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A moment in time

18 September 2015


“I WOULD grade Genesis [for the accuracy of its sequence of creation] B+.” Such an accolade, from a world-class academic cosmologist, ought to be proclaimed in every pulpit in the land — except for its potential misapplication by those who think that Christian faith stands or falls by scripture’s literal precision as a scientific and historical textbook.

Horizon: Cosmic Dawn: The real moment of creation (BBC2, Wednesday of last week) was another science documentary that again and again reverted to theological terminology to express the scope of its subject — but it threw light on a theme that I had not seen previously explored.

Most attention is focused on the Big Bang, but, after that initial creation of time, space, and matter, everything went dark for hundreds of millions of years. Crucial research is now modelling how, gradually, atoms began to clump together, and were fused by the force of gravity into the first giant stars.

These hypernovae eventually exploded, creating the elements necessary to create the next generation of stars, which themselves eventually imploded to create the next generation, and so on.

Our own sun is the successor to a thousand generations of previous stars, each recycling of material providing more and more complex elements that are eventually favourable to carbon-based life.

This was a stylish presentation; it had powerful images to make its complex arguments accessible, and the scientists were delightful and urgent in their desire to explain and share their research, happy to dwell in the realm of story and myth as well as hard laboratory “facts”.

It felt extraordinarily parochial to move from this vast canvas to the miniature of our own planet’s geology (only 4.45 billion years old). Canals: The making of a nation (BBC4, Tuesday of last week) displayed some of the worst aspects of a narrow vista; but its main thesis was admirably important. The engineering feats of the late-18th-century and early-19th-century canal-mania boom not only fuelled the Industrial Revolution, but also provided us with the first serious understanding of the earth’s make-up.

First, it revealed our essential ignorance about what lay immediately under the earth’s surface: many schemes foundered because the labourers encountered conditions that no one knew were present; and, second, because the cut of a canal revealed geological strata.

It needed a genius to put it all together, and the labours of William Smith, a self-taught surveyor, eventually produced in 1815 the first, glorious, geological map of the British Isles.

This was well before the 1873 completion of the first series of OS one-inch maps, celebrated in Timeshift: A Very British Map — the Ordnance Survey Story (BBC4, Wednesday of last week). This excellent account was conscious of the shadow that hangs over the very survival of its subject: that is, in the days of SatNav, are paper maps now merely objects of nostalgia, an endangered species on the very edge of extinction, cherished and used nowadays by a diminishing band of Luddite old fogeys (like, of course, me)?

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