The CFHT dome at night. Credit: Jean-Charles Cuillandre
By Margaret Harris
We’ve received several more physics-related films in the months since the film review series that appeared on physicsworld.com earlier this year, so we’ve decided to run a new batch of reviews over the next couple of weeks. First up: Hawaiian Starlight by Jean-Charles Cuillandre.
With its sweeping panoramas of galaxies, nebula and the cluster of telescopes perched atop Hawaii’s Mauna Kea volcano, Hawaiian Starlight is the ultimate astronomy screen-saver. At least, that’s how it comes across if you watch it on a computer screen in a brightly-lit office. On a big screen in a dark room — perhaps with a drink, and the right group of friends — I suspect it would be a near-spiritual experience. Throughout the film’s 43-minute running time, images of interstellar objects alternate with time-lapse footage of the telescopes that took them. And that’s it. There is no voice-over, no gesturing science “personality” to ram home the significance of what you’re watching, nor even much text. It is just you, the stars, the scopes, and a curiously hypnotic soundtrack borrowed from the Halo video game series. It’s marvellous.
Part of the marvel is the sheer dedication of filmmaker Jean-Charles Cuillandre, an astronomer at the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope who spent seven years collecting footage of telescopes and the Mauna Kea landscape. The resulting time-lapse movies make up the bulk of the film, and range from simply beautiful to delightfully whimsical. At 1000 times normal speed, a telescope dome opening and closing bears a striking resemblance to Pac-Man, and “cute” is really the only word for a sequence in which three sub-millimetre telescopes twitch in time with the music.
But for the most part, this film inspires wonder rather than giggles. We all know the official reasons for placing telescopes on remote mountaintops: clear skies, thin atmosphere, and low light pollution make for better images. Watching Hawaiian Starlight, however, one wonders whether more subtle factors could play a role: the awesome environment of Mauna Kea’s summit must surely encourage its scientific visitors to think deeply about the universe.