Scurrying about in our daily activities, it’s easy to forget that we’re all stuck to a huge sphere of rock and hurtling at thousands of miles per hour through space. Thankfully, we have the welcome enthusiasm of Brian Cox to provide us with a gentle reminder, as he returns for the second part of the excellent BBC series Wonders Of The Solar System.
We begin with a whistlestop tour of the planets and their movements through the night sky. Mercury, we learn, buzzes around the sun like a mad thing, orbiting the star every 88 days. Conversely, Venus trundles about like it’s on valium, and consequently a day there is the length of an Earth year. So, with the parts of our solar system turning as perfectly as cogs in a clock, how did all this order arise from the chaotic beginnings of the Big Bang?
Professor Cox explains this in consistently entertaining fashion, and his repeated references back to the apparently mundane things in our immediate environment – the spinning vortex of water escaping from a bathroom sink, or the constant procession of seasons – and tying these in to the celestial events that occur in our solar system, is what keeps the science bits fresh and engaging.
We discover that the geysers of water found in Iceland have their analogue on Enceladus, one of Saturn’s 90 moons, and that the conservation of angular momentum – the law which states that contracting, spinning things must always spin faster – accounts for the fact that a spinning nebula of gases ultimately coalesced to form our sun.
He explains why, to our ancestors, the earth appeared to lie at the centre of the universe; from our point of view, the stars in the night sky appear to rotate around the North Star, giving the impression that the entire universe was rotating around the earth. It’s a point beautifully illustrated using time lapse photography, resulting in concentric rings of light against an inky black sky.
But then, this is a series marked out by some seriously pretty photography, whether it’s the frozen wastes of Iceland, the dunes of the Sahara or the middle of an electrical storm (where, in a moment of gonzo science teaching, Professor Cox attempts to explain the origins of the solar system as ominous clouds gather darkly overhead), Wonders Of The Solar System is full of visually engaging representations of Cox’s scientific facts.
In a country where, it was recently reported, one in ten children think Buzz Lightyear was the first man on the moon, and where fewer and fewer pupils are choosing science courses as subjects at further education, Wonders Of The Solar System provides a strong case for having Professor Cox cloned and installed in every school in England.
The series is certainly a far cry from the grainy-video-and-chalk-board science lessons I sulked through as a youth. As a piece of Sunday night entertainment, it is as relaxing and soothing as it is educational, and Wonders Of The Solar System is a world away from the typical antiques shows and costume drama dirge that normally clog up the evening’s schedules.
Wonders of the Solar System is a five episode series, and not three as I stated last week. Apologies for any confusion this may have caused.
See our review of the previous episode, Empire Of The Sun, here.