‘Wonders Of The Universe’: Episode 2 review

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The second episode of Professor Brian Cox’s compelling story of the universe, in which the answers to the fundamental questions of our own existence can be found in 13.7 billion years of cosmic history, takes us onward from philosophy to methodology, explaining how the building blocks of everything on planet Earth – including ourselves – can be found in the hearts of stars thousands of light years away.

Brian takes us on a whirlwind journey from Proxima Centauri to the Orion Nebula, via the Chilean Andes, the Californian Gold Rush and Betelgeuse, demonstrating how the 92 chemical elements (from which everything around us and within us is created) are a universe-wide constant, created in distant galaxies and then blasted through the cosmos when the stars that birthed them go supernova.

This is a much more educative episode than its predecessor, with some complex scientific principles being outlined and genuinely fascinating pieces of information being imparted – all the gold ever mined in the history of the world would only fill three Olympic-sized swimming pools, for example. However, the data is presented as part of a cohesive whole, allowing the audience to understand the concepts being demonstrated whilst simultaneously marvelling at the gorgeous vistas of the world and the endlessly beautiful starscapes of the heavens.

The ease with which the viewer takes onboard the information being communicated is also partly down to the programme’s presenter. What we learn so effortlessly from the charming, boyishly-good-looking, ex-keyboard player of D:Ream, blowing bubbles to demonstrate the process of hydrogen protons joining to form neutrons, we might not be so willing to accept from a bearded, middle-aged professor explaining the same premise in a laboratory-bound documentary from the 1970s. When Brian is inadvertently assaulted by salt – a lump of sodium explodes from a jar and hits him on the head – the shock is almost immediately replaced by a beaming grin. ‘That’s why I love chemistry almost as much as I love physics,’ he says; and you never got that from the Open University.

Another thing that educational scientific programmes of the past never demonstrated was the power of their subject to fulfil the basic human need of wanting to belong, of wanting to be part of something much bigger – a premise that was previously the preserve of religion. Yet one of the key tenements of Wonders Of The Universe is to demonstrate how we are all children of the stars, how every one of us is part of the epic history of the universe, and this knowledge is both revealing and uplifting in a way that organised religion frequently is not. Science is inclusive, not divisive.

“I wouldn’t normally show you a graph like this,” says Brian at the end (still engaging even at his most professorial), as if we, his class of fascinated viewers, have learned enough during the episode to be shown something very important – and we have. In fact, this is learning television at its very best: enlightening, entertaining and enthralling.

Airs at 9pm on Sunday 13th March 2011 on BBC Two.

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