The most tantalizing television series of the season -- perhaps even of the decade -- is being quietly eased onto public television this week. "The Search For Solutions" (PBS, three Mondays, starting June 10, 9-10 p.m., check local listings for premiere and repeats) is a quietly spectacular intellectual adventure into the world of science, the world of inquiry, the world. "Solutions," all by itself, makes summer TV viewing worthwhile.
Utilizing an impressive group of consultants and 14 months of photographing and interviewing in 14 countries, this three-part, nine-segment series was produced for WQED/Pittsburgh by Playback Associates. It is simply a survey of the process of science, perhaps too superficial for scientists, but fascinating for laymen like myself who find great satisfaction in the thrill of even comparatively simple-minded discovery.
It offers us a viewers a grand opportunity to reassess ourselves and our place in the universe by taking a fresh and imaginative look at many of the things we tend to take for granted in our daily lives. But it also probes deeper and farther a field as it travels to the polar regions, to Africa, and to Japan and 13 other countries on five continents to find examples of what it is illustrating, to find people who are doing science, doing experiments, living, working, solving, enjoying.
According to narrator-host Stacy Keach, the truth is like a handful of sand, slipping through our fingers. Clues may not always be what they seem. Thus the premiere episode is dvided into three parts: evidence, patterns, investigation. Evidence is what you find -- and what you make of it. Patterns are islands of order in a world that often appears chaotic and can give clues to the solving of similar problems in other areas.
As to investigation -- well, if you don't ask, you may never get the answers.
Not only are the investigations in this series conducted through interviews, but such tools as telescopes, atom smashers, and microscopes are used with great joy and simplicity. There is no attempt to confound or confuse -- only a driving desire to inform painlessly, to allow scientific knowledge to find its rightful place in the consciousness of the viewer. Everything from a bank robbery to giant meteorite discoveries is investigated, photographed, then entertainingly presented for your enjoyment. So slyly entertaining, that the process of learning is accomplished without any conscious help from the viewer.
According to Mr. Keach, in a scipt expertly written by James Crimmins, Brad Darrach, L. L. Larison Cudmore, and Gerald Jones and skillfully directed by Mike Jackson, culling the essential nature of evidence from raw data takes patience, courage, and a kind of love. All of which must have been also involved in the creation of this series.
The second program teaches how to approach a problem from three different perspectives: the processes of trial and error, context, and adaptation. And the third an d final program explores such segments as modeling, theory, and prediction. According to "Search," for valid prediction you need a good model, a good theory -- and the courage to step out on a limb.
"Search" is filled with unforgettable images . . . . a snake slowly crawling across the desert, making totally unexpected patterns . . . a blind expert on seashells carefully examining his finds . . . a reenactment of a medieval observation of a meteorite hitting the moon . . . a Japanese master potter at his wheel . . . the dangers of flying in the African bush.
It is possible to lean back and merely enjoy the images, thus allowing them to carry the message without using any words at all. Director Mike Jackson must get the main credit for the superb principal photography.
What this series stresses over and over again in both words and pictures is that our best chance for "winning the game of survival" is to investigate everything in and out of our path. And it proceeds to turn every imaginable ativity of our society, from ballooning to deep-sea diving, into a competition. "The natural world," the series insists, "influences our future. Learning to work with it increases our chances of winning."
If the series has a major fault, it is that very emphasis on the winnr-loser aspect of nature. Perhaps one better way of excelling at "The Search For Solutions" might be if man could stop competing with nature and instead find a way of working better within the framework of a nature he understands.
Despite the fact that "The Search" purports to tell viewers the secret of "winning," it succeeds better at impressing on viewers the importance of "knowing."