The Universe: Death, Destruction, and the Planet Jupiter

Posted By Pamela on Jun 27, 2007 | 10 comments

cometcrash.jpgSo, I have to admit to being a bit remiss in blogging about the Universe series. I have a reasonably good reason: I like my husband. That may sound like a non sequitur, but you need to understand that after dating a long series of science and engineering types who all thought astronomy was great, I decided I needed to date someone who recognized astronomy could be cool, but just wasn’t all that into it. This change in strategy worked, and the first non-science and engineering doing, astronomy non-loving person I dated I ended up marrying. He is totally into blues guitars, works as a software guru doing work that in no way overlaps anything I use computers to do, and we are very happy. Unfortunately, since he really doesn’t care about astronomy, he really has no interest in watching “The Universe” with me. Robot Chicken just keeps winning over science. (Image credit: Don Davis / NASA)

So, I had to find a few hours when we weren’t both watching the TV together to try and watch “The Universe.” I hate to admit it, but the first spare hour I found, I totally fell asleep watching the episode “The End of the Earth” after doing a day’s hard yard work. Yesterday, I finally got around to watching two episodes, the end of the Earth episode as well as “Jupiter: The Giant Planet.”

Watching the shows in quick succession I had three thoughts: 1) It is always risky to talk about current events in things that are getting produced on either a magazine or television time scale, 2) if you are working on a small budget you can go a long long way using graphics available in press releases and from astronomy education materials, and 3) if you want to sell a television show, life finding or life killing science may be the best direction to go.

For instance, both NOVA Science Now and “The Universe” jumped on the Asteroid Apophis bandwagon. While NASA sees no risk of impact, giving Apophis a ranking of 0 on the Torino Scale, the fact that the asteroid will pass within 0.5 Earth Radii of the Earth is scary if you don’t understand orbital mechanics. This is, after all, an asteroid 250 meters across that will be about the same distance from the surface of the Earth as Boston is from Austin! Now, while I know we will be safe, just like I know roller coaster rides are safe, I can see the fear factor. The planet Earth is essentially playing chicken with an asteroid. Still, it is scientifically irresponsible to scare the shit out of the public. But, well, it sells. And back when the show was still in production, maybe, the astronomy community still didn’t know what would happen for certain. Maybe?

All that aside, I have to totally admit to being in awe of how far this series is able to run with freely available media. Many universities, astronomy centers, and of course NASA sink lots of money and effort into creating amazing graphics and animations. Often, these materials get used in press releases and in stories about the press releases. The lucky image makes it into a feature magazine story or into a text book, and sometimes the media will even land in a science special. The producers of the Universe have taken the best of many of these images and movies and composed them in multimedia frenzy geared to sate the flash-flash-flash desires of the video game generation. While they are producing some of their own animations to specifically match some of the words and actions of the talking heads, they likely saved a LOT of money on graphics. If Astronomy Cast ever has the monetary base for us to try vodcasting again*, I’m going to need to learn from the media re-purposing ways of “The Universe.”

So, having covered thoughts 1 and 2, this brings me to thought 3: speculative science sells. There may be life on other worlds! (Did that catch your attention?) The effects of Dark Energy may shred everything – even planets and life forms! (Surely that caught your attention?) Exploding stars could destroy the Earth! (but really, we don’t know of any that might decide to take this option in this corner of the universe). Again, I’m a bit concerned that we’re scaring the public without need. Yes, the universe will probably tear itself apart in the far distant future if the amount of Dark Energy per unit volume stays constant as the total volume of the universe increases. But, this is a long long time in the future, and perhaps it would make more since to discuss in terms of “How the Universe will end” instead of “The End of the Earth.” The Earth will be way dead well before the expansion of the universe may tear planets apart (and really, this is speculative at this point).

But… If you want to sell astronomy, you have to have an angle, a pitch, a twist that will get people to tune in. Astronomy enthusiasts aren’t all that large a group, and even if you got every professional and amateur astronomer and astronomy communicator and educator in America to tune in, this isn’t really a large enough audience to get an advertiser interested in paying the big bucks demanded of TV. To get non-astronomy lovers to tune in, something more is needed. NOVA does it. The Universe does it. I just hope I figure out how to sell a book without having to find and angle that includes scaring people with things that won’t happen until the Sun’s future white dwarf is cold and dead.

I just got an email from the History Channel about upcoming episodes. Through most of July, they’ll be focusing on the Solar System in episodes on the Moon (tonight), the Earth (July 10), Mercury and Venus (July 17) and Saturn (July 24). With the end of July, they’ll temporarily leave the solar system and the Milky Way to look at galaxies (July 31), before returning to look at the death of a star (August 7), and the outer planets (August 14), and finally the random dangerous non-solar system places (August 21). The last two episodes will search for ETs (August 28) and will explore beyond the Big Bang (September 4). For those of you trying to figure out why “The Universe” is fixated with the Universe, consider my three thoughts again.

*Astronomy Cast did a short experiment in producing vodcasts that had slide shows of images accompanying the audio. This trial was ended for two reasons: 1) the technology just didn’t seem to be ready – too many of our listeners mp3 players couldn’t also handle m4a files, 2) it took me f-o-r-e-v-e-r to produce each episode and we just don’t have the money to hirer a student to produce video episodes at this time.


  1. Random thougts five minutes before I have to hit the road and go to work.

    It’s fun to scare people. Why? I don’t know. Maybe it makes us feel superior. We know know something they don’t.

    And people likes to be scared. Why? I don’t know. But put on a scarry mask, and people will scream and laugh. The best of them will try to uncover what is behind the scarry mask. Thats the kind of people who maybe will become scientists. Those who dare not even touch the mask… well… perhaps they turn to religion…

    Damn’d, now I’m late for work and I hate that cause you see my boss is really scary and…..
    Kind Regards

  2. @Kenneth: fear is a way to control people.
    If you scare a group if people a lot and keep constantly scaring them you have a better change that they’ll do what you say when you do something because there scared of what you might do to them.

    “…and perhaps it would make more since to discuss in terms of “How the Universe will end” instead of “The End of the Earth.” ”

    Shouldn’t the sInce be sEnce?

  3. I think the series is pretty cool so far. I like the mix of anthropology and special effects going on. The “Certain Doom” shows and magazine articles (Or should I say, Sky and Telescope cover illustrations!!) are sort of like slowing down to look at a car wreck for me. I much prefer books and blogs that creatively present the facts. On a cloudy night it just doesn’t get any better than curling up with a cup of coffee and a Timothy Ferris book!

  4. Going back to Pamela’s earlier post on the Star Party gone bad, perhaps a large dose of “Certain Doom” would have been the perfect solution to the problem. 😉

  5. I’m imagining Pamela looking at the gaggle of girl scouts, opening her eyes really wide, and lowering her voice to a stage whisper… “The sun is going to kill us all in only a few billion years!!!”

  6. Oh I like being hit by a asteroid or comet better, since then there will be suffering for some and thats more gruesome then a quick death.

  7. I remember sitting in science class as a young wide eyed lad and we watched a movie about we are all going to die from the sun blowing up in say 2-3 billion years.. i yawned, turned to my best friend and said” ya think we and the Russians won’t Nuc us all first?” I imagine kids now a days are thinking ” Now.. how many days does Bush have left?”
    I like our chances with the Sun and/or a comet.
    -the hoopster

  8. As bad as I hate to admit it, I think I have to agree with HoosierHoops. Not because I don’t want to agree with the hoopster, but that he (or is the hoopster of the female variety? no offense) brings up President Bush. These shows that are forecasting our doom in the near or far future are only doing what they have seen work so effectively from Mr. Bush. If one terrifies the public, they will do whatever they are told until the truth comes out. The problem with that is, in the case of the sun going supernova or any of the other doomsday scenarios is that they will happen, albeit long after we are long gone from the face of this planet.

    I’m not sure if Pamela actually reads all the responses that are written about her blog, but if she reads this one I want her to know that I will most assuredly read a book that is written by her. I say that not because she has such a beautifully sounding voice that this man loves to listen to, but because she is such an inspiration to so many people of our generation and the generation of my children. My youngest son says that when she explains something that he actually understands it most of the time. He is only 12 so there are times that I need to help the explanation along somewhat.

    The point is still the same, with people like her and Fraser Cain and so many others, as well as these new shows such as “The Universe” and some of the “Nova” programs and such really do inspire people. So, as far as I’m concerned I say that Pamela should keep right on inspiring us all and write as much as she can, that is as long as her husband can spare her, or at least share her with the rest of the world. As for her husband goes, I thank him for being just what Pamela needs. Good luck in the future, even if the future is doomed…LOL!

  9. DHO:
    great post..
    I would love it if Pamela wrote a book..albeit,
    I don’t think I could handle her doctorate paper. 🙂
    It’s cool her hubby plays blues guitar ( as do I ) and she is happy. she inspires us here with her depth and knowledge and she has ALWAYS showed compassion to those of us that lack her depth.
    My prof’s in college never really liked sports oriented guys. ( Boilermakers ) But i have never got that vibe here.
    BTW. The hoopster is a guy, happily married for eons with 6 wonderful next to youngest son is in the marines and arrives in Iraq 9-17-07. I’m not a bush fan..but that isn’t for this blog…
    Love ya Pam..keep it up!!!!!!!!

  10. i had the same issue with the Sam Neill “Space” series – the whole thing seemed to be about “DANGER DANGER” stuff. it really got to me after a while – that the producers had always kept that theme in mind took away from content i really wanted to see. now when i need my fix of space doco, i go back to the BBC’s “The Planets” or even “Cosmos”. geez, when i think of classic populist content-rich astro documentary, “Cosmos” wins hands down. if only producers would start ripping of that whole model.


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