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Bad Universe Review

We’ve hinted that it was going to be made, and then we warned you that a sneak preview would be aired on August 29th. Well, now I’ve seen the first episode of Phil Plait’s Bad Universe, and I’m here to solemnly judge it.

It was great!

Of course, I’m totally biased by the fact that I’m a good friend of Phil’s, a business colleague, and forum co-administrator. With his success, I can ride his coat tails to stardom, so take everything I say with a scattering of intergalactic space dust.

Based on Phil’s “Death from the Skies” book, Bad Universe is a TV show where Phil presents the sad truth that the Universe is trying to kill us, while clearing up all the nonsense supplied by the “mainstream media”. If the first episode is a good indication of what’s to come, Phil will travel the globe meeting scientists, presenting evidence, blowing stuff up, and describing the ways the Universe could take us out of the picture. It’s already entertaining material, but Phil’s got a really natural, geeky style of presenting science that makes his enthusiasm infectious. There is absolutely no difference between Phil in real life and the guy you see in the show.

This sneak peak first episode that aired on August 30th was titled “Asteroid Apocalypse”. Phil and planetary scientist Dan Durda started out by detonating a massive amount of explosives, carving out a 20-meter crater in the New Mexico desert. Then they smashed different types of asteroids to see how they’d be damaged by a nuclear strike (not much). Phil builds a comet from scratch out of the raw ingredients (carbon, water, organic materials, dirt and carbon dioxide) to see if a laser can redirect its approach (not really). Finally Phil and Dan smash an impactor into a sphere of rock to see if an asteroid could be knocked out of a dangerous orbit (maybe?). It’s explosion after explosion, after laser beam, after high-speed collision. Now that’s Science!

Throughout the show, there’s a mixture of realistic computer graphics and hand drawn cartoon animation. I really liked the visual style, especially when new scientists are introduced – we get a flash of their superhero personas. It was also nice to see brand new animations custom made for this show, and not the recycled graphics we’ve seen in other shows before.

The asteroid episode was a good choice to start with, especially when you’ve got the connections and clearance to detonate hundreds of kilos of explosives – the Mythbusters effect in action. I wonder how they’re going to make the science so visual and visceral when describing alien invasions, or getting sucked into a black hole.

Enough raving, time for some complaining. The Bad Universe is a great idea for a show – that’s why there are so many science documentaries about killer asteroids – but I really think that concept constrains Phil in what topics he can explore. He’s at his best railing against egg balancers, Apollo moon landing deniers and astrologers. It’s really hard to weave in the everyday media mistakes and pseudoscience charlatans into a show that’s all about blowing stuff up. I understand that Discovery Channel wants to capitalize on a compelling topic, and ride the coat tails of his recent book, but I’m hoping he can widen the scope before the show wraps up.

This feels like the best show Phil could sell, not the best show Phil could make.

Anyway, nice work Phil (and production team), I can’t wait to see the next two episodes.

About 

Fraser Cain is the publisher of Universe Today. He's also the co-host of Astronomy Cast with Dr. Pamela Gay.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • astroyogi August 30, 2010, 10:40 PM

    Good to see real science in TV now a days.
    Keep it up Phil and the production team.

  • scibuff August 30, 2010, 5:07 PM

    It was great show. I’m just not sure about the way all the impactors were displayed, i.e. I kind doubt that a bigger object (of about 100-400m) would heat up in the few seconds it takes it to cross the atmosphere.

    p.s. I counted 6 “holy haleakala”

  • high_school_astronomer August 30, 2010, 5:35 PM

    Fraser, how did you see this when you live in Canada? I had wanted to watch it but it isn’t on the Canadian Discovery Channel. Even Phil himself had said on The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe that it wasn’t going to air outside of the USA yet.

  • Fraser Cain August 30, 2010, 5:46 PM

    I, uh… found a way to watch it.

  • Astrofiend August 30, 2010, 9:04 PM

    BitTorrent!!

  • J. Major August 31, 2010, 6:44 AM

    I have to wonder what Phil has against Sydney. He blew that town to pieces half a dozen times! :)

    I really enjoyed the show….a testament to its success is that I watched it with some non-astronomy-buff friends and it opened the table up to questions about all the things Phil was demonstrating, allowing me to help fill (Phil?) them in on some stuff they had never even thought about before. Phil’s message got across to some new folks, and I got to look like Mister Wizard at the same time. Bad Universe FTW!

    I did like the homemade comet too. A nice real-life visualization of the “dirty snowball” metaphor.

  • Maddad August 31, 2010, 2:54 AM

    We generally credit the Chicxulub asteroid with wiping out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, although life on Earth was disappearing at the time. The Deccan Traps erupting 100,000 cubic miles of lava in India was a parallel biodiversity stressor at the very same time as Chicxulub. The asteroid was the hammer fist exclamation point that killed off the dinosaurs as well as many animal and plant species. However, avoiding the discussion probably fit the one-hour time constraints well.

    The show failed to mention a serious additional laser beam problem to breaking up an asteroid. It would have been rotating. As such, the jet created by the laser would not have pushed the asteroid away from the laser and Earth, but it would have pushed in all directions as the asteroid turned. Since the TV show did not settle on a laser as a solution, so the omission was not especially important.

  • DrFlimmer August 31, 2010, 3:42 AM

    I, uh… found a way to watch it.

    Me, too – from Germany.

    One more complain: The “Holy Haleakala” annoyed after the 5th or 6th time. He should use other words to show his enjoyment ;) .

  • kammueller August 31, 2010, 6:52 AM

    Phil’s addition, i believe, makes it an even hundred asteroid shows that have aired in the past couple years. Many of them recently. All of them, other than the 2012 type shows, giving pretty much the same information. The crater explosions was cool, but not very informative. Other shows have done it better, including one that used one of the guns they used to actually create a crater using a projectile!!! What a novel idea.

    The whole show seemed somehwat confused. Simulate an asteroid strike using explosives, huh????Why not use an projectile? Simulate a nuclear strike on an asteroid with a projectile, huh??? Why not use explosives? They finally simulate a kinetic energy ram with , what do you know, a projectile. Also known as a kinetic enrgy ram. Well, one for three ain’t bad in baseball. Not good on a TV show.

    I agree with the previous poster. Phil should stick to what he is good at. Debunking crackpots. There are already plenty of other science shows doing exactly what he is attempting, only better.

  • geraldspace August 31, 2010, 8:23 AM

    I was kinda disappointed. Seemed like Phil spent way too much time with Dan Durda blowing things up, and not nearly enough time with Timothy Spahr at MPC, and with the Ryans at Magdalena Ridge. Their message — that not enough observatories are searching and because of that we will probably have zero warning before the next impact — is the one Phil really should be emphasizing. It was also disappointing to see the show perpetuate the myth that asteroid fields are dense swarms of objects.

  • quack August 31, 2010, 12:12 PM

    sophomoric . . in content and presentation.

  • Spoodle58 August 31, 2010, 2:46 PM

    Phil probably doesn’t know how much he says Holy Haleakala, I’ll watch another show but i’ll turn it off if he keeps saying this phase. In all the show was fine, about as much as one expects these days.

  • jblank September 3, 2010, 8:20 AM

    I’m with Geraldspace and Quack on this…I found it really juvenile, not as serious and informative as it should have been, and really lacking in…well….science. It was basically turned into a sci-fi version of Mythbusters, which is not what I thought the show was going to be. Color me disappointed. :(

  • thestargeezer September 3, 2010, 8:27 AM

    Knew the show was coming but almost missed it. Please Phil….lose the “Holy Haleakala.” While I enjoyed the show overall I kept saying “Mythbusters” as I was watching it. Having read your blogs and listened to your podcasts for some time you are better than that. Although I realize you are not the “official” producer of the show and their main interest is not science, it is in selling advertising…hence all the explosions. All in all, keep it up Phil. i know you can do it and I am looking forward to the next presentation.

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