'Seeing in the Dark': How Sky-watching Tunes-Up Human Brains

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 notyour standard one-dimensional, expository science documentary. "Seeing inthe Dark" is more like a reality show from inside a love affair. It'sroughly equal parts historical biography, contemporary people profile, gee-whiztechnology explainer and dazzling art-show. It meditates on thought and musesabout music. And Professor Ferris can't resist teaching a few astrophysicslessons (nor should he). But the camera's eye always quickly refocuses on whatanyone can see in, and feel from, the sky.

Far from astory of professional big-game star-hunting, the show features what nearlyeveryone can see with any fairly decent telescope. "In my experience,looking through a telescope is like listening to music," Ferris told SPACE.comby telephone from his private observatory. "Most people can and do enjoyit right from the start. But there are some folks who are tone-deaf."

[Hearour complete PODCAST"Speaking in the Dark" for his fascinating behind-the scenesinsights.]

TheUnexpected Obsession

Ferristakes viewers to visit with more than 20 amateur astronomers (including hisyounger self).? We meet record-holding NFL running back Robert Smith, whodistributes the southern Florida skies to youthful seekers with his GPS-pointed16-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain. We hang out with music producer Michael Koppelman?youmay have seen his name on records by Prince, Paula Abdul, Patti LaBelle andothers?as he snags the weary photons of a gamma ray burst across 11 billionyears of cosmic time. And we assemble spectacular color photo-mosaics withradiologist Robert Gendler, who took up the hobby in his suburban Connecticutdriveway.

We get apeek through the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers' homebuilt telescopes. Weadmire the unique handiwork of the telescopically innovative crafts-folk at theyearly Stellafane Convention. And we see just how easy it now is to run yourown robotic observatory, under pristine dark skies, from across the planet viaInternet. It becomes obvious that we're living in a Golden Age for amateursky-watchers.

[IMAGINOVA,parent company of SPACE.com, produces OrionTelescopes and Binoculars as well as Starry Night astronomysoftware and educational materials.]

Whencaptivated by starlight, ordinary people ask unusually deep questions, oftenfinding themselves capable of pushing their personal envelopes and, once in awhile, advancing human knowledge of nature in profound ways. That's what happenedto musician William Herschel in the late 18th century. Ferris tellsthe part of his story you probably never knew.

Scopingthe Film

"Seeingin the Dark," based loosely on Ferris'2002 book, casts the pursuit of the sky in a light not often seen ontelevision, and never captured so clearly. Special lighting and productiontechniques let you see the pastime on screen much as you would in person. Yetthe narrative chooses to withhold a lot, preferring to not to instruct. Ofthose who speak on-camera, only one is a professional astrophysicist, DebraFisher, and she adopts data taken by amateurs in her hunt for extra-solarplanets.

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 couldwell be the show your new flat-screen has been waiting for. VideographerFrancis Kenny shot in lightly compressed 1080p through Zeiss primes and goodglass telescopes. Director Nigel Ashcroft, whose credits include PeterGabriel?s "Sledgehammer? music video, pushed and pulled Ferris' words offthe page and into scenes with a feature-film feel. And editor Lisa Day managedto transmit the sensation of billions of years in under 54 minutes.

One couldsay that this movie meanders. And, truly, it's not a linear narrative. Butthat's traditionally been the nature of sky-watching. You star-hop; pickingyour way across the sky and out into the deep Universe. It might, say, take allnight to gently float your way down the river of stars in the constellationEridanus. But what a long, strangely wonderful trip it could be.

Transitof Ferris

Likewise forTim Ferris' personal journey; forthis film is also an autobiography. "Half of the experience of stargazingis 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 Floridakid around the time of Sputnik. "We had big skies and smalltelescopes," he says.

Playing theteenage Tim is Patrick Ferris, real-life son of the filmmaker. Patrick, a deftand dexterous blues guitarist and singer, establishes what for his dad was acritical lifelong linkage between the act of observing the sky and the hearingof music. Dire Straits' Mark Knopfler and Guy Fletcher tastefully score keymoments in the film. Audio documentarian Kate Hopkins' sound design is equalparts authentic and evocative. And Oscar-winner Walter Murch sculpts the film'sfinal mix such that it's always singing to you on three levels at once: twobrain hemispheres plus a soul.

Seeing'sLong Tale

Beyond thebroadcast and the book, Ferris and PBS have found a way to foster the sky'sflair for starting conversations: peer-to-peer and down the generations.They've wisely spent some National Science Foundation grant-dollars to emplacea robotic telescope with a CCD camera 7,300 feet up, under the dry New Mexicosky. The site boasts a clear view of the entire northern sky and southerncelestial objects down to about -45 degrees. If you're a student, admirablesnapshots of deep sky objects are now just a mouse-click away. You may requestas many photos as you like (one at a time) and easily 100,000+ targets aresnap-able with this new "Seeingin the Dark Internet Telescope."

Seeing inthe dark is sadly getting harder to do. Ferris illuminates the menace of modernlight pollution, warning that only 20 percent of humans alive today have everseen our own home galaxy.

But evenunder less-than-dark skies, you can still enjoy astronomy. Thanks to computers,modern materials and manufacturing techniques, many more individuals findthemselves motivated to build their own personal shrines to the observableUniverse.

"Whetheryou build, borrow or buy a telescope," says Timothy Ferris, "the aimis 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 youfurther into the sky. And it will probably take you significantly deeper intoyour 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"

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David Sky Brody

Dave Brody has been a writer and Executive Producer at SPACE.com since January 2000. He created and hosted space science video for Starry Night astronomy software, Orion Telescopes and SPACE.com TV. A career space documentarian and journalist, Brody was the Supervising Producer of the long running Inside Space news magazine television program on SYFY. Follow Dave on Twitter @DavidSkyBrody.