Television Review

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The Independent Culture
THE BEST scientists explain their theories in terms that anybody can understand. Hence, the Snotty Adolescent theory of planetary formation, as outlined in the first part of The Planets (BBC2). In the beginning, the Sun was surrounded by a whirling cloud of dust and gas; as this cooled, dust began to agglomerate into small rocks, which pulled in more and more material and quickly accreted into small planets. It's at this point, according to David Levy, that the solar system reached its teenage years and became dysfunctional - or, in the words of Hal Levison of the South Western Research Institute, Colorado, it was "a wild frat party. All hell breaks loose in the inner part of the solar system. Things are swung around, half the stuff either hits the Sun or gets thrown out to Jupiter, which can then knock it out of the solar system. It's a very violent, happening party." Put it another way: the music of the spheres is actually heavy metal.

The Planets has it all: wacky American scientists, melancholy Russians, arresting archive footage (including the first view of the Earth from space, filmed by a camera strapped to one of Werner von Braun's little contraptions not long after he'd been whisked back to America), snazzy computer-generated animation of worlds colliding and exploding... In fact, it has far too much. The problem is, it's too anxious to translate science into human terms. So alongside the cosmic narrative, how the solar system came to be, last night's episode included a man-sized narrative - how the solar system came to be understood. This storyline was itself divided into two interlocking plots: on the one hand, a history of observation and theory, beginning with Clyde Tombaugh's discovery of Pluto in 1930; on the other, the history of space exploration - which itself split into two further narratives, USA and USSR.

Scurrying between all these stories, the programme seemed at times deliberately obscure and teasing, jumping from Immanuel Kant to V2s, from the crashing of planets to Sputnik's plaintive beeps. Some solid facts and intriguing links did emerge out of this whirling cloud of narrative. Clyde Tombaugh re-emerged as the man who rigged up camera systems to follow von Braun's early space rockets on their upwards journey, for instance; but a lot of ideas just zipped out past Jupiter.

Still, the human dimension did make the programme more affecting than pure science can be. George Weatherill, an early advocate of the accretion theory of planetary formation, recalled how, in 1973, he had sat in the control room as the Mariner 10 probe approached Mercury and the first images of the planet's surface began to come through. Other astronomers had predicted that Mercury's surface would be smooth; but as the camera closed in and the craters began to appear, Weatherill knew he had been proved right. That must have been the crowning moment of his career; 25 years on, he still glowed with pleasure at the memory. The only people in the control room more excited than him were the military men: they kept saying "Isn't that beautiful? It's just like the '52 drop on 'Nam." Yeah, well, sometimes you could live without the human element.