Infinity is eternal and bigger than anything you can imagine. And it was this difficulty to quantify something so massive – although nothing comes close to being as massive – and so long – ditto – that made this exploration of infinity disorientating and alienating.
It was packed to the brim with a plethora of erudite scientists all positing analogies and examples on the notion of infinity; but it was their very erudition and the fact they each struggled to convey their theories which made the whole escapade dislocated from reality, and accordingly quite dull.
Take Ron Graham. He has pinpointed – with the accuracy of the US Air Force targeting a Taleban base – ‘Graham’s Number’. It might appear as though naming it after him is some form of vanity project, but as he himself noted, even Graham’s Number – which is larger than a googleplex (a number so large it has more digits than there are atoms in the Universe) – is closer to zero than infinity. And the common mantra even then is that with any number can’t be infinity because there is always infinity plus one.
We later learned that infinity plus one is the same as infinity, and that half of infinity is equal to infinity, too. It seemed like an indulgent drive through the pure mathematics safari with little regard for the casual tourist. These properties were shown by an innovative but slightly laboured conceit whereby Professor Peter Cameron – a delightfully eccentric egghead whose wispy grey beard hung from his chin like stalactites, and whose office is a pell-mell of papers piled haphazardly on shelves, while unconnected white cables snake from heaps of well-thumbed books – booked into a hotel to show how one more guest could always be added to a hotel already ‘full’ of infinite guests occupying an infinite number of hotel rooms.
Thankfully, the distance between the scientists’ profound theories – which though were closer to X-Factor superficiality than infinite wisdom – and viewer cognisance was narrowed, dumbed down even, through the inclusion of a bizarre Steven Berkoff narrative delivered as if he was wandering through a Kafkaesque nightmare.
The tale was given vivid colour by a series of those peculiar Eastern European shadow plays, which here depicted forward-thinking thinkers such as Aristotle grappling with the paradox of infinity or a philosopher from the middle-ages who said that the universe was infinite and was burnt at the stake as a heretic.
The oppressive intellectualism was further eased through the inclusion of schoolchildren offering their thoughts on the nature of infinity. It began with them counting up to the highest number they knew. This was cleverly interspersed with the scientists performing the same task – only they were showing off like children. One counted upwards in multiples of googleplexes. And while this slightly undermined the scientists’ credibility – rather like sitting aspiring astronauts in a giant washing-up liquid bottle and pointing them at Mars – it did prove some insight into the enduring desire of humanity to learn no matter how ostensibly futile, and this was a far more inspiring sight than watching grown men count to impossible numbers.