Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman

The Science Channel is starting up yet another show on physics tonight, with Michio Kaku’s Sci-Fi Science and Into the Universe with Steven Hawking being joined by Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman. The topics being covered by Freeman are the usual ones: Black Holes, Aliens, Is Time Travel Possible? What Happened Before the Big Bang? etc.

The series unfortunately first starts out by bringing religion into it, with an episode called Is There a Creator?

Did our Universe just come into being by random chance, or was it created by a God who nurtures and sustains all life?

I gather that the episode begins with speculative physics elements that include Alan Guth on the multiverse and Garrett Lisi on E8 unification, but then moves on to speculative God stuff, with a neurophysiologist followed by the “maybe we’re just a simulation” business. The New York Times today has a depressing review, by a writer who wants more of the God part and less physics:

…this opening installment, which is supposed to be about whether there’s a Creator, almost immediately degenerates into theoretical yakking by scientists about unified theories of this and missing particles of that.

Especially with recent news coverage of that particle accelerator near Geneva, it seems as if we’d been hearing about this type of physics for a long time, and the discussion never does go anywhere or have much practical relevance. Anybody got a particle big enough to plug that busted oil pipe in the Gulf of Mexico?

Anyway, after about half an hour, Mr. Freeman’s show does get intermittently interesting because it turns itself more directly to the Creator question. (Questions are pivotal to this series; future episodes include “How Did We Get Here?” and “Are We Alone?”) Doesn’t answer it, of course, but does check in on an assortment of scientists who have an assortment of theories.

One thinks our idea of God is a kind of neuropsychological tic and plunks a ridiculous-looking contraption he calls a God helmet on research subjects’ heads to try to prove it. Another suggests that we’re nothing but a computer simulation created by our own descendants. If this program can stay away from same-old science and work this territory — theories that sound a little bit crackpotish, a little bit geniusy — it might set itself apart in an increasingly crowded genre.

Update: Chad Orzel weighs in here.

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32 Responses to Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman

  1. Grétar Amazeen says:

    I don’t know what is sadder, the show or the review. The world needs another Carl Sagan desperately!

  2. Garrett says:

    Sadly, I’m no Carl Sagan.

    I hope this episode isn’t terrible. I’ve only seen parts of it. I gave the producers lots of advice, and even introduced them to the Science & Entertainment Exchange. They had their own ideas and agenda though, and did their own thing. I’m mostly just hoping I don’t get What the Bleeped, or pronounced a physics prophet.

    The only thing about it that I know is good is that Morgan Freeman will talk a bit about Lie groups. That I’m happy about. The God stuff, not so much.

    And, err, there is a decent shot of me surfing.

  3. Amos says:

    How’s the e8 work coming then?

  4. Garrett says:

    E8 work is going well. Short paper coming soon — probably out next week.

    (Peter, feel free to curtail any inappropriate threads if we’re drifting off topic.)

  5. Mike says:

    I confess I am a mere consumer of such programming, and though I have not derived any of the force calculations referenced, I am impressed with the show. “More questions than answers” was promised, but a deeper dive than expected is the result. I will now research into Lie groups, because I really want to understand the math behind them, though I probably never will, fully. Was that really the north shore you were shot at–excellent surfing there!

  6. Chris Oakley says:

    Morgan Freeman talking about Lie groups? I just checked his wiki page and his qualifications in this regard seem to be that (i) he was a mechanic in the USAF and (ii) he has played God twice in movies. (i) requires (only) a working knowledge of O(3) and its subgroups, so I guess that he is getting in under (ii) which, I suppose would qualify him for just about anything (anything good, anyway).

  7. Tim van Beek says:

    The New York Times today has a depressing review, by a writer who wants more of the God part and less physics…

    Well, there has been a lot of coverage about the LHC, all the physicists keep on saying the same things, the discussion is not moving anywhere, and, frankly, I would like a well done documentary about different notions of “God” in the world religions of the present day and the past much more than anybody telling the same over and over again how the LHC could detect additional dimensions.

    Yes, it is depressing, but that’s not the fault of the reviewer 🙂

  8. Jeff Olszewski says:

    Well Dr. Lisi, your comments are spot on as usual. However, while it is true that you are no Carl Sagan (yet), I wouldn’t undercut the influence that your theory is having today, and will likely have in the future on physics. A buddy called me up last night and said “get to the TV now, Morgan Freeman is doing a spot on Dr. Lisi”. I enjoyed the show, even the God speculation, because I’m not a hard core physicist. One thing for sure, your legend is growing, in no small part because you are likely the only world class physicist who also surfs. Remember the movie line “Charlie don’t surf”? Well, “Garrett surfs” may someday be a T-shirt. Keep at it!

  9. Chris Oakley says:


    Your comment suggests a remake of Apocalypse Now with the String Theorists as the VC, Peter Woit as Col. Kurtz and Garrett Lisi as Lance the surfer.

    E.g. Captain Willard [not sure who that would be] looking at Peter’s dossier on the boat:

    At first, I thought I had wrong dossier. I couldn’t believe they who they’ve had for their enemy! Third generation Harvard, top of his class. Numerous degrees. About a thousand prizes. Etc, etc… I mean, I know this man, or at least I think I know him better than others do, but… I couldn’t connect who he was then with who is he now.

    He had an impressive career. Maybe too impressive … I mean perfect – Harvard, Princeton, PhD with Callan. Oh! He was being groomed for one of the top slots of the corporation. Professor, Head of Department, anything … In ’04 he returned from a lecture tour and things started to slip. The report to the DoE was highly restricted. Seems they didn’t dig what he had to tell them. During the next several months he made four requests for transfer back to physics. And he was finally accepted. Physics blogging? He was 44 years old, jack. Why the f-ck would he do that?

  10. Peter Woit says:

    The horror… the horror…

  11. MN says:

    “One thing for sure, your legend is growing, in no small part because you are likely the only world class physicist who also surfs.”

    This is so scary in so many ways.

    Lisi is no “world class physicist” (he seems honest and might even agree) and the fact that surfing makes one’s “physicist’s legend” status grow just shows that fans such as “Jeff Olszewski” are far more dangerous to science than your average creationist crank.

    Science is about describing the physical world.
    Lisi made no advances on this (public at least).
    Surfing and other wet dream fantastic irrelevancies such as the trash this post describes are just substitutes for the ignorant masses and these masses just keep asking for more (see the NYT review).

    “The horror… the horror…”


  12. anon. says:

    There are actually a lot of world-class physicists who surf. Which way the causation goes between this and the KITP being located on a beach, I don’t know.

  13. Thomas Larsson says:

    Hm. If KITP is located in the same building as the ITP was when I was a grad student, it is not located on the beach, but on the UCSB campus on the top of the cliffs. Now, *I* was frequently located on the beach (some of the tan still remains after 27 years), but that didn’t prevent me from being the only one in my class to pass the qualifier as a freshman.

  14. Chris Oakley says:


    Your comment is mean-minded as Lisi is certainly a world-class physicist.

    The question is more whether he is on to something or not.

    Personally, I doubt it, but if unrealistic expectations have built up, then he is probably just as embarrassed as you are.

  15. Tim van Beek says:

    …Lisi is certainly a world-class physicist.

    I vote to make physics an olympic discipline, then we would all know who is world-class and who is only replacement bench material 🙂

  16. Anonymous says:

    Found this blog in a Google search for this show.
    Just wanted to share my opinion:
    This first episode’s religious theme was a turnoff to me. I watch the Science Channel for science, not for religious BS, so I decided to skip this one. I may watch (some of?) the other episodes, but I wasn’t very attracted to spending an hour watching “speculative God stuff”.

  17. H-I-G-G-S says:

    Dr. Lisi has world-class fame as a physicist, even if no actual physics was done while achieving this fame. I’m pretty sure that is all that matters to the producers of this show.

  18. Hendrik says:

    Garrett, good to hear E8 is going well. Maybe I missed it, but was there an answer to:

  19. Are you sure that guy is writing for the NY Times?… sounds more like the NY Post!

  20. Risco says:

    “I think that’s what is so fascinating with that episode especially with Lisi’s theory of creation because he himself is an atheist and he totally accepts and understands that his theory can prove the existence of God and that’s one of those wonderful conundrums. We wanted to explore God and science, not God versus science.”

    That’s from the producer. Garret?

  21. D R Lunsford says:

    Shecky, the poor guy is just the theater and TV critic – and that’s the problem with these shows – they are so inchoate and filled with idle speculation that they cannot be reviewed based on any meritorious content, as could say the NOVA shows about the standard model, broadcast in the late 70s. These science shows are no better in fact than the endless stream of drivel about chucucabras, ghosts, aliens, angels etc. that also gushes from these cable networks.


  22. Ken says:

    I have no extensive education in physics, theoretical or otherwise. And after second year calculus, I was lost. But I must say I did enjoy this first episode of “Through the Wormhole.” The theories presented were done in an interesting way without any perceived bias.

    When the discussion of the origin of the universe crops up, the intelligent design debate is guaranteed to be close at hand. As Aristotle said, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

    I am the general public to whom I believe the series is targeted. I liked it and will watch the rest.

  23. david says:

    It seems obvious that this NYT writer knows next to nothing about the genre of theoretical physics. Apparently all he wants to hear is that the God he learned in Sunday school created everything on the SCIENCE channel. He denounces science based on the fact that the answers to all the questions havent been discovered in the 2 years the LHC has been working like it should be been all figured out over night. He doesn’t want to hear about “theoretical yakking by scientists about unified theories of this and missing particles of that.” Einstein died with this question in his head. Perhaps getting an understanding for a subject before spitting out an ignorant review on it would be a swell idea.

  24. Marc says:

    When Garrett says of the producers “They had their own ideas and agenda though, and did their own thing” he hits the nail on the head. There are some interesting gathering of facts, but i am quite sick and tired of pseudo science shows like “monster hunters” and “ghost investigators” and such, posing as real science to push an agenda. Unfortunately a small part of shows like these leak out as sound bites and get twisted and used. For instance, i had a discussion with a co-worker; he cited the existence of the “God Particle” to prove that scientists are forced to admit the existence of his christian god!
    oh well, the world will end in a couple of years anyway…

  25. Researcher says:

    Just a small side note: Garrett’s new preprint is already out there:

  26. Garrett says:

    Yes, this paper answers the question of whether or not a generation of fermions embeds in E8. Curiously, Distler’s lengthy response came within minutes of the paper appearing on the arxiv. Getting a few days’ lead on new papers is one of the perks of being on the arxiv board I suppose.

  27. Peter Woit says:

    Thanks Garrett,

    The introductory section of that blog posting is pretty remarkable. I’m still wondering what argument the hep-th moderator uses to justify censoring trackbacks to this blog, thought maybe it was that I’m sometimes obnoxiously snide. But now, it’s clear that that can’t be the argument….

  28. H-I-G-G-S says:


    The time stamp on Distler’s blog energy is 9:17pm. I presume this is CST since he is in Texas. ArXiv papers are available starting at 7PM CST, so that is 137 minutes, a quantity of time rarely referred to as “within minutes.” I don’t see any reason why he couldn’t have written the post in that amount of time. After all, your recent paper in no way contradicts the results of his paper with Garibaldi.

  29. Peter Woit says:


    Lubos is the only one in the business who can read papers and write blog articles at that length (with graphics!), that fast…

    In any case, as far as I know there’s no rule against arXiv moderators reading papers as they come in. If you care about this issue, you should ask Jacques himself.

  30. jpd says:

    “your recent paper in no way contradicts the results of his paper with Garibaldi” i agree with that, you agree with that, i even think Distler agrees with that. i am not sure why he takes it so personally. its just a question of definitions.
    until a prediction comes out, both Lisi and Distler are not even wrong.

  31. H-I-G-G-S says:

    Peter, I don’t care about it, I was simply correcting the impression left by Garrett’s incorrect description of the time involved. People who are careless with the truth about small things also tend to be careless with larger things, in my experience.

    jpd, it is not a question of definitions, it is a question of physics. In particular it is a question of how chiral fermions work, the difference between real and complex representations, and the physical implications of having mirror fermions or anti-generations in Distler’s language. Here Distler is definitely correct and Garrett is engaging in wishful thinking.

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