Who Knew Astrophysics Could Be So Entertaining?
From the vantage point of a helicopter circling around him, we see a man standing alone atop an icy pinnacle. Twenty-first-century orchestral music plays on the soundtrack, and in voice-over, we hear the man speak in a regional British accent: "Why are we here? Where do we come from?"
The man is Brian Cox, a professor at the University of Manchester and host of Wonders of the Universe, a TV series consisting of four one-hour episodes that aired in 2011 on BBC Two in the UK and Science Channel in the US. Watching Cox, it's somehow not surprising to learn that he used to be the keyboard man for D:Ream, the pop band whose "Things Can Only Get Better" was Tony Blair's theme song during his 1997 election campaign.
Wonders of the Universe has arresting computer-generated visuals, exotic locations and striking astronomy photography, along with a propulsive, soaring musical score. And Cox is one of the most enthusiastic presenters you'll ever see. All this is combined in the series to describe the behavior of light, gravity, time, matter and energy in a way that is highly enjoyable.
Of course, there is very little depth here, and the series will probably not appeal to physical science buffs who already know a lot about stars and galaxies. However, for the average viewer, this constitutes an engrossing introduction to astrophysics. And it's not all just razzle-dazzle: Cox not only covers the Second Law of Thermodynamics, he even takes a stab at Einstein's Theory of General Relativity.
Contents of Disc One
The first episode broadcast on the BBC was "Destiny," though on Science Channel this was the second episode and titled "The Cosmos Made Conscious." The episode's theme is time, which Cox says is characterized by irreversible change. To illustrate, he goes to a decaying ghost town in Namibia. In a sand dune, he uses a bucket to create a sandcastle, atop which he sticks a tiny British flag. Cox uses this to explain the Second Law of Thermodynamics. He continues on to say that eventually the cosmos will die, though it will take "10,000 trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion years." And what happens then? According to Cox, "Nothing happens and it keeps on not happening forever."
The second episode aired on the BBC was "Stardust," though on Science Channel this was the first episode and titled "Children of the Stars." The theme of the episode is matter, which Cox gets into by traveling to Kathmandu, where Hindu pilgrims have come to worship Shiva, god of destruction. Cox uses the beliefs of the ancient religion as a springboard to the idea that stars must die to create the carbon required for life as it occurs on Earth. According to him, every atom in our bodies was, at some point in the past, a part of something else. Cox explains that there are only 92 elements which make up all matter in the universe, and he discusses how these elements came into existence. He goes to an abandoned prison in Rio and asks us to imagine it is a dying star like Betelgeuse, then shows us the prison being blown up.
Contents of Disc Two
The third episode in the series was titled "Falling" on the BBC and "The Known and the Unknown" on Science Channel. The theme is gravity, and this is arguably the most difficult episode to comprehend. But it begins with something easy: Cox takes a ride on the "vomit comet," a modified DC-9 airliner that NASA uses for training, and experiences the absence of gravity. Later, he visits Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, where there's evidence that the inhabitants witnessed the explosion of a supernova in 1054. And soon after, he's elucidating Einstein's Theory of General Relativity, which "explains to this day everything we can see out there in the universe that has anything to do with gravity." Many of us can't understand every detail of what's presented here, but we still get enough to be grateful.
The fourth and final episode was titled "Messengers" on the BBC and "On Beams of Light" on Science Channel. It begins with Cox in the Karnak temple in Egypt, built 3500 years ago to align with sunrise at the winter solstice. The theme of the episode is light, and the main idea is to show how its properties yield insight into the history and evolution of the universe. This leads to the Big Bang Theory: 13.7 billion years ago an extremely hot, dense, compact universe began expanding and has been doing so ever since. It's not only that the stars and galaxies are moving away from one another, but space itself is stretching. Cox concludes by visiting the Burgess Shale in the Canadian Rockies to contemplate some very old fossils.
DVD Release Date: August 30, 2011
Number of DVDs: 2
Feature Content: 4 TV Episodes (approx. 58 min. each)
Supplementary Materials: None
MPAA Rating: Not Rated