A Science Odyssey: 100 Years of Discovery (1998)

with Charles Osgood (PBS)

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Documentary Description

A Science Odyssey is a dynamic and dramatic five-part, ten-hour special hosted by Charles Osgood that takes a look back at the twentieth century. Travel from the days before antibiotics to the age of gene therapy; from Kitty Hawk to Cape Canaveral; from Freud’s first explorations of the psyche to the latest research in neurophysiology; from the belief that the Milky Way was the entire universe to the discovery of 100 billion galaxies.

A Science Odyssey takes you on a journey through the most spectacular 100 years in the history of science and technology. Here's an overview of how our understanding has grown from 1900 to today. Click each topic for greater detail and links that trace our journey from then to now!

Penicillin. The airplane. Pulsars. Organ transplants. The atomic bomb. Psychoanalysis. The Model T. DNA. Volcanoes. The computer. Apollo 8. Travel PBS to the dramatic frontier of scientific discovery and exploration as the most astonishing 100 years of science and technology dramatically unfold with the premiere of A Science Odyssey -- the journey of a century. Hosted by award-winning journalist Charles Osgood, this five-part, ten-hour series explores the sweeping changes that have revolutionized life and thinking in the twentieth century.

Each two-hour episode moves chronologically through the century, blending exciting historic adventures -- full of twists and turns, suspense and surprise -- with the political, economic, and cultural changes that have caused or come about because of scientific discovery. Through illuminating first-hand interviews, rare historical footage, and state-of-the-art computer animations, A Science Odyssey offers a rich behind-the-science chronicle of the century's most revolutionary scientific and technological discoveries.

Matters of Life and Death; Medicine and Health

1900: Patients battle illness, while doctors can do little more than counsel and comfort them and keep them clean.

Today: Doctors treat and often cure patients with a vast array of medicines and medical technologies, but some diseases are still incurable.

Mysteries of the Universe; Physics and Astronomy

1900: The Milky Way galaxy (including some unexplained nebular clouds) is the known universe. Newton's laws explain the physical world. Matter is composed of atoms.

Today: The Milky Way is just one galaxy among countless millions we have observed in the universe. There is no set of laws that explains all phenomena in the physical world, although there are many theories. Atoms are composed of many subatomic particles, all of which derive from energy.

In Search of Ourselves; Human Behavior

1900: There is no cure for the mentally ill, who are confined to insane asylums. "Mind" and "body" are thought of as two separate things.

Today: Mental illness can be treated with a range of therapies and medications. We know a great deal about the chemistry and the parts of the brain that control our behavior and thoughts.

Bigger, Better, Faster; Technology

1900: The only way to view the Olympic games in Paris is in person. News about the games travels to America via telegraph and is printed in newspapers.

Today: Millions worldwide will watch the 2000 Sydney Olympics on television, transmitted instantaneously by satellite. The news will spread as well by radio, newspaper, and the World Wide Web.

Origins; Earth and Life Sciences

1900: There is no good explanation for catastrophic events such as earthquakes. The Earth is thought to be a mere 50 million years old, and the evolution of species is hotly debated.

Today: The plates that make up the Earth's crust move over time, causing earthquakes and volcanoes. The earth is known to be 4,500 million years old. The genetic code of DNA, which drives evolution, is better understood every day.

A Science Odyssey - The Companion Book

by Charles Flowers

Foreword by Charles Osgood, with an Introduction by Charles Kuralt

The companion book to the series -- A Science Odyssey: 100 Years of Discovery by Charles Flowers -- will be available in hardcover from William Morrow and Company, Inc. With a foreword by Charles Osgood and an introduction by Charles Kuralt, the book is an exciting introduction to science and the history of ideas, colorfully and accessibly exploring the wonders of technology, astronomy, earth sciences, physics, biochemistry, medicine, human behavior and paleoanthropology. Filled with the stories, personalities, and astonishing discoveries that continually redefine scientific frontiers, the companion book is an essential guide to what we know, what it means to our lives, and what we are likely to learn next.

A Science Odyssey : 100 Years of Discovery will be published in January 1998, to coincide with the broadcast premiere of the series.

336 pages; 150 photographs. Retail price: $30.00

To order: Consumers/Educators: 1-800-255-9424 Stations/Wholesale: Special Sales Department at William Morrow -- 212-261-6713/Todd Rosenberg for pricing information. (The book will also be available in libraries and bookstores nationwide.)

Foreword, by Charles Osgood, Page 1 of 2

The more we come to know, the more we realize how little we know. The more we understand, the more clear it is that everything we have learned is nothing compared to what we have yet to learn. Behind each locked door we have managed to open are still more doors and more locks, and so on ad infinitum. So science is not an arrival, but a journey. It is not a fixed body of knowledge or growing shelf of facts and theories, but an infinite series of questions. The most brilliant of scientists have been those who have sought not the right answers to give, but the right questions to ask.

And so we have progressed, not in a straight line, but from ignorance to misconception, and from misconception to mistake, and from mistake to failure, and from failure to insight, and from insight to discovery about ourselves and our universe and how things work. It happened very slowly and haltingly at first and then faster and faster, picking up tempo until in the twentieth century it has reached a dizzying speed. In my own lifetime there have been revolutions in just about every branch of human knowledge. I wonder how many pages in my high school science books still stand. Today we laugh at how little we knew yesterday. Tomorrow we will laugh at how little we know today.

There are ordinary high school kids who can tell you now about strange stars and invisible forces in the universe that even the brightest astronomer knew nothing about only a few decades ago. Kids today know about an expanding universe and the explosion that started it, the blast furnace of creation, and When and How it most likely happened. They know, as our grandfathers did not, that the continents are constantly on the move, fixed to vast plates that slide over and bang against one another, rocking the earth. Kids today can tell you that more than 90% of the universe is so-called dark matter, invisible and unknowable. When I was a boy, radio still seemed a technological wonder and space exploration was something in the "Buck Rogers" comic strip. Today's children take television, computers, and cellular telephones for granted, as they do space stations and missions to Mars.

Science and technology have touched all of our lives and changed us in ways that we ourselves cannot yet comprehend. Lifesaving medical miracles have become so commonplace that we are impatient about them. We don't want to wait. We want cures for AIDS and cancer and other diseases, and we want them now! Perhaps we have come to expect too much from science. We look to it for the answers when it is still busy with the questions. Yet we distrust and fear science and technology too, and it is not unreasonable that we should. For all it's benefits, we have seen its destructive side as well. We understand that it can be a wonderful servant but a terrible master.

All of which is by way of an introduction to an introduction to A Science Odyssey, this book and the PBS television series on which it is based. It is about a century of physics and astronomy, and what we've learned in the last hundred years about the origins of earth and life, medicine, and the exploration of the human mind and personality. My good friend and longtime CBS News colleague Charles Kuralt was to have been the host and guide for these broadcasts. Sad to say Charles died on the Fourth of July, 1997, and there was nothing medical science could do to save him. We are going ahead with the trip even so, and I will do my best to show you what Charles wanted to show you, and tell you the stories he wanted you to hear. First, though, his own introduction in his own words.

-- Charles Osgood

August 1997

Introduction, by Charles Kuralt

It was the only time I ever saw my grandmother cry. She was standing by the dirt road that passed our farm, wiping her eyes with a corner of her apron. This was alarming to me as a little boy. I went running barefoot to see what was the matter. It turned out that those tears of hers were tears of joy. She could see the Rural Electrification Administration light poles coming down the road toward our house. We were going to have electricity! We were going to enter the modern age!

There was no disgrace in those Depression years in living on a farm without electric power. In the year of my birth, 1934, electricity had reached only about one American farm in ten. Nobody we knew had electric lights, except for Uncle John, Clerk of the Court at the county seat, who lived in town. Nobody had indoor plumbing either. If you wanted a drink of water, you got it from a drinking gourd that hung beside the hand pump on the porch. The "bathroom" was in the backyard, a pungent outhouse, or, at night, a "slop jar" under the bed. Bathing was accomplished in a galvanized tub set out beside the kitchen door. On laundry day, my grandmother used a hoe handle to stir a steaming mess of underwear and overalls and lye soap in a big black pot over an outdoor fire. When electricity finally arrived, our first use of it was to light a bare electric bulb my Father rigged to hang over the kitchen table. The second was to power a water pump, so that my grandmother could do the laundry indoors in the sink.

We were not unaware of the marvels of the modern world that were changing people's lives in the cities. I remember seeing a color photograph of Times Square, a calendar illustration, that seemed impossibly glamorous, all tall buildings and taxicabs and hurrying people in hats and coats and ties -- not a farm animal or an unpaved plot of ground anywhere to be seen. A relative actually took the train to the 1939 World's Fair in New York and came back with fabulous stories to tell, and a bronze Trylon and Perisphere paperweight as a gift for me. We knew about the odyssey of science; we just weren't part of it.

I am trying to think of examples of modern technology that I knew firsthand as a child in the thirties.

There was a magneto-operated party-line telephone hanging on the wall; it rang from time to time, but hardly ever with "our" ring, two shorts and a long. In fact, I can't remember anybody in the house talking on that phone. My grandfather hated the thing. If there was some neighboring farmer he wanted to talk to, he did what he had always done: open the screen door, walk out of the house and down the road, and see the man face-to-face.

There was a telephone. What else?

There was a wind-up Victrola with one-sided, scratchy recordings of Nelson Eddy, Harry Lauder and Enrico Caruso, and a shiny round box built in beside the turntable to hold the steel needles We changed the needles frequently; one needle worked as well as another, none of them very well.

And there was a radio. It was a battery-powered Montgomery Ward floor model in the shape of a Gothic arch, with a great round dial that glowed orange when the radio was turned on. Printed on the dial were not numbers, but letters--the call letters of the radio stations of the day, KDKA, WGN, WCKY, and the others. Understand, none these stations actually came in on the radio, but it was magical to think that some night they might. The only station we could be pretty sure of receiving was WPTF in Raleigh, the capital of our state. I don't remember anything that was said on the radio. I remember only that voices came through the air. I didn't know how it worked. (I still don't know how it works.)

These were all luxuries, of course. Everything that made that farm work was based on ancient technology, indeed. A spinning wheel and a loom filled a side room. There, on winter afternoons, my mother and grandmother had long, affectionate talks while weaving shawls or bedspreads, just as women had done since the fifth millennium.

Before the great day when electricity arrived on the farm, I learned to read by the light of a kerosene lamp with a glass chimney, very much (except for the fuel) like the lamp by which children of colonial America learned to read--and only a slight improvement over the design of the lamp by which children learned to read in imperial Rome.

Cooking in that house, a more or less constant activity from morning to night, was done on a woodstove in the kitchen. What was cooked came from the garden -- sweet potatoes, tomatoes, beets, butterbeans; or from the fields -- blackeyed peas, corn and collard greens; or from the pantry -- this same food in bright rows of Mason jars, put up for the winter along with apple butter and apple jelly. (No real farm of that day or this was without apple trees.)

Milk was provided by two milk cows, eggs by the chickens in the chicken coop (and boiled chicken on Sunday by some luckless hen that had stopped laying). And marvelous, hard, salt-cured country ham came from my grandfather's smokehouse. (I resisted thinking about where the ham really came from until, one autumn, the brutality and squealing and blood of hog- slaughtering day intruded on my childhood idyll. That was the day that resolved me never to be a farmer.)

We lived pretty much outside the money economy. I know we bought staples like cornmeal, which came in flowered fifty-pound sacks intended to be turned into girls' blouses and skirts. And my grandparents must have also bought salt and sugar and the like. But nearly all our food was homegrown, and since we didn't raise beef cattle, I was considerably older before I tasted my first hamburger.

This self-sufficiency extended also to clothing. although my grandmother's Sunday dress and her hats and shoes and my grandfather's boots must have been purchased in town. Nearly everything was stitched up on a treadle-powered sewing machine (patented by Elias Howe about a hundred years earlier), probably the most useful thing in the house.

There were cast-iron wood-burning stoves for heating the bedrooms, but they were never used because they were too much trouble to keep lighted. Everybody slept under piles of quilts on cold nights, then dashed downstairs in the morning and dressed in the warm kitchen, which was the center of life, winter and summer.

The technology of the working farm, like most of that of the farmhouse, was centuries old -- the technology of ax, plow and harrow. My grandfather cultivated his fields by plodding behind a mule from dawn until dusk, as yeoman farmers always had done. He harvested his crops and brought them in to the barn in a mule cart, then took them to market in a mule-drawn wagon. Later, an automobile came into the family -- that of my Aunt Trixie, who had come home ill from teacher's college -- but there was little use for a car in the settled life of the farm; you cannot use a Chevrolet to plow a furrow.

All my memories of that farm are happy ones. I was a child. At night, in the dark, I wondered at the universe of brilliant stars overhead; only a few times since, in other places devoid of artificial light, have I seen the stars so vividly. By day, I had a corncrib for rolling around in, and a woodpile for making imaginary forts against Indian attacks, a hayloft for hiding out, and a sycamore tree for climbing. There were dangers to watch out for, too -- sandspurs in the grass and spiders in the barn. There was even a snake in the apple orchard, which made the place, almost literally, a kind of Eden.

I would willingly go back to that place and time if I could be a child again. But I realize I would not wish it on any adult. For my grandparents, it was a place of unending and back-breaking physical labor, relieved only by my grandmother's mental exertions as a school teacher. Leisure was a concept alien to them both, and they could have no hope for an easier future. I see now that they must have spent their lives in a state of near exhaustion, turning to despair as illness struck their family, and death. My mother was one of three sisters. The other two died in their twenties of a form of tuberculosis they would not contract today, and which, if they did, they would easily be cured.

The odyssey of science arrived late on that farm, too late to provide my grandmother with so much as a dishwasher or vacuum cleaner, too late to erase my grandfather's burden with a chainsaw or a tractor. After my grandfather's death (also of tuberculosis) my grandmother left the farm to move in with us in a city far across the state. She lived long enough to enjoy reading for pleasure, as she had last been able to do as a child growing up in the late nineteenth century. Before she died, she came to take for granted the assorted miracles of the twentieth century: she traveled on a jet plane and discovered a couple of favorite television programs.

Once, we went back to see if we could find the farm. We could not. The dirt road that passed the house had become a paved four-lane boulevard. Among the fast-food restaurants and strip malls, we could not guess where my father had once plowed his fields, or the old sycamores had once shaded the old house.

I was overcome by nostalgia for the scene of my childhood, and dismay at what had become of it. I don't think grandmother felt that way.

"Well," she said, "that's progress for you."

My grandmother did not have an ironic turn of mind. She and I looked at the suburban jumble and saw different things. I saw asphalt and traffic and garish advertising signs. She saw ease and convenience. I think she compared modern life along that road to the life she had lived there, and meant what she said:

"That's progress."

-- Charles Kuralt June 1997

Excerpt from Chapter One, "Mysteries of the Universe"

Objects Strange and Wonderful

Ironically, just as the existence of life on earth seemed more tenuous than ever, there appeared hints of previously unknown forms of matter, or even life -- thanks to an expanding array of methods of "looking" ever farther into uncharted space. During the war radar operators were annoyed by strange interference from outer space, but they had more immediate matters to deal with. Discovered in 1931, radio astronomy developed in peacetime, along with X-ray and ultraviolet astronomy, as a new way of investigating space and time. Although celestial objects radiate all the wavelengths of the entire electromagnetic spectrum, only radio and optical waves travel into human ken. The radio astronomer does not look through an eyepiece, of course, but waits for a computer to process distant radio waves and plot them on a graph. An antenna picks up the signals and converts them to electrical output, which is then amplified for storage on magnetic tape or for real-time display. The signals are almost undiscernibly weak after their voyages across light-years of curved space; according to one estimate, the total amassed by all radio astronomers to date would not provide enough energy to illuminate a flashlight for even a millionth of a second.

Back in Newton's bailiwick of Cambridge, astronomers in the 1960s set up a virtual forest of huge radio antennas on a soccer field and aimed them upward, scanning the entire sky about every four days as the earth rotated. Traditional astronomers needled radio astronomers for being interloping technicians who did not even know the locations of stars, but the new researchers were interested only in galaxies; that's where provocative radio signals seemed too emanate.

But what Cambridge research student Jocelyn Bell eventually heard from the heavens in 1967 was as unforeseen as it was inexplicable: a repeated radio signal as regular as a metronome. Was this the stellar imprint of an alien consciousness? Nature, in our world, offers no such unvarying, methodical pulsing.

Bell first noticed the bizarre object as a quarter-inch spike on the four hundred-foot-long chart of the complete sky that the radio telescope took four days to reel out. In later charts she returned again and again to this "funny, scruffy, messy, unclassifiable signal from the same bit of the sky." The signal was a string of pulses at regular intervals of one and one-third seconds. Logic dictated that the object had to be small, because it was fast, but in an apparent contradiction it was also large because the radio wave was so strong. In Bell's words, "Stars are great big things, like elephants, cumbersome, lumbering beasts, but this thing, whatever it was, was behaving like a flea, or some little jumpy insect. It was very nimble."

After all possible human-made signals were ruled out, there seemed to be no reasonable explanation. Indeed Bell and her colleagues met more than once to discuss the proper way to make an announcement: "Little green men," as they wryly put it, or some sort of extragalactic neighbors were sending us a message.

Such speculations later attracted the attention of the popular press, but the level-headed Bell was relieved when she found a more rational, but no less wondrous, explanation.

A second signal was discovered, pulsing at the unvarying rate of one and one-quarter seconds on the opposite side of the sky from the first signal. The likelihood of two such alien transmitters was very slim. Then a clue came from physicists and their discovery of what happens to atoms subjected to incredibly intense pressure: they collapse into very dense matter. The source of the metronomic signals turned out to be a star that had crumpled from its gigantic mature form into a chunk about the size of an asteroid. When a giant star runs out of nuclear fuel, it first implodes, then explodes into a spectacular supernova. In the case of pulsars, the residue includes a neutron star, usually no more than six miles in radius but with more total mass than our sun. As the name neutron star might suggest, all of its electrons are crammed smack into its protons, thus forming neutrons with absolutely no open space in between. As this odd compact sphere rotates it emits a powerful magnetic field in a narrow beam that sweeps across the galaxies, pinging regularly on earth's radio telescopes. Some pulsars have been clocked spinning as fast as one thousand times a second. By discovering these previously unimagined stars, the new field of radio astronomy proved itself capable of revealing cosmic wonders where not a thing could be detected by human eye or optical telescope.

It might seem at first glance a haphazard relationship, physicists and astronomers occasionally joining together to discover yet another uncanny object in the skies-but the list of celestial marvels accelerated in the second half of our century. For example, there was the theoretically seductive event known as a black hole, a concept that has launched untold jittery scenes in novels and movies like the following climactic moment in Hollywood's The Black Hole:

Ernest Borgnine:

My God, right out of Dante's Inferno.

Anthony Perkins:

Yes. The most destructive force in the universe.

Richard Forster:

Nothing can escape it, not even light.

Yvette Mimieux:

I had a professor who predicted that eventually black holes would devour the entire universe.

Anthony Perkins:

Why not? When you can see giant suns sucked in and disappear without a trace?

Richard Forster:

It's a monster, all right.


A rip in the very fabric of space and time.

This intentionally simplistic dialogue is not so far from the unnervingly complex truth. Einstein's general theory of relativity mandates the existence of black holes: When a giant star implodes, it might become too weak to flare up again into a supernova. Gravitational forces cause it to collapse upon itself, perhpas shrinking into a pinpoint of infinite density or into a gigantic, invisible object without a surface. Even experts find it difficult to visualize black holes, but their effects are clear. Light cannot escape from the powerful object. Space curves toward it, sealing off the star's matter, as titanic clouds of hot gases and living stars swirl violently around it. In some cases jets of high-energy particles are forced out from the black hole in opposite directions.

To date, the evidence for actual black holes is indirect, but at least six may have been found by analyzing the effects of their massive gravitational fields. Invisible sources of X rays that have been located near double-star systems, for example, are perhaps produced when the gases from a visible star are sucked with tremendous force into its dark twin and then heated and compressed enough to become X rays.

There are other odd ducks in the sky. As diverse signals speed back and forth over vast distances, then are caught and fixed and interpreted on plates and slides and paper, celestial reality outstrips previous flights of human imagination. Far, far off, first discerned by infrared wave techniques in 1963, are the most luminous and most distant objects of the known universe -- the faint blue quasars, or quasi-stellar objects. They are apparently racing away from us at something like 80 per cent of the speed of light -- and they are already about eight billions of light years in the distance. To be even faintly visible from this perspective, they must be as bright as a hundred galaxies put together. No one yet knows what they are.

Even in the relatively small portion of sky each of us can see for ourselves in the Great American Desert, we are unconsciously traveling in time with every glance. The light of a star in the cowl of heaven may shine there billions of years after it left its source, but the star itself may long be dead. We gaze across a sea of stars that exist or have existed light-years and eternities apart from one another.



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