While most of the episodes of the History Channel’s The Universe series are firmly about scientific knowledge of the universe that has been tested and verified (from planetary science, to solar physics, to stellar evolution, and various topics in cosmology, and so forth), they also like to treat topics that have a higher component of more speculative material. This is of course fine, as long as it is made clear what is speculation, and what is established. Recall that I took part in a really fun episode called Cosmic Holes, which talked about white holes and wormholes -entirely speculative objects – right alongside the physics of black holes, objects that we know are physically realized in our universe. (See here, here, and here.) I think that Laura Verklan, the writer/director, did a really excellent job of separating out the speculative from the established. Similar things can be said for the episode Cosmic Apocalypse, done by writer/director Savas Georgalis (see here), which focused on scenarios about how the universe might end, given what we have already established about how it was in early times and how it is now.
I’m hoping that the upcoming (tonight!) episode entitled Parallel Universes will also be a nice and clear piece of work discussing the speculative ideas concerning the possibility of parallel universes – what the ideas are, why it is a fun idea, what it means, and (very importantly) that it is so far entirely speculation with not a shred of evidence for a parallel universe!! I’m a bit worried, if I’m honest, since this is a topic that is so easily seized upon by nutcases and sensible people alike, and is, in various forms, the fodder of so much charlatanism and mystical mumbo-jumbo. Any program in a science series on this sort of material has to be doubly careful -triply- to not give people an excuse to say that “the scientists have verified this”.
Why am I slightly worried? Well, I did not see a final cut of the show and so don’t want to go over the top here, but an early rough cut I saw did seem to potentially suffer from a problem these shows can sometimes have: A collection of practicing scientists are very carefully making comments about what is known, unknown, likely, and unlikely, and so forth, and then much of that care can be undermined by the interspersing of their remarks with clips of every physics documentary filmmaker’s favourite go-to guy who can be relied upon to say wild and wonderful things – Michio Kaku.
Please don’t get me wrong – I’ve nothing against Kaku and he seems like a very nice guy, and I think he has done some excellent and fun work for these sorts of programs (such as last night’s Einstein documentary), but there are times when his more, er, excited and unguarded remarks can be dropped into a place in the program that just doesn’t always help the business of being careful about a bit of science. Often (perhaps always?) it is not his fault – a filmmaker who does not realize how crucial a point is may get to a point where they must choose between inserting:
- (a) a clip of those of us trying to be careful and not make wrong and/or sensational statements, and
- (b) a clip of the distinguished gentleman with the infectious enthusiasm, waving his arms about and telling you wonderful sounding things,
… and is 99 times out of 100 going to choose option (b) if none of those people from (a) are there to help guide them. This is of course why I always hope (as I have discussed here previously) that these shows are made in a collaborative mode between the scientists and the filmmakers (rather than just be a bunch of edited together clips of scientists put together to tell a fanciful tale), and overall I think that the various filmmakers for this series have done a good job of that collaborative mode. I don’t know what the overall final balance is like in this show, and I got a sense from writer/director Andy Papadopoulos that he is a careful guy who understands the key points of the material… but I worry slightly since it is easy to get the emphasis wrong on such a delicate topic. But then I worried about the Cosmic Holes episode a bit, and the Cosmic Apocalypse one too, before I saw them and they turned out fine. So we shall see.
I also did notice in the rough cut that there were a couple of places where I’d have preferred a bit more of a reminder that string theory (a framework where some of these speculative ideas about parallel universes has recently been re-discussed in scientific -but yes, still speculative- circles) is itself an unestablished and under-developed theory that could well be cast aside one day in favour of something else. I stressed this point in the course of our shooting, but don’t know how much this got through.
Overall, I must say that I might be over-concerned, and I should give due credit to the program makers for trying to tackle this interesting topic at all. This was difficult material to make a good program about, and from what I’ve seen, Andy Papadopoulos did a really good job of assimilating it and telling a good story. I’ll be curious to see the final cut.
We filmed a lot of fun material for it way back in April, using a really great location – Venice beach here in LA.
I was able to comment on and develop some of the background ideas on which other scientists would build, and I think also filmed some more general material talking about how interesting the idea of parallel universes is, while walking along the boardwalk, mentioning that a parallel universe could be as close to us as just a few millimeters away – all around us in some sense. This was particularly amusing to do since we had a number of the usual Venice beach weirdos around us (some who may well be from one of those parallel universes) and of course a fortune teller who probably claims to be in communication with one of them. In fact, Andy was tempted to cut away from me as I was talking about parallel universes while walking on the boardwalk and let the camera rest on the mystic, and we all giggled at the idea, but I don’t think we did that in the end – but who knows? I’ll see in the final cut.
One of the several nice things Andy did for the show was to bring on a group of musicians to play while I was talking about string theory. This was really great since I realized then that I was able to illustrate a really key aspect of the story of the development of string theory using the presence of the musicians.
The point (as I’ve mentioned here before) is that in the middle ’90s we (the field) realized that the theory was much richer than just containing fundamental vibrating strings – we realized that vibrating membranes are important too, and also higher dimensional extended objects (generalizing membranes, just called “branes” for short). This made the theory much richer and in many ways more interesting. It was like having a guitar in a band be joined by drums, and by bass, giving a wider range of expression that the band can achieve. This additional richness of the theory is the foundation for the possibility that our entire universe itself may be one of these branes (three spatial dimensions and one time, like a membrane – e.g., a sheet of paper – has two spatial dimensions and one time), moving in a higher dimensional spacetime, which leads to the idea that there’s no reason to think that there’s only one such object moving around. Aha: parallel universes – at least, that’s one of many (inequivalent) routes to that idea.
Anyway, I’m very curious to see how all of this is put together in the show. It should be fun. It is tonight (Tuesday) at 9:00pm E/P (8:00pm C). Enjoy!
[Update: Please see my report and thoughts on the newly announced Science and Entertainment Exchange here.]
On this day on Asymptotia...
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