he). But the camera's eye always quickly refocuses on what anyone can see in, and feel from, the sky.
Far from a story of professional big-game star-hunting, the show features what nearly everyone can see with any fairly decent telescope. "In my experience, looking through a telescope is like listening to music," Ferris told SPACE.com by telephone from his private observatory. "Most people can and do enjoy it right from the start. But there are some folks who are tone-deaf."
[Hear our complete PODCAST "Speaking in the Dark" for his fascinating behind-the scenes insights.]
The Unexpected Obsession
Ferris takes viewers to visit with more than 20 amateur astronomers (including his younger self).? We meet record-holding NFL running back Robert Smith, who distributes the southern Florida skies to youthful seekers with his GPS-pointed 16-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain. We hang out with music producer Michael Koppelman?you may have seen his name on records by Prince, Paula Abdul, Patti LaBelle and others?as he snags the weary photons of a gamma ray burst across 11 billion years of cosmic time. And we assemble spectacular color photo-mosaics with radiologist Robert Gendler, who took up the hobby in his suburban Connecticut driveway.
We get a peek through the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers' homebuilt telescopes. We admire the unique handiwork of the telescopically innovative crafts-folk at the yearly Stellafane Convention. And we see just how easy it now is to run your own robotic observatory, under pristine dark skies, from across the planet via Internet. It becomes obvious that we're living in a Golden Age for amateur sky-watchers.
When captivated by starlight, ordinary people ask unusually deep questions, often finding themselves capable of pushing their personal envelopes and, once in a while, advancing human knowledge of nature in profound ways. That's what happened to musician William Herschel in the late 18th century. Ferris tells the part of his story you probably never knew.
Scoping the Film
"Seeing in the Dark," based loosely on Ferris' 2002 book, casts the pursuit of the sky in a light not often seen on television, and never captured so clearly. Special lighting and production techniques let you see the pastime on screen much as you would in person. Yet the narrative chooses to withhold a lot, preferring to not to instruct. Of those who speak on-camera, only one is a professional astrophysicist, Debra Fisher, and she adopts data taken by amateurs in her hunt for extra-solar planets.
No one has yet seen such a planet up close. Nor has any human eye made out detail in the maelstrom about a black hole, nor watched over eons as cocoons of dust contract into stars. But the informed inner-eye of artist Don Davis has been to all those and more. Davis computer-tutored photons to bring visionary light to "Seeing in the Dark".
This could well be the show your new flat-screen has been waiting for. Videographer Francis Kenny shot in lightly compressed 1080p through Zeiss primes and good glass telescopes. Director Nigel Ashcroft, whose credits include Peter Gabriel?s "Sledgehammer? music video, pushed and pulled Ferris' words off the page and into scenes with a feature-film feel. And editor Lisa Day managed to transmit the sensation of billions of years in under 54 minutes.
One could say that this movie meanders. And, truly, it's not a linear narrative. But that's traditionally been the nature of sky-watching. You star-hop; picking your way across the sky and out into the deep Universe. It might, say, take all night to gently float your way down the river of stars in the constellation Eridanus. But what a long, strangely wonderful trip it could be.
Transit of Ferris
Likewise for Tim Ferris' personal journey; for this film is also an autobiography. "Half of the experience of stargazing is subjective," he claims, "It's what goes on behind the eye." That's why he inserted himself into the film, he asserts. He wanted to share, not only the lore, but also the love. Ferris first felt that love as a Florida kid around the time of Sputnik. "We had big skies and small telescopes," he says.
Playing the teenage Tim is Patrick Ferris, real-life son of the filmmaker. Patrick, a deft and dexterous blues guitarist and singer, establishes what for his dad was a critical lifelong linkage between the act of observing the sky and the hearing of music. Dire Straits' Mark Knopfler and Guy Fletcher tastefully score key moments in the film. Audio documentarian Kate Hopkins' sound design is equal parts authentic and evocative. And Oscar-winner Walter Murch sculpts the film's final mix such that it's always singing to you on three levels at once: two brain hemispheres plus a soul.
Seeing's Long Tale
Beyond the broadcast and the book, Ferris and PBS have found a way to foster the sky's flair for starting conversations: peer-to-peer and down the generations. They've wisely spent some National Science Foundation grant-dollars to emplace a robotic telescope with a CCD camera 7,300 feet up, under the dry New Mexico sky. The site boasts a clear view of the entire northern sky and southern celestial objects down to about -45 degrees. If you're a student, admirable snapshots of deep sky objects are now just a mouse-click away. You may request as many photos as you like (one at a time) and easily 100,000+ targets are snap-able with this new "Seeing in the Dark Internet Telescope."
Seeing in the dark is sadly getting harder to do. Ferris illuminates the menace of modern light pollution, warning that only 20 percent of humans alive today have ever seen our own home galaxy.
But even under less-than-dark skies, you can still enjoy astronomy. Thanks to computers, modern materials and manufacturing techniques, many more individuals find themselves motivated to build their own personal shrines to the observable Universe.
"Whether you build, borrow or buy a telescope," says Timothy Ferris, "the aim is to see." If you've ever given the stars more than a passing glance, you'll likely see something in "Seeing in the Dark" that propels you further into the sky. And it will probably take you significantly deeper into your own mind.
"Seeing in the Dark," a PBS film by Timothy Ferris (Available on DVD).
- PODCAST: Speaking in the Dark ? exclusive conversation with Timothy Ferris?
- IMAGE GALLERY: Scenes from "Seeing in the Dark"
- VIDEO: Trailer: "Seeing in the Dark"