By Joe Amarante
New Haven Register
December 2, 2011
Joseph Campbell meets Carl Sagan. That’s the way “Journey of the Universe” is being described by some familiar with the late thinkers’ work on PBS. The nearly hour-long film “Journey” will be shown on New York’s WNET-13 at 8 p.m. Dec. 7, and you have to appreciate its ambitious breadth.
Producer Mary Evelyn Tucker, who teaches at Yale, says the film is part of a 10-year project.
The documentary is companion to a well-regarded book, a website and an educational DVD series, which features 20 interviews with scientists, historians and environmentalists.
“The film ... and the book are the inspiration, the poetic vision, the awe and wonder,” says Tucker, a Woodbridge resident. “Humans are connected to all this, that’s the point.”
Inspire what, you ask? “To inspire a new and closer relationship with Earth in a period of growing environmental and social crisis,” say producers.
“What we’re trying to do,” says Tucker, “is bring forth the best of modern science, from each one of these disciplines, from astronomy, from chemistry (the formation of stars), from geology (the formation of planets), biology ... ecology ... But we are telling the story of how this all fits together.
“This is the first time this large-scale story has ever been told in a film,” she says.
Tucker and husband/producer John Grim are senior lecturers and research scholars at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and the Divinity School, teaching in a unique joint program in world religions and ecology.
Another producer, evolutionary philosopher Brian Swimme, hosts the special, visiting the Greek island of Samos (ancient home of Pythagoras) and speaking in earnest tones that grow on you as he tells of the moment of creation, supernovas, galaxies, plate tectonics, the emergence of life, language and other developments.
It’s basically the story of evolution in three parts — universe, Earth and humans, we who not only have consciousness but have stories of origins in religious traditions.
This is not to say that “Universe” is tackling the existence of God as guiding force.
“We have purposely left open for the viewer to enter the mystery of the universe and be drawn in by the immense creativity, complexity and beauty,” says Tucker. “People around the world have various names for the divine or the holy, and we hope that those with faith and those without will nonetheless be inspired by the film to care for the continuity of life in its abundance and diversity.”
Lately, “Nova” on PBS, for one, has shown compelling episodes on the Big Bang, quantum physics and other mind-blowers. But the overall effect is a little different, says Tucker.
“This amount of material, to be told as a narrative, has not been available to a general public.”
The late cultural historian Thomas Berry, who taught Tucker and Grim, inspired this approach, having studied world religions, and written an essay called “The New Story” three decades ago.
“He wrote that all cultures have a story of where we came from, why we’re here, where we’re going.”
But Genesis isn’t giving us the scientific story, says Tucker. Science in the past century or so is giving us a chance to see supernovas and the “further scale of the universe, understand the emergence of planetary systems, see into the cells of living things,” says Tucker. “It’s an opportunity to understand the continuity of life.”
Rather than fixate on “doom and gloom about the future,” Tucker wants the vast story of the universe to move people to say “Wow! Here is this awe and beauty and complexity.” But there’s a sense of urgency to that appreciation.
“Around the world, we are at the most critical point in human history with regard to ecosystems being ravaged, resources being depleted, our forests, our fisheries ... We know, as well, species are going extinct. ... We know climate change is ravaging continents like Australia, with floods and fires.”
The documentary, not chosen initially by PBS officials for national airing, was shown by a San Francisco station earlier this year and did so well in pledges that the station showed it twice the next weekend, according to Tucker’s husband and co-producer John Grim, also of Yale. The station ended up showing it 12 times in August, he says, leading to this national roll-out on more than 100 stations (CPTV says it will consider it for this pledge month or maybe run it without pledging in January.)
“This is really an effort to bring science into dialogue with the humanities in a very significant way,” Grim says. “Narrative thinking.”
The story of ... us?
Says Tucker, “There’s a line in the film that says, ‘We’ve always belonged here.’ People want to feel part of a larger community, they’re part of a family, they’re part of an Earth community.”
As the film points out, “The distance from the Sun, the temperature, the rate of expansion of the early universe, these are factors that led to the right conditions for life,” she says. “This is special ... we are responsible to these creative processes that have brought forth life, and we are responsible for the continuity of life. This is a human task. This is what humans can do: They can create culture and they can preserve life.”
That stewardship is what Berry calls, in his writing, “our great work,” Tucker says.
By Joe Amarante