A joint Fermilab/SLAC publication

Imagine Science Film Festival: Documentary Shorts



When I left the Imagine Science Film Festival Documentary Shorts screening, it was almost impossible to wipe the grin off my face. All of the films were gorgeous and creative; nearly all of them used science in ways I'd never seen or thought of. The variety of storytelling methods was tremendous; the film festival truly displayed how science in film is not limited to educational documentary, but instead offers a playground of new possibilities. The fact that these films are out there and I might never have seen them otherwise is the only tragedy. We need more festivals like this. In the meantime, you can watch many of these shorts online by following the links below.

A few months ago I came across Magnetic Movie, from Semiconductor films, floating around the internet, and was so happy to see it at the festival. It ended up winning the highest prize that the festival had to offer, the Nature Scientific Merit Award. Very much earned. I wish all the films were available, but am especially happy that this one is free to watch:

Magnetic Movie from Semiconductor on Vimeo.

What's the Matter at CERN, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the LHC (which you can watch here) takes a stab at dispelling the accusations that the LHC will create a black hole and destroy the world. It worked best to convey how the scientists at CERN were certainly shocked by the claims, mostly because they got so much attention, yet were so outlandish. One scientist even says that if the founders of these claims really believe such a thing, he respects them for bringing them forward. On the other hand, he points out with a shrug, he knows the claims are wrong. Like the scientists, the filmmaker is almost giggling at the fringe groups that have taken these claims and run: the funniest moment came from the inclusion of some homemade videos, found on Youtube, depicting a black hole originating at CERN and swallowing the Earth.

The second film about the LHC, Big Bang Day, captured the excitement and buzz that filled CERN on the day the LHC sent proton beams around the ring in both directions. It includes footage of the camera crews that arrived and the scientists who stopped working to assist with all the visitors. But the best part of Big Bang Day were the quiet, yet powerful words of graduate student Adam, who is featured as the film's centerpiece. Adam talks openly about how sometimes the routine of work makes him forget what an exciting facility CERN is. But he also conveys the thrill and privileged of working at CERN as the LHC is finally starting, and what it feels like to reach the end of your training, to become an expert in your field, and realize that if you want answers to your questions, you have to find them yourself. This film is just one in a series (reported on by symmetry earlier this year) called Colliding Particles: Hunting the Higgs, by director Mike Paterson. If you're at all interested in the LHC, these are really a treat. There are currently five in all, with new episodes still appearing.

A definite crowd favorite was Hairytale (watch it here), the story of former hair dresser Ronn Thompson, who now collects hair clippings and makes a fiber-glass-like building material out of them. This film was materials physics in disguise. The director pushed the conservation angle--Thompson was motivated by a desire to reduce human waste products, so he now rescues many tons of hair from landfills every year. He hopes to create a substitute for fiber-glass, which takes a tremendous amount of energy to make and is dangerous once it's disposed of. The incredibly strong properties of hair have long been known by biologists, but Thompson displays just how far mother nature's design can go. While a fiberglass brick cracks under about 65 tons of pressure, the brick of hair holds up to 87--stronger, softer, and more environmentally friendly than fiberglass. Once the audience got over the "ew" factor (all the hair was kind of gross) and saw that the material is hardly recognizable as hair once it's finished, people were whispering, "wow!"

Another crowd favorite was the most amateur of the whole festival--the actors, at least, were astronomy students rather than film students. But the creators put so much heart and genuine silliness into their product, that people were laughing out loud and cheered at the end. The Agony and Ecstacy of Planet X (free to watch) was the only mockumentary in the bunch, and featured staged interviews and a made-up historical film reel that followed Clyde Tombaugh during his discovery of Pluto. It ended with a pie fight.

Also of interesting note was Decoding Alan Turing, a film less about Alan Turing's life, and more about how his life is remembered now. Books, films, statues, art projects, and rock songs have been dedicated to the man who broke German codes in WWII, laid the foundation for modern computers, and did it all in the face of potential imprisonment for his homosexuality. The poetic connections in Turing's life make him one of the most fascinating people in 20th century mathematics, or even just in the 20th century.

The night also included the short film Babbage about Charles Babbage--the man who invented the first computer and then failed to build it (see a trailer here). Things wrapped up the night was the visually savory Planes Lapse; only two minutes long with no words.

That's all from the Imagine Science Film Festival! Keep your eyes out for science films coming to your area--most of these films won't have wide release but are appearing at multiple film festivals.

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