The barrier that all popular science programmes have to surmount is that so many of our recent discoveries have come through the avenues opened up by Special and General Relativity and Quantum mechanics. And they are both so unfathomably complex that it’s incredibly difficult to talk about either of them to the likes of you and I. Either you sacrifice the science for the sake of making your programme accessible, or you alienate your viewers by owning up to quite how insanely counter-intuitive the quantum universe is in the age of Relativity. Inevitably, programmes tend to err on the side of popular at the expense of science. They tend in other words to be more BBC1 (and 3) than BBC2 (and 4).
Recently though we’ve seen a number of programmes that manage to redress that balance, exploring the cutting edge of scientific discovery, but doing so in a way that the non-scientist can (just about) comfortably follow. Brian Cox’s programmes on the Wonders of the Solar System and then the Universe (see below), the History Channel’s The Universe, and now this, Through The Wormhole with Morgan Freeman. The way that he’s done it is, basically, by making a programme that he’s designed specifically for him.
Freeman plays the host, steering us through the day’s topic which range from black holes and time travel, to the origins of life and the possibility of intelligent life on other planets. But unlike so many of the figureheads who are tacked on to front programmes like these, Freeman is as genuinely interested in the topic being explored as we are. Like us, he too is curious about what we now know when we look up into the night skies, and what it can tell us about who we are and where we came from. But he too has never got around to formally studying it. So when he was asked to get involved in a series about space and the cosmos, he clearly saw it as a fantastic opportunity to explore all those things he was interested in a bit more systematically (or alternatively, he’s an even better actor than I gave him credit for).
The journey he takes us on in the course of the (so far two) series is as much his as it is ours. And the reason it works so wonderfully well is that he and it assume that we are as intelligent as he is, but no more so. So that whilst it never shies away from M (or string) theory, Relativity and the quantum universe, he’ll remind us every now and then that he’s as baffled and befuddled by all these apparently insane theories as we are. After all, as Nils Bohr, one of the great 20th century physicists put it:
“Those who are not shocked when they first come across quantum mechanics cannot possibly have understood it.”
Apart from the mercifully brief flashbacks relating to so say childhood memories that each episode feels obliged to begin with, it’s a wonderfully engaging, science-heavy series that manages to be both accessible and stimulating. And the fact that it so successfully balances the dictates of educating, informing and entertaining (and in that order) is in no small measure a reflection on its genial host.
Series 1 and 2 can be seen on the Discovery Channel now.