A story of Unintended Discovery

Pamela L. Gay, Ph.D.
3 min readOct 5, 2022

In science, you sometimes find yourself making bold discoveries based on plotting the data just-so.

When I was an undergrad, I plotted the rate of RR Lyrae period evolution against metallicity and found a correlation that helped me understand how stars can evolve. It didn’t revolutionize anything, but I did make a discovery simply because I — being the undergrad I was — decided to plot all possible combinations of variables.

This is how science often happens; variables get plotted, unexpected trend appear, and then folks go looking for the cause of the observed trend. (The amount of excel involved in science is honestly quit surprising.)

While my career has largely wondered away from the variable stars, I still follow along with interest when cool papers and press releases come out.

A few years ago at an AAS meeting, I heard Larry Molnar present his bold prediction that the binary system KIC 9832227 is going to merge and experience a nova in 2022. The data looked solid, and I have to admit to being really hopeful that everything was correct, and a fairly local stellar explosion was in all our futures to enjoy. I was, put simply #TeamStarGoBoom

Unbeknownst to me, Molnar’s work was being followed by documentarian Sam Smaartt.

That film is now out and is called Luminous.

https://vimeo.com/448651901

This morning I had the privilege of getting to watch this film. Coming in at 88minutes long, Luminous takes its audience on a sprawling journey. From recreating how one of Molnar’s students discovered KIC 9832227’s odd behavior, to following Molnar and his teams discussions and observations, we see science being done out load. Through Smartt’s editting, we experience both the moments of joyful discovery, and the “huh” of realizing things aren’t quit right. To say more would be to give away the major plot points in the movie… instead I’m going to simply say Molnar’s research didn’t follow a straight line, and the movie explores this nonlinear reality.

In addition to looking at Molnar’s science, this film also looks at who he is as a human. Time is taken to reflect on both his religious background, and on key moments in his life that shaped his career, including a campus shooting that effected his academic department.

I’m not sure these side journey’s were necessary for the plot, but they do humanize Molnar and allow more people to see themselves reflected in his science.

All in all, this is a sweet movie of scientific discovery. I don’t expect to see it headlining on a streaming service, but I hope it will find its way into science film festivals, and classrooms as assigned viewing.

And I’m going to do my part to help get word of this movie out to others. I have the privilege of getting to moderate a panel discussion about Luminous on Thursday October 6.

Want to see the panel? You can! RSVP on Eventbrite to get all the details. LuminousScreening.Eventbrite.com

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Pamela L. Gay, Ph.D.

Astronomer, technologist, & creative focused on using new media to engage people in learning and doing science. Opinions & typos my own.