By Bevan Rapson

Like, cosmic. Like, how did the universe begin? Where do we come from? And how many is a trillion billion?

No, I didn't spend the weekend at Sweetwaters, contemplating eternal truths and chemistry in the dance tent.

I merely overcame a lifelong aversion to maths and, er, stuff, and watched Stephen Hawking's Universe on TV One.

It soon became apparent that if Hawking and his colleagues were removed from their ivory towers, stripped of their conservative clobber and dropped at a house truck rally wearing tie-dye, their conversation would fit right in.

Passers-by would happily attribute their views to excessive smoke inhalation - or maybe even the legacy of some particularly nasty batch of acid that hit the market in early '70s.

These guys, the cosmologists (it even sounds like a band), deal with the big questions, and we're not talking about whether Jeff Beck was better than Clapton.

To some of them, they even have the answers.

They might have been the nerds at high school, derided for their laboratory-tans and enthusiasm for textbooks but in programmes like this, it's payback time.
(Just settle back, pea-brains, and hear what a tiny speck of insignificance we amount to, relatively speaking of course.)

Efforts are taken to make the subject television-friendly, with plenty of moody lighting and dreamy music, but ultimately the makers rely on Hawking and chums banging on about our infinite and ever-expanding universe, about black holes, dark matter and the possibility of a "big crunch."

Apparently, we're closer than ever to understanding the secrets of the cosmos, which surely makes it even harder to understand why you can't buy a reasonably-priced can-opener that works for longer than a fortnight.

Never mind. Episode one traced the history of astronomical theories and revisited such startling early technology as two sticks hammered into the ground in Greece 3000 years ago.

Mention of Pythagoras might have induced an instinctive heaviness of the eyelids and the faintly-recalled aroma of chalkdust but it was kind of interesting that with just those two sticks - and heaps of figuring-out - one of the ancients estimated the Earth's circumference to within 160km. Maths - just typing the word still brings on nausea - had begun to reveal the universe.

People didn't always want to know, of course. In the 17th century Gallileo was clever enough to make observations and revolutionary claims and also smart enough to retract them when the all-powerful church got stroppy.

By 1660, a young chap called Newton strolled up to Cambridge University, read a few books and within 18 months was the greatest mathematician alive. Not bad for someone with no previous formal education.

Through Doppler, Einstein, Hubble and others, the story unfolded, always slightly interesting for the detail of the people and their accomplishments, and always slightly baffling given the magnitude of their subject. We can probably expect more interesting detail and gob-smacking big pictures in the episodes ahead.

Hawking, whose words are delivered via a computer and simulator, is part of the same relentless search which drove his revolutionary predecessors.

His early boast that he has sold more books on physics "than Madonna has on sex" and mention of his links to Gallileo (he was born 300 years to the day after Gallileo's death) and Newton (holds same Cambridge professorship) suggested his ego is as healthy as his much-vaunted intellect.

Fair enough. We need brains - and egos - like his working away at questions about the cosmos. And we have to remember that, of course, even the cleverest people are fallible.

Take the American scientist in this programme who reckoned that because most of the observable universe is older than us, humankind's greatest experiences still lie ahead of us. Yeah, right.

Hell, he probably didn't even see that line-up on the main stage in 1983 ...