Around the globe, the world’s top scientists strive ceaselessly to achieve the Holy Grail of modern physics – a TV series that will get more than 0.01 per cent of the population actually understanding what Einstein was on about with all that curved space-time and E=MC2 business. In the old days this involved simply talking at the camera in the hope that the thickies on the other side (us) would somehow pick it up. These days more instant gratification – sorry, visual stimulation – is required, and who better to provide that than the Masters of Reality, Channel 4.
The Theory Of Everything is, in fact, a pretty good popular science programme, even if it does get a bit gimmicky at times. The title refers to scientists’ attempts to produce a single theory that will reconcile the sometimes contradictory Great Ideas of physics, thus (hopefully) telling us how the universe actually works. The show tackles its subject in the traditional way, with the story of how Newton discovered gravity only to be proved partially wrong by Einstein, who discovered relativity only to be proved partially wrong by the creators of Quantum Mechanics. And it uses the now-traditional tools; lots of gorgeous graphics and a clever-but-down-to-earth presenter, in this case the youngish, nerdy-but-nice American physicist Brian Greene.
The approach is obviously to go for clarity rather than depth, and generally it pays off, even if this week’s opener did leave a few unanswered questions. We got a good explanation of the various forces that act on nuclear particles, although a pencil dropped on to a table would have illustrated gravity versus electromagnetism better than the flashy SFX of Greene jumping from a high building. We didn’t, however, get an explanation of what the E, M and C in Einstein’s famous equation actually mean, even though all three (energy, mass and the speed of light) had been discussed.
If this had been Physics Academy, with viewers voting on which great theory had to pack its bags and leave the house, then Quantum would definitely have been on the train home. Newton’s gravity-tugged apples and planets made sense, while Einstein’s curvy rubber-sheet universe was believable in a rubbery sort of way. But Quantum’s pitch, that everything’s uncertain but it’ll all happen in parallel universes anyway, was definitely the Darius’s Hit Me Baby of the show, with not even its proponents looking as if they actually understood or believed it.
After that, the great hope of unification, string theory, seemed positively sensible. Apparently everything in the universe consists of tiny strings of energy, vibrating at different pitches. B flat means it’s a proton, while middle C makes it a particle of light, or something like that. Hopefully it’ll all become clear in the weeks to come.