In part three of the BBC’s lavish exploration of the planets orbiting the Sun, Brian Cox focuses on the Earth’s atmosphere, the ‘thin blue line’ of gases that supports our planet’s diverse ecosystem. Without this narrow, tenuous layer, our planet would be little more than a lifeless rock like Mars.
Brian Cox explains the forces of air pressure and gravity in his own relaxed, trendy style, and in his hands potentially overwhelming concepts are described in terms that are easy to grasp, even for those of us who fell asleep at the back of the class during our school science lessons.
We learn why meteorites burn up as they enter the Earth’s atmosphere (friction), and how our atmosphere protects our planet from being bombarded with space debris. Without it, Earth’s surface would be pock marked with craters like the Moon.
Elsewhere, we learn of the sulphuric, hostile atmosphere of Venus, a planet choked to death by greenhouse gases, and discover that driving a 4×4 across the sand dunes of the Namib desert is much like driving across the surface of Mars (assuming the 4×4 was airtight, since the red planet is almost entirely free of atmosphere, not unlike a certain well-known chain of pubs).
The Saturn moon, Titan, meanwhile, has a massively thick, dense atmosphere with weather systems not unlike the Earth. Thanks to the Huygens probe launched in 2004, we now know that the surface of Titan also possesses a surface uncannily like a dried-up river bed, covered in pebbles apparently worn smooth by a long-extinct river. In fact, the Huygens probe discovered the presence of gigantic frozen lakes on Titan, albeit formed from liquid methane rather than water. Titan’s atmosphere is also omposed of methane clouds, making it quite possibly the smelliest moon in the entire solar system.
Part of Wonders‘ allure is its insistence on showing as much as merely telling. Potentially dry subjects, such as the cooling of the Martian core or the weather systems of Jupiter, are made infinitely more compelling through the use of spectacular photography and excellently conceived CG simulations.
This mixture of simple explanation and startling imagery makes for one of the most interesting mainstream science documentaries in recent years, and even if some of the facts and figures eagerly absorbed during the show’s running time are rapidly forgotten shortly after, Wonders continues to provide a televisual equivalent of comfort food, a visual feast whose awe at the natural world and the laws of nature is infectious, and whose gently educational content leaves you feeling richer having watched it.
See our review of the previous episode, Order Out Of Chaos, here.