Wonders of the Universe

Better than Attenborough: Is Brian Cox the next big presenter?

Earning a professorship in particle physics, playing in a chart topping pop band and winning multiple accolades at the Royal Television Awards are each impressive feats in their own right, making Brian Cox’s achievement in having managed all three even more remarkable. He’s been back on our screens recently fronting Wonders of the Universe, a follow up to his critically acclaimed Wonders of the Solar System. The new series is shorter, just four hours in length. The first three episodes have covered entropy, the elements and gravity, while the final one will focus on light. The unexpected success of these series, with Wonders of the Solar System attracting an audience of nearly 3 million, have played no small part in bringing about what some have described as a new golden age of science broadcasting.

Cox has made no secret of the influence which Carl Sagan’s iconic series Cosmos has had on his own production. It may not get an explicit mention until the third episode but Wonders is full from the offset with verbal and visual nods to its forerunner. From the opening-shot of the presenter standing on a mountain top and visuals of Earth as a “pale blue dot” to the semi-mystical description of life as “the means by which the universe understands itself”, it is clear that this is his tribute to the programme which inspired him to become a scientist. It seems beyond doubt that he will inspire many more young people in his turn with this tour de force.

Positioning yourself in the legacy of a classic like Cosmos would normally be asking for trouble, but a combination of stunning visuals and Cox’s own infectious enthusiasm allows him to pull it off. Thirty years of progress in special effects have not been kind to the earlier series, while Wonders of the Universe has got to be one of the beautiful programmes broadcast in recent years. If I had one criticism it would be that sometimes the graphics occasionally seem unnecessarily lengthy and involved, detracting from the expositions of science from Cox which are the true highlight of the series.

The same could be said of some of the location shooting: the explanation of element formation and dying stars was excellent, but was it really necessary to wander round an abandoned prison in Rio while giving it? The aftermath strayed close to self-parody of Cox’s “rock star scientist” reputation. In a scene redolent of action films everywhere, he walks slowly away from the building, discussing star-collapse, while it is collapses from controlled demolition behind him. However, thanks to Cox’s likeable demeanour and lack of pretension it’s hard to hold these occasionally over the top moments against him, and they are an undeniably memorable way of conveying scientific ideas.

Generally speaking the use of different locations and settings used to illustrate ideas are very good. Sometimes it’s the simplest ones which are the best, like sitting beside a campfire throwing different elements into the flames to change their colour. This led into a discussion of spectrum analysis and the composition of distant celestial bodies. Cox makes no attempt to shy away from complicated ideas, and covers topics ranging from fundamental particles to general relativity and beyond with enviable lucidity. As with most popular science programmes with a scope as broad as the entire Universe there isn’t much material that will be radically new to those who already have some background in the area, but the metaphors are often original and the visualisations breathtaking. Admittedly the first episode starts slowly, taking a while to cover some relatively simple ideas, but by the last twenty minutes Cox has moved to a more satisfying pace which is sustained through the following programmes.

His talents as a presenter have even led some to suggest that Cox is the new David Attenborough. He is undeniably authoritative in his field, but I can’t help feeling they are two very different kinds of science communicators. Attenborough has always stuck fairly strictly to his core facts of his subject, only getting involved in wider societal debates on a few rare occasions to highlight environmental issues or defend the teaching of Evolution in schools.

Brian Cox is more bluntly spoken and not one to shy away from confrontation, averring in an interview with the Guardian that sometimes “we are too delicate with people who talk crap”. This increased pugnacity is perhaps a symptom of shifting public perceptions of science: there seems to be more public suspicion and scrutiny than in Attenborough’s heyday. Little wonder embattled scientists feel more keenly the need to fight their case in the public square than did previous generations. In a previous series he described astrology as “rubbish”, generating a flurry of complaints (didn’t the complainants see it coming?) His response was equally forthright: “I apologise to the astrological community for not making myself clear, I meant to say that this new age drivel is undermining the very fabric of our civilisation”.

Elsewhere he’s taken the media to task for fanning the flames of pseudo-controversies, like the MMR scare and politically-motivated attacks on climate science, by giving the claims of fringe groups equal status with peer-reviewed research and scientific consensus. Like Sagan before him he is passionate about science as far more than a collection of rarefied facts. It is a source of beauty and wonder, as well as being a baloney detection kit for intellectual self-defence: a candle in the darkness of a demon haunted world.

The fourth and final episode comes out this Sunday. The preceding episodes are still available on iPlayer so with a year’s worth of revision to avoid there really is no excuse for not watching them! The more dedicated will also be happy to learn that Cox will be at Newcastle City Hall early next term alongside Ben Goldacre, Simon Singh and Robin Ince as part of their “Uncaged Monkeys” tour of the UK. No self-respecting aficionado of science will want to miss it.

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