The Genius Behind the Filming of a 'Black Hole'

Feb. 1, 2016

A sense of mystery surrounded the sudden appearance of an enormous black sphere resting on the University of Arizona Mall on a chilly January afternoon.

The air-filled orb shifted slightly in the breeze despite being anchored by four sandbags. Meanwhile, eight white clocks stood nearby. A film crew flitted here and there not far from the orb’s base. Onlookers speculated about the sphere’s origin and purpose; some snapped photos, while others silently watched the scene unfold.

The scene was from an episode of an upcoming six-part science series, "Genius by Stephen Hawking," being filmed in part on campus and at other Tucson locations. "Genius," which will be narrated by theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, was commissioned by PBS and National Geographic. The series is not scheduled to air until the fall.

As it turns out, the enormous black sphere represented a black hole, the invisible kind found far from Earth.

"This particular episode is about time travel, and we’ve set three volunteers the task to try to establish whether they can travel through time," said Jane Sayers, the series’ show runner and the episode’s director.

"They’ve got about five different challenges to go through during the course of the week," Sayers said. "The challenge here for them today is to work out how they can use a black hole to travel to the future. So, it’s looking at how time is warped by the extreme gravitational pull you have around black holes."

But how did the UA Mall come to merit a black hole — or, more precisely, a representation of one?

"There’s a challenge tomorrow that needs a mountain," Sayers said. "You’ve got all these mountains nearby. So, we thought Tucson, then it was a question of where we were going to set all these challenges, and the University of Arizona seemed like a real obvious place to try and do it. And to be able to use the Mall, this fantastic space, and have all the students everywhere, and get that sense of spectacle, has been brilliant."