PBS Launches Six-Part Series `The Astronomers'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THE graphics are dazzling, the facts spellbinding, and the ideas sound straight out of sci-fi. But here's the moment from ``The Astronomers'' that may stay with you the longest: a scientist gleefully singing a Gilbert and Sullivan-ish parody about his profession, while his car slowly climbs the curvy road up to the world's highest observatory at Hawaii's Mauna Kea. It's one of the myriad human touches that makes the massive six-part weekly series - premi`ering Monday, 8 p.m., on PBS - such an engaging and sometimes irresistible piece of work, both as information and as television. At heart, ``The Astronomers'' is education in the guise of an anti-lecture - a prodigiously researched, richly detailed, almost compulsively visual report on the pursuit of astrophysics by people whose lives the show wants you to share.

The real topic is astronomy as a calling - the genteel obsession of professionals who patiently try to explain concepts that often seem a conspiracy against common sense. You don't always understand precisely what it is the astronomers are looking for - even after the series - but you realize it's at the heart of truth.

The producers seem ever-conscious - maybe a little nervous - about the gulf between astronomers and viewers. Astronomers deal with subjects like light that started out 12 billion years ago, the hunt for ``gravitational arcs,'' and a storm on Neptune that's larger than the Earth. Between those ideas and what viewers usually think about lies a big gulf.

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How to bridge the gulf? By making this series live up to its title - by dealing with the daunting data through the lives of the people who gather it with telescopes and number-crunch it in computers. People like Vera Rubin of Washington, D.C., who in Episode 1 on Monday looks for invisible ``dark matter'' that makes up most of the universe, and Leonid Grishchuk of Moscow, a passionate pursuer of gravity waves, who is covered in Episode 4 (May 6).

The production never takes your interest for granted. It's like a gracefully executed dramatic film whose ``plot'' takes shape through a continuous flow of fast cuts and bits of dialogue. The pieces are all nicely calibrated to build a logical and intriguing whole, but the show is too edgy about your attention span to stay long on one scene. The ``dark matter'' theme of Episode 1, for instance, emerges cumulatively from references by Ms. Rubin and from the narrative by Richard Chamberlain. You see her i n motion, flipping a book or moving papers - a gray-haired figure playing a kind of pantomime role while a voiceover describes her daily routine.

Desert settings, Hawaiian mountains - the series is so steeped in local color you think you're watching a travelogue. When Tony Tyson goes to Chile to scan the sky, the show wouldn't think of giving up this chance at shooting a native band in brilliant costume playing guitar and pipes. In the process, the series covers five continents.

But the real task of wooing your eye falls to the new-age graphics used to ``make the invisible visible,'' as one worker describes it - like visualizing light bending under gravity's influence. Three animation houses worked on the computer-generated imagery. The series' executive producer, Blaine Blaggett, told me $1 million was spent on animation alone. The results are exhilarating in their precision and mobility. You are rushed forward into a spiral galaxy, its stars become singly visible as you pass them. You soar through hazy clouds of diffuse matter.

With all this, the series really doesn't need so much eerie music and portentous phrasing. Producers seem feverishly determined not to let you catch them defaulting to standard talking heads.

Actually there are plenty of those, and sometimes it's a relief. You get a chance to breathe, to simply be told what the point is without the aid of an over-achieving production style. And we could use fewer clich'es about ``the struggle to understand'' - spoken to inspirational background music. The series does get a little draggy at times, as you see still another cluster of excited scientists exchanging ideas.

But the series throw plenty of lifelines to the earth for viewers. One of them is ``sidewalk astronomer'' John Dobson, featured in Episode 1. He's spent his life bringing astronomy to the people by helping them make telescopes and then looking through them. Sometimes at night he holds ``star parties'' for all comers. In a way, ``The Astronomers'' is a multimillion-dollar star party.

All Mr. Dobson asks is a clear night and people. ``The Astronomers'' asks for more from viewers and producers, but Dobson's populist philosophy probably also sums up the premise of the series: ``What's the use of someone who doesn't wonder?'' he says. ``It's the hallmark of our species.''

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