Sidney Perkowitz 29 November 2018

Sunlight, Life and Time


Film and video are the arts of putting meaningful dynamic images on screen, images that could not be created and appreciated without the visible light we humans see. It’s fitting that some Labocine films use the art of moving light to tell us about light itself and its greatest source for us, the sun, which dominates earthly life – and by the way, made movie making possible.

In 1893, Thomas Edison opened the first film studio, located in New Jersey and sporting a black exterior that earned it the name Black Maria (slang for a police van). The carbon arc lamp and Edison’s own invention, the incandescent light bulb, existed then but the first was too erratic and the second too weak to properly expose the insensitive film stock of the time. Instead the Black Maria had a large retractable roof to let in sunlight and was mounted on a turntable so it could follow the sun all day. In the same vein, when the movie business moved west to Hollywood in the early 20thcentury, it was partly because California offered nearly constant sunshine and a pleasant climate in which to shoot movies in natural light. 

Edison's Black Maria: The Black Maria was Thomas Edison's movie production studio in West Orange, New Jersey. It is widely referred to as America's First Movie Studio.

Sunshine played a benign role in the birth of film but it has a dark side in causing skin cancer, reflecting its violent origins. The sun is a hellhole of heat and activity, a ball of plasma 1.4 million kilometers across where nuclear processes produce energy that keeps its interior at 15 million Kelvin. Nothing human could survive for a nanosecond in its maelstrom of particles and radiation. Even the sun’s surface, at nearly 6,000 Kelvin, is too hot for human-made structures. Along with its visible glow, the surface radiates the ultraviolet light that causes cancer, other wavelengths with various effects, and particles that reach the Earth as the solar wind.

Brilliant Noise (Semiconductor, 2008, UK, 6 minutes) dramatically shows the sun’s violent nature. Combining snapshots from observatories at Mt. Wilson, California and elsewhere, it shows striking black and white time-lapse movies, from streams of charged particles leaving the solar sphere to close-ups of loops of light bigger than the Earth emitted from particles that follow magnetic lines of force near the surface. These are associated with the solar wind and with sunspots, the darker areas that appear for reasons not understood and produce solar storms that can disrupt radio communication on Earth. An audio track enhances the images by converting their changes in visual intensity to sounds and radio static. The result is a powerful representation of the tumult in and on the sun.

Brilliant Noise (Semiconductor, 2008, UK, 6 minutes)

That turmoil is tamed by the time sunlight reaches us, but still it carries enough energy to affect solid materials as well as our own skin, as shown in Solar Sinter (Markus Kayser, 2011, UK, 6 minutes). The film opens with a shot of nothing but sand out to the horizon in the Sahara Dessert. Soon a young man dressed in white – Kayser himself – drags an unwieldy but interesting-looking structure into the frame. It supports solar cells, a battery, sensors and electronics that track the sun during the day, and a Fresnel lens – the same focusing device used in lighthouses to project a concentrated beam of light. 

Working alone in the barren immensity, Kayser focuses sunlight into an almost blindingly intense spot onto a bed of sand scooped up from the surrounding desert. With no audio track except the sounds of the desert wind and the solar tracking machinery, close-up shots show that the solar spot is hot enough to sinter the grains of sand, that is, melt them enough to make them coalesce into a solid mass without full liquefaction. Under computer control that amounts to 3D printing, Kayser produces first an intricate twisted form and then a bowl 15 centimeters across, composed of a kind of impure opaque glass made from silica (silicon dioxide, SiO2), a main component of sand. 

Solar Sinter (Markus Kayser, 2011, UK, 6 minutes)

Kayser’s film is meant to show the potential of 3D printing using freely available solar energy and raw material; but the bowl he made has been put on display in the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City, and so the film is also a statement about the fruitful combination of technology, design and art. And it shows that after traveling 150 million kilometers (93 million miles) from its inconceivable origins inside the sun, sunlight still carries energy that can be applied in new ways to benefit humanity. 

The most important benefit of sunlight is not artificial but natural and life-giving. That is the photosynthetic process, where life is “woven out of air by light,” meaning that sunlight drives the reactions in plants that support the chain of earthly life. Photo Synthesis (Barry J. Gibb, 2006, UK, 4 minutes) shows how. The film begins with a voice-over:

What amazes me is that…this light travels all the way from the sun through 93 million miles of space only to find Earth [with the energy] to cause the plants to grow, the trees to grow, to reach back, back into the sky.

Photo Synthesis (Barry J. Gibb, 2006, UK, 4 minutes)

The rest of the film shows photosynthesis in action beginning with NASA images of the active sun producing the light that will reach Earth. Then a different educational film-like narrator repeatedly intones the importance of “sunlight, air, water, and chlorophyll” to change carbon dioxide into the oxygen we breathe (and not mentioned, the carbohydrates that feed plants and eventually, us). Images and words describe the process from the microscopic level to actual growing green leaves, plants, and trees. This is set against an audio track like a beating heart to remind us that solar energy and photosynthesis are truly matters of life and death.

These sun-driven processes offer a challenge to the film-maker who would like to portray the sun’s effects on Earth in real time. That can’t be done, because our view of whatever happens on the sun, even if it were suddenly to go supernova, is delayed by the time it takes its light to reach us. Even at light’s enormous speed of 300,000 kilometers per second, its trip from sun to Earth takes eight minutes. 

Stuck in the Past (Javier Diez and Moiya McTier, USA, 3 minutes, 2016) explains how every astronomical observation, not just studying the sun, is a window into the past. McTier, a Ph. D. astronomy student at Columbia University, introduces us to the photon, the basic particle of light. She shows how photons cover earthly distances so quickly that light seems to travel instantaneously – but not over the vaster distances of the universe. Standing on a balcony, she imagines that Manhattan as seen to the south is scaled up by many billions to astronomical size. Then looking downtown to Times Square, instead of seeing current activity, we might see news of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 just reaching us. Looking further south and so further back, the Brooklyn Bridge would not exist and New York would still be called New Amsterdam. 

Stuck in the Past (Javier Diez and Moiya McTier, USA, 3 minutes, 2016)

Similarly astronomers observing stars and galaxies see not what they are now, but what they were up to billions of years ago depending on their distance As this film’s clear and engaging analogy shows, astronomers are “stuck in the past.” So are all of us in terms of what we perceive, though on Earth we go back only tiny fractions of a second. But the telescopes that examine distant objects in the universe are time machines that can bring us nearer the actual instant of creation, a moment in the past we would all like to see.

These films show sunlight’s special importance to us, but in the internal solar processes that make that light and in the time lag in observing the sun, it also represents the workings of all active stars and the general laws of the universe. One lesson from these films is that while we and our own personal star may seem unique, the sun and maybe life itself are simply parts of the universe that are found in many places and times. 

About the author

Sidney Perkowitz, Candler Professor of Physics Emeritus at Emory University, is the editor of "Frankenstein: How a Monster Became an Icon" and the author of the forthcoming "Physics: A Very Short Introduction, and Real Scientists Don’t Wear Ties."

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