On a sunny afternoon about seven years ago, Matt Walhout stopped by Sam Smartt’s house. Smartt was in his second year teaching film and media, and Walhout, who was then the chair of the physics department, had a pitch for him. Astronomy professor Larry Molnar and a student were watching an interesting star—a star so interesting it could make history. Walhout thought this discovery might be a good subject for a documentary film.
That conversation turned into years of discussions and work between Smartt, Walhout, and Molnar. And now, it’s a feature-length docu- mentary film titled Luminous.
The film follows Molnar on some visually stunning adventures. He captures data from Calvin’s remote observatory in Rehoboth, New Mexico, explains his prediction on the BBC, and presents his re- search at astronomical conferences. And the film also captures the less flashy parts of scientific scholarship and shows Molnar as a human being. He walks the dog, goes to church, and checks the data, again and again. Viewers get to know Molnar as a diligent scientist, thoughtful teacher, and humble believer.
Luminous is also, of course, a piece of scholarship itself. Smartt sifted through hundreds of hours of footage and filmed interviews with scholars. The narrative includes history of astronomical discoveries, Molnar’s personal story, and the tension in the prediction. Walhout acted as a co-producer on the film, crafting the story and connecting Smartt to interview subjects. The film was screened for the Calvin community in October 2021 and will be premiered at film festivals in the spring of 2022.
What is Luminous about?
Sam Smartt: Luminous tells the story of the first astronomer in history to publicly predict the near-future explosion of a star. Nobody’s ever done that before. And I followed Larry on his journey to make that prediction and test it, to see whether he was right.
How did the prediction start?
Larry Molnar: The project came from Dan Van Noord ’14—a student who, by the way, even as a high schooler was interested in eclipsing binary stars. He found this interesting star that we wanted to pursue further. And Matt got the idea that we should record this as we do it and see how it comes out.
Matt Walhout: I was listening to Larry and his student present their initial data, pointing to this idea that this star could explode very soon. I knew that new stars in the sky had historic importance and that nobody in the history of astronomy had ever predicted one and then had been able to see it. And I thought that this has to be documented so people can see the scientific process as it’s happening.
Why make a film about a scientific discovery?
Walhout: Many people have an understand- ing of science that is rather caricatured. You don’t see all of the human factors that are involved in science. Projects require you to be adaptable and patient—and to be intellectually humble because you don’t know what’s coming next. Telling the true story of how science works is really what I was after.
What makes scholarship unique at Calvin, which is primarily a teaching institution?
Molnar: Science questions come in different shapes. You can have a high-risk question where you can try something, but it’s likely to fail. Or you can have a low-risk question where you’re almost certain to succeed. You won’t have gained that much, because it was not really a big question to begin with. Many scientists have to go with the low-risk question because they have to succeed to get the next grant to stay employed. At Calvin, I could ask a high-risk question because I’m employed to be a teacher. It’s so much more fun to ask the big questions—and so I shoot for the moon.
Smartt: The same thing is true with the film. I was fortunate to have the time and space to work on a project for a long period of time. There were a lot of ways in which I found that our experiences were similar. We had sort of small tools, but we had the ability to dedicate a long time to one project.
Larry, what role does your faith play in your love of astronomy?
Molnar: God created the heavens and a Psalmist says they’re declaring the glory of God. It’s there for us if we’re paying attention. When I look up at the sky, I see how there’s a story there, how there’s a design.
Sam, how did you capture that relationship between faith and science in the film?
Smartt: This is a story about a real person. We didn’t want Larry to come across as preachy. Instead, viewers get to know him over the course of 90 minutes. They understand why he believes what he believes. They see faith and science coming together in a happy marriage that isn’t some sort of hypothesis—it’s just who he is. We don’t want this to be trying to make an argument.
What did you come to learn about the other’s process and work?
Smartt: I knew basically nothing about how astronomy is actually done. I have an interest in the cosmos in the abstract sense, but I had this image of astronomers basically looking through a telescope. In fact, Larry is essentially an applied computer scientist. He’s gathering data over hundreds or thou- sands of nights, and then processing that data. It takes a lot of dedication to be able to pull something meaningful from all that in- formation and then share it with the world.
Molnar: One thing I learned is the effort it takes to make a film. I know the effort it takes to do research. When my equipment fails, I have to fix it. And when clouds come, we have to rearrange our plans. Filmmakers had exactly the same sorts of things coming up all the time. Although it’s a different dis- cipline, it takes the same heart, if you will, to actually succeed in the end.
Larry, what was it like to watch Luminous for the first time?
Molnar: I saw this parade of students and interactions and things that I had done over these years, all coming back to mind. It was hard to focus on the film because it was like reliving my life in an unusual way.
What would you hope that people take away from this film?
Walhout: I can imagine this being a useful film for aspiring scientists who are entering graduate school and entering certain well-worn paths for how research is done. This film can show perhaps a new way or model of how things might be done. There is a theme of intellectual humility that pervades the whole film. And that’s important, not just for religious audiences, but everybody, especially these days.
Smartt: Interestingly, the film has become more relevant for our world. We have a sort of mutual suspicion between people of faith and scientists. I think it speaks to our culture at this moment.
Molnar: Our society needs to know how to think about science to value it. But our society also needs humility to see what the limits are. That tension is not easy in a time when people want to take one extreme or another extreme.