The advent of modern technology has seen the pace of scientific discovery quicken over the past hundred years, but as our understanding of the universe widens our sense of self-importance diminishes in proportion. Astronomers have made huge contributions to that level of discovery, but Alison Rose’s documentary STAR*MEN explores the effect that change in perspective has had on some of the men who’ve been instrumental in making those discoveries.

Donald Lynden-Bell, Nick Woolf, Wal Sargent and Roger Griffin were four British astronomers who met during post-doctoral work at CalTech. They each brought a different skill to the group: theoretician, visionary, observer and instrument maker respectively. They took time away from their world-changing studies and spent summer vacations on road trips, using the opportunity to tour the American southwest and to explore both the skies above them and the rocky landscapes around them on a quest of both personal and scientific discovery.

All later went on to significant achievements in their field; for example, Lynden-Bell became president of the Royal Astronomical Society and became known for his theories around black holes and quasars. Fifty years on, they decided to embark on a return visit to both the observatories that helped them make their discoveries and the long hikes through the wilderness from Utah to California they also undertook.

The documentary has a lot of ground to cover, and while there is a general level of detail around the discoveries that these astronomers made, the focus here is not on in-depth scientific dissections of their achievements, rather than getting a sense of the people involved in achieving them. Instead, the human angle is brought to the forefront as STAR*MEN mixes interviews with footage of Rose on her on the road trip with the scientists as they revisit the summers of their youth.

Hiking for miles through barren American deserts is not for the faint of heart and is potentially even more of a challenge when you are aware that there are far fewer days ahead of you than lay behind. It’s this sense of mortality which helps to inform much of STAR*MEN’s discussions with the four scientists, as they realise once on the road the level of challenge which this physical exertion will place on them. Discussions also turn to religion, and it may be surprising that their views range across the spectrum from atheism to a still constant belief.

…it’s predominantly the sense of joy that pervades the interviews, the reunions and the outdoor adventure.

But that stems to a certain extent from their undiminished sense of wonder and it’s that which comes across most in both their visits to old observatories and to the American wild. Despite the observatories being rendered increasingly obsolete by light pollution from the surrounding areas, the romanticism of these gigantic telescopes that mapped so much of the cosmos is still evident. Their nostalgia extends beyond these physical landmarks to personal memorabilia, as they still have the flag from their first exhibition five decades earlier, and it’s refreshing to see the human elements shining through.

The documentary’s style is unfussy, with Rose and a single cameraman following the scientists as they attempt their recreation of their original trip. Events take a dramatic turn when the previously healthy members of the trekking party suddenly find difficulty coping with the conditions, but this isn’t a story that requires forced jeopardy and it’s predominantly the sense of joy that pervades the interviews, the reunions and the outdoor adventure.

The message is clear: there’s still enough marvel to be found in nature that generations of future scientists can still potentially be inspired, no surprise given that spectacle will still encourage septuagenarians to trek halfway across the United States to experience it. Alison Rose has turned her gaze predominantly inwards rather than upwards, but in doing so has tapped at the very heart of what inspires us as a species to further our own understanding.

STAR*MEN opened the 35th Cambridge Film Festival.