Inexact science with an irresistible pull

October 7, 2005

Supernova: the Black Hole

BBC Two, 10pm Tuesdays from October 11

Despite my 35 years' experience of astronomy and professional observers, it had never occurred to me that an observatory could provide such a novel setting for a comedy series.

But in Supernova , the hapless British astronomer Paul Hamilton (Rob Brydon) lands with a jolt on the scorching red earth of Broken Hill in the Australian Outback to join a motley bunch of highly intelligent scientists at one of the world's most advanced facilities, the Royal Australian Observatory.

Hamilton is pleased to be hired, having left behind a boring girlfriend and a cat in the UK. But, of course, he is initially the odd man out with his reserved manner, a gauche eagerness to please and the wrong clothes.

In 1975, the first time I visited the Anglo-Australian Telescope, I arrived, just like Hamilton, in a little aircraft that circled the grassy airstrip a couple of times to scare off the roos. I made the return flight in the company of a suspected murderer, who was handcuffed to two detectives.

Outback astronomy is full of surprises. At the observatory, I remember the tough guy who stopped the young postdocs from wrecking the show, a world-beating detector of precious photons and a locally recruited technician who spoke in a rustic vernacular that totally baffled the whingeing Poms, myself included.

Supernova has all these features, and many more besides.

The observatory director, Rachel (Kat Stewart), is a brilliant ice maiden whose partner is an astronaut aboard an observatory orbiting Mars. They chat regularly, in hushed tones - with no time delay whatsoever. He controls a terrestrial satellite to spy on her, which leads to scenes of comical ambiguity.

Harry Cripps' script employs standard comedy devices, such as double entendre and sexual innuendo. And, of course, an observatory has bedrooms - in this case all cosily furnished with double beds. These Outback astronomers are not temporary visitors from Sydney: they live in the observatory, just as most astronomers did in the 19th century.

The presence of living quarters at the observatory allows for plot development that recalls the golden era of British television comedy, the 1970s and Fawlty Towers . Hamilton and Basil Fawlty share many behavioural traits.

Hamilton's task is to investigate a new black hole. The observing situation is very odd. For a start, the observatory is freezing cold because the air conditioning is running - despite the fact that the dome is open and the external temperature is a searing 40C. But that doesn't matter to their magical telescope, which has a small aperture and yet can make high-resolution video images of the event horizon of a black hole billions of light years away.

We should not expect the science to be exactly correct, and it isn't. The focal ratio of the telescope is off by a factor of ten at least, and Hamilton improbably detects lithium-12 bursting out of the black hole.

However, these technical slips do not detract from a hugely enjoyable and entertaining show, with sparkling wit.

Observers can amuse themselves by matching the screen characters to their colleagues.

Supernova may even draw a fresh cohort of students into astronomy, putting a whole new spin on the concept of public outreach.

Simon Mitton is a fellow of St Edmund's College, Cambridge and a historian of astronomy.

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