If you are not at home in Cronkite's "Universe," and cannot stomach the gooey diet of overstatement in Omni's TV science show, do not expect tonight's new science show to be more misbegotten television.
Tonight at 8 on Channel 7 is the premiere of "Discover," the TV show, named after Discover, the magazine.
In the hour-long show, six short pieces are displayed, and one of them, at least, is not to be missed. It shows something of the slow, deliberative method of science, but shows it compressed into a tiny filmic space and run at very fast speed.
It is the tale of nothing more than a class assignment at MIT. Each student is given a bagful of odds and ends -- strips of wood, thumb-sized electric motors, a spring, rubber collars of varying sizes, a bit of metal sheeting, and so on.
Each is also given a specific task: to design and make from these things a machine that will sit inside a square on a table top, pick up a round object, move it across the table, and place it in a square hole.
The hard part: It is a competition in which the students' machines are placed at each end of a table. The square hole is between them.
It appears that students first realized that to get one's peg in the hole, his machine would have to be faster than his opponent's machine. But other strategies began to pop up: Some built not only an arm to move the peg to the hole, but also one to block the opponent's moving arm. Other students built little launchers and projectiles. These were not to place their own pegs, but to knock out their opponents' while moving their own into place.
The competition has humor and excitement and tension. The filming is a beautifully functional mix of slow motion, freeze frames and other explanatory techniques. We see the machines compete against one another round after round through the championship.
The only mistake was not allowing this segment more time to unravel the designs and the designers' strategies. But what we see is worth sitting through one or two of the less interesting items in the show.
None of the items is completely without interest, but some are less well put together. There is a dramatic, perhaps overdramatic, story of a heart attack averted by new hospital techniques. There is fascinating film of a bombardier beetle, which protects itself by shooting a jet of hot, toxic chemicals at whatever attacks it.
There is an interesting but not very thorough piece on the great California Quake we have all been expecting for 20 years and why we should keep expecting it.
The worst of the lot was saved for last, a film bit on dream research. One of the virtues of the show, with the possible exception of the heart attack story and this last item, is that it does not overdramatize. It is largely factual, and seems to rely on what is naturally interesting in its subjects.
But the dream piece swings wildly into fantasy, goes far beyond what the research actually shows, slipping off into psychological nonsense that we have heard for decades about how a new method will let us understand ourselves and cope with our problems so much better in the future. The segment even uses that word that has been forcibly banned from the vocabulary of the better writers about science -- breakthrough. The dream research mentioned is no such thing.
To top it off, the producers have thrown out all skepticism and allowed a commercial message from a man who has made what he calls a "dream machine" that will help you be aware of and guide your dreams at night. Anyone out there still stuck with a slightly used and slightly useless old alpha-wave or biofeedback machine?
But overall, this show is a good one, the best thing of its kind on commercial television. Whether the producers can avoid fantasies in future programs and still come up with lively, solid science stories, remains to be seen.