My Highest Recommendation

Now and then I mention interesting books I’m reading, or TV shows I’m watching. I’ve found two related TV specials that are so good, I ended up saving them and showing them to my wife, who is also finding them fascinating.

They are the five-part Wonders of the Solar System from 2010, and the 2011 follow-on, Wonders of the Universe (four episodes).

Both are presented by British physicist Brian Cox, who is 43 years old, and comes off as a cross between a very young man filled with wonder and excitement over the beauty of the universe, and a wise old man. He explains things really well; his explanation of the Big Bang is one of the most concise I’ve ever heard, yet completely understandable. Same with planets’ “retrograde” motion. Exquisite.

That latter clip, from Solar System, follows:

In Universe he clearly explains why the universe has to end eventually — entropy — and why time only goes one direction. He does that surrounded by a town that was abandoned more than 50 years ago; a town that’s slowly falling into dust:

Clear, Lucid, and Magical

My wife calls his discussions “poetic.” Here’s a sample, from the introduction to Universe:

Why are we here? Where do we come from? These are the most enduring of questions. And it’s an essential part of human nature to want to find the answers. We can trace our ancestry back hundreds of thousands of years to the dawn of humankind. But in reality, our story extends far, further back in time. Our story starts with the beginning of the universe. It began 13.7 billion years ago, and today, it’s filled with over a hundred billion galaxies, each containing hundreds of billions of stars. In this series, I want to tell that story, because ultimately, we are part of the universe, so its story is our story.

And the entire series proves how that is true.

UK/US Collaboration

The shows are co-productions of the BBC and the Discovery Network. “Check your local listings” (easy if you have satellite TV service, or digital cable) to see if they’re running for you. They’re running on “Discovery Science” channel now. If you don’t find them, both series are currently available on Netflix, and likely similar services or your local library. Make sure you grab them all.

Echoes of Sagan

Naturally, there have been comparisons to Carl Sagan’s 13-part 1980 series Cosmos. Cox acknowledges it explicitly, holding up a copy of Sagan’s book in one episode as he explains that he was influenced strongly by Sagan as a youngster (as was I). Cosmos was, at the time of broadcast, the most-watched series on PBS ever. It won Emmy and Peabody awards and has been broadcast in more than 60 countries to more than 500 million people.

Since science marches ever on (Cox says this is the most important era of discovery in human existence), things need to be updated. Sagan himself did updates on Cosmos in 1989 (he died in 1996, at 62), so it’s great to have a more up-to-date science series available.

Speaking of Cosmos: it’s being remade with more up-to-date information and visualizations. The host will be American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, and it’s coming on the Fox networks in 2013. I’m really looking forward to it. Meanwhile, Cox himself is currently filming another follow-on series, Wonders of Life, which he describes as “a physicist’s take on life and natural history.”

Until then, the two Wonders shows get my very highest recommendation. They will surely excite your own sense of wonder.

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14 Comments on “My Highest Recommendation

  1. One of the things I always enjoyed about science FICTION as a kid. People would ask why I waste my time with that “nonsense”. But it expands the mind to consider more than just the established principles of thought. So many things that were just imagination in the 1960’s are commonplace today. (“Open channel D,” on those Man From U.N.C.L.E. shows) How much imagination today will be tomorrow’s commonly accepted knowledge?

    I really enjoyed the explanation why time goes only in one direction. It could go in two directions, but the likelihood of randomness is so overwhelmingly against recreating the exact sequence of events that it can’t duplicate it again.

  2. The ‘Wonders’ series have taken up permanent residence in my DVR, and are go-to shows whenever I need to get snapped out of the day-to-day nonsense that drags one down. Cox’s enthusiasm and ability to take a topic as complex as the beginning of the universe, and break it down into apples and oranges (or a baseball and basketball), makes the world seem just a little less stupid.

  3. I remember Cosmos WELL, I LOVED that series!! As a matter of fact I got a device recently to copy all my VHS tapes to .MPEG files on my computer, and one of them is my boxed set of the Cosmos Series.

  4. I’ve watched both “Wonders” series twice. Best series since Cosmos. Brian Cox has me excited about cosmology again. There are some other great shows on the Science Channel & on PBS, but none of the hosts can explain things so well & at the same time be so entertaining as Professor Cox.

  5. Read your comments about Brian Cox, thought you might like to read some more about him. I live in York, England, and he’s big news over here. Since his shows have been on TV the number of kids doing physics courses at secondary school has gone up 30%! Big increase in applicants for college courses as well. Teachers talk about “The Brian Cox Effect”. The classic comment from the kids is something like “it’s great hearing this stuff from someone cool, he makes it interesting and fun”. The TV shows are always after him for interviews, and always ask him about him about his music career (he was in a pop band as a student, D:Ream, and they had a few chart hits). Great guy.

    Fabulous! I’m glad he’s having such a positive effect, and I hope we get a little of it here, too. -rc

  6. I enjoy the Wonders series also! I miss Carl Sagan, too. I remember a quote of his “The gates of Heaven and Hell are adjacent — and unmarked.” My wife and I had a discussion about what we would do if we ever encountered extraterrestrial visitors. We both agreed we would tell no one but Carl Sagan. A+

  7. I saw Cosmos’s initial broadcast when I was 14 years old and I was changed forever. I bought the DVDs five years ago and while I still loved it, I ‘m not too crazy about its quasi-religious tone.

    Another fantastic series from 1970 is the BBC’s The Ascent of Man by Jacob Bronowski.

    I’ll keep an eye out for the Wonder series, thanks.

  8. I really wanted to go check out these series right away, and signed in to Netflix to do so. I was disappointed to find that Netflix will not stream them. You have to have a DVD subscription (which costs about twice as much). I just wanted to point that out and maybe save someone else the time, and to see if anyone can recommend another service for watching these videos online.

  9. Brian Cox’s shows are inspiring. The man is inspiring.

    He recently co-hosted “Stargazing Live” on the BBC from the Lovell radio telescope (just down the road) and inspired this great impression — watch it to the end (2 minutes).

    A spot-on impression. -rc

  10. Those of you who have enjoyed these programs may also enjoy “The Infinite Monkey Cage”, a BBC Radio 4 series described as “a witty, irreverent look at the world through scientists eyes. With Brian Cox and Robin Ince.”

    It is available to listen to at:
    or as a podcast. I don’t know whether it is available outside of the UK though.

    I’d like to add that I have no connection with the program at all (but I would say that wouldn’t I?)

    I’ve listened to several of the podcasts. Very fun and (yes!) thought-provoking. -rc

  11. I’m watching Cosmos again for the third time in about 20 years.

    The lost ‘Library At Alexandria’ is an incomplete education, yet for me, an astounding source of knowledge, of the knowledge that we no longer have at our disposal, and it wrenches my heart and mind to think that Julius Caesar may have deliberately burned it to the ground.

    Its loss would be less disturbing if we could know that it was not destroyed by the hand of man, but by nature herself.

    In this case, a waste does not smell as sour, by any other name.

  12. I have been totally addicted to these shows ever since I discovered them! His narration is simultaneously clear, comprehensible, enthralling and yes, poetic. I hope they can sign him up for many more shows!

  13. “He makes it interesting and fun.”

    Among the many reasons I have such a low opinion of the US educational system is an ongoing complaint echoed nationally by teachers during the 1980’s (and even late 70’s) that teaching school had become more difficult due to the proliferation of shows like Sesame Street. Children had come to expect learning to be FUN. I was flabbergasted that adults, who are in charge of teaching our children, would presume that children are anxious to learn boring old crap that nobody cares about, just for the sake of learning it. Think of Ben Stein in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” The emphasis is more on the fact that the Civil War started on a Friday. What Friday? April 12, 1861. So what? Isn’t it enough to know that it started in the springtime of 1861?

    Learning IS fun when you can understand how it applies to YOU. Do you know WHY police radar has to be either directly in front of you or directly behind you, but is inaccurate from any other angle? Do you understand WHY most loan interest is paid at the beginning of the loan? So refinancing closer to the end is more expensive and futile? Do you really SEE the magic of compound interest and how a few dollars a week can grow to hundreds of thousands of dollars well within your working years?

    Teaching is an art. No, let me rephrase that. Teaching is an ART! A good teacher draws forward the innate desire of most human beings to learn about the world around them. Unfortunately, most teachers have been programmed to robotically recreate the science of teaching, and not the art of reaching the mind.

    Thank you, Carl Sagan. Thank you, Brian Cox. And thank you, Randy, for bringing them to our attention.

  14. Living in the UK, we get to see the “Wonders” series on our main TV channel. No need to go hunting for them.

    Yes the “Wonders” series are very good but I still prefer Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. This is more to do with Sagan’s ability to capture the imagination of the viewer and draw them in. I saw this when it was first shown on the BBC and still remembered parts when I got it on DVD, 30 years later. THAT’S making an impression on a young mind.

    Myself and several friends wonder if Dr Brian Cox (D:Ream) will ever host a show with that other well known astrophysicist Dr Brian May (Queen).

    As to the Remake/sequel of Cosmos, will Neil deGrasse Tyson be able to grab the audience. More importantly will he wear that brown anorak or the beige suit.

    While still in school, Cox was a keyboard player for the band D:Ream, which had several #1 hits. May was a guitarist and songwriter for Queen, playing on a guitar he made himself as a teen, which helped contribute to Queen’s unique “sound.” He had studied physics pre-Queen, and earned a bachelor’s degree with honors, but dropped out of grad school when Queen became successful. Post-Queen, May earned his PhD in astrophysics in 2007, and is now the Chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University. Astronomer Royal Martin Rees once told him, “I don’t know any scientist who looks as much as like Isaac Newton as you do.” -rc


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