Yes, here I am recommending a documentary again!
The beautiful 2010 film Nostalgia for the Light is a profound meditation on the past and memory.
The Atacama desert in Chile is entirely without moisture, like the surface of Mars. Hence its use as the location for sophisticated optical and radio telescopes. From here, astronomers peer into the origins of the universe and the calcium signals from distant stars. Meanwhile, roaming the desert, women who lost loved ones in the Pinochet regime scour the earth for signs of burial of human remains, with occasional success, and the calcium from their bones provides some evidence of who they were.
The documentary explores the refusal of these women to forget the thousands of « disappeared » and draws fascinating parallels with the work of the astronomers and archaeologists who also peer into the past in this desolate place. The film explores what the past is – according to one astronomer, and rightly, everything that we observe reaches us from the past, even milliseconds away (we literally live in the past) – and creates a sense of cosmic continuity that transcends the evils of particular societies and their attempts to hide the atrocities that they have committed. In other words, this documentary goes way beyond being a critique of the Pinochet regime and invests life – and loss of life – with meaning in extraordinary ways. It is also a supreme recommendation of the pursuit of astronomy as a means of putting our sublunary concerns into total perspective.
If ever a documentary can be at once aesthetically, intellectually, philosophically and politically stunning, this is it.
Astronomy was my childhood passion and I held a lengthy correspondence with dear old Patrick Moore when I was eleven years old, who answered all my questions on his old typewriter with sticky keys, and invited me down to his personal observatory at Lizard Point in Cornwall – a meeting that sadly never happened because at the last moment he was called away by the BBC to meet the Apollo 8 astronauts at Cape Canaveral.
In May 2015 I shall be attending a four-day astronomical extravaganza at my local rural observatory, of which more anon.