Maths, Science, TV

Horizon – To Infinity and Beyond


I don’t particularly like Horizon at the moment. I don’t know if it’s because I already know a lot of what they’re talking about, or if it’s because they’re just not very good. Maybe it’s both – with my knowledge I can tell when they’re just stirring shit up to add some drama, and I often feel that the producers are aiming more to entertain and shock than to inform.

Several days ago I watched the episode called “To Infinity and Beyond ((It’s currently available on BBC iPlayer.))”. Unsurprisingly, it’s about infinity, an interesting topic.

It started off exploring the mathematical concept of infinity, which fascinates me and which I may write about in the future. There was a bit of shit stirring (“numbers are not infinite” – ha!), but mostly it was clear and followed a sensible approach to the subject. Nothing was explained in much depth, but the concepts examined weren’t particularly difficult to understand, so I don’t think that was a problem.

The episode also visited the Infinite Monkey TheoremI think it was part of the beginning, mathematical section ((As it should be.)). Read the Wikipedia article – I did a few years ago – and you should get a good understanding. All it says is that a truly random letter generator (to make it seem more fun, a monkey typing at a keyboard) run for an infinite time will eventually end up generating the complete works of Shakespeare ((It’s not a real monkey, and it doesn’t mean that it would ever be possible to do this in our universe, even though it is mathematically sound.))

The programme then moved onto physics. Infinity as a mathematical concept is a sure thing, but that doesn’t mean it exists in the real world. For example, there are straight lines in maths, but you can look as hard as you like and you’ll never see a perfectly straight line in the reality. That’s something that’s very important to understand about maths: although it is manifested throughout the universe, it does not in any way depend on the universe to be either true or false. Maths would be true in any universe ((Whereas the laws of physics could be different.)) because it exists only in our minds.

Unfortunately, I think that the physics part of the programme was downright confusing. Is the universe infinite in size? I think it’s far from certain either way, and I would tend to think that it isn’t ((I do quite like the analogy of the Earth, which does have an absolute size but you can set off in one direction and never reach an edge. Something similar could be true with the universe.)). Some of the talking head scientists said that inflation necessitates a universe of infinite size ((I’ve not read that Wikipedia article, but it seems like this is not a sure conclusion.)), and then proceeded to say that therefore there must be an infinite versions of you in the universe! I think this is a perfect example of where some explanation is needed. I don’t see how either of these things follow from the premise of inflation ((Admittedly, I know very little of inflation.)), so I’m not willing to accept this uncritically.

I watched 3 other episodes of Horizon this afternoon ((I was atching up with the episodes that I had missed, before they went off iPlayer.)); all interesting in the own way but perhaps not worth writing about. We’ll see.

An aside, not just to this particular episode, but rather to Horizon in general, I get pissed off by the blind assertions. I know that the producers only have an hour to explore the subject, but it’s not useful to give people such a superficial glimpse of “science”. You need to know the reasons and evidence behind these assertions to gain an understanding, else you’ll just have arbitrary ideas floating around in the audience’s minds. The majority of people have learned nothing, and at worst they will have become suspicious of science because all they have heard will appear arbitrary. Without an understanding of the evidence, their memory can alter, leading to a feeling that science is contradictory and unreliable.

For example ((Some nice anecdotal evidence coming up…)), after watching this programme I was talking to someone who had watched it a few days before. He clearly ((Clear to me, that is.)) hadn’t understood it fully; and was insisting that if you accept the existence of infinity in one case, therefore you must accept it in all cases! I’d said that I accepted infinity in maths and I accepted the infinite monkey theorem, but I don’t necessarily believe that the universe is infinite in size. Without proper explanation of reasons and evidence, things can easily be misinterpreted, and that’s the sort of confusion that Horizon leads to.

I think Horizon should focus more on explanations, at the expense of variety in the series.

Anyway, I enjoy feeling a little hungry, so 1½ hours ago, instead of making my tea, I decided to write a little post on my blog. Now that I’m finished, I’m going to warm up some of the curry which I made last weekend and attempt to cook some pilau rice to go with it. Then I’ll eat it. I’m already salivating ((Fuck, this was just meant to be a short post that took 30 minutes to write.)).

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