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'Fabric of the Cosmos' Is No Simple Cloth
November 1, 2011  | By Eric Gould
 
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The British scientist J.B.S. Haldane famously mused on the universe, and has since been quoted as many times as there are stars in the sky. In 1927, he wrote, " . . . Now my own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we 'can' suppose." Meaning, we're simply not even capable -- yet -- of imagining what we need to know.

Watching the new PBS NOVA series "The Fabric of the Cosmos" (Wednesdays through Nov. 23 at 9 p.m. ET), you'll find this idea even more striking, as when some scientists liken the concept of dark energy (about which we're only guessing) to living on land and not being able to understand or describe the water around us.

But yet, we try. And fortunately for us, we have physicists like Columbia University's Brian Greene, our NOVA host the next four Wednesdays (check your local PBS listings), who are jazzed about showing how the past and the future might be the same thing. Or how there might be more than one universe. Greene is gifted and enthusiastic. and breaks things down in small enough bits that we can follow right along.

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It's heady stuff. Greene, a veteran of NOVA's 2003 series "The Elegant Universe" and the author of popular books on physics, brings together highlights of the theories blazed by Newton, Einstein, Hubble and others (relativity, space-time). He shows how speed and movement can change the rate of time, and what seemingly empty space might actually be made of, knitting the entire fabric of the universe together.

Greene then moves onto things such as dark energy, a mysterious force thought to compose perhaps 70 percent of the universe's mass -- except we have no direct evidence of it.

Says Greene, "The series is a journey that challenges audiences on things they take for granted and is an exciting opportunity to change that mindset in startling ways . . . It will convince people that everyday perception is a thoroughly, completely, profoundly misleading guide to the true nature of what is actually out there."

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Turns out, space itself is a warped potato chip, and may be expanding and pushing the matter of the universe out in such a way that, eventually, things would be so far apart that no other galaxies or stars would be visible in the night sky. (Though not from this planet, which would be long gone by then.)

Imagine that, Syfy dudes.

If you're curious about the nature of things, television has helped enormously over the past decade with its proliferation of new science shows that not only get into esoteric cosmologies, but do so in an accessible way, making the top physicists in the field play like rock stars engaged in thrilling work.

You can easily imagine kids getting so jazzed about their work that it might be just as cool to go into science as it would to be voted onto the next American Idol.

The Science Channel aided the cause over the summer when it combined popular physics with ideas more on the fringe of things in the series Through the Wormhole, narrated by Morgan Freeman.

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But it's hard to do it better than PBS and NOVA, going on 40 years now. Greene and the producers have raised the bar with up-to-the-minute computer graphics providing a new appreciation of tantalizingly strange ideas about how the universe is organized.

And yes, that includes Greene's discussion of superstring theory and the idea of multiple dimensions, which, according to some equations, may be as numerous as 11.

That's right -- as in This Is Spinal Tap, it just might go up to 11.

That's eight more, isn't it? At least eight more than I'm accustomed to. But I'm willing to go there, with the right physicist illuminating the way.

 
 
 
 
 
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