Hubble documentary on NatGeo

Contributed by
Oct 3, 2008

Update: NatGeo has an excerpt online!

A new documentary about Hubble and astronomy, called "Hubble's Amazing Universe", will air on the National Geographic Channel this Sunday, October 5 at 10:00 p.m. Eastern (check your local listing, though).

The director and producer, Dana Berry, knows Hubble; he worked on producing Hubble images for many years at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, which is where I first met him. He is one of the best astronomy illustrators and animators in the world, and his stuff always amazes me. Over the years we'd bump each other (my group at Sonoma State U even commissioned a piece from him for some work we were doing, and I used two of his pieces of art in my book), and then last year he told me he was creating a Hubble documentary. Would I be interested in being in it?


Who's this dork?
So we taped an interview at an astronomy meeting last January, and finally, after all these months, the show airs this weekend. Dana (and associate producer Vivian Lee) sent me an advance copy, and I just watched it. The show is pretty good! It covers a lot of ground, from the births and deaths of stars, to dark matter and dark energy. The animations and imagery are excellent, much better than usual for such a show. There are some great impact animations, ones I hadn't seen before, that were extremely cool. And of course, the Hubble images themselves. Hard to go wrong there.

The version they sent me wasn't quite final, so I'm curious to see how it'll look and sound on TV. But I don't think it will disappoint. As with any documentary, you can't get too deep -- there just isn't time with such a broad subject -- so it's mostly descriptive, not explanatory. The point is not to explain things thoroughly, but to evoke a sense of wonder. I think that's accomplished very well by the show.

If I had any beef (and it's minor) it's that the show makes it seem that Hubble is the only 'scope that exists (and I'll admit that I have a line late in the show, right at the end, that doesn't help). Hubble is very important, have no doubt, but it works with a team of dozens, hundreds of other observatories. Without them, our picture of the Universe, even with Hubble, would be incomplete. But again, the show is about Hubble, and time was limited, so it's difficult to spend much time talking about the teamwork.

That's a minor quibble in an otherwise well-done piece (well, there are some really trivial things, like talking about the Hubble Deep Field but showing the Ultra Deep Field, but man, that's anal even for me). I hope it eventually comes out on DVD for people to get. There was a lot of footage that got left on the floor, of course. One thing Dana did was to get three of us astronomers together at a restaurant and have us sit over dinner and talk about specific images. Geoff Hester talked about the Pillars of Creation, and we philosophized over the Deep Field. Sadly, that footage didn't get into the documentary, and I'd love to see it. Someday, maybe.

I hope Dana continues to make documentaries. This one was a great start, and there are plenty of topics left to cover. So don't forget to watch the show on Sunday!

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