TV review: Horizon: What Happened Before the Big Bang? and Wild Britain with Ray Mears

What was the universe like before the big bang? A big Swiss cheese fondue, according to one scientist on Horizon

Where did everything come from? How did it all begin, the universe and everything? Easy. There was a big bang, 13.7bn years ago, since when the universe has been expanding, right? Well, that used to be correct. But now a bunch of pointy heads are beginning to question this, and Horizon: What Happened Before the Big Bang? (BBC2) attempts to put their thinking across in a way that might make some sense to those of us whose heads are less pointy.

Before the big bang? Isn't that like before the beginning of everything? Don't tell me it was God, after all? Don't be daft. But the problem with big bang is that it's all effect and no cause, everything from nothing, which is philosophically difficult. And big bang is mathematically problematic too. Like if you go backwards, cramming everything into a smaller and smaller space, you eventually get to a space that isinfinitesimally small. And, apparently, in mathematics invoking infinity is the same as giving up, or cheating.

There are further difficulties – such as when you get really, really small, gravity becomes repulsive (yuk) rather than attractive (mmm). To be honest, I can't quite remember why that's a problem, but it is, believe me. Big bang? Big sham more like.

So what's the answer then? What was there before, or instead of, the universe? Well, it depends who you listen to. This one dude says there are various ways of defining nothing. His own interpretation of nothing has convinced him that there was a before, and that the appearance of matter did not start the clock of time. Someone else says our universe owes its existence to a previous one which had the misfortune to collapse in on itself. And then Professor Andrei Linde, my favourite, says everything was emmental. "You have Swiss cheese, OK? And in Swiss cheese you have these bubbles of air, OK? So, just imagine the cheesy part of it is heavy vacuum and the universe expands, and these bubbles appear inside, and it looks like an infinite universe inside." Hmm, to be honest I'm struggling a little with that one. So the cheese is the nothing, and the holes – which you might expect to be the nothing – are actually the something; it's almost like the inverse of emmental. Anyway, I think I get it: big bang wasn't the start of it at all, just the end of something else, which had been going on for ever, and the universe just appeared out of what Professor Linde calls the cheese of eternal inflation.

No, of course I don't really get it. It's all a big fondue, inside my head. But it doesn't really matter. It's done in a way that you can go with it until it all gets a bit fuzzy, and then just marvel at the questions that are being tackled. At the fact that there's a building in Canada that looks like a mathematical problem itself which is full of people whose job is to sit around pondering these questions. And that they still use blackboards and chalk there. And that somewhere else, in Ohio, is the biggest vacuum chamber in the world, which has 8ft-thick aluminium walls and takes more than a week to empty of everything, by pumping out the air and then freezing the remaining molecules. It's a cathedral of nothing. Fascinating.

Wild Britain with Ray Mears (ITV) is easier. He's in the Forest of Dean, looking for stuff to look at, and to eat. A salad of wild garlic, golden saxifrage, wood bittercress and cherry blossom anyone? Mmm.

He finds a goshawk, and a sleeping dormouse which has to be the most adorable thing in the world. Well, until the little stripy baby wild boars appear. I want one, Daddy, get me one, right now. (But be careful, son, says Daddy, look at its mother; wild boars, they're like partners – when you get them, they're lovely and cute, but then they get big, and hairy and grunt.)

There's something very nice about Ray Mears, comforting almost. I like his encounter with an adder. A lot of TV wildlife people today would have pounced, grabbed it by the back of the head, held the writhing serpent up triumphantly, forced open its mouth to show its venomous fangs. Not Ray. He just looks at it asleep in the sun, admires its diamond marking, then watches as it slithers slowly into the bracken. Respectful, that's what he is, and respect is as important in the Forest of Dean as it is in the inner city.


Sam Wollaston

The GuardianTramp

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