Serendipity makes good television! Serendipity -- the art of finding valuable, unsought things -- has never been willingly publicized by most scientists as a sometimes essential part of the scientific method. The scientific community prefers to call it "creative investigation."
But now, in one of the most delightfully eccentric entertainment-educational programs ever to air in WGBH/Boston's "Nova" science series, a group of scientists integrates Serendipity with a capital "S" into their jigsaw, investigational research on the extinction of dinosaurs. The program is "The Asteroid and the Dinosaur" (PBS, Tuesday, 8-9 p.m., check local listings for premier and repeats).
Without compromising their scientific integrity, they ask questions and then listen to replies and counter-questions. Eventually, they come up with strange and wondrous answers (and theories) . . . including a television show that is an absolute joy to behold.
"The Asteroid and the Dinosaur" starts with some scientific detective work on the strange disappearance of the brontosaurus dinosaur 65 million years ago. Could it be that some cosmic catastrophe decimated the earth, destroyed all flora and thus all fauna? Perhaps a giant asteroid -- one of those planet-like bodies that now exist between Mars and Jupiter?
This multidiscipline, science-vaudeville show makes fascinating forays into the world of creative science, into calculated serendipity. Along the way it utilizes Nobel prize-winning physicist Luis Alvarez and his geologist son Walter , several nuclear chemists, paleontologists, archaeologists, biologists, and astronomers. It comes up with the theories and counter-theories of these dedicated scientists, all of whom seem to enjoy their work tremendously. So much so that their enthusiasm is transmitted to the viewer time and time again in tiny bursts of enlightenment which somehow begin to fit together into even larger enlightenments bordering on scientific revelation.
Executive producer John Mansfield has taken over direction of this establishment- approved science series and turned it into a kind of swinging series of scientific soirees. Under his generally skillful aegis, "The Asteroid and the Dinosaur" sometimes tries too hard to avoid didacticism by trying just about anything.
Now and then the program reaches for too much animation and illustration (often uneven). And somethimes it stretches for effect with a multifaceted music track which runs through an orchestrated repertoire that includes country music, electronic jazz, and who knows what else.
The show also uses told snapshots, and varied locations -- from Gubbio, Italy , to Dry Mesa Quarry, Colo.
Producer-writer-director Robin Bates has scarcely left a stone unturned (and I mean that literally) in his seeming determination to make the sow a thoroughly enjoyable scientific detective story. He even leads you astray now and then so that negative scientific reaction to the theory and methodology can be introduced to throw you on or off the trail.
And, oh yes, there is also an off-camera narrator to explain what you are seeing just in case one of the teacher-scientists is too pedantic -- something which, however, is never the case. The obvious joy and excitement they find in their own work transmits itself in the form of enthusiasm to the viewer, no matter how "unscience" oriented he or she may be.
Is there a valid conclusion? Where does all this joy and enthusiasm lead?
Well, to a theory that every few thousand years one of the larger asteroids floating about the universe crashes into earth and, if it is big enough, may cause a chemical reaction which destroys most existing life. Such a crash might leave a huge crater as evidence -- something not yet detected. Or, it might even sink into a soft earth surface and create a colossal volcano which may still be erupting.
There are undoubtedly those in the scientific community who sneer at the whole theory . . . but it would be difficult to find anybody to write off much of the valid and fascinating explorations which brought it about.
"The Asteroid" is an erratic, eccentric, enchanting, educational, thoroughly entertaining mind game. Play it this week. But don't depend upon serendipity to find it. Put it on your planned viewing schedule for Tuesday.