Here's a television program that doesn't hesitate to set an impossible goal for itself: to learn by talking to scientists how everything got to be the way it is. Well, in truth, The Creation of the Universe (PBS, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 9-10:30 p.m., check local listings) does not attain its goal. But it does manage to make it clear that not even scientists claim to have the answers to how everything got to be the way it is. They have theories; they have fantasies; they have deep-seated beliefs. But to a man, they agree that the universe remains a mystery.
Written and hosted by Timothy Ferris, ``Creation'' tries hard not to step on any religious toes. Science writer Ferris finds that comparatively easy because in so many instances science and religion have come to a similar conclusion: At the core there must be beauty, symmetry, utter simplicity, God.
Yes, there's lots of incomprehensible-to-laymen talk about quarks, quasars, gluons, and gravitons, all illustrated with glitzy electronic animation and simulated music. But there is also much down-to-earth talking-head simplicity, as just about everybody on camera agrees that somewhere, sometime, somebody will discover a unified-field theory that will explain the universe in a single equation that is bound to startle us all with its simplicity. Most agree that God is part of that equation, although it i s hinted but not ever suggested that He might Himself be the entire equation.
For me a great wonder of the program is Dr. Stephen Hawking, the Cambridge University physicist who, in spite of being disabled and speaking through an interpreter, has so much to say. ``To ask what happened before the `Big Bang,' '' he says, ``is like asking what happened on the surface of the earth one mile north of the North Pole.'' The ``Big Bang'' theory of the origins of the universe is explained by one scientist as similar, in reverse, to a situation in which there are dots on the sur face of a balloon which, when deflated, join together. Well, it is a difficult concept to explain.
In the end, Mr. Ferris compares the cathedral at Beauvais, France, with the Fermilab National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill. The two are amazingly similar in architecture. ``In medieval days,'' he says, ``a cathedral was the equivalent of today's giant particle accelerator.'' Science owes a lot to religion, he concludes, since both believe in a single system, one God.
``The Creation of the Universe'' certainly doesn't have all the answers. It doesn't even pose all the questions. But whether or not we are able to absorb the information proffered, it cannot help making us think more deeply about our universe and our place in it.