Friday, Feb. 12, 2010

The Universe Season Four

By David Luhrssen
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The cosmos seems to expand in all directions as the human eye and imagination see further into the mystery with no end in sight. One of History Channel’s most interesting series, “The Universe,” explores space, matter and time—“the place we call the universe” as its stentorian narrator puts it. Through snappy visuals and interviews with a mostly well-chosen assortment of academic experts, the series brings science at the edge of knowledge into view for average viewers. “The Universe: The Complete Season Four” (out on DVD) offers accessible accounts of quasars and pulsars, ringed planets and anti-matter.

By now, the imagination of science has been fed for several generations by science fiction. One of Season Four’s most fascinating episodes, “Science Fiction/Science Fact,” examines several persistent sci-fi themes against the reality of present day scientific ideas. It begins—where else?—with “Star Trek.” Scotty's transporter would be a dandy device, especially for TV producers based in LA. But making one work would be “daunting,” according to a physicist given to understatement. No hard drive could contain the amount of molecular data in a single human body and if the memory problem could be solved, the cellular disruption of reassembling a person with all parts in place is a tall challenge. Even if it could be accomplished, would cancer result in the long term? As for the use of a black hole as a weapon in the latest Star Trek flick, science deems this impossible.

And don’t get the interviewers started on the hackwork of that '90s blockbuster, Armageddon. Bruce Willis’ intrepid expedition to blow up a Texas-size asteroid hurtling toward Earth might only make things worse by raining thousands of pieces toward our planet. Interstellar drive still seems virtually impossible—outside of a bizarre theory involving the squeezing of space. As for that perennial sci-fi favorite, time travel, just forget about going backwards a la Back to the Future. However, there are intriguing theories about wormholes affording passage to the past and an infinity of universes composed of every decision made or not made by everyone. Most scientists want to believe in intelligent extraterrestrials but the universe remains silent on that question.

In at least one respect, however, science fact has outstripped science fiction. Captain Kirk’s communicator seemed far out 40 years ago but can’t hold a candle to the latest iPhone.

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