Science, TV

Wonders of the Solar System

Brain watching a solar eclipse

The big BBC science series on at the moment is “Wonders of the Solar System“, presented by Brian Cox. It’s a series of 5 hour-long documentaries, focusing on the Solar System and Earth’s place in it.

I’ve been disappointed with Horizon recently – I think it’s intent on dramatising science and stirring up false controversy whilst deliberately trying to confuse viewers – and it’s a relief to finally have some documentaries done properly. As long as Brian’s Mancunian accent and perma-smile don’t put you off, you’re in for a treat: it’s simple (whilst remaining interesting) and clear, and it features some absolutely beautiful imagery of the Earth, the Solar System, and the surrounding stars in the Milky Way. ((Much of it is well explained by the program, there’s not much gratuitous beauty.))

Wonders occasionally reminds me of Carl Sagan‘s epic series “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage” ((I actually think Wonders has one or two deliberate homages to the music of Cosmos.)). It wouldn’t be fair to compare the two (Wonders is only about the Solar System, whereas Cosmos is about everything ((Hence the title.))) but I feel they both achieve something which many other documentaries don’t: inspiration. I think that’s the most important aspect of a documentary, especially for the children who are watching.

Each of the episodes has a particular and mostly separate focus, hinted at by the titles:

  1. Empire of the Sun
  2. Order Out of Chaos
  3. The Thin Blue Line
  4. Dead or Alive
  5. Aliens

Empire of the Sun

The spectacular Aurora Borealis appear over the Norwegian  countryside

Of all the objects in the Solar System, and perhaps the Universe, I am awed most by the Sun. Only by the Sun’s energy were we born and do we continue to survive. Its power is incomprehensible: we can feel the warmth on our skin, 150 million kilometers away.

Above is a picture from the episode ((All of these pictures have been taken from the BBC’s website. I hope they don’t mind.)), showing the Aurora Borealis: bits of Sun raining down along the Earth’s magnetic field lines. The episode also features an eclipse: in my opinion, the most awesome sight there is. I witnessed a partial solar eclipse in August 1999. I’ll never forget that image of the nearly-concealed Sun which I saw through a stack of old sunglasses.

This episode was a great start to the series.

A lagoon chocked by icebergs in Iceland

In the second episode, Brian explains how the laws of physics are the same all across the universe, so phenomena on Earth also occurs on other planets: crater, storms, tornadoes, ice. He even went storm chasing, but unfortunately he didn’t catch anything: it’s a good job they had some stock footage lined up instead.

I so want to see a tornado some day.

Brian Cox sitting in a Lightening Jet preparing to fly 18KM above the surface of the earth.

The third episode is about Earth’s atmosphere. I’ve known about this one for a long time, because I follow Brian on Twitter and he was very excited during filming. In it, he flies in an English Electric Lightning to the edge of space. Although Brian seems to be in love with the aeroplane, it’s true: it’s a magnificent piece of engineering ((The plane that he flew in was destroyed shortly afterwards in a crash. You got lucky there mate.)).

The ending also particularly stood out: it’s about one of Saturn’s moons, Titan ((Brian always said Saturn with emphasis on the “ur”, as if he’s saying “sah-turrrn” and I’ve never heard it pronounced like that before. I pronounce it with emphasis on the first syllable: “sah-tun”. Is there a right way and a wrong way?)). A world like our own in some ways, with lakes and clouds and rain. But the lakes are of liquid methane, and the rain falls in huge drops at the speed of snowflakes, and the temperature is hundreds of degrees cooler than on Earth.

It’s amazing that we know all this.

Brian Cox stands on the rim of the Erte Ale lava lake in Ethiopia

The fourth episode, which I watched this afternoon, is about why the Earth is a living planet, and the rest of the Solar System is dead. The answer is mainly due to our size and distance from the Sun, as well as the effect of Jupiter’s gravity on nearby asteroids. It’s all information that I was familiar with, but the presentation was fresh and I didn’t get bored. Quite the opposite, actually, and I thought that the view from up Mauna Kea of the rolling clouds at sunset was just beautiful. Extraordinary. That’s another place I’d like to visit.

The final episode, Aliens, airs on Sunday. I hope Brian can full convey his wonder at the possibility – probability! – of the existence of extra-terrestrial life. I look forward to it.

With the high quality of the series, and assuming it has been a success, I’m sure Brian will be back for another BBC documentary series. I hope so.

UPDATE: Aliens was pretty good too, the main ‘Wonder’ being about Europa, with its huge sub-surface water oceans being possible havens for life. Brian will be making a follow-up series with the same team, called “Universal” “Wonders of the Universe” for broadcast next year.

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