Assessing a Century of Science and Its Impact on Humanity Ambitious Series Details Rapid Change but Bypasses Some Hard Issues

Article excerpt

At the brink of the millennium, it is only natural that we should look back over the most remarkable of centuries and take stock of the vast changes the world has seen since 1901. "A Science Odyssey" (PBS, 8-10 p.m., check local listings) attempts to assess what all the discoveries, innovations, and advancements in science and technology have meant to mankind.

The 10-hour series, which begins Sunday and runs through Thursday, Jan. 15, breaks up the scientific issues into five segments: medicine, physics and astronomy, psychology, technology, and earth and life sciences. Well-researched and entertainingly con- structed, the series is best when it demonstrates relationships between the sciences and when it explains difficult scientific ideas in laymen's terms.

Ambitious as are its goals, however, the series has some serious flaws - errors of omission, mostly - and as intelligent as it is, sometimes it sounds more like promotion than history. Old beliefs Each segment begins at the turn of the century, describing in vivid terms the prevailing beliefs of the period. The episodes unfold great events and discoveries that changed not only the way we look at the world, but the way we live our lives. Old beliefs are replaced - many to be discarded again with new discoveries, theories, or contraptions. Science is a series of shifting paradigms, and as great minds open up new areas of discovery, they can be closed to others. Einstein, for example, discovered the theory of relativity but could not ultimately accept quantum mechanics. "Matters of Life and Death," the first installment, offers an overview of medical practice and progress. Opening with images from the World's Fair of 1901, host Charles Osgood sets the tenor of the program - how primitive medical practice was at the turn of the century. The history of improvements in surgery, epidemiology, and the discovery of new treatments follows. One of the most illuminating moments deals with the cultural resistance to feeding orphans and prisoners a balanced diet when pellagra ravished the South. The program is very explicit and includes footage of cancer operations and terminally ill children. "Mysteries of the Universe," on the explosion of knowledge in physics and astronomy, comes next and is the best of the five segments. Early in the century, George Ellery Hale built the world's largest telescope, then Edwin Hubble discovered with Hale's telescope that the galaxies are moving away from us at incredible speeds. …


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