Through the Wormhole

The Science Channel debuted a new show last night, Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman, with the premier apparently designed by committee to piss off as many Internet types as possible. The overall theme was "Is there a creator?" and it featured physicist-turned-Anglican-priest John Polkinghorne talking about fine-tuning but no atheist rebuttal. It spent a good ten minutes on Garrett Lisi and his E8 theory, making it sound a whole lot more complete than it is. And it got this aggressively stupid review in the Times:

Oh, let's face it: it was hard to concentrate on the first half of the first episode of "Through the Wormhole With Morgan Freeman," the latest series exploring scientific mysteries in a no-doctorate-required way, which has its debut on Wednesday night on the Science Channel.

It's not that the Oscar-winning Mr. Freeman is particularly worse than F. Murray Abraham, James Earl Jones and all those other actors who have lent their formidable voices to the cause of trying to make science programming compelling. It's that this opening installment, which is supposed to be about whether there's a Creator, almost immediately degenerates into theoretical yakking by scientists about unified theories of this and missing particles of that.

Especially with recent news coverage of that particle accelerator near Geneva, it seems as if we'd been hearing about this type of physics for a long time, and the discussion never does go anywhere or have much practical relevance. Anybody got a particle big enough to plug that busted oil pipe in the Gulf of Mexico?

(OK, that last paragraph is actually pretty accurate...)

The "Oooh, nasty physics hurts our brains, precious" slant of the review is the sort of thing that always pisses me off. Of course, it worked to the show's advantage, because it was that review that brought the show to my attention, and got me to tune in last night (though I missed the opening few minutes), so I could write a blistering rant about how wrong the review was.

Problem is, I can't. The tone of the piece was very, very dumb, but there's a tiny element of a valid point at the heart of it.

Not that the physics part was really confusing or hard to follow-- it was fine, as these things go. A little abbreviated, maybe, but it was a perfectly good explanation of the Standard Model and the "fine-tuning" of forces needed for life as we know it.

The show as a whole was kind of a muddle, though. It didn't spend very much time on any one topic, but jumped from one thing to another. Here's some CGI animation of particles and forces! Here's John Polkinghorne in a church! Garrett Lisi on a beach! Alan Guth with bubble wrap! Some guy with a brain scanner!

The God question provided a tenuous link between the segments, but there really wasn't enough of an effort to tie them together explicitly. As a result, it felt more like watching a magazine show like NOVA scienceNOW! (OK, they don't really have an exclamation point, but if you're going to do eccentric capitalization, you might as well add punctuation...) than a coherent hour-long program on a single topic.

This seems to be something of a trend in science programming these days. We watched a couple of episodes of Life on Discovery before deciding that scenes of predation aren't actually SteelyKid-friendly, and it had the same feel. "Here's a thing that's alive, and does some stuff. Here's a different thing on the other side of the planet, doing completely different stuff. It's also alive."

There's a fine line here, of course, because I have previously complained about NOVA programs like the Elegant Universe special they did spending thirty percent of their time recapping what went on in the previous ten minutes. But this particular show went too far in the other direction.

That doesn't mean that the opening few paragraphs of the Times review aren't stupid, of course-- they are, and Neil Genzlinger ought to be ashamed of himself. The description of the overall show as "intermittently interesting," though, is probably about right.

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Not that the physics part was really confusing or hard to follow-- it was fine, as these things go. A little abbreviated, maybe, but it was a perfectly good explanation of the Standard Model and the "fine-tuning" of forces needed for life as we know it.

But of course you and the NYT reviewer have wildly disparate backgrounds. Even though high-energy physics isn't your specialty, there's going to be enough head-nodding familiarity that it's unlikely that a show pitched at this audience will involve much of a cognitive load. It can be hard to assess whether explanations are perfectly good for the intended audience when your level of understanding is way beyond that of the intended audience. (Another area in which I've seen this effect is textbooks. There are plenty of great books that seem very elegant or comprehensive and it's easy to forget that these are frequently difficult as hell to actually learn from.)

For this reason I tend to have little patience for popularizations. I get nitpicky or annoyed at the weakness or incompleteness of various arguments, but presumably structuring things that way is better for the intended audience. I've thought that if I ever tried to write such a book, I think my approach would be to try to include big honking appendices filling in as much technical detail as possible. And if publishers don't like that idea, then I suppose you could make extensive supplementary material freely available.

I have the same complaint of both the show and the reviewer - the assumption that science has anything positive to say about a creator. To paraphrase Laplace: science has no need for that hypothesis.

Frankly, as a theist, and a person with a nearly, utterly, completely unfulfilled epic desire to really study science, I was put off this show when I watched Freeman's interview on, "The Daily Show." Freeman plays characters who frequenly display a great latent intelligence and a great deal of dignity. To watch him indicate that what scientists couldn't explain they would simply attribute to God was way too much. As noted he is an actor and aside from a few documentaries has probably never really paid much attention to anything about science. Still, despite all of that from my stand point I believe you just can't prove or disprove God anyway, so why have it as a question on a TV show which suggests we might somehow, someday be talking to God? Science is about understanding physical reality. All I have to do is think about what we understood a hundred years ago, 200 years ago or three hundred years ago...and then think about how the information we have today, as well as the technology would simply blow the minds of even the most intelligent educated scientist of those periods. We are never going to prove or disprove God. On the other hand just because we don't know something today, doesn't mean we have to say it is God or a miracle or only God knows. 100, 200 or 300 years from now, who alive today can tell what we will know?

By MIke Olson (not verified) on 10 Jun 2010 #permalink

Chad: The "Oooh, nasty physics hurts our brains, precious" slant of the review...

Actually it's more "Oooh, irrelevant physics bores our brains, precious."

science is the study of the natural world. God is supernatural. Who on earth is able to study and teach supernatural physics? Humans cannot comprehend the concept of the supernatural. Might as well state that rotten meat causes the formation of flies through spontaneous generation. If government money is being wasted on this foolish doctrine no wonder our country is in the shape it is. Our world is not a video game. So called scientists need to go outside in the real world and put their hands in some dirt. That is real.

I thought the show was great. I didn't expect it to answer any questions, just to open my mind to some of the things that people are doing. I saw the similarities well enough between the different segments, and found them intriguing. I find the argument that God is supernatural so it has no place in physics to be cute. God existing, and being super-natural, is the assumption, and exploring what in the natural world leads us to even believe that is rather interesting.

Either way, like bcooper said, this is built for an audience, and if you are some high-end physicist or cosmologist or theologist or whatever, you are most likely not the intended audience. As a resource for people with casual interest, I think it does it's job quite well. Also, the black hole episode was great, and gave my desire for symmetry a woody.

My issue with this program was Dr Persinger's "God Helmet" and the idiocy of this experiment and conclusions. What happens if you just shut someone in a dark room with no sound without wearing that helmet? I bet very similar things that happen with the magnetic coil going happy on top of your head.

I thought the show was great in a "physics for the rest of us" type deal. I cannot confirm the validity of the science but the show was interesting nerveless.

"God is supernatural. Who on earth is able to study and teach supernatural physics?"

Well if god existed, and had created/could interact with the natural world, he wouldn't really be supernatural ;)

If he existed, his existence wouldn't be against the laws of nature. It would just mean the laws of nature as we know them are wrong.

So I'm fairly certain science is as valid a method as any to use to "study god". The fact that everything anyone can up with so far points to him not existing is your problem, not science's.

I love the questions and ideas this show has been bringing up. It is very intriguing and a rare find. I work for DISH and have recently made the transition to HD programming; it makes such a difference and all the outer-space shots/simulations are amazing. This show is truly a gem in a world of superficiality and reality shows. I am looking forward to seeing all coming episodes and learning a great deal from them.

as a current university student, majoring in astrophysics, i appreciate the value this show has when it comes to eradicating the need for years of attentive study to explain in brief the goings on of modern science.

my mother asked me what the "cat scenario" was. my answer? let's watch an easy-digest science doc. beginner snippets brushing over quantum mechanics, the immensity of spacetime and the superficial glances at relativity were a great way to get her into my world at a level she'd understand.

she's once asked me, "why are you reading an entire book about light?"

this show is a keeper, in my books.

This tv show is just incredible ! it pushes the limits and make science more close to all other people . The first episode is nothing... You have to watch the whole series . Every episode will pose a question that have made a real challenge to mankind for eternity . Now, science has evolved to the point where hard facts and evidence may be able to provide us with answers instead of philosophical theories. Through the Wormhole put together the brightest minds and best ideas from the very edges of science - Astrophysics, Astrobiology, Quantum Mechanics, String Theory, and more - to reveal (or to try) the extraordinary truth of our Universe. So however is your opinion if u dont take seriously this series then you are so stupid , because the people that are talking are today the greatest minds ever . And by saying this , it dosent mean that every single theory is correct , but its at least a move forward to try to understand UNIVERSE , not only the creator know as " GOD" , or how we arrived here , what we are made of , are we alone in universe ... NOOOO ! IT BREAKS the limits and go further . This really is a masterpiece of the modern science delivered from great minds !!! and great technologies . So u better try to understand it ...