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The Universe

The Universe on DVD

By Jim Bray

If you’re a space nut, or just want to bask in the glory of the Universe around us, have I got the DVD for you.

It’s called, not surprisingly, “The Universe” and it takes viewers on a journey that begins at the center of our solar system and ends as far out in the vast cosmic regions as technology allowed when the DVD was put together.

And, as always should be when a DVD is being put together, the images are presented in anamorphic widescreen and fill the 16x9 television’s screen completely, offering you a panoramic view of the wonders of nature (or God) that the disc displays.

The footage is nothing short of amazing, and they kick things off right (after a short introduction to the telescopes themselves) with a fascinating look - including time lapse footage - of our Sun. This spectacular section, courtesy of NASA’s SOHO and TRACE telescopes, lets you clearly see the source of life on Earth at work fusing its gases and emitting energy and radiation whether it be in the form of solar wind, gigantic prominences, or just big globs or trails of star stuff (to steal a phrase the late Carl Sagan used to great effect in his groundbreaking series “Cosmos”) leaping from the star’s surface and following its magnetic field until it’s swallowed up again by our system’s primary.

It really is spectacular and to me this section alone is worth the price of admission because, while I’d seen plenty of sun shots before, nothing had come close to the detailed (and frighteningly beautiful) shots displayed here.

Upon leaving the sun, The Universe takes us on a quick tour of our solar system, with some pretty good shots of each planet, before leaping outward to the stars toward which we should as a race be reaching.

Our “cosmic zoom” outward from our neighborhood first focuses on the rest of our galaxy, the Milky Way, introducing us to such wonders as a variety of star types and clusters. Also on hand are a wide selection of nebulae, those gas and/or dust clouds that are scattered through space and which can be the nurseries of new stars. We’re treated to looks at Reflection, Emission, and Planetary nebulae, as well as the remains left by those titanic explosions of stars, supernovae.

And the Milky Way is only the beginning. From there we keep going outward - and backward in time, since the areas we see are so far away that it takes hundreds, thousands, millions, or billions of years for its light to reach the Hubble and its sister space telescopes.

Subsequent chapters of the disc deal with “the local group” (the neighborhood of galaxies and stuff "closest to home" and including our own galaxy), and continues on to distant galaxies so far away that it boggles the mind just to think about the technology that brings us these fabulous color pictures.

It also beckons us onward and outward, not only “because it’s there” but because it’s necessary for Mankind to leave its cradle - if for no other reason than to ensure our species’ survival when our sun inevitably dies and takes our Earth with it.

Okay, this is unlikely to happen in our lifetimes, but there's no time like the present to start preparing.

This review is written mere weeks after the space shuttle Columbia accident which, despite the media’s sackcloth and ashes circus (and not minimizing the personal tragedy for the families and friends of the astronauts), should be considered nothing more than a small speed bump on the road to the stars. And as “The Universe” shows us, there is wonder to behold and to grasp in the vastness that lies above our heads - but as with any frontier it’s a dangerous and unforgiving place, so we must go with our eyes open.

Just as those unlucky seven pioneers did.

But back to the DVD (sorry for the lecture, but the media circus surrounding the Columbia accident really rubbed me the wrong way; and as usual, they focused on the wrong things). The shots displayed in “The Universe” include such beauty and color as to be breathtaking and should be required viewing in schools and museums worldwide. If nothing else, your eyes will be treated and with luck your mind may be expanded and our little world put a bit more into perspective.

Alas, there are none of the newest shots showing potential planets around distant stars, but you can't have everything.

The visuals are accompanied by a nice musical track that’s mixed into Dolby Digital 5.1. There isn’t a lot of surround, but what there is is well done - and though your subwoofer won’t get the best workout, it should be remembered that this disc isn’t about the sound: it’s about the sightseeing, the interstellar and intergalactic rubbernecking.

To that end, the video quality is very good, though since these pictures are digitally enhanced images that stretch the state of the art, sometimes I noticed some digital artifacts such as jagged edges and such (which may not have been visible had I been watching on a progressive scan DVD player), but these in no way impinge on the grandeur that unfolds. Colors are rich and glorious and the detail is as good as Hubble and her friends in orbit (and on earth manipulating the images) can get it.

You can watch the presentation with or without commentary, but I highly recommend the commentary. It’s read a tad dryly, and a touch bass-heavy, but the information is very good and you’ll learn a lot. Without the commentary all you really have is a spectacular light show in the grand tradition of the “Star Gate” sequence from “2001: a space odyssey” - not that there’s anything wrong with that!

One thing I would have liked to see is more labels. While most of the main objects you see are named, sometimes it’s hard to tell exactly to which part of the shot which they refer, and a quick arrow superimposition would have helped this (though perhaps at the cost of some grandeur for those watching without the narration).

And there are extras, too, including interviews with Alex Filippenko (Professor of Astronomy, UC Berkeley) and Karel Schrijver (Astonomer, Lockheer Martin Advanced Technology Center). These astronomers actually use the Hubble and its sisters, and they give us some insight into their work, including the discovery of an “anti-gravity” (can you imagine if they could harness that?) that’s speeding up the Universe’s expansion.

And just to sweeten the deal, the disc contains a screen saver for users of the Windows operating system. You have to open the disc, rather than merely play it, to get at the screen saver via a standard setup program, but the installation is simple and you’re invited to the Universe Web site ( to find more such goodies. I'm currently using the Universe screen saver on my PC and I love it.

The Universe is also available on VHS, but what a pale shadow that would be of this mind-bending DVD.

The Universe, from Universe Productions
Approximately 70 minutes, anamorphic widescreen (16x9 TV compatible), Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
Written and Produced by Tim Tully


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Updated May 13, 2006