Understanding Space and Time

Have you ever noticed how it is almost impossible to find documentaries made more than a few years ago?  I was doing some reading on the Casimir effect this evening and came across the name of Julian Schwinger (1918-1994), the American theoretical physicist who shared the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics with Richard Feynman (1918-1988) and Shin’ichirō Tomonaga (1906-1979).  I remember, after all these years, that I had enjoyed watching a BBC documentary series that featured Schwinger (as well as George Abell) called Understanding Space and Time.  It was broadcast in 1979 or 1980 and featured thirteen 28-minute episodes.

  1. Ground control to Mr. Galileo
  2. As Surely as Columbus Saw America
  3. Pushed to the Limit
  4. Conflict Brought to Light
  5. Marking Time
  6. E = mc2
  7. An Isolated Fact
  8. The Royal Road
  9. At the Frontier
  10. Shades of Black
  11. Measuring Shadows: The Universe Today
  12. A Note of Uncertainty: The Universe Tomorrow
  13. Vanished Brilliance: The Universe Yesterday

Granted, some of this material is now dated, but much of it is still relevant and certainly of historical interest.  Why is it (and a host of other documentaries) not available on DVD or for downloading?

We really need a company to fill a different niche alongside The Great Courses, Curiosity Stream, and Netflix.  That niche would be to uncover and rerelease past documentaries of merit1, often hosted or presented by historically important individuals.  Documentaries such as Understanding Space and Time would be nice to own and watch again.

1One must certainly include many PBS documentaries and older episodes of documentary series—NOVA, for example—that are no longer available.

9 thoughts on “Understanding Space and Time”

  1. Hello–

    I have George O. Abell’s original Scotch UCA 10 video tapes of the series Understanding Space and Time. I would gladly lend them to be of use to anyone interested in seeing the series. Unfortunately they will need to be transferred to a new format the tapes are dated 1979.

    Dr Abell was my stepfather.

    1. Thanks, Victoria, I would be happy to work with you to get these valuable tapes transferred to DVD! Are there any copyright issues we need to be concerned about? Even though I would love to own a DVD copy of these tapes for personal, non-commercial use, it would be better to find a suitable company that would make them available to anyone interested for a reasonable price. What do you think? I could research this if you like.

      Speaking of Dr. Abell, I well remember his textbook “Exploration of the Universe” that went through many editions as being the most comprehensive and accurate general astronomy textbook available at the time. A classic! You will not be surprised to know that I have a copy of the 4th edition (1982) on my bookshelf even today.

      1. Hi —
        I have no idea about copyright issues re:Understanding Space and Time. I think it would be great if you could find out about it. Either way I would hate to see the tapes wast away.

        Let me know what you think.


  2. Hi Victoria, my wife and I were just re-reading the newspaper clipping of George’s death that mentioned the Understanding Space and Time series. I had no idea he had hosted such a series. George was my half brother. He came to our wedding in 1976 and we visited him in LA that same year. I believe we met you and your mother then. We would be among the many who would love to see the series made available to the public.

    1. Hi, Vernon! I remember hearing about you! Pip, George’s son, my stepbrother has mentioned you in the past, as one of George’s very few living relatives. I am so happy to hear from you! I hope you are well. I think if anyone can help get a clean copy of Project Universe, Dr. Krupp at Griffith might be able to help? I don’t know?

  3. Dear Vernon and Tori,

    Greetings, and please accept my apology for not writing sooner. I have been in the process of moving from Wisconsin to Tucson, AZ, where I am now located.

    I just wrote to Dr. Krupp, and hopefully he will have an answer for us. Despite communicating with several people at the BBC, no one there seems to know where the master tapes for “Understanding Space and Time” are, or who owns the rights.

    Will let you know if I find out anything. Thank you for your interest!

    1. That is terrific! I remember the producer of the show was Andrew Crilly. Maybe you can contact him? He lived in London.

  4. Any more news on this? I would love to have a set also, if they become available one day. Thank you, David

    1. Sadly, David, we have made no additional progress. I attempted to contact the producer of the series, Andrew Crilly, in July 2022 through a third party, but I didn’t receive a response. I do not know how to get in touch with him.

      I did receive a kind note from Edwin Krupp at the Griffith Observatory in June 2022. He wrote:

      “I remember the Understanding Space and Time series very well, and I applaud your effort to resurrect it. I remember George going to recording sessions, and I also remember meeting Julian Schwinger at the time. I have a fugitive memory they did videotaping at UCLA, but I don’t think UCLA was formally part of the production team.”

      In my communications with Dr. Krupp, I told him how much I enjoyed his series, Project Universe. His experience with trying to get it publicly released on DVD may suggest a reason why Understanding Space and Time, too, has never been available on DVD:

      “You are kind to remember some of the programs in which I appeared. Of these, Project: Universe was particularly problematic. A steady stream of inquiries about the show reached me at Griffith Observatory. Eventually, I received a set of DVDs of most of the episodes. Others and I looked into the issues related to re-release. Although the Orange Coast College District possessed the fundamental authority for the series (in conjunction with the Los Angeles Community Colleges System), the effort and cost associated with securing permission from everyone who appeared on camera and from all of the institutions that had provided materials discouraged all attempts to repackage the programs for consumer sales. Eventually, the entire series did manage to wind up on YouTube, and I think it is still there. Any other distribution of the series appears to be hopeless.”

      Prohibitive costs associated with permissions and copyright may explain why a huge number of historically significant documentaries and documentary series are unavailable. It is a very sad state of affairs. I wish there were some solution.

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