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“Monster-of the Milky Way”

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					Monster of the Milky Way. Written by Julia Cort and Jonathan Grupper. Produced and Directed by Thomas Lucas and Julia Cort for Nova/WGBH Boston, 2006. Running Time: 56 minutes. Black holes are difficult to study, and still more difficult to explain to a television audience with no special background in astronomy or physics. Monster of the Milky Way, an episode of the PBS science series Nova, brilliantly overcomes the latter challenge in the process of showing how scientists overcome the former. The program breaks naturally into two roughly equal parts. The first is a primer on the nature and behavior of black holes. The second is a look at scientists’ attempts to confirm the existence, and gauge the nature, of the titular “monster:” a massive black hole at the center of our galaxy. The first part succeeds despite the fact that black holes are difficult to depict (their visual signature being the absence of light), difficult to conceptualize (what does it mean to “warp the fabric of space-time?”) and difficult to think about in human-scaled terms (a black hole can emit energy equivalent to “a trillion trillion trillion atomic bombs”). Monster of the Milky Way handles these problems sophisticated computer animation to model the behavior of black holes, and an impressive group of commentators to provide verbal annotations. Fittingly, given the inescapable weirdness of black holes, the lineup of commentators includes two physicists who are also leading science fiction writers (David Brin and Gregory Benford) and a third known for sophisticated popular works on outré subjects like alternate dimensions and time travel (Kip Thorne). Most impressive of all, however, is Neil de Grasse Tyson, an affable astronomer from the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Tyson’s smooth delivery and gift for making outlandish ideas sound perfectly reasonable—talents that make him a natural heir to the late Carl Sagan—serve the program especially well. At one point, to illustrate the speed with which gravitational pull increases as an object moves deeper into a black hole, Tyson describes the plight of an astronaut who drifts into one. The difference in gravitational pull between his feet and his head (six feet away) would be sufficient, he notes, to tear the hapless astronaut in two. It is a mark of Tyson’s rhetorical skill that the response evoked is not “Ick!” but the clearly-desired “Wow!” The second part of the program is the kind of work that Nova crews have been doing for nearly thirty years: looking over the shoulders of working scientists, and asking them what they’re doing and what they hope to find. Astronomy is particularly wellsuited to this you-are-there approach, since the opportunities to make critical observations take place at predictable times in relatively accessible places. Not surprisingly, the segments of Monster that catch scientists in the act of being scientists are smoothly produced and engrossing. The occasional moments when they lapse into visual clichés (time-lapse footage of observatory domes swiveling while clouds slip by and the sky darkens) are more than outweighed by the principal scientists’ relaxed on-camera presence and ability to explain, on the fly, what the images on their computer screens are telling them. If journalism is, indeed, the “first draft of history,” then Nova episodes could be seen as first drafts of episodes in a history of science yet to be written. Monster of the Milky Way is compelling support for that view, as well as compelling viewing. A. Bowdoin Van Riper Southern Polytechnic State University bvanriper@bellsouth.net


				
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