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Monday, 8 November 2004

The Big Question With Stephen Hawking, Five

Five’s ambitious drive upmarket continues with this week-long series of programmes in which leading scientists explain really big issues. It kicked off in style – they don’t come much more leading than Stephen Hawking, or much bigger than how the universe began. Half an hour isn’t long to tackle a question of this size, but the show did a pretty good job nevertheless.
What it left out was, if anything, more important than what it put in. First, the gimmicks – there weren’t any, just some decent graphics and a balloon with silver stars glued to it, to demonstrate the inflation theory of why galaxies are moving away from each other. Also on the leave-out list were relativity, quantum theory, string theory and all those other theories that defy the human imagination, along with the details of how atoms and stars and planets are actually formed.
In their place came basic concepts designed for consumption by the average non-astrophysicist. The universe was very small (non-existent, in fact), then got very big in a matter of micro-seconds, and has been getting bigger ever since. When dying stars explode, small atoms of hydrogen and helium get made into bigger atoms such as oxygen and iron. Planets and their inhabitants are made of atoms that were made that way, so we’re all basically made of stardust.
This wasn’t, then, an in-depth examination of the Big Bang theory, and it didn’t say anything new (stardust, and microwave Big Bang echoes, have been the stuff of Horizon/Discovery Channel documentaries for years, although Hawking’s own discovery of galaxy-forming temperature ripples has received less airtime). But it did get across, very well, what the basic idea of the Big Bang is, and what questions it poses for the imagination-defying scientists capable of understanding them.
There was also a very nice human side. Stephen Hawking is, famously, paralysed by motor neurone disease, able to speak only through an electronic voice. As his computer spoke, we saw poignant photographs of him as a physically able child and student, then cut back to him today, immobile but still smiling after a lifetime of intellectual achievement.

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