“Lesch’s Cosmos” The Infinite Vastness of Science

Prof. Harald Lesch; Photo: ZDF, Alexandra Beier
Prof. Harald Lesch | Photo (detail): ZDF, Alexandra Beier

When Professor Harald Lesch stands before the camera of the Second German Television Channel (ZDF) and explains “what holds the world together in its inmost folds”, even the most complicated subjects become intelligible to everyone.

Perhaps it is only an accident that the show Lesch’s Cosmos is broadcast long after midnight, when the sky is already shining with stars. But in fact there could not be a more appropriate time for the fifteen minute science programme. For when it comes to stars, the astrophysicist Harald Lesch is in his element: without elaborate animations or breathtaking photographs of the universe, a likeable man explains to viewers what black holes are all about. Or he discusses why the production of the inconspicuous building material cement does more damage to the environment than does global air traffic. The secret of Lesch’s Cosmos is the simplicity that runs through the whole show.

Clear look behind the scenes of the world

The studio is minimalist in design. A window frame hangs in the air, and there is also a chair in this world, which seems to be unbounded by walls. Everything hovers. After all, there are no limits to the universe – and in Lesch’s head too there is no place for room dividers. The show needs this external and internal vastness, for it casts a clear look behind the scenes of our world. While the universe appears to be black, Lesch’s studio-cosmos is white. The contrast color is orange: Lesch’s pullover, a runner on the floor, the table in the center – everything is in this color. Even the cup from which Lesch drinks his coffee during the show is orange. Probably a concession to the special interest channel ZDFNeo, which, like its parent channel ZDF, has an orange logo.

Lesch doesn’t need more, nor does he want more, for his joker is language. It is the instrument with which he creates a familiar atmosphere in a confidential, conversational tone that makes the viewer feel he is sitting in his home kitchen where parents and children or friends meet and talk – and sometimes clarify basic questions. With one difference: Lesch’s Cosmos moves at a different intellectual level. While we might, for example, talk with our fathers about ski jumpers, Lesch explains why they can fly so far as they do. And while the family argues about who left the light burning in the cellar, Lesch makes suggestions about how we can better gain and save energy.

“I’m a man prone to making associations”

Even when Lesch talks about the elaborate search for the Higgs particle, the last missing piece in the construction set of the universe, he talks without frills and jargon. That is his secret recipe, which sets him apart from other researchers and scientists. “I have the feeling that intellectuals are afraid to use normal language”, says Lesch. “After all, they could then be caught out on something they haven’t really understood.” They therefore hide behind a jargon dominated by technical terms. Lesch has no interest in this: “If I want to convey scientific knowledge to the public, then I have to use the language that the public speaks”.

To ensure that Lesch always uses the right words, he is assisted in planning the show by the editorial director Christiane Götz-Sobel. “I’m a man prone to making associations; I can associate from one subject to another without having planned it”, admits Lesch. His editor keeps him in rein. But planning each show never lasts longer than half an hour.

The team talks over up to five episodes a time, which are shot a few days later – usually all in one go. After this the editor sets to work and sometimes adds this or that explanation, which is then displayed as text in the nearly empty studio room – if, for once, Lesch has assumed to much background knowledge on the part of the viewer. Over 80 episodes of Lesch’s Cosmos have been shot so far, and he has also imparted his knowledge in over 200 episodes of the astronomy show alpha-Centauri. In addition, he has given lectures and moderated on the side science programmes on radio for sixteen years. And still, it sometimes happens even to him – that he uses a technical term.