Having explored the wonders of the Solar System, Professor Brian Cox steps boldly onto an even bigger stage with Wonders Of The Universe, coming to BBC Two next month.
Who are we? Where do we come from? For thousands of years humanity has turned to religion and myth for answers to these enduring questions. But in this new series, Brian presents a different set of answers – answers provided by science – and they are more beautiful and more profound than ever imagined.
Sunday 6th March 2011, 9pm
In this episode, Brian seeks to understand the nature of time and its role in creating both the universe and ourselves. From an extraordinary calendar built into the landscape of Peru to the beaches of Costa Rica, Brian explores the cycles of time which define our experience of life on Earth. But even the most epic cycles of life can’t begin to compare to the vast expanse of cosmic time.
For instance, just as the Earth orbits the Sun, the Solar System orbits the entire Milky Way Galaxy. This orbit takes a staggering 250 million years to complete.
Ultimately, Brian discovers that time is not characterised by repetition but by irreversible change. From the relentless march of a glacier, to the decay of an old mining town, the ravaging effects of time are all around us. The vast Universe is subject to these same laws of change. As we look out to the cosmos, we can see the story of its evolution unfold, from the death of the first stars to the birth of the youngest. This journey from birth to death will ultimately lead to the destruction not just of our planet, but also the entire universe, and with it the end of time itself.
Yet without this inevitable destruction, the Universe would be without what is perhaps the greatest wonder of all; the brief moment in time in which life can exist.
Sunday 13th March 2011, 9pm
In the second stop on his exploration of the Wonders Of The Universe, Professor Brian Cox goes in search of humanity’s very essence to answer the biggest questions of all: What are we? And where do we come from? This film is the story of matter – the stuff of which we are all made.
Brian believes that physics and cosmology hold the key to the story of life, and we can only understand where we come from by looking at the life cycle of the stars. But he begins his journey on Earth.
Starting in Kathmandu, on the banks of the Bagmati River, Brian tells the story of Shiva, the Hindu God of destruction. Hindu philosophy is based on an eternal cycle of creation and destruction, where all physical elements of the body are endlessly recycled onto the next stage. Like many ancient beliefs, it touches on a deeper truth about how the Universe works: the Universe is governed by an eternal sequence of life and death – the life cycle of the stars that led to our own creation.
Next, as he looks out across the Himalayas, Brian explains how the Earth’s resources have been recycled through the ages and how the peaks of the mountains began their lives below the seas. Every atom in our bodies, on the tops of those mountains or in the food we eat was, at some time, a part of something else.
Our world is made up of just 92 elements, and it is these same 92 elements that we see throughout the entire Universe. We are part of the Universe because we are made of the same stuff as it. Brian shows how the first, simple elements were forged at very beginning of the Universe.
In a truly spectacular sequence in an abandoned Rio prison, Brian explains how more and more complex elements are forged in the heart of a dying sun. And, finally, with a piece of meteorite in hand, he considers how the entire history of the Universe – from the Big Bang to the present day – is written into every single atom around us.
Sunday 20th March 2011, 9pm
Gravity seems so familiar, and yet it is one of the strangest and most surprising forces in the universe. Starting with a zero gravity flight above the flatlands of Florida, Brian experiences the feeling of total weightlessness and, as he floats around a plane that cancels out the effects of gravity on the body, he considers how much of an effect gravity has had on the shape and geology of the world around us.
Looking upwards, Brian explains how gravity is responsible for Earth’s relationship with the moon, and explains why we only ever see one face of our closest neighbour. But gravity also acts over much greater distances. It is the great orchestrator of the cosmos; it dictates our orbit around the sun, our relationship with the other planets in our solar system and even the way in which our solar system orbits our galaxy.
Yet the paradox of gravity is that it is actually a relatively weak force. Brian takes a face-distorting trip in a centrifuge to explain how gravity achieves its great power. Over the centuries man’s quest to understand gravity has revealed explanations for some of the true wonders of the Universe.
At Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, home to the Chacoan civilisation, Brian unveils one of his favourite astronomical stories. Almost 1,000 years ago it’s believed that the Chacoan people experienced and recorded one of the most spectacular events in the cosmos – the death of a star. It was an explosion so bright that it was visible in the daytime. Today we can still see the remains of that explosion – a vast, expanding cloud of stellar debris called the Crab Nebula. At its heart is one of the most extraordinary phenomena in the universe – a neutron star. It is just a few kilometres across, but it is so dense that its gravity is 100,000 million times as strong as on Earth. If you jumped onto its surface from just a few metres up, by the time you hit the ground you’d be travelling at more than six million km per hour.
Finally, Brian uses a dramatic waterfall to explain Einstein’s most beautiful theory – the theory of general relativity. Just as the water of a river flows at different speeds as it edges closer to the peak of the waterfall, space and time speed up as they approach the epicentre of a black hole. But, like much of science, Einstein’s theory of gravity remains incomplete – and Brian reveals that it is scientists’ continuing search to explain the mysteries of gravity that inspire his own sense of wonder in the universe.
Sunday 27th March 2011, 9pm
Professor Brian Cox travels from the fossils of the Burgess Shale to the sands of the oldest desert in the world to show how light holds the key to understanding the whole Universe, including our own deepest origins, as he concludes his epic journey. Light has always been central to human life. At one of the most magnificent archaeological sites in the world – the Temple of Karnak in Luxor, Egypt – Brian watches the sunrise during the Winter Solstice, and contemplates how our ancient ancestors built monuments to capture light from the heavens.
For thousands of years people have used light as a guide across seas and sands, but now it is also a guide to the secrets of the Universe. Yet to understand how light holds the key to this understanding of the Universe, one must first understand its peculiar properties. Brian considers how the properties of light that colour desert sands, the spectrum of a rainbow and the waves of water that pound the shore, all add up to give a unique insight into the history and evolution of our Universe.
Breaking the sound barrier in a Hawker Hunter fighter jet, he explains how the speed of light allows us to measure not just distance across the Universe, but also time. And he looks back across the light years to see how the Universe began.
Finally, with some of the world’s most fascinating fossils in hand, he considers how, but for an apparently obscure moment in the evolutionary history of life, all the secrets of light may have remained hidden. Because although the Universe is bathed in light that carries extraordinary amounts of information about where we come from, it would have remained invisible without a crucial evolutionary development. He holds in his hand a fossil of one of the very first creatures to have an eye. Only because of that evolutionary development can we now observe, capture and contemplate the incredible wonders of the Universe that we inhabit.