Daytime TV: Cheese or branes?

Gary Day learns that nothing is not necessarily what we think it is, and is inspired by a tale of aspiration

October 21, 2010

Credit: Miles Cole

Cosmologists are people lucky enough to have made a career out of those late-night conversations we all had when young about the nature of the Universe. Right now, they are chatting about the Big Bang (Horizon: What Happened Before the Big Bang? BBC Two, Monday 11 October, 9pm). How could something have come from nothing? "It all depends on what you mean by nothing," said Michio Kaku.

He was standing in the biggest vacuum chamber in the world. "It takes two days to pump out all the air and another week to freeze out all the molecules." How long it will take to pump out Michio is anybody's guess. But at least his presence proved the void is not completely empty. Before the beginning of everything, particles popped in and out of existence. One day, two bumped into each other causing an explosion whose almighty force was conveyed on screen by a sparkler.

Professor Andrei Linde was not impressed with Michio's theory. As far as he was concerned, you don't need the Big Bang. Inflation explains everything. He used the analogy of cheese. If you warm it up, bubbles appear. They are universes, the cheese is a heavy vacuum. "You can even calculate how many universes there are in the cheese," he said. Deciding that the best option was to humour him, a disembodied voice (which could have been God, except that He doesn't narrate science programmes) asked, "How many?" "Ten to the power of ten to the power of ten to the power of seven," said Andrei.

Professor Neil Turok popped into existence to dismiss Andrei's Welsh rarebit theory of the Universe as "arbitrary". The problem with the Big Bang, as he saw it, was that the Universe emerged from a point of infinite density, and mathematicians don't like infinity. It is a very strange concept. For a start, some infinities are bigger than others. If that is not mentally being put on the rack, then how about this? In an infinite universe, anything that can happen will happen. Sadly, we can't wait that long for a properly funded education system. Perhaps the most disturbing idea associated with infinity is that it entails endless copies of everything, although with no guarantee of improvement. Sometimes it feels as if we haven't travelled very far from Plato and his philosophy of ideal forms.

Neil's answer to the problem of the Big Bang was a revised theory of gravity. At a certain point, gravity does not attract, it repels. Consequently, it never gets to that point of infinite density that so troubles the tidy mathematical mind. In this scheme, the Universe is like an enormously slow heartbeat, a seeming eternity between systole and diastole. But what set it going in the first place? That's what I want to know.

Neil had an answer, as you might expect. You don't get to be director of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics if you can't solve a little problem like the origin of the Universe. It takes brains. I mean, branes. These are two-, three-, four- or five-dimensional membranes floating like handkerchiefs through nothingness until they flap against one another. Then, hey presto! A hand plucks them up to reveal a glitter ball: the Cosmos.

Professor Laura Mersini-Houghton used string theory to tie everything together. Her big idea is that the Universe is not a place but a great big wave - indicating what, though? Hello? Goodbye? Apparently her equations, which predict the existence of a multiverse, match several observations: that galaxies are moving in the wrong direction, that there's a missing patch in the background radiation and that there's something odd about the temperature in outer space.

The producers of Horizon cling stubbornly to the notion of an educated public curious about the big questions of life. Well done them. The fools. But as Shakespeare showed, we can't do without our clowns. The proper ones I mean. Not those in power.

Wonderland (Boy Cheerleaders, BBC Two, Wednesday 13 October, 9pm) is back. My life is complete. The quirky documentary series kicked off its third season following a group of nine boys as they trained to become the first all-male cheerleading team. Ten-year-old Harvey was the main focus. He wanted to be like Billy Elliot. "I want me dad to come and see me. I'll be chuffed to bits if he does." But you knew he wouldn't. Harvey doesn't even have his number. The troupe were trained by Ian, whose bleached locks were the only spot of colour on the council estate. "It's all about making them realise they can aspire to more than South Leeds," he said. He wasn't joking. DAZL Diamonds came third in the national championships and Harvey got through his first audition at the Northern Ballet. David Willetts could learn a thing or two from Ian.

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