At the 2010 National Association of Broadcaster’s convention in Las Vegas, I had the good fortune of attending a preview at the Sony 4K Digital Theater of Discovery Channel’s newest four part series Into the Universe – a mammoth undertaking that spanned three years of production and painstaking attention to detail working alongside Professor Stephen Hawking – around whose ideas this exploration is based.
Hawking is a British theoretical physicist whose 40-year scientific career has produced key scientific theorems regarding singularities in the framework of general relativity, the properties and natural laws of black holes, developing new models for the universe that has no boundaries in space time, and set ablaze the imagination of countless armchair enthusiasts interested in time travel, alien life, and colonization of other planets.
Another amazing fact about Hawking is that shortly after arriving at Cambridge, he began to develop systems of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, that ultimately rendered him completely paralyzed and able to communicate solely by virtue of a voice synthesizer (developed by a colleague at Cambridge) that speaks what he has written by word selection on a screen controlled by the movement of his eyes.
But this show is not about Hawking the man, it is about his ideas, and more importantly, about rendering his mind-boggling ideas and theorems into visual form so that they can be more readily appreciated and understood by the rest of us.
The result is nothing short of awe-inspiring, daring, mesmerizing. Computer models were created to simulate maps of the universe at the bleeding edge of our capacity in order to depict on screen our place amidst the interstellar layout of our Universe, and as the program zooms us in and out of it, we begin to see just how extraordinary the scope of it is; it is one thing to hear the words “two hundred billion” when speaking about time, or miles or the count of stars, but another thing altogether when seeing it depicted in a matter of seconds.
Somehow the show also succeeds in reducing to third grade level comprehension the manner in which a slight disparity in perfection of the grand order led to the creation of matter and life and of all things in the universe as we know it, by way of that irrefutable force: gravity. (Is the “divine creator” then merely instability+gravity?)
Although I have been deeply interested in the cosmos, quantum mechanics and our place in the grand scheme of things all my life, reading Hawking’s work, even the slim best-seller “A Brief History of Time,” that sold over nine million copies, proves an exercise in determination and humility. What begins as an enthusiastic exploration on the part of the reader quickly turns into a soporific bedside coaster: the ideas, the mathematical formulas simply require a deeper understanding of the underlying mathematical quandaries. Now with the ubiquity of the internet and its propensity to transform even the most staunchly inquisitive end user into a curator of sound bytes, Hawkings book must be even harder to process effectively, and for this reason the Discovery series is on my recommended viewing list.
At the NAB screening, a member of the audience stood up during the Q&A and pointed out that Carl Sagan’s series “Cosmos” (1980) was the most widely viewed television show in the medium’s history. He wondered aloud whether the creators of Into the Universe understood the gravity of this fact and how it reflected the appetite among viewers for answers and if they believed that this show could replicate those numbers.
It is an interesting question. Do we still care? Are we still capable of sustaining inquiry long and far enough to engage topics of this scope and complexity, or will the show simply become another powder keg for debate between creationists and the scientific community? The show certainly doesn’t pander to all sides; in fact, Hawking goes right ahead and asks if the way things are turning out provide evidence of a grand designer, and then immediately answers that it doesn’t.
In the very first two hour episode everything from the nature of the Big Bang, to black holes, to the lifespan of our sun, to colonization of Mars and interstellar technology is covered, never in a sensational way but rather from a simple but deliberate set of unapologetic arguments for how these things must operate to how they could be solved. That it is all beautifully realized by way of well-executed computer generated graphics makes it all the more engaging and really fun to watch.
I happened to watch it in pitiful standard definition on my HDTV (for some reason, though the show states it is also available in HD, the high definition version of Discovery Channel on my Time Warner package was running paid ads) right after watching the third last episode of Lost. It was interesting to notice how, though Lost raises question upon question as the nature of its mysteries, it often turns to the distraction of the emotional interactions between the characters than to take the more courageous path of venturing theoretical possibilities, even metaphysical ones.
So to see Into the Universe plunge in headfirst with some of the really big questions, it occurred to me that Hawking, who has been subjected to a body without functionality, essentially a brain in a wheelchair, maintaining sustained inquiry into matters that his personal experience has never encountered, and coming up with very real possibilities for solutions that will affect our species irrevocably is quite a salve to the frustrations raised by ABC’s hit show.
Whether or not you have an interest in the stars, in space exploration, in the cosmos or how we came to be here and where we may be going, Into the Universe is extraordinary programming, a great antidote to the Facebook blues, perhaps even a restoration of childlike fascination, and for these reasons I suggest you give it a look.
"Keram makes excursions into almost every style of music imaginable here and does it with such flair that these very pleased ears, he could have settled on any of these genres and made just as brilliant a record." - Mark Rheaume, CBC Radio