Is it possible to discuss protons and photons and quarks and weak bosons and gluons and gravitons in one 90-minute program without being incomprehensible to the average viewer, impossibly dull, or do disservice to the world of physics?
Timothy Ferris, an award-winning science writer, will attempt that task Wednesday when PBS stations air "The Creation of the Universe" at 9.
Ferris, a soft-spoken professor at the University of Southern California, admits that "Creation" is a program pegged toa high level. But he hopes that viewers will come away with enthusiasm for man's attempt to explain the behavior of matter and energy at the instant the universe was born 15 billion years ago.
Because this is a story that is still unfolding, Ferris worried as he and his crew worked on the program that someone might find an answer -- a simple, "elegant" theory -- that would scuttle his maiden film effort. No one has, although the new "superstring" theory of the past year, postulating not three or four but 10 dimensions, appears to be a front-runner.
For Ferris, the production was something of a struggle itself. Author of three books and a host of science articles, winner of the American Association for the Advancement of Science prize for science writing and the American Institute of Physics prize for writing on physics and astronomy, and a contributing editor to Rolling Stone for eight years, he had his own ideas about how things should be done -- even when those ideas conflicted with those of more veteran filmmakers. Ferris, who owned half of the production company, prevailed, opting at times for costly shots and special effects he thought would linger with the viewers. "We stayed in fleabag hotels and flew tourist so that Francis (Kenny, director of photography) could have his new lights," he explained.
Ferris is generally pleased with his product, which was underwritten by Texas Instruments ("They were great -- no interference at all. They just said, 'You're professionals -- you know what you're doing' "). Texas Instruments is also providing free materials for classroom use.
The program begins with black-and- white footage of Albert Einstein and remarks from several physicists, including Murray Gell-Mann, Nobel Prize-winner for his discovery of the quark; Allan Sandage, discoverer of quasars; Nobel Prize-winner Steven Weinberg and cosmologist John Archibald Wheeler.
They pose fascinating concepts, such as "Every single atom inside your body was oce inside a star" and "Ordinary objects are full of clues about cosmic history" and "If there was a creation event, it had to have a cause." And they are unanimous in the opinion that the theory of the creation of the universe will be simple, "beautiful," "elegant," agreeing with Isaac Newton that "nature does nothing in vain, and more is in vain when less will serve."
Wheeler notes: "To my mind, there must be at the bottom of it all an utterly simple idea. And to me that idea, when we finally discover it, will be so compelling, so inevitable, so beautiful that we will all say to each other, 'Oh, how could it have been otherwise?' "
To make his topic easier to grasp, Ferris begins at New York's Times Square and walks the viewer backward in time -- at a century per step -- to when that site was farmland, an Indian trail, eventually to the epoch of the mastodons and to the Ice Age, when the Hudson River was born. Computer-generated animation tracs the changes; original music by Brian Eno accompanies the script.
Ferris takes you to Fermilab in Illinois, home of a nuclear accelerator three miles in circumference, and to Lucerne, where 6,000 people are engaged in pure physics research in a facility administered jointly by 13 nations; to a baseball game to illustrate what happens when the ball and bat collide, and to a seminar where Cambridge University professor Stephen Hawking, in the latter stages of Lou Gehrig's disease, discusses quantum physics and cosmology with the aid of a younger colleague who interprets his unintelligible speech. The scene is amazing and touching and very, very human.
So Ferris aims to take you by the hand and lead you through two great fields of science, cosmology (the structure of the universe as a whole) and particle physics (the tiny realm within the nucleus of the atom). He wants you to appreciate the detective work that scientists are doing to find out what went on in the first split second after the "Big Bang" that most of them believe created our universe.
"We'll learn something about how everything got to be the way it is," Ferris tells his viewers. If you've ever wondered about what preceded once-upon-a-time, that's an offer you may want to accept.