For those who missed the 2009 Imagine Science Film Festival in New York, one of many highlights was the screening of documentary shorts: not the dry, didactic educational films typically shown in the classroom, but truly creative endeavors that showcase science in innovative ways.

Worried that the Large Hadron Collider, that massive particle accelerator in Switzerland, is going to destroy the world? Here's a film that sets the record straight with a sense of humor: What's the Matter at CERN, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the LHC. There were short biopics on Alan Turing and Charles Babbage, and -- a clear audience favorite -- the whimsical Hairytale, featuring a former hair dresser named Ronn Thompson who collects hair clippings from landfills and turns them into a building material resembling fiber glass.

The winner of the Nature Scientific Merit Award was Magnetic Movie, a short film detailing the secret life of magnetic fields, from Semiconductor Films. It's now part of the permanent collection of the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC. The filmmakers, Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt, were artists in residence at the Science Sciences Laboratory in Berkeley and thought they could create a short artistic film highlighting the lab's cutting-edge research in scientific visualizations of magnetic fields generated by the sun and solar winds.

Jarman and Gerhardt were inspired further by a 1744 experiment in Sweden to reproduce the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) in the lab. From Semiconductor Films' Website:

A small hole in a shade "the size of a large pea" let through a ray of sunlight that then was refracted through a prism. The small patch of light broken into a spectrum of colours then traveled through a medium of turbulent air directly above a warmed glass of aquavit. The resulting image landed on a screen a few short feet away and looked like what was seen dancing in the sky on many long Swedish nights, nature's sublime entertainment in the real pre-history of cinema....

With Magnetic Movie, Semiconductor have tapped into a new and ancient aesthetic of turbulence. We can hear it in the sounds of natural radio-naturally-occurring electromagnetic signals from the earth's ionosphere and magnetosphere-that course through Magnetic Movie, at times animating the animation, a quick nervous response condensed into static. The sound itself is the product of the combined turbulences of the earth's molten core, weather systems and electrical storms, ephemeral ionization in the upper atmosphere, and the solar winds.

That's part of the power of film: to help us visualize the invisible in creative, awe-inspiring ways. Marine biologist turned documentary filmmaker Randy Olson summed up the importance of such festivals before the screening of his mockumentary SIZZLE! Friday night: "When I was just starting out as a filmmaker, there was no place for me to submit short science-themed films." The sheer range of creativity on display in this year's submission attest to why we need the Imagine Science Film Festival and other events like it.


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