If one thing is made abundantly clear over the course of the 14 episode first season of The History Channel’s supremely entertaining series The Universe, it’s that the universe is out to get us. If it’s not some monstrous asteroid slamming into the planet, unleashing a cataclysmic tidal wave of every natural disaster know to man, it might be a full-on gamma ray blast from a distant exploding star burning through our atmosphere, roasting us alive in an instant.
These doomsday scenarios are rather unlikely, though. It will probably be a bit more pedestrian, the Sun burning up all its fuel in five billion years or so and blowing up into a red giant star, gobbling up Mercury and Venus and making things on Earth rather toasty. And if we somehow avoid this inevitable fate and flee to, and colonize, other planets, fear not: if the expansion of the entire universe continues to accelerate, eventually everything—you, me, the planets, the stars, galaxies, everything—will be torn apart down to the smallest atom, in something called The Big Rip.
The thing I enjoyed most about this alarmist and sensationalistic, but still very informative, series is how each episode, regardless of the ostensible topic, wastes very little time either devolving into doomsday scenarios, or highlighting the violent tendencies of heavenly bodies. For instance, before even getting around to explaining the genesis, and general beneficence, of our beloved home star, the first episode imagines what would happen if the Earth were hit by a full on blast of a radioactive solar storm that manages to pierce through our protective magnetic field (with accompanying low-end CGI effects of cities destroyed in cauldrons of fire thrown in just for good measure). Again, everything all burnt to a crisp. Or maybe the power just goes out for a bit. Or goes off and never comes back on, and society devours itself. All good fun.
Or, for example, a fascinating episode about the origin of galaxies, their composition, and the massive star-sucking black holes that may form their center, kicks off with what would happen if the Milky Way crashed into another galaxy (which, it turns out, is pretty likely to happen, when we run into our largest neighboring galaxy, Andromeda, some couple of billion years in the future). Again, it wouldn’t be pretty, but we might actually survive that one.
But why even worry about ten-galaxy pile-ups on the interstellar interstate? It’s really what we can’t see that might pose the biggest threat. The visible universe makes up only five percent of matter; the rest is all dark matter and dark energy. These seem to be the main engine of universal expansion, and will eventually expand galaxies and the universe past the bursting point. There’s no escape.
When it’s not focusing on speculative apocalypses, The Universe devotes a good amount of its time investigating the possibility of life beyond our planet, whether in our own Solar System, or elsewhere. I guess this is a fair balance, tempering all this potential death and destruction with this more noble pursuit of finding life elsewhere, if only to give us some faint hope of survival for after our planet blows up. We’ll need to find somewhere hospitable to set up shop, after all.
So there’s a good deal of time spent on the recent research done on Mars, and the moons around Jupiter and Saturn, two of which (Europa and Titan) seem to offer the best chance for the discovery of basic extraterrestrial life, due to vast quantities of ice, and maybe liquid water, thought to be deep below their icy crusts. But even if we find anything in these places, don’t expect little green men or great aquatic civilizations—we are talking about the most basic single cell organisms. Mention of actual little green men residing near distant stars, harnessing great technologies, is scant, and mostly focuses on the technologies that would enable any sort of contact (think nanobots—and they might already be here!). But the search for life, by necessity, I guess, can’t really go beyond the neighborhood, just yet.
Alas, this tendency not to stray too far from home plagues the almost inappropriately titled The Universe, at least for its first season—most the episodes are defiantly local, staying within the orbit of Neptune (Pluto is no longer the boundary of the Solar System, having been demoted from planet status). Episodes are devoted mostly to the Sun, the Earth, the Moon, and the other seven planets in our system. While mostly informative, they tend to all be rather similar: overview of planet, comparison of planet to others, a quick mention of what makes it unique, and then focusing on the harshness and/or violence of its environment, atmosphere and weather.
Of course, there are moments of great beauty, too—the stunning rings of Saturn, the mysterious “canals” of Mars. But The Universe is not all that great on capitalizing on natural splendor, though, again going back to more sensationalist fare, like what would happen to the rest of the Solar System if Jupiter’s ginormous magnetosphere suddenly vanished (surprise, surprise: system-wide cataclysm).
Indeed, the series is really at its best in the few episodes when it pulls back, and regards us and our little corner of our galaxy from a universal vantage. The births of stars, the origins of galaxies, black holes, supernovae, dark matter, all that—this is the series I signed up for. And pulling back one step further, in its last, and best, episode, the series goes all the way back to the beginning of it all, devoting a double episode to cosmology and the origin of the Big Bang theory. This notion has become so commonplace that you never think about how truly stunning its central thesis is—that the universe is not only finite, but has a definitive beginning, which we can calculate, can even, in a way, see. And that in addition to having a beginning, it most likely has an end.
But rather than a cause for universal despair, the Big Bang is somewhat comforting, almost spiritual in its implications. If everything, and I mean everything—all the stars, planets, elements, atoms, every single spec of matter - were all born from the same infinitely dense point 13.7 billion years ago, than everything is also connected, we are all of the same stuff, quite literally. That’s me, you, the guy next door, our friends and family, our sworn enemies, everyone and everything that ever existed during the history of the planet.
And not just because we arose out of the same primordial goop back in the planet’s early days, but because we are from the composition of the planet before life even sprung up, when the Earth was just an accretion of rough matter spinning around the forming Sun. And all the gas that came to form the Sun and the rest of the Solar System most likely came from an exploding star, which was born from another exploding star, which was born in some gas cloud in the aftermath of the Big Bang. See… it goes back, back to one singular point, and there we are all one.
I don’t know, it’s quasi-mystical, I suppose, but I take some comfort in it. Putting everything in a cosmological perspective makes you realize how small and insignificant you are, sure, but you also realize how huge you are by association. Thinking about things on this scale seems to work wonders for curing the petty anger, anxieties, and despair that can plague our daily lives. The universe’s general seeming indifference can be turned against it and be a well of optimism and hope.
Neil deGrasse Tyson , an astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History (interviewed often in The Universe, he’s sort of the presiding spirit of the series, eloquent, poetic, with a rich mellifluous voice) put it best at the very end of the last episode “We are all connected —to each other biologically; to the earth chemically; and to the rest of the universe atomically. It makes me happy…I actually feel quite large. We are in the universe, and the universe is in us”.
On our most basic level, we are one and the same as everything out there. It seems so simple, is maybe a bit “hippy dippy”, and yet it points to the deep complexities that bind us all inextricably together. We are all in this quite literally together, whether we like it or not, so we may as well learn to like it—at least until the universe decides to bring down the hammer.