[1 May 2007]
The idea behind God, the Universe, and Everything Else is fantastic: assemble a few great scientific minds and let them chat about cosmology, the origin of the universe, the unified theory, and that sort of thing. Each of these men—Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan, and Arthur C. Clarke—have made enormous contributions to various fields, primarily physics, astronomy, mathematics, and speculative fiction. The results come up drastically short of the possibilities, largely through the conversation’s brevity and superficial engagement.
Starting with its poor video quality, the DVD does nothing to hide its low-budget production. We’re given no special features, no notes, and, for that, matter, not even an introduction of what’s going on (Hawking, Clarke, and host Magnus Magnusson are in a room in England, joined by video by Sagan from Cornell University, but we have no idea what this production is for). The object of the meeting, if not explicit, quickly becomes apparent. These brilliant minds will put science into layman’s terms.
That objective, of course, is a bit of a waste, as most of the science discussed here could be explained by an average high school physics teacher. The three men do speak clearly, elucidating difficult concepts (as Sagan says, “Intuition is not adequate to the task” of cosmology) in accessible language, but the restrictions of such a context can only chafe. Occasionally the theorists do stray into more advanced areas, such as Hawking’s description of imaginary time, but they’re never given enough time to fully develop a point in these areas.
Originally appearing in 1988, the film also suffers from its datedness. The science remains accurate enough, but it does miss important developments. The group discusses what we might learn from the future launch of the Hubble telescope, for example. Without recent knowledge of Mars, the trio’s discussions of the planet and its possible colonization lacks currency. Magnusson also spends as much time talking about Hawking’s speaking device as he does anything else in the film. Twenty years ago, this computerized mechanism might have been a compelling topic—especially as Hawking had only lost his voice several years earlier—but at this point, nearly everyone who would be drawn to this DVD knows how Hawking communicates aurally.
The time-lapse might hit Clarke the hardest. He’s set up with a charmingly antiquated computer, which he uses to show the Mandelbrot set. Rather than delving into science, the segment’s more likely to simply produce nostalgia for an era when the Apple IIe was a powerhouse. The scene is even more flummoxing because no one explains the relevance of Clarke’s demonstration. The images demonstrated by the Mandelbrot set are lovely, but specifically dated in a cultural sense, and Clarke fails to connect the work to the larger discussion, in part because it has none. (For the record, the set is a particular fractal that became popular leading up to that time. Fractals are often connected to self-repeating geometric shapes, and can aid examination or theorizing on an infinitesimal scale).
Given the disc’s title, the three men have surprisingly little to say on the subject of God. The meeting point of physics and theology can be a fascinating area, but with the group essentially in agreement, the discussion just serves to fill time. Sagan, mentioning Einstein and Spinoza, says that God is possibly definable as “the sum total of the laws of the universe”, and that’s the sort of “mind of God” that Hawking described in his then-new A Brief History of Time. The pithy segment on religion and science feels as if the topic was raised only to cover a comment made in the book, and to fill out the enormity of the short film’s range (in case “the universe and everything else” didn’t cover all bases).
Like the rest of the film, though, the segment offers too little insight and too much conformity of thought (the only disagreement occurs over a discussion of extraterrestrial life). With such a strong lineup, the DVD becomes even more of a disappointment because the thwarted potential is always apparent. With so much good, accessible science available on video, even considering the potential “historically relevant” factor of its gathered participants, it’s hard to understand why this production has been given a new release.