Thursday, 26 August 2010

In The Shadow Of The Sun

The light of the Sun is the primary source of the free energy that potentiates life on Earth.  Solar energy is naturally harnessed by chlorophyll in the leaves of trees and plants; and together with water from the soil and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, the process of photosynthesis propagates the release of oxygen.  As humans, therefore, we have an indirect dependence on the sun and without it, we would all perish.  Remarkably, we are also able to harness solar energy by using solar panels, as ways of producing electricity both domestically and commercially. 

On Saturday 21st August, as part of the British Film Institute's Film Science season, Dr Adam Rutherford hosted an event called In the Shadow of the Sun at BFI Southbank.  Joined by a panel of diverse guests including Film Director/Producer Danny Boyle, particle physicist Professor Brian Cox OBE, curator/artist Honor Harger and solar researcher Dr Lucie Green, the emanating discussions captivated the audience with a personal insight into the making of the 2007 film "Sunshine" and detailed perceptivity into the demeanours of the Sun that most of us are not privileged to know.

"In the Shadow of the Sun" Panel at BFI Southbank

A short clip was shown of the opening scenes of "Sunshine", a film set in 2057 about the formidable mission of a team of scientists sent to re-ignite the dying Sun, in order to save Earth.  It was the epic scene in which the ships doctor, Searle, is sitting in the observation room, admiring the beauty of the Sun through a filter that is demonstrating only 2% of the Sun's full brightness.  He commands the artificial computer, named Icarus, to decrease the filters in order to view the Sun at 4%, but Icarus warns him that viewing the Sun at this intensity would cause permanent damage to the retina, however, it is safe to view at 3.1% but only for thirty seconds.  Searle places his sunglasses, the filters are decreased to the absolute safe level and the brightness overpowers him and all those watching the film.

The observation room, on board Icarus II
When asked why he decided to direct a film about the Sun, Danny explained how he liked the script that had been given to him by Alex Garland and was astounded how so few - not even that great - films had actually been written about the Sun, he was excited about it.  But he wanted to get it right!!  This comment and the short clip, prompted Dr Rutherford's question to Danny, about his view on the importance of accuracy in relation to the true scientific facts.  Danny explained he wanted to be accurate enough to satisfy the scientific viewers, but also wanted to execute scenes that would capture the attention of non-scienctifics also, to make them believe it.

Danny knew he needed a sagacious mind to assist him with these matters.  Step up: Professor Brian Cox.  This arrangement took a disappointing turn for one of Prof Cox's colleagues after taking the original call from Danny, inviting him to join them on the set as scientific consultant.  He must have been excited about this offer since he was approaching retirement, but he soon realised Danny was in fact after Prof Cox when he mentioned that due to his young age he could connect more with the young cast members.  Poor old boy.

Searle preparing to observe the Sun at 3.1%
Prof Cox advised the accurate representations of the space mission with details such as the oxygen garden where the crew could grow their food, as food-packs would not suffice on such a long mission.  Other aspects included awareness of oxygen levels and details about the Sun and space-survival.  Dr Rutherford continued to ask if there was a point where the advice from Prof Cox was over-ruled by Danny's preferred approach; to which Danny confidently answered "yes, for the sake of the film, a director must always establish a dominant role".    He amusingly gave an example by clarifying that the pair of Ray Ban's, that Searle donned in the clip, most certainly would not sufficiently protect his eyes in that circumstance; they were obviously used for dramatic effect.  Science: over-ruled.  He also mentioned how depicting accuracy can sometimes lead to undesirable criticism, which he explained by using the example of space walking that, veritably, is as smooth and as fast a movement on Earth.  However, viewers have been saturated with dramatised imagery of slow-hopping floaty spacemen that, had he chosen the accurate representation, people would not "feel" it, but instead reside with the assumption that it was a badly produced film.

Cillian Murphy as physicist, Robert Capa
Prof Cox felt his role changed as the time went on working with the film crew.  Cillian Murphy, who played Robert Capa the young physicist (left), visited CERN laboratory in Geneva (where Prof Cox works on the Large Hadron Collider), and Cillian also learned from all the people there, how scientists work with and respond to each other.  A characteristic that he portrayed brilliantly in the film.  Prof Cox continued to add that he feels "Sunshine" is a great film about being a scientist, refreshingly portrayed by young scientists at that, which is a more accurate representation of the research power houses today that are predominantly commanded by younger scientists.

An eminent point made by Prof Cox was one that he re-ignited whilst working on the film, as it reminded him that the fundamental interest that most scientists have in science, were born from an early emotional connection, like the first time a child looks at the moon and stars and realises they want to be an astronaut.  Beautiful and very true.

The Weather Project, at Tate Modern.
After an exhilarating insight into the film, the director of Lighthouse arts agency, Honor Harger, gave an amazing presentation about artistic and curatorial approaches of studying and appreciating the Sun.  Various pieces of Sun artwork were shown including the famous "The Weather Project" by Olafur Eliasson which was held at the Tate Modern October 2003 to March 2004. Eliasson's Sun was created by placing hundreds of mono-frequency lamps in a semicircle and using mirrors to create the radiant sphere.

Together with another Sun enthusiast and collectively known as "r a d i o q u a l i a", Honor created a radio station devoted entirely to streaming live radiowaves from the Sun and cosmos, a project called "Radio Astronomy".  Sadly, the live feeds no longer run (last live feeds were in 2008), however, the recordings can be retrieved from their archives.  A sample clip of what the Sun sounds like was played; fundamentally a series of scratches, hisses and clicks, but awe-inspiring all the same.

Honor also showed us an amazing video by Semiconductor called "Black Rain" which was created using images from the twin satellite, solar mission, STEREO as it scanned the interplanetary space for solar wind and coronal mass ejections heading towards Earth.  Here's the full clip, some of which was featured in Prof Cox's Wonders of the Solar System:

Black Rain from Semiconductor on Vimeo.

"EarthStar" by Haines & Hinterding
Honor also presented new media artists David Haines and Joyce Hinterding, who had made it possible for us to see, hear and also "smell" the Sun in a single display.  David and Joyce have created "EarthStar", a futuristic art piece comprising of a Hydrogen alpha telescope, video projection HD, live solar noise sound from Custom Very Low Frequency antennae, graphite and polyethylene coated copper wire, audio filters, mixing desk, powered stereo speakers and two luminous refrigeration units that contain "virtual aroma compositions of synthesised molecules that represent states of ozone".   Apparently, there are two ozonic aromas emitted, one is likened to a bushfire and the other, the air before a storm, the latter of which is being used to produce a perfume called "Solaire Amour" - there's a market for everything!!

Each lay person could say they knew at least one fact about the Sun; it's a star, it has a massive gravitational pull and that's why our solar system orbits around it, it gives us a tan, it's Ultra Violet (UV) rays damage our skin and could cause skin cancer, it's a big ball of hydrogen and helium gas - that sort of thing.  However, other than such superficial facts, not many of us know what is really going on up there, in fact the topic is so arcane, even scientists like Dr Lucie Green who study it everyday are still learning from it.  The latest update on the Sun even made the news (here) just this week.

The chromosphere viewed through UV light
As a solar researcher, based at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory, Dr Lucie Green studies the activity in the Sun's atmosphere.  Her presentation began with an image of the Sun in visible light, demonstrating occasional tiny black spots.  The temperature of this visible layer, called the photosphere, is approximately 6000°C, which when compared to the innermost core at a staggering 15,000,000°C, is relatively cool.  A series of images were shown, viewing the Sun through both X-ray and UV light, drawing particular attention to the UV image which now revealed the much cooler 4000°C layer above the photosphere; the chromosphere.

It is this and the outermost layer, the corona, that Dr Green showed particular interest in, in her talk.  Irrationally and sporadically, the chromosphere will project bursts of glowing gases many miles up into the corona layer; sometimes these "prominences" are suspended there for a puzzling amount of time.  Other times, these amazing "coronal mass ejections" reach Earth, causing a geomagnetic storm that affects the Earth's magnetosphere by compressing it on the day side and stretching it on the night side.  When the night side reinstates it's usual form it, effectively, bounces back an immense protective response to release the solar energy away from Earth.  This bouncing back of energy can sometimes be witnessed in the night skies, a beautifully breath-taking display known as the "aurora borealis", or "Northern Lights".  Below is a movie clip demonstrating, with the Sun concealed to aid clear viewing, the amazing display of these solar flares blasting their way through the interplanetary space.

These coronal mass ejections and solar flares are extremely powerful and emit masses of radiation.  This creates particular problems for satellites and people working in space; as finding yourself in the path of a solar flare would result in radiation sickness and, ultimately, death.  In light of this, Dr Green spoke of the up coming problems the latest mission (I missed the name of it - sorry!!), that will be the closest to the Sun ever attempted, so you can imagine what measures are having to be taken to withstand these flares.

As a biomedical scientist, the Sun does not lie within my mainstream of interest so I was amazed at how captivating it became, I particularly believe this is because the panelists represented a multifaceted presentation of various appreciations of the same subject.  Now, I most definitely have a deeper interest in this field and will make active attempts to read about the latest research.  What an amazing all-rounder of an event, an amazing topic, a great host with truly engaging guests.

Additional reference points other that the in-text links provided:

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