After the Big Bang

26th September 1997 at 01:00
Stephen Hawking's Universe. BBC2. Sundays 7.45-8.35pm. Ends October 5

Stephen Hawking claims that his books on physics have sold even more than Madonna's book on sex. Hawking may not be renowned for his modesty, but he displays his wit clearly in this series.

The programmes look at all the big questions about the universe - How did it begin? What is it made of? Is it getting bigger? How will it end, and when? Hawking does not believe that the end of the world is nigh, but rather that we have several billion years left.

Early programmes gave us a brief history of ideas about the universe and pointed out some of science's rich ironies. They looked in detail at the Big Bang and what came after it; in other words, everything.

The final programme discusses the search for a theory of everything, bringing together Einstein's general theory of relativity (the theory of the very big) and quantum mechanics (the theory of the very small). In between, we hear about the idea that at least 90 per cent of the universe is "dark matter" which we cannot see; and that it is full of black holes, which too are invisible. How can we learn about such things? By studying the effects of their gravity on nearby objects.

A search for these effects is the main occupation of practical cosmologists as opposed to the theoreticians (Hawking included) whose job is to predict them using complex mathematics and powerful computers. One of the main insights of these programmes is to show how scientists work and to illustrate that, in an area such as cosmology, theory almost always precedes observations. This shatters the orthodoxy of most school practical work in science of the past 30 years, which has put observations first.

A close look at these programmes might also lead us to rewrite large parts of the national curriculum, not only to revise our views of the activity of "doing science" but also to include more of the "big ideas" and big questions which are discussed in this series.

The series could be valuable in the classroom, especially with older students. Hawking's new digitised voice is much better than his earlier American one (which turned every "t" into a "d") The difficult content is mainly delivered by Hawking and other scientists who act as "talking heads" supported by a range of images.

The problem in this area is that we have no pictures of black holes, big bangs or dark matter to illustrate and aid understanding. Some of the computer-generated images are impressive and may be of educational value. But the value of other moving images in aiding learning is debatable; for example, when we hear about probability and uncertainty we see gamblers in a casino, and with the "string theory" of the universe we get Chinese noodles.

The excellent photography, the tasteful background music and the constant supply of moving images certainly sustains interest and keeps us watching, but it cannot help us to understand profound and abstract ideas.

The content is not easy to follow - it requires effort, but so it should. It does cover the most abstract and mind-boggling ideas ever created by human beings. The extra-terrestrial life forms firmly believed in by one cosmologist may find them easier to grasp, but my hunch is that any intelligent ETs will have an entirely different conception of how the universe began. After all, theories are purely human creations, as Hawking's excellent series makes so clear.

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