journey to the edge of the universe

December 11, 2008 — 1 Comment

National Geographic has taken on the final frontier, going where many documentaries have gone before but never with such style and such up to date information. It’s new special, Journey to the Edge of the Universe, is a stylish trip through as much of the known cosmos as you can squeeze into an hour and a half. If you’re into astronomy, it’s a must see. Unfortunately, this terrific show does have a few flaws that should be noted.


The first is the narration. The author is obviously in love with the subject matter and that’s something I can certainly understand. Space is beautiful and enigmatic. There’s much to appreciate about it. However, there’s quite a bit of rather distracting purple prose a good deal of which seems rather recycled and clichd. In the scope of the program, you’re a traveler who roams through the universe as a disembodied entity, witnessing all its beauty firsthand. But the esoteric musings in the background telling you how to appreciate what you’re seeing does get distracting at times.

Another point of contention is the brief mention of the Drake equation and how it supposedly predicts the possibility of millions of advanced species in the Milky Way. Actually, we can’t really solve it and we have no idea what most of the variables in the equation are in the first place. The possible solution which yields millions of alien civilizations in our galaxy is an optimistic guess at best, generously allowing for all sorts of wonderful alien habitats and with heavy Lamarckian overtones. Scientists who thought that our stellar neighborhood should be teeming with alien empires assumed that extraterrestrial life on habitable worlds should eventually develop some sort of intelligence. But intelligence is a random occurrence, not a rule.

Likewise, Journey misses something important when it highlights the world of Gliese 581c. It’s introduced as an Earth-like planet with just the right temperature for liquid water and life. The documentary also goes as far as to speculate about possible alien civilizations living in a kind of extrasolar Eden. But actually, there’s a controversy over how warm Gliese 581c really is and a number of astronomers think that its sibling, 581d is the habitable planet. Of course there’s no way to tell what the exact conditions on these planets really are.

Both of them are right on the edge of having just the right temperature for liquid water on their surface and depending on the composition of their atmospheres, both could be habitable. How about that? Two Earths in one solar system just 20 light years away. When we can travel to the stars, Gliese 581 will surely be one of our first destinations. Humans could never land on either planet though. At seven times Earth’s mass, walking on both worlds would feel like dogfighting in a supersonic jet.

Overall, Journey to the Edge of the Universe is a solid show. If you want to see some of the most talked about images and discoveries brought to life in crisp, beautiful CG, it beats almost any other space documentary by a long shot. But be ready for passionate odes to the beauty of space that go a little too far and keep in mind that some of the more tantalizing ideas about alien life aren’t nearly as definitive as they’re presented.

  • Popgun

    One of the terms in the Drake Equation is the average lifespan of technological civilizations. I’m beginning to think this may be a fairly short length of time, given that we only have one data point to work with.