Out of This World

The members of Monty Python knew that humor could be a great teaching tool in getting across serious ideas, such as when Eric Idle explained the ways of the galaxy in song during the film The Meaning of Life: "The universe itself keeps on expanding and expanding/In all of the directions it can whiz/As fast as it can go, at the speed of light, you know/Twelve million miles a minute, and that's the fastest speed there is/So remember, when you're feeling very small and insecure/How amazingly unlikely is your birth/And pray that there's intelligent life somewhere up in space/'Cause there's bugger all down here on Earth." Another effective way to introduce an idea or concept (especially to those darn kids these days) is to employ great special effects, as the makers of the new IMAX film Cosmic Voyage understand.

Put out by the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum and the Motorola Foundation, Cosmic Voyage is designed to introduce children to the wonders of the universe and get them interested in science. It does a good job, placing the big ideas and big questions on a big screen with big sound. It puts science up in their faces and holds their attention much better than any science teachers we ever had. After all, it is hard to ignore an image of an exploding sun placed on a seven-story film screen backed by a sound system that KISS would envy.

Cosmic Voyage begins by posing the questions: What is really small? What is really large? It forces us out of our normal points of reference with expansive shots of nature's splendor and cityscapes in a way that only an IMAX film can pull off. The way cleared for fresh ideas, the film's voyage begins in Greece by introducing the first philosophers (whose Big Questions we still struggle with today), and in Italy, where the first telescope was constructed. The film then expands its scope, covering the stars and the planets, and wastes little time getting to the edge of the visible universe. Coming back to earth at light speed, we are placed back into our human point of reference in between the swirling expanses of space and the world of single-celled organisms, their nucleus, DNA, molecules, atoms and quarks, all without losing the ties that bind the macro and micro.

The film covers a broad range of knowledge, examining the entire known universe in 40 minutes. Obviously, it brushes over topics without getting into too much depth on any of them. In this regard, it succeeds at leaving the viewer wanting to find out more and ask questions: What are these mysterious quarks exactly? What might lie on the other side of the known universe or at the center of a black hole? How did life begin? Considering that many of the theories presented as fact here were hypotheses when we were kids, it gives one hope that the march of knowledge is picking up speed.

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Mark Hughes