[2 December 2008]
If you believe the histrionic reportage of the media these days, it may very well seem like the world is ending—or maybe even the entire universe! Financial crisis after crisis, each auguring complete cataclysm; unemployment waxing, consumer confidence waning; the world economy teetering on the brink of a total collapse; bread lines and water rationing imminent, the total collapse of civilization not far behind. Surely, this is the end of days.
But take a giant breath, and then take an even more giant cosmological step back, and you’ll quickly realize there’s no real reason to worry. In fact, you’ll start to realize just how impossibly good we have it. We live in a calm, quiet little corner of a not especially calm, quiet universe, nestled in the bucolic suburbs of a reasonably sized and reasonably well behaved galaxy, orbiting a reasonably sized star on a planet especially germane to our survival. The odds of us even being here are so astronomically slim, that we might as well enjoy it while we can.
So chin up, people! While the end is surely coming, it won’t be here for a good long while. How long? Well, according to the final episode (“Cosmic Apocalypse”) of season two of The History Channel’s The Universe, it’s going to take such an inconceivably vast amount of time that astronomers have had to cook up a whole new numbering system just to try to express it in somewhat comprehensible terms. So, instead of saying things like “Well, the universe is set to end about a billion trillion million quadrillion years in the future”, the new term is “cosmological decade”, where each “decade” represents a ten fold increase in the age of universe (each decade being ten times greater than all the previous time but together).
Got it? No, I don’t either, really. It’s sort of a shell game, this logarithmic notation, and doesn’t really cure the headache of thinking about time in this way, but it sure cuts down on the number of zeroes on the page.
Right now we are sitting pretty around the tenth decade since the Big Bang. Things are still sort of in their infancy. Life in the universe is good – stars are humming along merrily; new stars are being born regularly; galaxies are growing, expanding, gobbling up new real estate, even whole other smaller galaxies. But things might be too good, and expansion might be happening a bit too quickly for the good of the universe. In fact, everything is expanding at such a reckless rate (hmmm… starting to sound familiar) that it all threatens to outstrip the power of gravity, the one thing holding things together, keeping things calm.
But what could possibly get the upper hand over gravity, the one sure thing in the universe, the across the board constant? Scientists call it “dark energy”, a mysterious cosmic force which we can’t measure, can’t even see, but which is the only thing that can account for the counter-intuitive continual acceleration of universal expansion. It makes up over 70 percent of the universe, and it’s winning. And as it continues to win, it’s creating more and more space, more and more distance between all the stuff out there, and reducing the hold of gravity. If it continues to dominate (and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t), everything will start to pull apart from everything else – galaxies will start to disintegrate, stars will drift off to dim and die. Planets will break up, along with organic life – everything pulled apart, all the way down even to subatomic particles, and then the curtain finally comes down. They call it the Big Rip, and it’s the most likely scenario for the end of… well, everything.
Not to worry, though, we’ll be long gone by then. Things will start to sour in another ten cosmological decades or so, when the rate of dying stars eclipses the birth rate of new. After that, entropy kicks in in a big way, things begin to cool down dramatically across the board, nice big hot stars wink out and all that’ll be left will be cool red dwarf stars, and bizarre white dwarf stars, and then supermassive black holes. As all the stuff in the universe drifts further apart, everything will cool down dramatically, freeze, and die, and then slowly be ripped apart by dark energy. The world won’t end in fiery cataclysm, but in ice. It will be cold, dark and incredibly lonely, and will take a very long time. We’re talking out beyond the 100th decade. So, like I said at first, no reason to worry, just yet (you might want to buy a nice heavy parka, though).
So, those of you who were expecting more of the explosion-laden apocalypse mongering seen in season one of The Universe, sorry to disappoint. The end they present now is kind of… well, not boring, but very deliberate, and not at all dramatic. But that’s not to say that the series has abandoned its penchant for sensationalistic interstellar cataclysm – it’s just dialed it down a bit. There are still plenty of spectacular collisions and explosions to go around and satisfy those fans who enjoyed season one’s tendencies to overplay incidence of cosmic violence. It’s just that they’ve tempered things a bit so every episode doesn’t now devolve into how life will end just on planet Earth.
In so doing, The Universe finally starts to live up to its name, widening its scope a significantly beyond the provincial, solar system-centric first season. The majority of the episodes now deal with all the fantastic stuff going on out beyond our local neighborhood – supernovas, nebulas, distant galaxies, black holes (you know, the real spectacular stuff out there) all get their own, dedicated episode. If strategically broader and sweeping, episode by episode the season is more tactically focused, rigorous and detail heavy. If the first season was a bit tentative, barely dipping its toes in the cosmic waters, the second season is in it to win it and goes for broke, venturing out into some of the truly weird and wondrous corners of the universe.
And it’s all the better for it. Tantalizing subjects that were given short shrift in season one – black holes, wormholes and white holes; the existence of alien planets; dark matter and dark energy – are here given room to fill out. Previous topics, especially the possibilities of interstellar space travel and the likelihood of alien life, are returned to and expanded upon. The almost fetishtic apocalyptic scenarios that seemed to obsess the first season are calmed a bit by being more reasoned out and explained in greater detail. It’s all a matter of degree and scale, and season two improves upon both.
If this season (and I guess, the series as a whole) has a fault anywhere, it’s that it does tend to become a bit repetitious. Too many episodes cover similar territory, and one episode here on cosmic mysteries and miscellanea operates almost like a clip show, revisiting topics previously hashed out while adding nothing new too the discussion (as fascinating as it is, if I have to watch one more episode about the water on Mars and the possibility of life there, I’ll scream).
There’s also a tendency to stray into speculative science bordering on science fiction, which, when it comes to topics like space travel and time travel, I guess comes with the territory. It’s not that such imaginative flights of fancy fall outside of the purview of the series, it’s more that there’s plenty of bizarre, intriguing stuff happening in the universe now, that it seems a pity to waste time on wishful thinking. But then again, it’s just such speculation that has had us looking to the heavens in the first place.
But really, my few complaints are really just small potatoes. The Universe is, on its second go around, uniformly excellent. And, once again, much of its success lies in the pairing of goofy CGI and sensationalistic narration with explanations from various experts to form a entertainingly winning combo. All the scientists interviewed are quite adept at explaining insanely complex stuff in layman’s terms, while the colorful visuals and lavishly imaginative computer recreations provide visually stimulating accompaniment. It’s the right way to do popular science, and the obvious success of season two led to season three, which just premiered at the beginning of November).
The only “extra” content provided with the DVD release of The Universe this time out (there was nothing for the first season) is a 50-minute feature titled “Backyard Astronomers”. Basically, it operates as a user’s manual for the amateur star gazer, giving one tips on where to point one’s telescope and what to look for.
The sections are broken down by topic, for example, how to look for planets, how to observe a solar eclipse, stuff like that. Then there’s a rather interesting progression through the night sky month by month – rather startling how drastically things change, how the stars and constellations move about, and just how quickly various heavenly bodies come into view and recede. It’s all fairly basic, but good to have there at the end, since the series does a great job inspiring one to grab a telescope and do some serious stargazing.