Journey of the Universe and Journey of the University: Conversations. 2013. Co-written by Brian Thomas Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker; produced and directed by David Kennard and Patsy Northcutt. Featuring Joel Primack, Todd Duncan, Craig Kochel, Ursula Goodenough, Terry Deacon, Scott Sampson, John Grim, Melissa Nelson, Cynthia Brown, Carl Anthony, Richard Register, Richard Norgaard, Penny Livingston, David Begay, Nancy Maryboy, Paula Gonzalez, Belvie Rooks, Drew Dellinger, Marya Grathwohl, Nancy Abrams, Sachiko Kawaura, Tom Collins and Bindu Mohanty. 10 hours on 4 DVDs. Distributed by Shelter Island.
Journey of the Universe: A New Story
Journey of the Universe is a PBS documentary with a stated agenda to "inspire a new understanding and closer relationship with Earth in a period of growing environmental and social crisis." In this first video, evolutionary philosopher Brian Thomas Swimme summarizes and interprets ideas from the fields of cosmology, astronomy, geology, biology, history and ecology. Journey of the Universe: Conversations (hereafter Conversations) has all of the content of the original documentary along with about nine hours of interviews with actual physicists, astronomers, geologists, and other scientists and scholars.
Both Journey of the Universe and Conversations are extensions of cosmologist ecologist and theologian Thomas Berry's work. In his 1978 essay "The New Story", Berry describes his fundamental thesis, claiming that "(w)e are in trouble now because we do not have a good story," and concluding that, among other things, "there is no possibility of discovering a functional story for American society or the human community except by discovering the functional story of the cosmic-earth process."
Purely from a technical standpoint the Journey of the Universe is successful. Swimme's at times breathless narration keeps a good energy and enthusiasm throughout the documentary. Co-producer and directors David Kennard and Patsy Northcutt did an amazing job. The use of stock film is gorgeous. The cinematography in the scouted locations is good, and the edits come across as pretty natural.
However, the one weakness in the hour-long Journey is that Swimme clearly only provides the broadest of overviews of scientific breakthroughs.
If the original documentary can be faulted for its lack of detail, the ten hour educational series Journey of the Universe: Conversations goes a long way to making up for it. In the first two disks, Yale historian of religions Mary Evelyn Tucker conducts a series of interviews with scientists on topics that closely follow the narrative of the documentary. The second half of series is far less programmatic, as it focuses on figures in the ecology and social justice movements who see their work connected to Thomas Berry's work. The official website for Journey of the Universe includes a sneak peek of this part of the discussions.
At the heart of both the documentary and educational series is the conflict between the concepts of cosmology as scholars of religion traditionally understand it, and cosmology as it exists as a modern discipline of physics. The studies of religion and philosophy have spent millennia trying to answer the questions 'Where do we come from and why are we here?' The answers were often pursued under the assumption that they were the same question. Religion and philosophy tended to start this by examining propositions that are either taken as divine or self-evident. Conversely, modern cosmology starts with observations to collect testable hypotheses, and then test them.
A Normative Conflict
I find myself conflicted over the Journey of the Universe and Conversations. On the one hand, asking what the cutting edge of science has to offer over what has traditionally been the role of creation myths, allows the producers a wonderful opportunity to survey what is currently known about 'where we come from.' But on the other hand, the second part of this project is clearly normative. I can't say the universe story provided by Swimme and Tucker justifies these ecological normative claims even after I'd read the "The New Story," watched the entire educational series, and viewed the documentary a couple of times.
In order to make a cosmological story normative, the answer to the existential question "where did we come from" has to have essential implications on why we are here. The fact that iron molecules in a dung beetle's exoskeleton have their origins in a supernova millions of years ago, has little or no relevance to the beetle's obligation to a social contract. By tracing the birth of the universe to the human genome the Journey of the Universe skips from the mathematically sublime cosmic origins to relatively infinitesimal sub-solar origins.
Where Are We Going?
The contrarian in me wants to insist that it is the question 'where are we going' and not 'where did we come from' that will tell us why we are here. Towards the end of the documentary Swimme makes the observation that this has become "a planet where not biology but symbolic consciousness is the determining factor of evolution." As we come to terms with the rise of the Anthropocene geological era, there is a much stronger normative case that the Earth itself is becoming what we make of ourselves.
Putting aside my preference for Stephen Jay Gould over Thomas Berry, The Journey of the Universe and Journey of the Universe: Conversations do something remarkable. Together they make scientific insights and ecology not just approachable but relatable to people with more familiarity with the humanities.
While the videos are no substitute for people who have access to college resources, Journey of the Universe: Conversations could be a great starting point for anyone who wants to know what science has to say about origins of the cosmos.
About the Reviewer
Reviewer Matt Hirst is a Graduate of SUNY at Stony Brook's Philosophy Master's Program. At Stony Brook he applied his undergraduate studies in Ancient Greek and 19th century German Philosophy to media studies. He currently is involved in the independent media community in Austin Texas.
Matt currently is serving as Media Coordinator for Staple! The Independent Media Expo. He is the author of the independent comic book blog LessArtseyMoreFartseyComics. He recently took the post of Sales and Marketing Coordinator for Rocksalt Magazine.