`Nova' and Tomlin: listening for messages from a distant galaxy

Nova: Is Anybody Out There? PBS, tomorrow, 8-9 p.m., check local listings. Writers: Geoffrey Haines-Stiles and Donald Goldsmith. Producer: Mr. Haines-Stiles. It was probably irresistible. Who better to narrate a ``Nova'' program on signals from intelligent alien life than Lily Tomlin, the star of Broadway's ``The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe''?

Well, I have a few reservations. But, then, I tend to be a spoilsport when it comes to demeaning a serious scientific space-tracking project. Ernestine makes for outrageous fun at the show-biz switchboard, but this favorite Tomlin character is just a little out of her element at the celestial switchboard.

On the generally accepted theory that intelligent life in space probably would not waste time building spacecraft but would, instead, concentrate on communicating via radio signals, some projects have been mounted to search for such signals. Now ``Nova'' updates viewers on the search by surveying everything from NASA's Deep Space Network Tracking Station to META, the Mega-channel Extra-Terrestrial Assay. (META, by the way, is partly funded by film director Steven Spielberg of ``E.T.'' fame, who also appears on camera.) Carl Sagan, whom caustic critics might consider as much a show-biz personality as a scientific expert, appears in the show, too.

``Nova'' looks at the whole field, pointing out the discrepancies in scientific opinion as well as the agreements. Guesswork seems to be the order of the day. And who knows, maybe Ernestine's guesses are as good as anybody's when it comes to estimating where and when to search for the right radio frequencies. ``Nova'' uses Ernestine/Tomlin to simplify - or perhaps oversimplify - the complex problems involved in attempting to make contact with extraterrestrials. The skits and special effects clarify, not the solutions but the problems, even though Tomlin, who radiates intelligent fun, also manages to transmit a sense of serious concern as well.

The overall search is characterized by MIT physicist Philip Morrison as ``a kind of exercise in the archaeology of the future.'' So, in a way, ``Nova'' takes viewers back to school for just a bit too much of a ``snap'' course in future archaeology. Okay, ``Nova,'' it was a nice try at explaining difficult material pleasurably. But in the future, please don't forget: You aren't ``Sesame Street.''

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