Black Holes: The Edge Of All We Know
Is there any bit of astrophysics as alluring to the layman as the idea of a black hole? It seems to me to be at the fulcrum of what we can understand, and find fascinating, and what we cannot understand, and, well, find fascinating. We can all grasp the idea of a portion of space that sucks in anything that gets too close, a whirlpool in the cosmos, but we can’t grasp what happens after that. For a long, long time, those of us into sci-fi have wondered, and absorbed so much fiction that includes the concept, that in truth our opinions of the phenomenon are probably coloured as much by Star Trek as they are by Stephen Hawking (if not more).
A few years ago, I do recall the media splash that occurred when a group of scientists was able, through the combined use of a number of high powered telescopes and advanced imaging techniques, to form a picture of what a black hole looks like. What we got was a hazy circle of orange, more at the bottom than the top, surrounding an empty space. In some ways it was singularly unimpressive – the kind of thing a concept artist could have done in their sleep – and easy fodder for tabloids looking for cheap clicks before moving on to the next thing from the sky (like the first look at Pluto, or the plants growing on the moon). But in many other ways that image was an enormous achievement. How we got to that point is a story worth telling.
In this documentary, we get to see a look at the project from two very different, but connected, viewpoints. The first is one that many of us are at least partly familiar with: the work of Stephen Hawking and his compatriots, as they looked to make sense out of the senseless, and give us a greater understanding of just what black holes were. The second, and perhaps much less known, was that literally astronomical effort to fix a wave of telescopes at one point in the sky, and then get something legible out of what they were all looking at. Together, these two groups of people are at the forefront of unraveling one of the great mysteries of our nighttime sky.
It’s the man himself, Stephen Hawking, who captures something of what I mean in the production’s very first line: “A black hole is stranger than anything dreamed up by science fiction writers. It’s that kind of thought that will draw the eyes to this, a documentary that I think would usually scare people off with it’s extremely weighty, and, being frank, difficult to understand, subject matter. The Edge Of All We Know does the best that it can I feel, but it also falls into the trap of dumping the audience in the deep end (or perhaps we should say the event horizon) of the titular dark abyss, then suddenly pandering too much to an overly simplistic narrative at other moments.
I don’t really know how else to say it other than to bluntly state that I felt equal parts talked up and talked down to during The Edge Of All We Know. At certain points the people being interviewed, whether they are the astrophysicist colleagues of Hawking, or the large team working with the telescopes, really go in-depth on the science of black holes, in such a manner that a layman like myself would be totally lost within seconds. I can think of no better example then discussions of the so-called “information paradox” of black holes, something that the film seems incapable of getting across to Joe Bloggs like myself who really do not understand the finer points of quantum mechanics or general relativity. Failing to get this across means that we’re less engaged with the topic the longer the film goes on, since it’s hard to care about something that seems totally beyond your keen.
And yet, then The Edge Of All We Know will suddenly flip entirely, and go from that to explaining the nature of black holes as if they were doing so to a child. There’s animations, there’s water-based whirlpool simulations, there’s even a section where people talk about Hawking’s famous spaghetti astronaut, complete with diagrams of said astronaut being essentially squashed into nothing (played, at least in part, for laughs here, though I always found the idea uniquely horrifying). It’s like the film suddenly wants to be the visual form of a science museum for kids. I feel like the people behind The Edge Of All We Know were unclear on what exactly they wanted the film to be: a no holds barred scientific investigation of something only the very best human minds can grasp, and good luck keeping up, or something you could show in a secondary school science class without fear of furrowed brows. Instead we get both, and as is often the case trying to be two very different things at once just doesn’t really work out.
This is a bit of shame, because I generally thought that much of what The Edge Of All We Know showed us was quite interesting, especially from a human perspective. Men like Shep Doeleman, heading the observatory project but surrounded by a litany of creative and capable young minds, takes up a lot of screentime, and while he is clearly at pains to show the whole process as streamlined as possible – a few hiccups with bad weather are really as dramatic as the film likes to get – his perspective on what the IHT is trying to do is still worth seeing. The other half of proceedings perhaps gets a bit bogged down in looks at lots of scientific formalas scribbled on blackboards and whiteboards, but the various academics involved are still capable of giving a different portrait than we might be used to when it comes to the iconic figure of Hawking, shown here actually working and not just making quotable pronouncements. There’s a very obvious passion for the work from all quarters, which I think is very important to get across: we don’t get in-depth biographies of any of these people, but seeing the nerves as different imaging techniques are tried out, or the barely restrained tension as weather interferes with plans, is enough to carry us along.
The Edge Of All We Know is shot in a straight forward style, the product of people who are content with the basics of documentary, and doing their best to meld into the background when they aren’t doing testimonial-style shooting (in some of the smaller rooms, the bunched up nature of filmmaker and subjects is a bit too obvious, and some staged shots stand out in a huge way at other points). The director, Peter Galison, is a member of the EHT himself, so one does have to acknowledge the fact that the film is unlikely to ever take too harsh of a viewpoint on the project, it just isn’t that kind of film (there may be a question to be asked about the worth of the entire thing, in terms of practical benefit to humanity outside of furthering knowledge, which the film chooses not to tackle).
The animations, that sort of serve like act breaks of a kind, are a nice way of dividing things up, less you become too overwhelmed by the science being thrown at, or spoonfed to, you.This is the sort of artistic effort to get the idea across that I can get behind purely on their own merits: one, in particular, that shows a line of people – representative of those undertaking the documentary’s project – walking down an unseen path that mimics the pull of a black hole was especially intriguing. Another uses a grid-system of the universe as we understand it to make clear the enormous distance between Earth and the black hole – the one in M87 – that the EHT group are trying to get an image of (it suffices to say that a single telescope would need to be the size of the planet to get a good look on its own). I could stand to see more scientific films that took this sort of approach, melding the factual with the aesthetics in a manner that pays tribute to the minds that bring us knowledge of the thing, and the way that the thing itself coaxes the imagination. It’s just when it is combined with the fourth-grader style lesson that it starts to grate a bit.
The film is also noteworthy from a musical perspective. Zoe Keating, playing soem original pieces along with some classical, takes plenty of cues from the likes of Hanz Zimmer, whose Interstellar soundtrack was presumably on the playlist, and the end result is a refreshing soundtrack that is unexpectedly memorable (when was the last time that a documentary soundtrack was this good?). It ebbs and flows nicely, and forms a suitable accompaniment to the animations mentioned above.
The Edge Of All We Know is a decent recordation of what was a pretty important event, the moment when our understanding of something difficult to understand moved a pivotal step forward. That blurry image dropped off the news cycles quickly enough, but represents the hard work of a great many people, from the world’s best astrophysicists to computer technicians tasked with making the image a reality. This documentary sometimes struggles with how exactly it wants to relate the science to an audience it at once overestimates and underestimates, but I’ll admit that it is hard to judge it too harshly, given the way that it boils down this massive scientific effort to a very human level. The animations are well-executed and the score is probably worth a listen all of its own. I can’t say that I really know more about black holes after The Edge Of All We Know, but I know more about why they are important. Partly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Giant Pictures).