Assessing a Century of Science And Its Impact on Humanity

Ambitious series details rapid change but bypasses some hard issues

At the brink of the millennium, it is only natural that we should look back over the most remarkable of centuries and take stock of the vast changes the world has seen since 1901. "A Science Odyssey" (PBS, 8-10 p.m., check local listings) attempts to assess what all the discoveries, innovations, and advancements in science and technology have meant to mankind.

The 10-hour series, which begins Sunday and runs through Thursday, Jan. 15, breaks up the scientific issues into five segments: medicine, physics and astronomy, psychology, technology, and earth and life sciences. Well-researched and entertainingly con- structed, the series is best when it demonstrates relationships between the sciences and when it explains difficult scientific ideas in laymen's terms.

Ambitious as are its goals, however, the series has some serious flaws - errors of omission, mostly - and as intelligent as it is, sometimes it sounds more like promotion than history.

Old beliefs

Each segment begins at the turn of the century, describing in vivid terms the prevailing beliefs of the period. The episodes unfold great events and discoveries that changed not only the way we look at the world, but the way we live our lives.

Old beliefs are replaced - many to be discarded again with new discoveries, theories, or contraptions. Science is a series of shifting paradigms, and as great minds open up new areas of discovery, they can be closed to others. Einstein, for example, discovered the theory of relativity but could not ultimately accept quantum mechanics.

"Matters of Life and Death," the first installment, offers an overview of medical practice and progress. Opening with images from the World's Fair of 1901, host Charles Osgood sets the tenor of the program - how primitive medical practice was at the turn of the century. The history of improvements in surgery, epidemiology, and the discovery of new treatments follows.

One of the most illuminating moments deals with the cultural resistance to feeding orphans and prisoners a balanced diet when pellagra ravished the South. The program is very explicit and includes footage of cancer operations and terminally ill children.

"Mysteries of the Universe," on the explosion of knowledge in physics and astronomy, comes next and is the best of the five segments. Early in the century, George Ellery Hale built the world's largest telescope, then Edwin Hubble discovered with Hale's telescope that the galaxies are moving away from us at incredible speeds. Hubble and other scientists concluded that the universe is expanding - leading to the "big-bang" theory. Einstein discovered that time and distance are relative, Ernest Rutherford that atoms are mostly empty space. Nils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg focused in on the electrons, leading to quantum mechanics.

Theories about behavior

"In Search of Ourselves" is rather more troubling. A belief early in the century that human behavior is fixed at birth, is challenged by some scientists who believe that behavior is determined by environment: nature versus nurture. The former belief sparked the grotesque attempt to control the development of the human race with eugenics - a belief Hitler clung to. Ironically, it was the discoveries of another American behaviorist, John Watson, whose concepts about conditioning Hitler used in his propaganda machine.

The segment covers early beliefs about "hysteria," shell shock, the discoveries of Freud and his almost religious following, and psychotropic drugs. One psychologist tells us earnestly that since recent discoveries about the brain, we have had to change our ideas about man as a spiritual being. It's a weird leap to have made, never explained, and oddly presumptuous.

"Better, Bigger, Faster" explores the wonderful world of technology. It demonstrates how war encouraged the development of planes, commerce coaxed the radio into the world (a short leap then to TV), and the cold war led directly to the computer age.

Our origins

Finally, we come to "Origins" (which should have followed "Mysteries of the Universe," since they have many things in common). The hottest theories about the end of the dinosaurs and the origins of humans can be intensely interesting.

The series makes interesting connections (Watson's discoveries in behaviorism applied by Madison Avenue) that help us understand more about the world around us. It does not detail many of the ethical and environmental problems that advances in science have raised - life support versus the "right to die"; global warming; and the development and proliferation of biological and chemical weapons, to name a few. The series treats many of these things as sociopolitical problems rather than scientific ones.

A major unexamined assumption lies at the heart of this series - that whatever questions scientists can think of, they have the right to pursue answers, regardless of the consequences to humankind.

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