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A stargazer's saga

Francis Kenny / ClockDrive Productions
Patrick Ferris looks through a telescope in Florida, in a scene from the documentary

"Seeing in the Dark." The public-TV show celebrates the joys of stargazing.

Today's amateur astronomers can access an arsenal of equipment that would make Galileo green with envy: computerized go-to interfaces that steer you toward your celestial target at the click of a button, even over the Internet if you like ... ultra-sensitive imaging arrays that rival what the professionals command ... software that can sift through a flurry of pictures, looking for patterns of change that can point to a fresh discovery.

At the deepest level, however, the essence of stargazing is the same as it's been for millennia: to encounter the cosmos, to bring the frontiers of the universe just a little closer to the soul. That meditative aspect of amateur astronomy resonates throughout "Seeing in the Dark," a highly personal documentary by Timothy Ferris that makes its high-definition debut tonight on PBS.

"It is quite a meditative activity," said Ferris, who wrote the book on which the film is based, plus many other science-themed works. "It's such an odd thing, you know. You're out there for hours, and often alone."

Ferris isn't alone as he guides viewers through the hour: His supporting players include:

  • Former NFL running back Robert Smith, an astronomy buff who now coaches high-schoolers at the telescope.
  • Professional planet-hunter Debra Fischer and amateur planet-hunter Ron Bissinger, who work together to detect new worlds.
  • The Bisque Brothers, who build Ferris an observatory on the fly in New Mexico.

Ferris' own son, Patrick, portrays his father during the formative years of the '60s, early in the film - then plays himself as the generational tale comes full circle at the end.

"It's about the difference in time with the cosmic time scale," Ferris, who turned 63 last month, told me. "I was reluctant to have anything personal in the film, but there's a huge element missing if you don't do that - because the nature of stargazing is that it's such a personal activity. It's not like going to a ballgame, you know."

To be sure, technology has revolutionized the telescope trade. Astrophotographers like Rob Gendler can search the skies and snap jaw-dropping pictures using remote-controlled telescopes located on the other side of the continent - and that's the way professionals often do their astronomy as well.

Francis Kenny / ClockDrive Productions
Timothy Ferris adjusts a telescope.

The telescope that Ferris had built for the show, with funding from the National Science Foundation, is now being made available to schoolchildren for just such a purpose. The facility at New Mexico Skies has been dubbed the "Seeing in the Dark Internet Telescope," and students can send in e-mail requests for black-and-white pictures of celestial sights. The project's organizers intend to mail back the requested images within a day or two, depending on the weather and the workload.

"So long as you're a student, we'll try to accommodate you," Ferris said. "It's only one telescope. I don't know what the volume will be. But it's kind of a win-win. If we have a reasonable rate of requests, they're easier to fulfill. If we're overwhelmed - well, that tells us something. I'll go back to the NSF and look for funds to expand the project."

Ferris and his colleagues have added other gee-whiz tools to the Web site: an interactive star chart, a set of how-to videos for astronomy newbies, a cosmic photo gallery and a list of "birthday stars" that twinkle with the light from the year you were born.

But the neatest trick has to do with the way the film shows the sights of the night sky the way they really are, rather than as a Hollywood prop. "So far as I know, it's never been done - and it was at times as difficult as I feared it might be."

For the night scenes, the "Seeing in the Dark" team labored mightily to get the twinkling stars just right. Ferris explained that it couldn't be done naturally, because the "twinkles occur at a speed that's faster than you can yet record." The production team had to mix actual sky imagery with reverse-engineered special effects to get the picture right.

For the astronomical images, Ferris passed up the crystal-clear Hubble option and went instead with true views from ground-based telescopes - complete with the slightly wavy effect you get when you're looking at, say, Jupiter through a small scope and a turbulent atmosphere.

"Some of the best views were shot, using an HD camera, by a forensic pathologist and a fellow amateur astronomer friend up north of Sacramento," Ferris said.

Ferris said the high-definition documentary represents his best effort to reproduce the true experience of stargazing - an experience that really can't be duplicated on your desktop.

"Looking through a telescope is like playing a musical instrument, it's not like watching a movie," said Ferris, who helped pick the farthest-out tunes in the galaxy as the producer for the Golden Record mounted on NASA's Voyager spacecraft. "You get a direct return back for the effort and practice you put into it. You can get where you can see things that are really quite subtle and amazing, but it doesn't jump up in your lap and lick your nose."

Ferris said the experience is more like mountaineering - or meditation, for that matter.

"It's an option that appeals to a lot of folks who like to be engaged - who like to exert energy and not merely be entertained," he said.