The sheer awfulness of last night’s History Channel program on physics is hard to exaggerate. Here’s some of what Clifford Johnson (one of the participants in the program) wrote on his blog while watching it:
Oh, right… I remember “there are dinosaurs in your living room” thing. Oh dear. It is coming on in 8 minutes here, and so I guess I’ll pour myself a long single malt and prepare myself. I’ve still got faith in Andy, though…
Got to first commercial break. Er… need more whiskey. There’s some good science embedded in there somewhere (e.g., Tegmark talking about inflation, and WMAP results and flatness and so forth (but the laser beams!?)), but the voice-over (among others) is taking serious liberties (like claiming right at the beginning of the show that scientists have evidence that there may be parallel universes…sigh. No, No, No, No. That was really not necessary.)…
Need. More. Whiskey*.
Ok… That’s it. I had a lot of fun shooting my stuff for this, and while I know that it is maybe really not polite to say this, and I really like Andy and the crew who put this together…but I can’t really defend this. They really really should have sent this out in time for us contributors to comment on. By time I saw the rough cut and sent in suggestions it was too late… I presume other sensible people contributing to this such as Ovrut, Lykken, etc, would have liked to have seen a rough cut of this and made remarks. It is really clear that the VO and script was written without a very good understanding of some of the basic concepts in place, and certainly not a careful regard for what’s accurate and what is blatantly misleading. Anyone watching this would think that string theory or M-theory is experimentally verified and a working tool used to study the early universe… I spilled my whiskey when they showed pictures of people working in (what looked like optics) laboratories while talking about “years of research into string theory…”.
I have never ever heard of this “level x” business. I don’t know who says that. But what was with the laser beams?! Where did that come from? Not the burning a hole in the fabric of spacetime and escaping a dying universe to go to another (WHAT?!), but the shooting them out from WMAP in order to measure the flatness of the universe. What was that?! And did you see the red struts between the blue branes that were supposed to be the “extra dimensions holding the branes in place”? What was that?!
This is all so sad because there’s so much, as we say above, good TV that could be made of this material if done right.
Ok. I’m done with this. It’s very sad.
One would like to just ignore something like this and let it fade into obscurity, but the problem is that the History Channel is likely to keep rebroadcasting it for years and years, doing continuing damage to the public understanding of science and the public image of physicists. I don’t really see how an intelligent person can watch this thing and not come away with the impression that theoretical physicists are a bunch of idiots. It seems to me that it would be a good idea for people in general, and the scientists involved in this in particular (Clifford Johnson, Max Tegmark, Michio Kaku, Joe Lykken and Alex Filippenko) to contact the History Channel with a polite request that this program not be rebroadcast, and that steps be taken to avoid creating more disasters of the same kind.
Update: Chad Orzel also saw the program and has some comments about it one of its dumber aspects, beginning with:
Yeesh. That was so actively irritating that I don’t know where to start.