PBS Series: Often Brilliant, Sometimes Blurry

THE RING OF TRUTH With Philip Morrison. Six-part weekly television series premiering October 20, 1987 on Public Broadcasting Service stations. Produced by Public Broadcasting Associates. A major government researcher once complained that his bosses used his scientific findings the way a drunk uses a lamppost: for support rather than illumination. The new PBS science series, The Ring of Truth, prepared as “an inside look at how science knows what it knows,” similarly seems to be us

Oct 19, 1987
Norman Kagan

THE RING OF TRUTH

With Philip Morrison. Six-part weekly
television series premiering October
20, 1987 on Public Broadcasting
Service stations. Produced by Public
Broadcasting Associates.

A major government researcher once complained that his bosses used his scientific findings the way a drunk uses a lamppost: for support rather than illumination. The new PBS science series, The Ring of Truth, prepared as “an inside look at how science knows what it knows,” similarly seems to be using the brilliance of science often for one purpose, but occasionally for the other.

The six consecutive weekly one-hour programs, which premiere October 20, are hosted by feisty MIT professor Philip Morrison. They deal with three main concerns of science: instrumentation, investigation and concepts. “Looking” and “Mapping,” the first and third in the series, both stay close to real history and real practice, and probably are the two best programs. The other four are well done, but less than totally successfull.

“Looking,” the first episode, is suggestive of the general approach to the series. It starts at MIT, where Morrison plays with television imagery, and then shows the limitations of human vision via flip books, optical illusions and a street magician. Next the program shifts to Venice where Galileo’s development of the telescope is detailed, with emphasis on how his discoveries of planetary “flaws” showed the essential unity of the universe, the imperfect Earth’s resemblances to the once-believed “perfect” cosmos. The program concludes with the important point that science can be viewed as a dialogue between new instruments and new theories, each continually testing the other.

“Change,” the second episode, deals with conservation of matter and energy Its most memorable sequences include a sealed box in which sparklers explode and toy penguins climb stairs, and a study of Tour de France bicycle racers using “jelly doughnut” food units that show the balance between energy intake and output.

“Mapping” shows how mapping techniques were developed, as Morrison and company use Eratosthenes’ method to find U.S. longitudes, and Casaini’s tables of the motions of Jupiter’s moon to locate latitudes. Other sequences show sonar and satellite mapping.

The episode titled “Clues” outlines how deep-sea drilling cores and other studies revealed that the Mediterranean sea had been drained dry once and then flooded when the Atlantic poured in through Gibraltar. Somehow the “mystery” is never set up strongly or made important; like a detective show without a crime or corpse, it contains just cops finding odd clues and evidence until the mystery and its solution become clear and logical, but tedious. Another weakness is the reliance on shots of experts talking from Death Valley or the Dead Sea, supposedly suggesting the dried-up Med of antiquity. A good strong opening showing the Gibraltar catastrophe would have been a better choice.

“Atoms” tries by various metaphors—gold beaten to goldleaf, a diamond heated to carbon, a comic noodle twirler—to suggest the idea of matter sorted into a pure set. This is followed by an unclear explanation of quantum theory leading up to a photographic image of a single atom, a colored dot. Like “Change,” this episode tries to ignore historical events, figures and chronology Despite lively images, both episodes are vague and seem to be interested more in using science to prop up fancy visuals than in seeking visual material that could best serve the cause of science.

“Doubt,” the final program in the series, deals with efforts to learn the makeup of stars. While showing how stellar spectra have been recorded for many decades, and humanizing the work of several women astronomers, the show never really makes clear how the spectra led to knowledge of star composition. Perhaps it races on too soon to deal with the mysterious “dark matter.” The astronomers conclude happily that this new mystery makes their work more exciting; unfortunately viewers are left more or less where they came in: in the dark.

In the public relations materials that accompany The Ring of Truth Morrison states: “The key thing for science films is to show the evidence, but the media believes more in testimony and atmosphere.” To that, this writer-producer, judging this series, gives the old Scottish verdict: “Not proven.”

Kagan, who holds mathematics and film degrees, is a longtime writer-producer of science media. He is now developing a new science television program, Spacetime Continuum News. His address is 408 E. 64th St., New York, NY 10021. A companion book by Philip and Phylis Morrison, The Ring of Truth, is scheduled to be published this month by Random House ($24.95, 320 pp.). Videocassettes of the series also are available from PBS Video at (800) 344-3337 or 1320 Braddock Place, Alexandria, VA 223 14-1698. All six programs can be purchased for $495 (VHS format); single episodes cost $125.