Timothy Ferris was puffing on a cigar and preparing for an interview when a call from a colleague came in. Research priorities for the Space Telescope, due to go into orbit next year, had just been announced, the colleague informed him, and heading the list was the expansion rate of the universe.
Most of us probably are a bit more concerned about the expansion rate of our waistband--and for that matter, fervently hope that it doesn't increase sufficiently to show up on the Space Telescope.
But Ferris makes a good case for needing to know just how fast the universe is expanding. Because that would tell us something about what happened in the first split second of creation, which in turn could nudge us closer to discovering a grand unified field theory capable of explaining the behavior of all matter and energy.
All of which happen to be the topics of Ferris' 90-minute special, "The Creation of the Universe," which airs Wednesday night on PBS (10 p.m. on KCET Channel 28; 9 p.m. elsewhere).
Ferris, 41, is not some head-in-the-clouds theorist speaking in mathematical equations. Nor is he on a visibly excited wavelength a la Carl Sagan, attributing nine digits to everything imaginable.
Though he did spend much of his youth staring heavenward, often through a telescope, Ferris is a communicator by trade, writing about astronomy and teaching courses like Concepts in Space and Time and Science Writing at the USC School of Journalism.
But he does admit to understanding the quest for a single theory linking quarks and quasars--the subatomic with the galactic--"better than any other journalist."
Thus, in person as well as on TV, Ferris is able to translate the pate of advanced cosmology into plain old chopped liver. He even has answers to those annoying problems like, "If there is a boundary to the universe, what the heck is on the other side?" or "What time was it before the first second of creation?"
Sitting in his Hollywood office, a picture of Albert Einstein behind him, Ferris offered a relatively satisfying answer to the first question: "Suppose the Earth were expanding in such a way that no matter how fast you went around it, you could never get all the way around. It might be something like that."
The price Ferris seemingly pays for having as much scientific knowledge as is suggested by his wallful of physics and astronomy books--several of them from his own pen--is that he is prone to a bit of name-dropping. To answer the question about time, he mentions Ernst Mach, but only upon request identifies him as the scientist whose name is synonymous with the speed of sound (Mach 1). "The answer Ernst Mach gave was that you cannot imagine time without events," Ferris said. "Events in turn influence objects. So there is no time if there is no space.
"Think of it this way: The universe at this point in time has a finite radius equivalent to the age of the universe, probably something like 15 billion light-years. (One light-year is the distance light travels in a year, or about 6 trillion miles.) Thirty, 40 years ago they used to say, 'Well, this is incomprehensible.' But by a lot of people working on it, you can make some sense of it."
Making sense of the universe is the precise intention of the 100 or so scientists worldwide Ferris estimates are working toward a unified theory. But practical applications are possible, just as they were with Einstein's very theoretical notion that energy and mass are different versions of the same stuff.
"It's very hard to predict," Ferris said. "You can have a Manhattan Project that detonates a bomb. But it's far less practical than what Maxwell did by himself in his lab." (That's James Maxwell, whose late-19th-Century work in electricity and magnetism makes him the grandfather of modern electronics.)
One area that could benefit from an understanding of a unified theory is energy supply. As Ferris noted, not unimpressively, each succeeding source of energy discovered by mankind has gotten closer, chronologically, to the moment of creation.
That is, the first usable source, fire, tapped solar energy recently stored in organic material via photosynthesis. Next came carbon compounds such as coal and petroleum, formed during Earth's evolution. Then nuclear fission, exploiting the binding energy within the nuclei of elements used to form the Earth, and finally, fusion, demonstrated but yet to be harnessed, which dates back to the creation of the sun itself.
"If there were a grand unified theory, then we would be tapping an energy source that goes back to the first second of time," Ferris said, with an inflection that conveyed professorial erudition more than scientific zeal.
Conversely, the Strategic Defense Initiative--President Reagan's so-called Star Wars program--will provide few side benefits from its required research relative to its cost, Ferris said. He calls Star Wars "corporate welfare on an enormous scale," and a risky bit of welfare at that. Ferris pointed to the oft-reported fact that the program would put nuclear devices in outer space and the oft-ignored fact that "the time it takes to drop something from orbit onto your head is very fast."
Still, Ferris, who is eagerly awaiting the birth of his first child next March, marvels at the progress of the human species. "It's amazing to me how we've grown up without any help. It's like being a wild child. There was no help from outside the human species. We've had to piece together our own origin."
Ferris, in his own way, has helped show the rest of the species how those pieces fit together, and how the unfinished puzzle of creation now stands.