Wonders Of The Universe episode 2 review: Stardust

Professor Brian Cox turns his attention to us, in the latest episode of Wonders Of The Universe. Here's Luke's take on it...

2. Stardust

After last week’s brilliant series opener introduced us to so many complex ideas while simultaneously being an incredibly entertaining hour of television, it would be fair to say the follow-up episode couldn’t come soon enough. Not to see whether it could ever top the first, as that kind of isn’t the point, but because Cox had, unbelievably, left us eager to learn more.

Here he attempts to tell the story, essentially, of us. That is, the incredible history of every subatomic particle, atom, and element that serves as the constituent parts of absolutely all mass in the universe, and therefore all the mass that make us.

Not that he needed this particular hook to reel in the viewers, but if Cox proved anything last week it was that conveying his themes in terms that relate directly to us makes them all the more salient, despite both the grand scales and bafflingly minute processes he describes. Quarks, protons, elements, all these are of huge relevance to us, whether we realise or not.

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In Stardust we are told that every constituent part of all matter was forged in the hearts of the stars themselves, and that we are merely the temporary custodians of all the elements in our bodies. To illustrate this, he travels to Kathmandu to use the example of the Hindu belief in reincarnation, as Hinduism states that all things have to be destroyed for new creation to take place, an idea, he illustrates, which isn’t a million miles away from the scientific truth.

The story of the universe that Cox describes does not mention religion again past this particular analogy. Cox says this is his story of creation, not going so far as to say it is fact, but clearly giving the impression it is most certainly not His story of creation.

His scientific account of the cyclic nature of the cosmos is an immensely fascinating one, and was especially enlightening to those who wondered just how we know the chemical makeup of astral bodies from unimaginable distances, and Cox explained this in just enough detail without bogging the theory down with overly indulgent sci-babble. Light, it seems, is key, and we are now left with a much clearer picture of our place in the universe.

Again Cox’s practical illustrations of his points were inspired, and over the course of the hour we visited geysers in the Chilean Andes and a Brazilian prison, which was utilised in what must be one of the most satisfying demonstrations of a dying star in educational history.

Was it really necessary to show Brian walking away from the explosion in slow motion like an astrophysical Keanu Reeves, though? Only the director (who clearly has lofty ambitions) can answer that, and tropes like this may be the price we have to pay for a programme that does, admittedly, once again look superb.

And by the time the hour was up, Cox had explained with commendable clarity and enthusiasm the life cycles of the stars themselves. Who knew before that the heavy elements found on our planet were formed under such staggeringly destructive processes hundreds, thousands, or even millions of light years away? Or that the Himalayas were once creatures scuttling around on the sea bed?

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Equally surprising, too, was the revelation that all the gold mined in all of human history would only fill three Olympic-sized swimming pools, meaning a not inconsiderable fraction of all the Earth’s deposits, forged in the death throws of a dying sun, can be found around the neck and fingers of your average scally.

So, now armed with a newfound knowledge of stars, atoms, and the life, death, and rebirth of the stars, the awe-inspiring nature of supernovas (including the inevitable demise of the geek familiar Betelgeuse) wrapped up another cracking episode of what will hopefully soon be regarded as a flagship show for the BBC.

Fascinating stuff, once again, and Cox imparts these facts with such a love of his subject that you hang on every word.

Next week he talks us through gravity, the sculpting hand of the universe. Can’t wait.

Read our review of the series premiere, Destiny, here.

Wonders Of The Universe airs Sunday at 9:00pm on BBC2.

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