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.
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
"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