Originally published in NEO News (2/20/97) .
by Dr. Clark R. Chapman
"Toutatis" is a production of the National Film Board of Canada (French), by Catherine Fol. About 48 minutes long, it will be marketed as an hour-long TV film, no doubt. Dealing with the asteroid impact hazard, it contains many of the usual discussions by scientists and narrators of the demise of the dinosaurs, Shoemaker- Levy 9, Spacewatch, methods of deflection, footage of the Peekskill and Teton aerial phenomena, and estimates of the magnitude of devastation by objects large and small. Some of the footage is familiar. Some of the simulations are new. I was intrigued, for example, by a new version of the Steve Ostro light-up-the-asteroids simulation, but an even better version might highlight the Earth's motion through space more like a car driving through a snowstorm. As with earlier versions of this concept, the asteroids look like paramecia floating aimlessly about.
The program is more humanistic and artistic in orientation and intent than any other treatment of this problem that I've seen. Nominally it is about a woman's discovery of these issues and her meeting "the Astronomers" at a gathering (actually the Vulcano Spaceguard workshop in September 1995). A female voice (in English translation -- the original film is in French) narrates, often about the more philosophical issues, and a woman (always in silhouette) appears in various scenes. In my non-expert view, the integration of the artistic/philosophic element with the standard science-documentary material is good, but not great. Talking heads are still talking heads.
The chief talking heads are Dave Morrison, Gene Shoemaker, and George Coyne. For me, only partly because I haven't seen him in this role before, Coyne is the best. He is an excellent link between the hard-core scientists and the broader philosophical (and theological) questions. He doesn't, however, go as far as the narrator, whose intermittent theme is that the insects may eventually inherit the Earth -- they evidently have survived past impacts and we may not, unless we use our innate attributes to behave like the "superior" insects.
The science is good. The researchers interviewed are given time enough to say what they meant to say, and it is always right. Credit my colleagues and credit the editing. The videos (both simulations and real images) are fairly good, and commit none of the major gaffes of last night's NBC "Unsolved Mysteries" treatment of this topic, but some are a bit off. An example is that when Dave Morrison describes a stand-off explosion as a means of deflection, the video shows a directed laser beam.
I loved a particular segment involving Gene and Carolyn. I've heard or witnessed similar versions many times before, but they (the Shoemakers, the cameraman, the director) got it just right this time. I enjoyed the international ambience. Much of what has gone before has been either American or British. Canada features prominently in "Toutatis", both explicitly (lots of Canadian impact craters -- but, of course, they are common in Canada) and implicitly (the "stars" include a number of Canadians, although they are not explicitly described as such). Quite a bit was filmed in Italy, including the wonderful interviews with Coyne. Although most of the dialog is in English (evidently subtitled in French in the French version), a significant portion is in French (with voice-over translation or subtitles in English). An explicit reference to the French/English dichotomy arises in the context of how "Toutatis" is pronounced; a slight miscue in the French-speaker's version of how the English say "Toutatis" is only half-way between the actual French and the actual English. A larger miscue in the English version of the film is a French pronunciation of the name of Copernicus (after an English pronunciation is heard in the background).
The film includes the usual discussion of how few astronomers actually scan the skies (in this sense it actually exaggerates the number) and discusses the need for more scanning and the possible need for deflection, but it is generally weak on analyzing the political realities of the topic. The idea was to take the long view of our relationship to the universe and of our finite existence. In this sense, it succeeds although not as completely wonderfully as one might have hoped. Clearly a major problem for any film or TV producer treating this topic is lack of money -- and money is certainly essential for producing realistic graphics of many of the issues, which (fortunately) mankind has no experience with, yet.
Lynda and I had been trying to catch the Discovery Channel special this afternoon at the common room of our apartment complex (we don't get cable). Somehow the times given on the Discovery Channel Web site were wrong, for we failed to find it. I went off briefly to my office and found the "Toutatis" film in my mail. When I returned, Lynda was still in the common room, watching a Discovery Channel special on HST. The segment playing was of Heidi Hammel describing SL9's impact with Jupiter. We returned to our apartment and turned on the TV to set up "Toutatis". But the station our TV happened to be tuned to, before we moved it to the VCR, was showing the face of Tom Gehrels, claiming that the impact hazard is the worst environmental nightmare facing humanity. This was a segment of a local Denver news broadcast. Asteroids and comets are everywhere in the airwaves. (And Hale-Bopp is visible outside our window every clear morning.) It is wonderful to see a lovingly constructed film like "Toutatis", but the inundation of repetitious themes and images on the tube is becoming a blur in my mind.
The local newscasters ended their segment, before we finally switched to our VCR, with banter about the impact hazard. The sportscaster declared himself to come from Missouri -- he wanted to see it happen to be convinced. The anchorman countered that he felt the threat was real. We briefly switched past another channel, also showing asteroids, in a piece generally related to the theme of movies being filmed in Denver (much of the NBC miniseries "Asteroid!" was filmed here). Last night, Jay Leno had an "asteroid" theme throughout his show. Who knows what will eventually come from all this. Maybe volcano disasters will win out by the time 1997 ends.
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