How the Universe Works

By Phil Plait | May 2, 2010 8:00 am

A new science show premiered on The Discovery Channel last week called "How The Universe Works". I just watched the first episode, and it’s pretty good!


The first show was about the Big Bang, and hits all the right notes. The graphics are pretty good — that’s de rigeur for modern TV shows — but the music is nice, too. The writing is engaging, and Mike Rowe is a terrific narrator. All in all, I recommend it… tonight’s (Sunday) episode is about black holes. I have word that a certain Bad Astronomer is interviewed for that one… and I did a bunch of other topics for them as well, so I assume you’ll be seeing more of me on the show in later episodes, too!


Comments (82)

Links to this Post

  1. How the Universe Works | Hello Tech ! | May 2, 2010
  2. Welcome! « The Swapper | May 3, 2010
  1. Katie

    Any idea if they’re going to put it in the iTunes store? I’d love to see it.

  2. oldamateurastronomer


    Was this your ‘Sooper Seekret’ project that you mentioned from time to time or is that yet to come?

  3. Adrian Lopez

    I’ve always assumed that his sooper seekret project would have him as the star of the show rather than an interview subject, so I don’t think this is it.

  4. “”How The Universe Works”. ”

    I’m glad there’s finally an instruction manual. Does it include a number for Technical Support?

  5. Stuart Coleman

    I remember watching parts of it and just cringing at some of the explanations. I think they did a remarkably poor job of explaining the expansion of space, just glossing over that matter can separate faster than light as long as space is expanding without explaining wtf that means. There were a few other things, but I’ve forgotten them in the week it’s been since I saw it. Maybe it got better after I went to bed (partly because I was angry with the show). What particularly disappointed me was that these things are explained well in popular books all the time, there’s really no excuse for getting them wrong (or explaining poorly) in a TV show.

  6. arensb

    I wonder how the premier was elected. Was that explained in the premiere, by any chance?

  7. Saw you on the National Geographic Channel this morning talking the ancients and astronomy

  8. The Discovery Channel has produced some superb space/astronomy/cosmology documentaries, and I look forward to this. Here’s hoping it will be shown in the UK sometime soon.!

    I’ve just been watching Discovery Science’s “Moon Machines”… an exquisite series that brings a real lump to your throat and is a glorious tribute to NASA’s Project Apollo.

  9. Michel

    Hooray for torrents!

  10. Brett G

    Awesome, I was wondering if you were going to show up in there. I have the first episode DVR’d, haven’t had time to watch it yet though. Of course, I still haven’t had time to watch the last episode of ‘Life’ yet so it may be a while.

  11. David Vanderschel

    The BA says, “The graphics are pretty good.”; but what should that mean? What a lot of the animation artists do is to take astronomical photos, slice them up, and then create an animation that suggests that the observer is moving through the ‘scene’. The irony is that, because of the finite speed of light, no such thing could ever be observed in reality. The technique is common. I’ve even seen it on Nova. When presented as documentaries, all such shows should include disclaimers. One such disclaimer should cover false color for images from outside the visible range. As for the “cruising” effect, I am not sure what to say. You might try, “Imagine that we created a small model of this portion of space, and the ‘eye’ of our camera is cruising through (or around) that model. But even then, you have a problem of what “when” does the model correspond to. The information we see comes from many different ages simultaneously. Personally, I do not want to see those animations because they have nothing to do with what astronomers can see. They are merely artists’ conceptions designed to entertain. But they do not educate. Indeed, they leave a false impression about what can be seen.

    (BTW – I did watch the show; and, aside from my reservations about the graphics, I did think it was pretty good. At least as good were the two recent Nova shows on telescope development.)

  12. Kevin F.

    So is the universe paid hourly or salaried?

  13. Mary

    Aaargh. This sounds like such a great series. Unfortunately, the Canadian schedule is different than the U.S. I never understood whhy that is.
    We do get to see ‘Cosmic Collision’s tonight. However, I suspect it is the same as the DVD I have by the same name. So, I’d rather see ‘How The Universe Works’. I’ll just have to keep watching the schedule to see when it might be aired here.

  14. timebinder

    @12, Salary, which unfortunately has not kept up with inflation.

  15. Jon B

    @Romeo Vitelli: “I’m glad there’s finally an instruction manual. Does it include a number for Technical Support?”

    42, of course.

  16. sam

    I like how there’s a lot of astronomy shows lately but they seem to be telling us all the same things. When are they going to start telling us things we don’t already know?

  17. Dr. Morbius

    I disagree about Mike Rowe. He recently narrated another show on Discovery, I think it was “Nature’s most Amazing events”, and he was boring and unemotional. David Attenborough should narrate every science themed show. Or at least every biology themed show. No one can hold a candle to him. I understand that Attenborough was the original narrator for “Life” and “Planet Earth” but Discovery, in their infinite wisdom, decided to renarrate those shows with Oprah and Sigourney Weaver.

  18. Charlie in Dayton

    So, Phil…didja get Mike Rowe’s autogram???

  19. Ivan

    I’m sorry, but this is just a big load of all the same misleading soundbites and animations that we’ve heard and seen for, like, forever.

    Is it any wonder that the creationists think the big bang is voodoo nonsense, if all the tv shows make it sound that way?

    Let’s (1) talk about the evidence for each feature of the theory; (2) be honest about what features are speculative; and (3) examine the points at which current physics is inadequate to say what actually happened.

    Instead we get a listing of facts (some of which aren’t terribly factual, depending on whether you already know what certain terms are supposed to mean). Sure, the facts are amazing, but you haven’t really educated anyone unless you’ve helped them understand a little bit more about how we came to know these astounding things, and dispelled some of the common misconceptions.

  20. HydrogenGuy

    I think this means it will be airing on Discovery Canada sometime in December 2011.

  21. ellie

    Watching it now, just happened upon it at home on a lazy Sunday, and saw you and decided to watch it all. Very nice production! Kudos! Have to agree with poster above also,that there seem to be many shows from History/Discovery/NGC that cover the same basics about the universe. I appreciate these, and wish one of these series would take it to the next level.

  22. Kerthunk

    watching this right now.

    spagettification, eh? I love the terms scientists come up with.

    One thing I had wondered about them is well, what happens if two black holes get to close to each other? I’d assume the bigger eats the smaller, but wouldn’t the near infinite gravity cause something to happen just as they cross each others horizon?

  23. @Kerthunk, we are actually hoping for an event like that to happen:

    And I too want to see something New and Different. My wife complains that I seem to be watching all the same shows, and she is starting to not be able to tell the difference…

  24. Adam English

    Ah Phil I just turned on the TV and (since it’s always on Discovery) I saw you talking about stuff. And it’s my favorite subject, black holes.

  25. BlondeReb3

    I just saw you on the television! Woohoo!!!!! :-)

  26. Cindy

    My husband had it on while he was doing the dishes and I was at the kitchen table doing some work right now and I said “hey, that sounds like Phil” and my husband replied “well, it looks like Phil”. My husband was wondering, wouldn’t a person be fried by the high temps in the accretion disk long before they were “spaghettified”. I told him that the “spaghetti-fication” is usually a thought experiment around a black hole that didn’t have an accretion disk.

  27. James H

    Just watched the show. Very nice, my students will like it. My favorite part is when they said we really don’t know what happens inside. Very refreshing to hear that, and the reason we need to keep on studying and exploring.

  28. Crudely Wrott

    Phil, during the show you alluded to the notion that a universe without black holes wouldn’t have humans in it. Or possibly you inferred that a universe with humans in it requires black holes. In either case I concur. For evidence I only offer the fact that here we, humans and black holes, certainly are. What tickles my brain is how does one, say, you, feel comfortable making such a statement.

    My intent is certainly not to entrap you or to guide your arguments; I do agree with you by virtue of the preponderance of evidence. I suppose that you refer to the physics and chemistry that proceed from fundamental properties with more technical awareness than I do. What if there were no black holes, no singularities or event horizons? Would that lack preclude me from asking this question?

  29. sylva333

    Loved it! I do have to say Mike Rowe as a narrator does make everything better, and then our favorite BA talking about black holes to top it off?! Yay!

  30. 24601

    Great job Phil! It was clearly evident how enthusiastic you are about astronomy, and hopefully that enthusiasm will rub off on the youngsters who watch this episode.

  31. The question I wonder about is: Is how the Universe works a Dirty Job?

  32. Kevin

    The first episode looks great! You’re right about Mike Rowe, too. He does a good job, and doesn’t get in the way.

  33. Blaidd Drwg

    Excellent work Phil! If only you had a voice like Sagan’s, the episode would have been perfect.

  34. MW

    There’s a guy called Mike Rowe who does science shows? Do they pun on his name lots? “I call this little device the Mike Rowe scope.”

  35. Messier Tidy Upper

    Looks good – wonder if we’ll get to see it here in Oz?

    Astronomical TV here in Adelaide, South Australia, lately has included an episode on the Keck observatory on Richard Hammond’s Engineering Connections the other night and there’s an upcoming documentary on ABC TV(for which I’ve only seen the previews) on our solar system. :-)

  36. Pi-needles

    I have word that a certain Bad Astronomer is interviewed for that one…

    A bad astronomer eh? So I guess that means somebody who is NOT a *good* astronomer then. Pity. I wonder why they don’t replace this *bad* astronomer they interviewed with a better one like say, Dr Phil Plait here? Oh wait .. 😉

  37. badbiologist

    hi Phil, good work on the show

    i will agree with some of the other guys that it is similar to most of those other shows but it was good
    i’m glad they showed the animation about the stars moving around the “black hole” at the center of the milkyway

    what i didn’t like though, is when they talked about “going through a black hole”
    i may be wrong but, it’s not a hole… i don’t even like the term black hole for this reason, it gives a missconception about what it actually is
    and for someone like you who tries to get rid of the missconceptions, i felt like
    maybe they dissrespected you a little
    i think peolpe should start calling it a dark star or super massive object or something like that insted of black hole
    it’s like saying star fish or jelly fish, they’re not actually fish and so you’ll hear some people call them sea stars or sea jellies now

    i would rather they just have the scientists talk unedited
    anyway that’s my rant

  38. Scottynuke

    Hmmmm.. Phil, Larry Krauss and the other physicist-I-recognize-but-I-keep-wanting-to-say-Seiji-Ozawa.

    Who hogs the camera? Phil!

    For good reason, too — more natural in front of the camera, great “translating” of topics to Common English. Very well done! :)

  39. Jamie Mueller

    Still want to know where I can get an “Earth Golf Ball”! :)

  40. I was watching How The Universe Works last night on the Discovery Channel (right before Stephen Hawkings VISIONARY Into The Universe), and all of a sudden I said, “HEY, it’s PHIL!!!” I must confess that in all the years that I’ve been following your web presence, I’ve never actually seen you on TV. You were great. The show was great. Thank goodness for quality astronomy shows on Discovery.

  41. glubol

    @MW “There’s a guy called Mike Rowe who does science shows?”

    hell yeah… plenty of science shows! check them out:

    – Ghost Hunters Academy …. Narrator (7 episodes, 2009-2010)
    – The Bhutan Yeti (2009) TV episode …. Narrator
    – Ghost Hunters …. Narrator / … (34 episodes, 2004-2010)
    – Ghost Lab …. Himself / … (12 episodes, 2009)
    – The Ultimate Fighter …. Narrator (65 episodes, 2005-2008)


  42. Melora

    I’m slightly embarrassed for Discovery for misspelling the word “premiere”. It’s an educational channel for Pete’s sake!

  43. Greg Fife

    Overall, I would say that this documentary was okay (and Phil’s interviews were a high point), but Mike Rowe’s narration hit a couple “clinkers.” For example, the discussion of the effects of a black hole passing through the Solar System had some cute graphics of planets crashing into each other, and the narration made a big deal of this. However, given the relatively large volume of the solar system compared to combined cross sections of all the planets, an actual collision would seem a bit unlikely. Also, I believe they led into the discussion of the Milky Way’s supermassive black hole with the statement that these beasts “have more mass than the entire solar system.” This would be about 1.001 solar masses, right? True, but not compelling.

    All in all, I don’t think this compares favorably with the History Channel’s Universe series.

  44. !AstralProjectile
  45. I saw the show last night and thought you did really well. (Although, some things that were said were technically not 100% correct. However, given the targeted audience was a lay one, I understand. Its fine.)

    With that one caveat the show was great! :)

  46. Okay, I’ll give one example of something not technically correct, and will move on. (Sorry, I have to get it off my chest).

    The claim was made that if a black hole entered our solar system, the solar system would be ripped appart. However: That is only assuming the black hole is very massive.

    It is well known that it may be possible to create black holes that are incredibly small, just as the theoretical ones that may be produced at CERN. (These are small and should evaporate immediately.) However, by the shows logic the existence of a black hole in the solar system would rip it appart, something we are trying at length to convince crackpots won’t happen if a tiny black hole is created at the LHC. :)

    So, a very tiny issue I admit. I just had to get it off my chest. Again, good job. (And lets hope the LHC crackpots weren’t following too closely to gain ammunition.) :)

  47. Larch

    Regarding the graphics, it was interesting to compare the depiction of the Milky Way in this series versus the Stephen Hawkings series which followed. HTUW showed more of bar-spiral which I understand to be what the latest observations are suggesting is the correct shape. Whereas, the Hawkings program was more the classic spiral galaxy I remember from my Isaac Azimov-inspired youth.
    As to Mike Rowe’s narration, we always enjoy listening to him.
    But, I agree with Dr Morbuis, @#19, that Attenborough is the best for the Life Science programs. The Attenborough-narrated LIFE and PLANET EARTH shows are so much better than the USA versions. We were able to get them from our public library.

  48. Gavin Flower

    I saw the Discovery episode on Black Holes involving Stephen Hawking.

    It covered pair production of particles and how one of the pair got absorbed by the Black Hole – correct. However, they kept saying things like the negative charge falls into the black hole, or the particle with negative energy falls into the black hole. The first is misleading, because if only the negative charge fell in, then the black hole would end up with a significant negative charge – obviously wrong! The second is a misunderstanding of pair production, neither particle has negative energy.

    I found the facts somewhat superficial, and the graphics not very helpful.

    Also they said the LHC (Large Hadron Collider) could produce black holes, but did not explain why scientists were not worried.

  49. Gavin,

    Scientists are not worried for 2 reasons:
    1. The earth is bombarded by particles with much higher energies than will be produced at the LHC, and none of these energetic events have created a catastrophic black hole.
    2. The same scientific framework that allows for small black holes to be created predicts they will immediately evaporate away through Hawking radiation. Ie… the black hole will go away before it could do any damage.

  50. Gavin,

    Scientists are not worried for 2 reasons:
    1. The earth is bombarded by particles with much higher energies than will be produced at the LHC, and none of these energetic events have created a catastrophic black hole.
    2. The same scientific framework that allows for small black holes to be created predicts they will immediately evaporate away through Hawking radiation. Ie… the black hole will go away before it could do any damage.

  51. Jess Tauber

    At least Phil is selling skeptical thinking, and is not hawking radiation….(which to afford I’d have to first get my gamma raise…)

  52. Ahhh Jess you are just fission for a response to those con-fusion puns. . .

  53. Gavin Flower

    Actually I am aware of why scientists are not worried, I should have said that.

    There are additional reasons:

    1) Any black hole created will be about the size of a proton, so it can not eat matter a fast rate. Should it not evaporate quickly and actually fall through the Earth, then it is expected that it would take hundreds of millions of years before anything noticeable could be detected.

    2) At the level the LHC is operating, the forces involved are much more significant than gravity by many orders of magnitude, so the production of black holes is exceedingly unlikely.

    My concern was that the program did not cover any of the reasons.

  54. Brian Too

    4. Romeo Vitelli,

    Oh sure, there’s a number, you can call it and all. Just be informed that it links to tech support in Andromeda. You might have trouble with the accent, and they work off of scripts, so if you’ve already done some troubleshooting, be prepared to repeat everything. Worst of all, they keep trying to close the case because they pay by the hour on the Hyperspace Bypass Junction! Time is money you know…

    A lot of people want support moved back to the Milky Way but it ain’t gonna happen. Latest scuttlebutt is that tech offices in M82 are even cheaper than Andromeda. 10 bucks says they move it there.


  55. Gavin Flower

    In “How the Universe Works”, near the start, it insists that _ALL_ the elements were made in the big bang!

    Whereas, so far I have heard, only Hydrogen and Helium were – all the rest was produced in stars – and the really heavy elements were produced in supernova.

    Again a lot of spurious misleading imagery. The is no way that a picture of the initial big bang could be produced in a meangful way – there was no external viewpont to see it!

  56. reidh

    You know, there is some Idiot astrophysicist who declares that this world has only encountered a collision with an asteroid once every 100,000 years throughout its existence, and yet I tell you it will occur within our lifetime. Who are you going to BELIEVE? I’m not god, but guess what? that guy isn’t either. You Must Flip A Coin. That is where you are right now, earthling!

  57. Dan

    I liked the show – best line: “The star is dead before it hits the ground”

  58. randall young

    This week, they stated that M51 contained 160 million(!) stars. Ooops! (I was so taken aback that I had to rewind and check it again. Yep… that was definitely “million”.)

  59. kg

    Someone just answer two ? ‘s for me..y do the N S Poles of planets never meet the sun & If the planets were created by the collisions of other planets what makes all the planets so round obviously not all smooth surfaced but round…

  60. nm

    It all started from a big bang? What pervert made that up?

  61. Pup

    The big bang episode made me cringe so much, especially the whole “TIME STOPS INSIDE BLACK HOLES” and “Black holes could be used to travel to other universes!”. I wish they’d just skipped that part, or at least said they were making it up…

  62. Bol

    Poorly presented show full of weasel words and inaccurate representation. In many cases contradicting itself. When they started talking about “superheated energy” – I changed the channel. Definitely unscientific!

  63. SK

    WOW…you guys are geeks…

  64. Paul

    The version of the show I have is narrated by Richard Lintern. He does an excellent job in it.

  65. Eric Griffith

    I don’t understand the water theory, how could all the water on earth come from comet’s impacts and asteroids? Wouldn’t the water from the comet/asteroid of evaporated on impact? Some one please explain, thank you

  66. Ben Brockman

    I noticed an error in “Alien Galaxies”. The largest known galaxy is IC 1101 not IC 1011 as claimed in the show. Anyone care?

  67. MJ

    Eric Griffith says:

    I don’t understand the water theory, how could all the water on earth come from comet’s impacts and asteroids? Wouldn’t the water from the comet/asteroid of evaporated on impact? Some one please explain, thank you.

    Eric, I think you are right, the heat created by the impact would most likely evaporate all the liquid in the comet.

    My question is:
    If our moon was created from the debris left over from the impact of earth and a planet called Thea then why isn’t it more like our earth? Also, where did Thea get it’s name? Who names all these bodies?

  68. Bryen

    this show realy is interesting becuase of the accuracy

  69. SG-1

    I won’t watch any “universe” show that doesn’t have Leonard Nimoy in it.

  70. Gordon

    71. Bryen Says:
    March 12th, 2011 at 11:35 am

    “this show realy is interesting becuase of the accuracy”

    Aaaaaah, OKaaaa

    -T-his show real-l-y is interesting bec-a-use of the accuracy.

    Yep… I agreeeeeeeeeeeeee

  71. I like this show very much!!!Black holes,Time Travel are really awesome!!!!!Science fiction rocks!!!!!!!!!!!

  72. Just stumbled across the series on NetFlix. I absolutely loved it the first 3 episodes watched so far. I did come away feeling like it I should be scratching my head and asking someone smart to help me figure a few points out. For instance, if nothing can escape the gravity of a black hole (not even light as we’ve been told countless times) how exactly does said hole burp out jets of energy. Also, I recall reading or seeing (or imagining) that matter(like energy) can not be created or destroyed, only transferred from one form to another or from one place to another. If that statement is correct does that mean the black hole retains the energy of everything it consumes and if so what happens to that energy as the black hole dissipates (if that’s the correct phrase for the hole dying) ?

    For any responders, please try to remember, I watch these shows as an arm chair fan of cosmology. :)

  73. Sio

    Kind of late but I just wanted to say that I saw this on Netflix and saw that it was narrated by Mike Rowe so I thought I’d give it a try. Mike’s kind of a freak, so I thought that I could put up with some Discovery Channel idiocy for a while.

    Then Michio Kaku was the first person to be introduced as some kind of authority, and that’s when I turned the TV off. To the people who share my opinion that this was absolutely awful…I admire your actually having stayed long enough to hear the usual Discovery Channel Bargain Bin Scientists water down and oversimplify scientific concepts, but come on. Everyone should know the Billy Mays of pop science!

    In short, not really surprised. Discovery hasn’t made any show that was even remotely scientific since the late 80’s. Sorry, Mr. Plait. I’m not familiar with your work but I can only assume you’re just another flavor-of-the-month that Discovery felt wouldn’t make the knuckle-draggers think too hard.

  74. Knuckle-Dragger

    Have been also catching this show on Netflix – I like this show. I’m no “brainiac” like some of the other fine posters here but it sure inspired me to want to read up and learn more about this subject.
    I will say that I do wish Michio Kaku and others had been put to better use besides uttering soundbites to the effect (in the episode on Black Holes): “[Blackholes] are like roach motels… [everything] that checks in doesn’t check out…” ugh.

    Anyways, an interesting show, which left me hungry for more.

  75. Rick J

    Awsome. I believe it gives a simple introduction about the universe that is easy to understand and not to technical. I’m glad its not very technical cause if it got to complicated it might have hurt my brain and I would have lost interest. I know its got some wild ideas but I don’t care.

    Excellent animation as well. Looks great on the big plasma TV at night. I first watched all 8 episodes on my HTC EVO on the netflix app then I just bought the dvd set. This would look Awsome in a 3D IMAX THEATOR.

    One thing I learned from this show is that the universe is Far more vast than I ever imaganed and i had no clue that there were that many stars.

  76. John William Gibson

    How the Universe Works is not a show designed for scientists (or for you bunch of want to be cosmologists.) it’s intent is to bring science down to “ordinary” people (dislike that term, but 99% of our species barely have a rudimentary understanding of our universe.) I do, however, miss the narration of Mike Rowe. He had a kind of “gee wiz” tone to his voice that made the episodes “watchable”. Despite some complaints here, the science presented in this series is solid. Oh, we can debate some of the more arcane aspects of cosmology, but this is not the forum.

  77. Carol

    I too miss Mike Rowe narrating this show. His distinct style definitely added charm to the content. While I will definitely continue to watch the show because I find it so fascinating, I do wish whoever made the decisions regarding the narrator would reconsider and bring him back.

  78. Darken Death

    I have a strong fascination for Science in all forms ever since it was a kid. I have enjoyed all these shows from Nova to How the Universe Works. I’m no scientist but in laymen terms it helps me to understand what is being explained not to say but the special affects are cool. When you go into Quantum Physics and the Space Time Continuum it really knocks me off my feet. It’s great to use your brain and wonder about the world around us. Sad to say people are more into texting then feeding their minds with knowledge. One episode I enjoyed was about the stars and how huge they are to our own then to see their death what they become like a White Drawf, a Neutron Star or a Black Hole.

  79. Not Bananas

    Every scientist absolutely positively KNEW that:
    * Until the 15 century the Earth was the center of the universe.
    * Until 1492, the Earth was flat.
    * Until the early 20th century that man could never fly (still can’t, just using a mechanical device to accomplish that).
    * Until the early 20th century that the smallest particle was the proton.
    * Until the late 20th Century that the Big Bang Theory is how the universe started (I never bought this theory). Now in doubt: think of multiple universes, brane theory, string theory, etc.

    My point is that this is an excellent depiction of what we believe to be the ABSOLUTE truth, until someone discovers with proof that there’s something else.

    Very entertaining though.


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