14 July 2008

Earth: The Biography – Impressive footage, but lacking in substance

Posted by Jessica Ball

Last night I watched an episode of the BBC’s new series Earth: The Biography, which is currently showing on the National Geographic Channel. The series has 5 episodes – “Atmosphere,” “Ocecans,” “Ice,” “Volcanoes,” and “Rare Planet” – and is hosted by Dr. Iain Stewart of the Science Channel’s Hot Rocks. It’s been pretty heavily promoted by NG, and since it’s a BBC production I’m assuming it’s showing on their science channel as well (neither of which is very helpful to people who don’t have expanded cable or satellite, though). The BBC News announcement from last year is here; their blurb says that

“The new series will highlight the delicate balance of life on the planet and how its history has lurched between disaster and recovery.”

I watched the “Volcanoes” episode, which is described on the National Geographic website as follows:

“Volcanoes are one of nature’s most awesome and destructive forces, but they are also the life force and architect of our planet. They can raise up great mountains and create new land, or they can level cities and destroy entire civilizations. They provide a glimpse of the power of Earth’s internal heat source, without which it would have become a dead planet millions of years ago. In this episode, Iain takes us on a journey to some of the most dramatic places on Earth, starting in Ethiopia.”

I was hoping for another good addition to what seems like a recent trend in popular science programs featuring geology or environmental science, and I had pretty high standards, since the BBC is one of the few media outlets that still thinks science is newsworthy. What I found was that while some things about the show impressed me, there were a number of things going on that I didn’t like at all.

On the plus side, “Volcanoes” featured some really spectacular photography. The episode begins on the slopes of the Erta Ale volcano in Ethiopia, which is the site of a famously long-lived active lava lake (it’s been around since at least 1967). Dr. Stewart does what any good crazy geologist would do – rappels over the edge of the outer crater and makes his way as close to the inner crater edge as possible, where we (somehow) get so see some wonderful “flyover” shots of the lava lake. The footage is really beautiful, although I hope the cameraperson had a really long telephoto lens for some of those shots. The rest of the episode is equally well-filmed, with a number of great aerial and satellite images as well as very good groundwork (my personal favorite being a shot of an erupting Icelanding geyser that’s perfectly lined up with the sun overhead).

The show makes a pretty dizzying series of jumps to different places around the world – Ethiopia, Iceland, Pakistan, New Zealand, South Australia – but shows off a number of geologic locales that don’t usually get a lot of visibility. I was pleasantly surprised to see Shark Bay in Western Australia featured in the discussion about volcanoes and the early Earth, and Thingvellir in Iceland in a segment about mid-ocean ridges. The field trip Dr. Stewart took to a South Australia outcrop containing Ediacaran fossils was very neat, especially the clever use of Silly Putty to make the fossils more visible without damaging them.

While the views and localities are definitely worth seeing, the narration is very light on science. Dr. Stewart discusses the basic ideas behind plate tectonics and convection, and is (thankfully) very careful to say “hot rock” instead of molten rock, but then the focus skips away from volcanoes and settles on tectonic mountain-building processes. For several minutes we hear about how mountains are built through collision tectonics and then eroded by weather and water, but there is absolutely no tie-in of volcanoes – indeed, there are several opportunities for discussing how “subduction volcanoes” build mountains that are completely passed over in favor of flyovers of the European Alps and (I believe) the Southern Alps in New Zealand.

Another disappointing aspect of the show is that there are very few interviews with specialists. While Dr. Stewart is certainly a qualified geoscientist himself (he currently lectures at the University of Plymouth, and he’s been a lecturer at Brunel University and the West London Institute of Higher Education in the past), his narration is very broad and shallow. Two interviews are presented in the course of the hour – neither with a volcanologist – and while one does touch on the role of volcanoes in fostering life in geothermal springs and undersea vents, the other interview is with an expert on the Cambrian explosion, and concerns fossils. Granted, the show’s focus is on the interaction between life and geology, but it’s a little strange that the producers chose not to avail themselves of all the volcanological experts out there for an episode on volcanology. (They didn’t even bring out Don Swanson, who’s practically a fixture for popular science programs on volcanoes.)

I was equally unimpressed by the animations. I’ve been watching programs like this for a long time (all the way back to reruns of the PBS Planet Earth series that came out in 1986), and the animations in this one were pretty underwhelming. They were overly-simplified and, if Dr. Stewart hadn’t been so careful to note the difference between hot rock and magma, could have been misleading. I much prefer the ones that appear in the recent Faces of Earth series, which also gets my vote for better science content and interviews. (Faces of Earth occasionally runs on the Science Channel, but can be purchased through the American Geological Institute or the Discovery Channel store.)

I found the attempt to link geology and the evolution of life a bit confusing, and frankly clumsy. There was a little too much discussion about how “amazing” it was that volcanoes and life were “able to fine-tune” atmospheric CO2 levels, for example. While it’s true that there is a global cycle involved (CO2 is emitted by volcanoes, trapped by biota, captured in ocean sediments and then returned to volcanoes by subduction), it’s misleading to describe the process as if there was any active intelligence involved on the part of the volcanoes or the plankton. In reality, the biologic elements adapted to the conditions created by the volcanoes; much as we like to anthropomorphize things, it’s simply not appropriate for a geological discussion. The portion of the episode where hot springs and geothermal vents are pointed out as the probable locations for the origins of life does actually come up at a logical point, but some of the other instances where life and geology are linked seem slapped-on, like the producers couldn’t decide what kind of focus the show was supposed to have. It made for a very disjointed progression, without a good flow of ideas and easy-to-understand linkages between concepts.

Ultimately I would recommend the series for its cinematography, which was excellent, but I was let down by expectations that it would be a more in-depth version of the Hot Rocks show. Even for a casual audience, the science was sparse and terse, thrown out in little tidbits that seemed more like photo captions than anything else. And while it’s certainly fun to listen to Dr. Stewart (since he is an engaging speaker, and I think he has a neat accent), and I’m sure he had a great time getting to visit all the beautiful locales, it doesn’t make up for the fact that there’s more geological eye candy than content in the epsiode I watched.