Distinguished astronomer’s film career gets a sequel

Denis Blaquiere interviews Norbert Bartel
Above: From left, Quebec writer-director Denis Blaquière discusses a scene with York Distinguished Research Professor Norbert Bartel in the York Observatory

York Professor Norbert Bartel will be appearing in a new television documentary series, titled “From the Big Bang to Life”, scheduled for broadcast on French television in Ontario and Quebec this fall.

The Distinguished Research Professor, based in York’s Department of Physics & Astronomy in the Faculty of Science & Engineering, is one of the world’s leading authorities in the field of ultra-high-precision astronomical measurements for the investigation of supernovae, neutron stars, black holes and, at a fundamental level, for testing Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

    Nobert BartelRight: Norbet Bartel

“From the Big Bang to Life” reveals the latest discoveries in astronomy and cosmology, and explains how our understanding of the universe and its mechanics has made a tremendous leap in the last decades, say the producers. In his latest on-camera appearance, Bartel explains developments in the science of radio astronomy that have made it possible to detect evidence of more distant and previously undetected phenomena.

Writers/directors Iolande Rossignol and Denis Blaquière visited the Keele campus’s York Observatory in December to film the interview, which will be part of the two hour-long episodes in high-definition being produced by Montreal’s ECP Télévision for the Télé -Quebec network. The series, which is due to air in the fall, will also be broadcast on TFO, Ontario’s French-language network. The series is also a showcase for the latest and most stunning images of the cosmos, said Blaquière.

The directors hit upon the idea of using Bartel as one of their interview subjects after seeing him in his own DVD production, Testing Einstein’s Universe: The Gravity Probe B Mission. “They knew about my film and thought…this is a guy we need for the movie. He has some experience talking in front of a camera and some experience making a movie,” said Bartel.

“They wanted me to talk about Einstein, supernovae – exploding stars – and what the relevance of all that is; what the interest for the general public is. Why we are interested in something that happened, let’s say, millions, even billions, of years ago. How on Earth, literally, is that relevant for us? Can I buy a cup of tea with it?”

Difficult as the concepts may be, Bartel explains, “people want to have something that puts our life into perspective with the larger scope of things in the universe.”

In the interview, Bartel used his repertoire of captivating analogies to explain the different methods scientists use to detect radiation from events millions of light years away and create images to represent them visually. In one segment, he used a penny from his wallet to demonstrate the accuracy of a new array of 30 radio telescopes girdling the globe. “With the accuracy of this array, from Paris you could pinpoint the Queen’s nose on this penny in Toronto,” he said.

Astronomers and engineers from 19 nations are now designing an array of telescopes, dubbed the “Square Kilometre Array” with not 30 but 10,000 radio dishes. Bartel, who is also the Chair of the Canadian Square-Kilometre-Array Advisory Committee, says that this will be the largest telescope by far and likely revolutionize our view of the cosmos.

The series will be hosted by Canadian astrophysicist Hubert Reeves and French cosmologist Jean-Pierre Luminet. The creators are also planning a 90-minute theatre version of the film and hope to produce an English-language version.