PBS series presents dramatic new views of Earth

Only three decades ago the world was excited to see a dramatic new view of Earth from space. Now television viewers are invited to see still another dramatic view of Earth through a series that demonstrates how new technologies are allowing us to dig deeper, reach higher, and interpret more broadly as geophysicists rediscover the Earth.

Planet Earth (PBS, Wednesdays, starting Jan. 22 for seven Wednesdays, 9-10 p.m., check local listings) begins with ``The Living Machine.'' This segment is filled with glorious graphics, stunning special effects, fascinating film footage, and exciting, if slightly incomprehensible, facts. All explained in sonorous technicolor bass by Richard Kiley. The major mistake of the series is the lack of an inspiring professor to lead viewers through the complex material. An impressive behind-the-scenes scientific committee which acted as advisers is not enough: ``The Planet Earth'' is in dire need of a Bronowski or an Attenborough.

The focus in this first episode is on plate tectonics -- the theory that the Earth's crust is made up of around 20 jagged plates that fit together like the pieces in a giant jigsaw puzzle, colliding, grinding against each other, pulling apart, overriding each other, propelled by a molten layer deep down.

All of this results in seemingly true but invisible-in-the-short-term phenomena like Mt. Everest growing taller, Los Angeles creeping up toward San Francisco, huge volcanic mountains growing underwater near Hawaii.

And that's not all -- there are segments about magnetic reversal and other geophysical developments. Technology helps, too -- the program utilizes computers, magnetometers, deep-sea submersibles, electronic microscopes, etc. It is all explained and, whether or not you understand it, the explanations provide a kind of glorious intellectual light show.

Future episodes will concentrate on oceanography, climatology, and astronomy, among other sciences used to solve the cosmic detective story behind the phenomena of planet Earth.

T. S. Eliot said: ``We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all exploration will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.''

Well, ``The Planet Earth'' is starting a new and exciting exploration. But be forewarned: If you merely sit back and allow youself to be entertained, you may be missing a lot. The rewards are there if you sit up and pay attention. Note: Approximately 70,000 high school science teachers across the country will receive teaching materials especially designed to accompany the series. And in some areas universities will be offering the series as a college-credit course as well.

``The Planet Earth'' is funded by the Annenberg/CPB Project with corporate funding by IBM, produced by WQED/Pittsburgh in association with the National Academy of Sciences.

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