Essays: Cosmological hokum |
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Cosmological hokum

‘BRITISH SCIENTISTS SAY THEY KNOW THE ORIGIN OF THE UNIVERSE,’ drawled Reginald Bosanquet headlining News at Ten (ITN) on Wednesday night.

As things turned out when the actual item rolled, British scientists boiled down to Sir Bernard Lovell being interviewed after speaking at a dinner, while ‘origin of the universe’ seemed to be a variation, or perhaps reinforcement, of the astronomical standby already known to fans of Patrick Moore as background radiation, which for some time has been widely regarded as the sempiternally lingering echo of the primeval uproar that got everything started 10,000,000,000 years ago. British Scientists, ‘News at Ten’ were in a position to reveal, now had an addendum to this. The initial temperature of the explosion had been 10,000,000,000 degrees!

The biggest figure we are ever likely to be asked to consider, I am reliably informed, is 10 with 124 noughts, since that is the diameter of the cosmos expressed in terms of the width of an electron. Meanwhile 10 with nine noughts is more than enough to think about, and a hell of an amount of heat for the original lump of matter to cope with, the lump having allegedly been very small before it started expanding. But just how small, and why it expanded, and above all who put it there, were questions that British Scientists had not yet got around to answering. Sir Bernard, indeed, pronounced himself doubtful that Science ever could answer certain questions.

For most of his life, Sir Bernard had been confident that Science was good in itself and would eventually find out everything. But nowadays he was more inclined to think of it as limited in its scope and apt for evil. This belated auto-critique on Sir Bernard’s part was in fact the only genuine speck of news in what otherwise rated as a conical pile of hokum, a truth which News Extra (BBC2) apparently detected, since they played down the Origin of the Universe and focused on the savant’s eleventh-hour soul-searching.

It must have been a dream scenario right out of one of those worshipping articles where Bosanquet and the rest of the ITN-men are portrayed as Spitfire pilots lounging alertly about while waiting to be scrambled at a moment’s notice. There’s Reggie plugged into his desk and all set to lead off with the latest load of rubbish about John Stonehouse when abruptly his ear-piece starts screaming: ‘New Headline, Reg! BRITISH SCIENTISTS SAY THEY KNOW THE ORIGIN OF THE UNIVERSE!’ Jokey Reggie is inclined to say: ‘Pull the other one’ but the clock is ticking up to zero and his not to reason why, his but to read the script.

Oil Strike North (BBC1) is a new saga in the acceptable-face-of-capitalism bag which has previously disgorged ‘The Power Game,’ ‘The Planemakers,’ ‘The Troubleshooters,’ ‘Brett,’ ‘The Venturers,’ etc., etc. William Greatorex was the founding father of the genre. In charge of this latest manifestation are two worthies called Crisp and Glaister, otherwise responsible for conceiving the beloved ‘The Brothers,’ which will probably run forever, since even putatively gun-proof cynics like myself somehow seem to contract an insatiable addiction to it, like doctors getting hooked on heroin. Whether ‘Oil Strike North’ will have the same effect is another question, although introspectively I already detect the first signs — a loudly trumpeted assurance to my loved ones that I will never watch such a load of blah again, combined with a tacit but ungovernable desire to go on viewing.

Nigel Davenport plays Jim Fraser, a tough-talking but eminently clubbable go-getter dedicated to sucking black gold out of the North Sea. His hooded eyes are on Britain’s future, which, we are given to understand, more or less depends on him. Fraser has only three months to move a rig and bring in a new well or else be held responsible for wasting £10,000 million of the company’s money. Cold-eyed executives jet up from London every five minutes to remind him of this fact. His fellow-professionals are equally sceptical. ‘Face it, Jim. It can’t be done.’

Only one man can help Fraser out: a small-bottomed, long-legged American called Frank Ward, currently holidaying in the Caribbean, represented by 10,000,000,000 watts of studio light shining on the shoulders of his wife Julie. ‘For a week’, murmurs Julie, ‘we’ve done nothing except lie around in the Mexican sun and drink tequilas.’ The fact that they are in Mexico having thus been established with commendable brevity, it is time to establish how long they have been married. ‘How long have we been married? Three years?’

Julie hates their unsettled existence. The phone rings. Fraser. The North Sea. In a trice they are in Scotland, which Julie worriedly discovers to be very cold. But Frank is inspired by Fraser. ‘The North Sea. That’s our Texas, Frank... If we make it, we might just get independent of those Arabs.’ Fraser grits his jaw by moving it sideways. Frank grits his jaw by pursing his lips around clenched teeth. Sceptical tool-pusher McGraw grits his jaw by peeling his bottom lip from clenched teeth and moving his cigar to the far side of his mouth, or perhaps into his ear. Only three months to cap off, tow the rig and sput in? Madness! But Frank thinks he can do it. Frank has to do it, to wipe out the memory of something that happened in Venezuela. As the rig ups anchor and the lonely Julie does a swallow dive into a bottle of Scotch, the ecology lobby mounts forlorn opposition, in the form of a scruffy crusading editor whose arguments are summarily dealt with by the charismatic Fraser. Without oil, no wealth. (Without wealth, no TV sets. Without TV sets, no ‘Oil Strike North.’)

Softly, Softly (BBC1) returned, with Harry the Hawk dynamically working a desk calculator. Dialogue was right up to standard. Watt: ‘It’s a rum do.’ Evans: ‘Nasty, sir.’ Amidst frantic promotional hoopla, Kojak (BBC1) also returned, with Telly Savalas looking fearsomely overexposed and giving a false reading to every second line.

Deliciously staged and sung, The Return of Ulysses (Southern) was on too late for even the most passionate Monteverdi fan. Doting on the knock knees of Anne Howells, I fought sleep until long after midnight, but finally succumbed.

World About Us (BBC2) has been particularly marvellous these past two episodes, featuring underground life and crustaceans respectively. There are 10,000,000,000 living things in every drop of water.

The Observer, 31st August 1975