Horizon: Swallowed by a Black Hole

“The thought came to him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing; there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach.”

J.R.R. Tolkien

BBC2 ventured into Science Land last night with the rather melodramatically-named Horizon documentary Swallowed by a Black Hole, featuring as its main characters The Black Hole at the Centre of Our Galaxy and an Unfortunate Gas Cloud that is apparently about to collide with it. This is, allegedly, Big News in astronomical circles because most cosmological events take centuries to happen and are thus mostly unspectacular to the human observer, whereas the Unfortunate Gas Cloud is due to be ripped apart over a few short months this summer. This is all very interesting. The way it was presented, however, was decidedly iffy.

It started going downhill about three minutes in, when the presenter uttered this heinous mess of a sentence:

Astronomers are getting ready to see what happens when a black hole gets ready to feed.

Not only is the repetition of “gets ready” ugly, the whole sentence feels deeply patronising, which sort of sums up the rest of the programme rather neatly. One astronomer declares that the idea of a whole galaxy being affected by a black hole that is 0.5% of its mass is like a coin affecting the Earth, which is just not true. A coin is not 0.5% of the mass of the Earth. Unless it is a very big coin indeed.

I was, however, slightly amused by the lengths to which the producers had been driven by the lack of space footage. A person dived into the sea several times. A blue neon sign reading BLACK HOLE appeared on screen at odd moments, for unfathomable reasons. One of the scientists flicked through a book in slow motion in a fashion that appeared to have no practical use whatsoever. None of these things appeared to have anything to do with what was being said on the voiceover.

The eagerly awaited conclusion of Swallowed by a Black Hole was the usual “we are stardust” line that is used in every single astrophysics documentary ever made by producers who think this is in some way meaningful. Perhaps it is, but once you’ve heard it the first gajillion times it begins to sound a bit hackneyed.

Ultimately, everything you need to know about Swallowed by a Black Hole is that I found it a lot less interesting than the Star Trek episode I watched just before it. And that was made in the 1960s by people who thought that four people attacking a Vulcan one at a time was a good idea. (More on that tomorrow.) Something’s gone wrong here, I think.

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