Galison: My movies show science in the making – not just the outcomes

Peter Galison is a professor of physics and history of science at Harvard University and an award-winning producer of scientific documentaries. At this year's Academia Film Olomouc, his film Shattering Stars received a special mention from the jury. The short animated film tells the story of astronomer Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, who was first ridiculed by the scientific community for his discovery about the formation of black holes, only to win the Nobel Prize half a century later. 

Read the interview in Czech translation here.

The 67-year-old New York native first produced the television documentary Ultimate Weapon: The H-Bomb Dilemma in 2000. With Robb Moss, he directed and produced  Secrecy, a film about state secrets, and Containment, a film about the storage of nuclear material. Galison’s documentary, Black Holes: The Edge of All We Know, premiered in 2020, and Shattering Stars premiered last year.

You have a very interesting and unusual combination of scientific interests – from astrophysics to philosophy and the history of science. And you bring it all together as a producer of scientific documentaries. How did that come together?
That's my family's influence. My great-grandfather was originally from Romania, but he came to the U.S., where he worked as a high-voltage electrical engineer in the famous Edison Laboratories. I was very inspired by his laboratory of mercury and arc lamps, and even as a kid, I liked physics. But the rest of the family is more inclined toward the arts. My brother is a jazz musician, both my parents paint, and they met because their sisters were classmates at art school. 

I've been able to combine those two interests in my studies and written work, and now, in making science documentaries. I've always liked movies. I made my first own films in high school and university, but they had nothing to do with science. 

Most science films at that time were primarily explanatory-pedagogical. That kind of film can make valuable contributions to society – especially now, with such powerful agitation against the science-grounded policies aimed to slow the viral pandemic, including vaccination, masks, and social distancing. Nonetheless, such instructive films are not what I wanted to make. But then I watched Jon Else’s The Day After Trinity, a documentary about J. Robert Oppenheimer and the creation of the atomic bomb – not about its technical production, but instead on the political, characterological, and ethical issues involved. I was very inspired by that, and I realized that I could combine my interest in science and art in filmmaking. 

Your first film was about the development of the hydrogen bomb, and the next one was about the long-term storage of nuclear waste. Why did you choose these topics and how did they resonate with audiences? Have you noticed more interest in recent months in connection with the war in Ukraine?
Nuclear weapons have, over and over, shaped and reshaped our world. They were central to Cold War politics, and they figure large in international relations – it is no accident that the Security Council of the United Nations is composed of countries with nuclear weapons. They completely reconfigured the role of physics in the world, attaching it to questions of national security. Indeed, my first three films focused on nuclear issues in a kind of cycle: the building of the hydrogen bomb; the effect that nuclear weapons secrecy had on state secrecy more generally; and the long-term disposal of nuclear waste. And yes: I definitely see public awareness of the nuclear threat waxing and waning along with the course of politics. Now, with the war in Ukraine, attention is riveted once again on these instruments of mass destruction – I’ve noted a spike in interest and screenings of these three films. 

Did you gain any insight while making these films that you would like people to know?
Film helps make abstractions concrete. We all know there is state secrecy, of course, but it seems ethereal, nowhere. In making Secrecy, I wanted to bring secrecy into the real: how things become secret, what it is like for people holding state secrets from their families and close friends, what it is like to be caught up in a world where secrets cover the fate of those around you. Nuclear waste: We all know there is nuclear waste. But our sense of it changes by seeing what it looks like to have million-gallon tanks of nuclear waste the consistency of peanut butter, but so radioactive it would kill you to be near it. 

These films helped me grasp, and I hope viewers understand, for example, the deep-going debates at the highest level of the scientific community about the hydrogen bomb. Was the thermonuclear bomb, intrinsically, a weapon of genocide? Or, as others contended, a necessary deterrent to Soviet expansionism?  Was state secrecy a matter of survival in an era of mass terrorism and the threat of nuclear proliferation – or a fundamental impediment to democratic deliberation?  

In Containment: Do we have a fundamental moral obligation to warn the 10,000-year future? And if so, how could we imagine and implement communication with people twice as far from us now as we are from the earliest written evidence of human civilization?  Film can help grapple with these more-than-political, more-than-scientific concerns that are here for the long term. 

At this year's Academia Film Olomouc (AFO) festival, your film Shattering Stars was screened and received a special mention in the short film competition. The jury praised its "compelling scientific story of ambition and betrayal, and ultimately the vindication of an Indian physicist and Nobel laureate, captured through an imaginative animation technique reminiscent of the chalkboard animation style." How was this film made?
The remarkable story of Indian-born astronomer Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar has been in my mind for a long time. The story begins in the 1930, when the young scientist travels from India to Cambridge, England, to study under the famous British astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington. Chandra, as he was known, made a unique discovery about the formation of black holes – he analyzed how, when a star runs out of fuel at the end of its life, it can collapse without limit. Essentially, this is how it could become a black hole. He was even invited to speak to the British Royal Astronomical Society about his work. But his discovery was rejected and ridiculed by the scientific community – even, especially, by his mentor, Eddington. What Chandra had found was so revolutionary that scientific authorities feared for their reputations and previous work, because they would have to admit they were wrong in thinking stars could continue forever in a quiescent state known as “white dwarves.” Chandrasekhar was dejected, and moved to the U.S., where he pursued other scientific projects and became a renowned astronomer. He was later proved right and won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1983 for his discovery of the formation of black holes. It is a story of ambition, betrayal, and ultimately, vindication. 

The film was made during the covid pandemic, when it was difficult to film anything. I’ve long been interested in animation – Robb Moss and I used it in both Secrecy and Containment – and I pushed even more in that direction with the black hole feature film. So an all-animated film seemed like a great solution. We, my great editor and long-term collaborator, Chyld King and I, spent a long time choosing the right animator. We wanted someone from India who could capture the characters, the spirit of the story, and the visual idiom I had in mind for it. Eventually, we found a young, talented animator, Shiv Kachiwala, with whom we spent hours and hours on Zoom but even now have never met in person. 

The film stands out for its unconventional visuals. How was that created? Whose idea was it?
From the beginning I had an idea of a film noir. I wanted to capture the feelings of a scientist who was far from home in the darkening world of pre-World War II Britain, largely separated from and then rejected by the community of scientists. I wanted the focused lighting, 1930s color palette, and claustrophobic settings to capture Chandra’s betrayal by Eddington. His isolation, disillusionment, and commitment to science. The idea for a chalkboard-style representation came soon after. Theoretical astrophysicists like to use chalk and slate as a thinking tool in their work, drawing all sorts of diagrams and equations on them. We used these motifs – chalkboard imaginary and 1930s noir-ish 2D animation – to tell one scientific story. It was actually an experiment. We made a fully animated documentary that includes real scenes and a completely imaginary world – an endless staircase to space, Eddington ten times bigger, and students with books for heads. 

You've also used animation in previous films. Is it just because of the possible augmentation of reality?
Yes, exactly. Animation allows us to do unique things. We can be expressive, highlighting certain inner experiences or just focus attention in a certain direction. Animation expands the possibilities, it pushes the boundaries of reality. If we just copied what can be filmed on camera into drawings, then the animation would be pointless. Animation, in my work, aims to capture that which cannot be filmed, by which I mean the unconscious of the film.  

You often go to film festivals, but this is your first time at AFO. Is there anything different about this festival?
Actually, my previous documentary, Black Holes | The Edge of All We Know (2020), was screened at AFO last year. But that was online, so this is my first time in Olomouc. It's also my first live festival after two and a half years of virtual festivals, which is wonderful and I'm very happy about it.

What I really like about AFO is how science-oriented it is and how it makes sure that science is presented imaginatively, with an aesthetic, cinematic awareness and an emphasis on taking the science seriously. It is a rare combination. At the same time, AFO is a perfect size, big enough to offer variety while still being small, allowing you to actually meet and talk to people – other filmmakers, film critics, and enthusiasts. 

Discussions seem important to you. At Harvard University, you founded Critical Media Practice and also for many years directed the Film Study Center, which is training a new generation of graduate students to work with digital media. What inspired you to do this?
I find it absolutely essential to discuss and share ideas with people from different disciplines, interests, and ages. My wonderful colleague and fellow filmmaker Lucien Castaing-Taylor and I have often talked about how many different disciplines address the visual aspect of things, and we decided to create a program to bring together people with filmmaking and academic interests. We wanted to allow students from across the university, from a variety of disciplines, to think and discuss how to get at their disciplines through the medium of film and other digital forms. 

And so, thirteen years ago, we founded the Critical Media Practice course, bringing together students from anthropology, history of science, medicine, math, law, biology, or literature and philosophy – anyone who wants to use digital media in some way, in film, audio or digital installation. And the course is successful. We currently have about fifty graduate students enrolled and working on extremely interesting projects. After ten years we handed over the directorship into new and very capable hands. Both of us think ten years is generally the maximum time for leadership. After that one needs change – and space – for new ideas and visions.  

You yourself are an author of films, but also of books with scientific themes. What is it like to combine these two different worlds?
I like the transitions between making books and films because it allows me to capture different aspects of the issues that fascinate me. There are things and themes that can be better captured in a book than in a film, and vice versa. If you want to explain something very complex that involves a lot of definitions or abstract concepts, if you want to show instances of something in three different countries, a book is better. On the other hand, capturing our conversation would be much easier in a video – we would have a hard time describing head nodding, voice intonation, gestures, and body language in a text.

A film offers a very intense experience of reality – many different stimuli – from the actions of the main actors, to sounds, to light, to specific shots. Capturing actions works very well in films – scientists looking through telescopes or mixing chemicals in test tubes. Text linearizes the simultaneous but easily allows digressions and explanation. The two media complement each other. 

What advice would you give to fellow scientists about why and how to communicate science?
I see it as a great privilege that we as scientists can do science, that society supports it. It seems natural, even vital, to me that we should give back to the public, including by communicating what we do. 

Contrary to what is often said, people like science. As soon as we're born, we discover the world. All young children love science. They want to know about people, plants, and the sky. And we certainly can't say that about, for example, architecture or economics. But then, unfortunately, we make a lot of mistakes in schools, where we often present science as routinized, complicated, boring, and fit only for an elite and alien few. 

In my films, I try to show that scientists are ordinary people who are looking for solutions to problems, just like children, only perhaps a little more sophisticated and concentrated in how they approach problems, but in principle no different from us all in our everyday lives. That means showing science in the making, not just science that has been completed and popularized. Film is a great way to understand the world around us, to show how the world works – whether in film or other media. It seems to me that many of us in science would enjoy engaging with the wider world at a time when it is very, very important. 

What is the future of film? Social networks make our communication faster and shorter. The trend is for videos lasting a few seconds...
I think about that a lot. People love short formats! But we still haven't figured out how to get them to the audience, how to distribute them in the best possible way. Even at festivals, short films are part of blocks called "Short Films – Part One." That's very different from promoting a traditional long film under its own name. Some promote online streaming. Others think short films should be screened in museums – but how? Just on the wall, as part of an exhibit, or by creating special venues? How to make the viewer stop and how to make it so that they can come and watch from the beginning at any time? I don't know what the future holds, but I'm curious about it and keen to work on the problem with distributors, curators, and platforms. 

What are you working on now that we can look forward to?
I'm currently working on another short film that will be about shadows – shadows in astronomy, such as the shadows of black holes, but also the dark shadows within us.