Infinite Horizons

Last night’s ‘Horizon’ was on a big concept, a very big concept, possibly the biggest concept of them all, for it was on Infinity. It certainly got me thinking, but not in ways that the makers intended.

Once upon a time, television took the popularisation of science seriously. Programmes were made that focused upon educating, rather than merely entertaining, those watching. People such as mathematician Jacob Bronowski brought us( in 1973 and on 16mm film) ‘The Ascent of Man’ and astrophysicist Carl Sagan brought the wonders of the Universe to our living rooms in the 1980 series ‘Cosmos’.

It wasn’t just that these were series that sets them apart, for even today we have mini-series ‘covering’ similar subjects, it was the presenters themselves. These two, who each died in their early sixties, were erudite scholars whose slow-paced delivery gave us time – time to think, to dwell upon, to absorb and to admire. They were unusual in having the ability to communicate huge, complex ideas and make them intelligible to us lesser mortals.

They, and a very few others, were not only ambassadors for science but also, in Sagan’s case, passionate debunkers of pseudo-science. When ‘Cosmos’ was broadcast I was working in a bookshop. For every copy of the accompanying book that we sold, we sold several more copies from Erich von Daniken’s armada of ‘bad science’ demonstrating how necessary debunkers such as Sagan were.

In the ensuing decades, that armada has become a flood of half-backed, anti-science purporting to ‘explain’ and give meaning to life in a Godless Universe. The need for the likes of Bronowski and Sagan is even greater now than it was 30 or 40 years ago.

‘Horizon’ should be building upon it’s once great and honourable past but, alas, even it has allowed ‘entertaining’ to take precedence over educating.

Ronald Graham, the man after whom ‘Graham’s Number’ is named, explained that his number is the largest known number to actually possess a name. It is (as one of the young children in the programme being asked about Infinity might say)  a very, very, very big number but, thanks to Ronald Graham, it is known to exist and has uses in the esoteric universe of the Pure Mathematician.

Graham was allowed to entertain us by showing that only thing that is certain about Graham’s Number is that its final digit is a 7.

He was not allowed to educate us in the (Secondary school) arithmetic that leads to this knowledge.

I would like to see Ronald Graham present a programme on his number because that would be educational as well as entertaining.

As it was, the programme climaxed (an apt term in this ‘sexed-up’ era) with a calculation of how far one would have to travel to find one’s nearest doppelganger, living on a ‘parallel Earth’ in the infinity of universes that may well be out there.

I just hope that their popular science programmes are superior to ours…


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