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.
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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