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‘Genius by Stephen Hawking’ review: Cosmologist has people thinking outside the box

Stephen Hawking hosts a show in which he

Stephen Hawking hosts a show in which he asks everyday people to think about topics like time travel and life in outer space. Photo Credit: Bigger Bang

WHEN | WHERE Premieres Wednesday at 9 and 10 p.m. on WNET/13

GRADE B+

WHAT IT’S ABOUT Cosmologist Stephen Hawking, who hosts, takes three “normal” volunteers then presents them with intellectual challenges. Wednesday’s editions: Can humans time-travel? (at 9 p.m.), and is there intelligent life beyond earth? (at 10). The goal, he says, is “to answer the great questions of the universe, using the power of the human mind, because we all can think like a genius.”

MY SAY Hawking’s engaging new series is otherwise based on a fairly obvious fallacy — most of us can’t think like geniuses. Most of us can barely program our DVR. But he does ask viewers and his volunteers (identified only by first name) to think, and that’s good enough here. “Genius” sets up a series of thought experiments, which are then rendered as visible models, at which point you no longer have to think, but simply look. For example: Imagine a heaping spoonful of sand, each grain representing one star. That’s 50,000 stars. A pair of backhoe loaders then roll into view, and begin to build a 460-ton pile of sand. That’s the total number of stars in the Milky Way.

“Genius” can be gimmicky, while those eternal questions about time travel and alien life forms are ultimately beyond the power of TV (or sand piles) to answer. But the value of this series lies in the attempt, which is ambitious and edifying. (Now, about that DVR, Mr. Hawking . . . .)

BOTTOM LINE Hard questions, made easy and fun.

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