Tales From The Industry XI – The Universe

The History Channel is diversifying a bit, and doing their first science show. It will be called “The Universe” and will premiere on Tuesday, May 29, 2007 at 9pm ET. It will be a series of 13 episodes. Here’s a blurb I found on the web:

It’s been fifty years since man first ventured into outer space. Now we have robots on Mars, telescopes capturing the birth of the stars and their collapse into black holes, and probes slamming into comets at hyperspeed. What we’ve learned has completely changed our understanding of the universe and our relationship with it – we once thought ourselves to be at the center, now we know we are a small, small spec. This epic series throws light on all the known universe and out to the edge of the unknown – what’s going on out there, what is our place, and is there life outside of Earth?

history channel shootI like the idea of more TV channels (besides the usual suspects like PBS or Discovery) getting involved in making shows that have more science, so given the end that it serves (see the about page) -and because it is interesting and fun work- I was happy to help out when I got a call to do some interviews to camera for use in the show. (The other show I did some segments for last year -see here and here– turns out to be part of a (reportedly somewhat saucy) variety and comedy show, I’ve since heard! It will air on another channel in the Fall, and I’ll tell you more about it then. )

We recorded on Thursday. The original plan was to record in a house in the Hollywood Hills, with access to some Griffith Park backdrop to shoot some b-roll of me doing a bit of hiking, but the fire put a stop to that. Instead, we found another location – a house with a lovely garden overlooking the Topanga wilderness. (Actually, they wondered whether we could use my house and garden, but I decided that the garden was not ready for prime time yet, having just begun to come out of its Winter slump where there was hardly any rainfall… So it remains still just between me and you my dear blog readers, ok? In the end, it would not have worked anyway since on Thursday there was still a lot of activity from helicopters en route to patrolling the Griffith park embers… not good for filming!)

How did it go? Ok, it started well. There were two separate settings, for two separate segments (two different episodes directed by two different directors). The first was filmed before lunch, the second after.

history channel shootI gave answers (and waved my arms about a bit as I sometimes do when explaining things) about the topic of stellar collapse and neutron stars for a long while. The director was Douglas Cohen. This was fun, and the only problem was that I was hardly able to see as I was sitting in strong overhead sunlight with an extra light source on one side and a reflector throwing the few rays that missed me back into my face. So although I was being toasted alive slowly (I had a tender sunburned head the next day – I usually wear a hat and sunglasses in such conditions, you see.) I was eventually quite comfortable and was able to focus on the answers to the questions. I will probably come out in the final edit looking like Mr Magoo from all the squinting I was unable to suppress due to the glare…. Oh well.

history channel shootAfter lunch, things did not go so well, in my opinion. This was for the episode on Black Holes, directed by Laura Verklan. We had a nice shady spot for the second setting, and everything was great right up until we started shooting. Then all of a sudden a huge wind started up from the canyon below (the result of all of that earlier heating, of course), and hardly ever died down for the next two hours. It was pushing against my back and loud in my ears… So this time I felt like I was shouting at the camera, and although the viewer won’t see it, I’m constantly distracted by all of this going on behind me…. as a result of this (perhaps… or maybe I was just tired?), I was very much off my game… constantly screwing up the sentences I wanted to say, and interrupting myself and starting again and again. Must have been annoying for the very patient director, Laura, and the rest of the crew (Jason Newfield and Steffen Schlachtenhaufen (I think I got the names right)). I’ve no idea if I said anything remotely useful and usable about black holes, which was a shame, since it is such a lovely topic. The good news is that they are interviewing (or have interviewed) a ton more people too, and so I am sure that they will be able to use material from them to compensate if mine is not so good. There are off-days in everything I suppose. This was my first so far. I just have to toughen up a bit and learn to be less easily distracted.

In the end, they decided not to have me hiking, but instead walking thoughtfully along the edge of the ridge looking out to the mountains. I’ve no idea how they’ll use that, so it should be interesting to see! I mention this since you’ll be amused to know that on the first take we did of my walk I immediately tripped and almost fell flat on my face!

There was a sad point of confusion that I only saw too late to help out with. We never got to explicitly mention pulsars and magnetars in my questions (they are types of neutron star, by the way, the latter being characterized by extraordinarily high magnetic fields which can result in remarkably energetic emissions). The problem is that somehow the black hole episode director had it in her notes to ask me about them and not the neutron star director. So by time it came up in the afternoon and I realized what happened, it was too late since the neutron star director had already left and we’d already changed setting. I hope that maybe they will be able to add some comments on those from other contributors later.

On a fun note, we did this thing in both shoots where they focused on my hands doing a squeezing motion showing a star collapsing down to form a neutron star… and same again but forming a black hole. They’ll later add in some fancy graphics (apparently done by the same company that did the excellent work on Brian’s “Elegant Universe” Nova series – they liked them) to show me squeezing a star down to the size of Manhattan (or thereabouts). I’m also to be directing jets of emissions from a blazar (a type of active galaxy powered by a black hole) at some point. This should all be fun to see, and very visual for the audience… and of course video footage of me effortlessly squashing a star much larger than our own sun down into a tiny space should help out enormously later on with classroom control, and so forth…


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6 Responses to Tales From The Industry XI – The Universe

  1. Pioneer1 says:

    …and of course video footage of me effortlessly squashing a star much larger than our own sun down into a tiny space should help out enormously later on with classroom control, and so forth…

    This is funny. But I thought that in Brian Greene’s video such effects were distracting. Of course, different viewers may love just that part. I get a feeling that when a speculative statement is visualized as special effect it becomes less mathematical but more believable. I think computer graphics has become the fundamental language of physics replacing mathematics.

    This epic series throws light on all the known universe and out to the edge of the unknown – what’s going on out there, what is our place, and is there life outside of Earth?

    This is interesting because usually these blurbs are written by PR people and they only write for the hype. But whoever wrote this was very careful to mention “the known universe” and then going to the edge of the “unknown.” I don’t think this important distinction is usually respected by popular media. I would watch this if I had a television. If any video leaks to youtube please let us know. Thanks.

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