"The Quantum Universe" is a gutsy attempt to make quantum mechanics--the mental equivalent of a jawbreaker: difficult to crack--accessible. It doesn't always succeed--or, in some instances, even come close--but it is pretty good viewing nonetheless.
Starting with the principle that physics is fundamental to everything, this season's final episode of "Smithsonian World" (airing at 9 tonight on Channel 28) mixes mesmerizing graphics, brief on-target interviews, excerpts from a Tom Stoppard play ("Hapgood," acted by Roger Rees) and precise narration from 11-year-old Heidi Brown to get to the essential elements of the theory of randomness, of the potential over the actual.
The gimmick of using an 11-year-old narrator would quickly cloy if not for the excellence of Brown's work--and the guiding hand of her mother, "Quantum" producer-director Sandra Wentworth Bradley.
"Quantum" covers all the Big Questions that this upstart little theory from the '30s raises, but there are some serious gaps. The clash between relativity theory and quantum mechanics is not adequately explored, for one. There is no mention of the work of Stephen Hawking, perhaps the greatest living physicist, and his attempt to explain everything by uniting these two seemingly incompatible theories.
"The Quantum Universe" is an engrossing, occasionally dazzling mix of science and art. Does it succeed in its goal? Well, you'll know far more about quantum mechanics by the end of the hour than you did going in, but the universe will still be a riddle wrapped in a mystery. As one astrophysicist says, "We talk about objects like quarks and gluons, which can't be observed, because they're a way of making sense out of what we can observe."