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March 3rd, 2010

"Letter never sent" department...

Dear Documentary Maker:

First, let me thank you for your kind invitation to participate in the filming of your documentary, for which you have asked permission come to our Observatory and interview me on the topic of the history of my observatory and the nature of the research we are doing.

One of the most important things that we astronomers can do is publicize our work. Along with the very practical benefit of building the kind of popular support that allows us to continue to be funded, I believe that public outreach is an essential element of an unspoken social contract. We professional astronomers get to dedicate our lives to the undeniable joy (and undeniable hard, grinding work) of studying the universe, while those in our society who have fostered that desire and that joy in us do not get that chance. Everybody loves looking at the stars and hearing about black holes or Martian river valleys; but only a very, very few of us get to actually do this stuff every day. We owe it to the rest of our world to share the joy as much as we can.

That said, I must regretfully decline your invitation to participate in your documentary. Please, let me explain.

You say that you will need only about three hours of my time on a Saturday morning. We both know, of course, that out of those three hours (which will inevitably stretch into four or five hours) you will use at most two minutes of film. And equally inevitably, those two minutes will mostly give just a concentrated rehash of what has been presented in all the other documentaries that I have participated in over the past seventeen years… there will be the film of my opening the telescope dome, the film of me opening the meteorite cabinet, the film of me walking into or out of a room, and about a minute of my talking head, introducing myself to the camera and delivering three sound bites.

What you don’t recognize is that this involves more than just three wasted hours of my life. I hate being filmed. When I know there’s a film date, I have at least a week of anxiety leading up to it, and 24 hours of exhaustion following the date, all time that is utterly lost and never to be retrieved. Getting a root canal is a breeze by comparison; at least there’s anesthesia for that.

All of this for two minutes of inane soundbites and content-free footage, in a film that few will see and even fewer will remember.

It is important that we astronomers communicate our results, and the joy of our results, to the people who support our work. I am convinced, sadly, that television films utterly fail at such communication. And so I must regretfully decline your kind invitation.

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