Television Review: Horizon

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The Independent Culture
THERE ARE TWO schools of thought on the way the world will end, the Bangers and the Whimperers (three if you count "Why worry?" as a school of thought). For some time, the Bangers have had the upper hand. Ever since the Big Bang, their story goes, all the matter in the universe has been rushing outwards. Sooner or later, though, gravity will win out, that initial rush will slow to a crawl, then stop. Then the universe will begin to collapse in on itself. For a brief interlude, all matter will be bundled into a space the size of a beach-ball and then, with a whump, space and time will end.

Now things are swinging the Whimperers' way. Horizon (BBC2) steered with impressive clarity through the arguments currently occupying cosmologists. These hang on supernovae. Supernovae - stars which have become so dense they explode - are useful yardsticks for measuring what is going on in the universe. Since the critical density which causes the explosion is always the same, all supernovae are as bright as each other. So if a supernova looks dim, it is because it is far away.

Unfortunately, supernovae happen rarely and don't last long. It is only in the last few years that an American team has developed the technology to photograph large enough swathes of the night sky - and sophisticated enough software to analyse the photographs - to be confident of spotting them when they happen. Having measured 42 of them, they may have come up with the answer to life, the universe and everything. If I've got this right, some of these supernovae are about 20 per cent dimmer than they should be - that is, much further away than expected. So the expansion of the universe is not slowing down; if anything, it is speeding up. This has two implications: one is that gravity is being counteracted by some other force, possibly energy generated by strange particles winking in and out of existence in the vacuum of space. The other is that the universe will go on spinning outwards; and as the stars get further apart, it will become darker, colder and lonelier.

"This is not a good way for the universe to go," said one cosmologist. In contrast with the scientists' propensity for understatement, the commentary showed a regrettable tendency to pump up its vocabulary to match the subject matter (the beginning of the universe was described as "extraordinary": what would count as an ordinary start to its existence?). Still, it did talk for 50 minutes about the end of the world without once mentioning the millennium.

From light as physical constant to light as shifting, elusive, source of transcendence. Mad about Monet (BBC1) examined the insane popularity, and insane prices, of his paintings. Indeed, the Monet/money pun was so pervasive that you wondered if this could somehow be a factor. I wasn't sure which was loopiest: pounds 18 million paid for a single painting, or Philippe the Frog, a cuddly toy from the lily pond at Giverny, who has been a top-seller at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts' Monet exhibition. One critic pointed to a landscape of poplars receding along the curve of a river, and said that the more he looked, the more the trees seemed to form a dollar sign. The camera moved in on the painting: he was absolutely right.