Sunday, August 29, 2010

Parallel Theories

I happened to see "Parallel Universes," one of those History Channel shows where they bring together a bunch of astronomers and glitzy graphics to expound on some exotic topic. In this case, the topic of parallel universes. As usual, they pull out stacks of stock animations for fill, and interview real life astronomers to enhance the credibility of the show. Most of the water is carried by Michio Kaku, Max Tegmark, and History Channel mainstay Alex Filippenko. There are parts of the show which are quite interesting, and I grant that the show's producers have done a workman-like job of explaining very difficult topics.

Along the way they give a lesson on string theory of all things. More amazing to me is that they basically claim that string theory is accepted and is a wonderful description of the universe. Back in reality-ville, I can't think of an prediction by string theory that has been verified by observation. Strike that, I'm not aware of a single clear observational prediction made by string theory PERIOD! For that matter, many of the theories of the parallel universes described by the program ("level 1", "level 2", and so on) are described with such absolute certainty that the viewer might be fooled into believing that we already know they exist. We don't. The entire show is really on the borderline with fantasy science fiction.

These kinds of shows are cute, and at some level they build awareness of science in the general public, which is a good thing. On the other hand, their focus on the exotic and extreme topics is disappointing. Our universe is wonderful and beautiful enough by itself that it doesn't need to photoshopped and video toasted to death.

By taking marginal theories and pretending they are mainstream, History Channel is not really doing the public a service. And the professional astronomers who offer sound bites come out looking a little kooky. I wonder if they knew how much their interviews were going to be edited they would have done the show in the first place. There are several places where comical visual effects are used to make them look somewhat like buffoons.

(Except perhaps for Max Tegmark who comes off looking very serious but a little sickly.)

Putting snarkiness aside, I have this request:
Dear History Channel, overall the quality of your "Universe" shows is very high. Keep it that way by sticking to facts, and at the very least, noting where the show dips into speculative territory. Thanks.
(image credits: History Channel, excerpted for the purposes of commentary)