‘The Mystery of Time’: Film and Science in the ‘Atomic Age’

Dr Caitjan Gainty is Lecturer in the History of Science, Technology and Medicine in the History department at King’s College London. Alongside her book project on the concept of efficiency in twentieth century American medicine Dr Gainty is also working on a comparative (US/UK) history of instructional and entertainment films of childbirth and on the aesthetics of science in post World War II American life. Here she explores these themes through the films of Irwin Moon.

In 1957, The Mystery of Time introduced audiences to the fantastical instruments of the Moody Bible College’s Institute of Science. Written, produced and hosted by Irwin Moon, the film ushers the viewer into the Moody Lab, where the typical tools of laboratory science are replaced by instruments of perspectival manipulation. There, “time microscopes” and “time compressors” – time-lapse and high-speed cameras – capture and replay images too fast or slow for the naked eye. But after an arrow slowly shatters an egg, and a rose blossoms and dies in quick succession, the lesson in temporal perspective shifts to the grander scale of relativity. With the aid of a special Panavision lens, Moon seems to bend and compress space and time, relishing the challenge their interconnected elasticity poses to human perception. He clarifies that we have just witnessed a lesson in divine omniscience and omnipresence, and in his performance he hints at the immortal soul. As the camera slows in a lesson on lightspeed travel, Moon’s voice slows and distorts. “My heart would cease to beat,” he tells us, “and I wouldn’t die.”

Irwin Moon, visually demonstrating the time- and space-elasticizing qualities of his Panavision lens.

Irwin Moon, visually demonstrating the time- and space-elasticizing qualities of his Panavision lens.

The Mystery of Time was not a new venture for Moon, whose Moody Institute of Science film series explored the overlap between science and religion throughout its run. The idea of the film series was itself inspired by Moon’s “Sermons from Science”, a series of live performances put on in the 1930s and 40s at public venues across the United States. He also traveled abroad, joining the likes of Bing Crosby and Bob Hope in the United Service Organization (USO) entertainment program for American troops serving overseas in World War II. Billed as the “Million Volt Preacher,” Moon put on shows that were by all accounts far more exciting than those of the Hollywood stars. For his finale, Moon darkened the stage, removed his shoes, placed thimbles on his fingers and stood on top of a transformer as the promised one million volts of electricity coursed through his body. The sparks that shot out of his outstretched hands reached up to six feet in length: a dramatic display that Moon would finally capture on film in his 1954 Facts of Faith.moons thimbles

How Moon has been remembered in the years since his evangelical film forays has been very much a matter of perspective. To some, he was an evangelist who successfully used science to save souls; to others, a filmmaker who won a significant number of science awards for his film work. For still others, he represented the vanguard of “intelligent design,” or stood mainly as the unintentional director and and star of a collection of quirky films that flirt with cult status. Moon and his films have not, however, received the scholarly attention deserving of such an important nexus between science and religion in the “atomic age.” Indeed, The Mystery of Time makes one immediately aware that Moon’s evangelical stylings were not merely a generic invocation of science in pursuit of religious ends, but rather a very particular exploration of what Moon described as the great advances of science of the atomic age. In The Mystery of Time, the theory of relativity is explicitly recognized as having made the atomic age possible while also at the same time enabling a new age of metaphysical understanding. Einstein’s theory offered not only a key to the power of the atom, but also a language that described the profundity of time, space and interconnectedness through which one might finally comprehend the existence of the divine.

But given my work on films of science and medicine more generally, The Mystery of Time and indeed nearly all of Moon’s film are interesting to me also for their reliance on cameras as tools of science. Moon’s cameras are nearly exclusively about looking, about shifting and manipulating perspective, and finding in those shifts the crucial nexus of science and religion. In their use of cameras, however, Moon’s films also recall a much earlier tradition of using still and motion picture cameras as proper scientific instruments that relied precisely on shifted perspectives to make new claims about the natural world. Phenomena too fast, too slow, too small, or too large to be appreciated by the naked eye could be captured and manipulated, played and replayed, forward and back ad infinitum (or at least until the film gave out). Placing Moon in this tradition suggests a different kind of significance for his evangelical practice and its use of scientific spaces. His films have something new to tell us about science, not just in terms of the proposed profundity that Moon himself claims for the scientific ideas he explores, but also about the more basic role of the visual and the spectacular – and aesthetics more generally – as intrinsically enmeshed in the very making of modern science.

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