The Guardian March 6, 2011
Last night's TV: Wonders of the Universe
By Sam Wollaston
Hi, I'm Professor Brian Cox, I'm one of the Wonders of the Universe (BBC2, Sunday). Here I am, on top of a mountain, triumphant in outdoor clothing. Why are we here? Where do we come from? These are the most enduring of questions. And why is it that you are a little bit in love with me? Is it my enormous mind? Or my boyish good looks, the NME hair, the expansive wardrobe coupled with exotic locations, the soft modest enthusiasm with just a hit of Lancashire, the winning smile . . . this winning smile – ah, that's got you, hasn't it? Look how proudly I stand, while the helicopter circles. I've conquered this mountain, just as I'm conquering your heart.
Now I'm somewhere else, in a cream-coloured safari anorak and stonewashed jeans, in front of the sun, bathed in light and glory. I am the golden boy, the sun god, I am the sun. Now I'm staring out to sea, in an aubergine T-shirt, thinking big thoughts. And very big numbers. A billion billion billion billion billion billion. That big. Look, I'll write it in the sand, to show you how massive my number is. It's all about the vast sweep of cosmic time and astrophysics. And turtles. As the story of time unfolds, a fundamental truth is revealed: nothing lasts for ever.
Now I'm back in Gore-Tex, by Berghaus, with a Patagonian glacier as backdrop. And posing next to a picture of the death of a star. The death of one star, the birth of another – that's me. Because time goes only one way, the arrow of time says the future, like my clothes, will always be different.
The second law of thermodynamics demonstrates everything that is profound and powerful and beautiful about me, and physics too. It explains why I'm so hot, but also why time goes forward and why there's a past and a future. Entropy – that's something as well, a gradual decline to disorder, like my hair in the wind. I'm now in the Namibian desert, wearing an apple-green T-shirt. And some kind of technical neoprene hoodie.
For a moment, you thought you understood what I was talking about didn't you; you thought, you got it? Maybe you did, or perhaps you just got me, you'd fallen under my spell. Here's another enormous number, even bigger this time. A billion billion billion billion billion billion billion billion. Amazing, isn't it?
It won't last, nothing does. Things Can Only Get Better, someone once sang, naively. Because things can only get worse. The most profound consequence of the arrow of time will be when the cosmos cannot get any more disorderly, it will eventually fade and die. Nothing will happen, and it will keep on (not) happening, for ever. A final thought: here's me, on the beach, at sunset.
Wonders of the Universe
March 18, 2011
From his writing and work on speech radio, it’s clear that Cox knows his stuff but, in the way of factual TV these days, the producers did all they could to prevent his showing it.
Emblematically, one key sequence involved the astronomer sitting on a beach with a bucket and spade, building a sandcastle, on which he then impaled a union flag. This was an attempted visual metaphor for the concept of entropy. The wind-shifting sands represented chaos. “Now let me impose order on the universe!” simpered Cox, building his sandcastle. But, wouldn’t you know, the pesky wind soon took down his erection, thus illustrating the second law of thermodynamics, which dictates that the longer television lasts, the shittier it will get. Well, they didn’t specify television, but that’s the idea.
The fact that Cox acted out his sandcastle metaphor not at Redcar or Margate but in the deserts of Namibia is typical of the budget-busting grandiosity of these big doc series. One minute Brian was on the coast of Peru but soon popped up on the Pacific coast of northern Costa Rica, where he didn’t stay long before appearing in the ice fields of Patagonia.
Wherever he was, he was in search of a handy visual metaphor. In Costa Rica, for example, he was filmed in infrared while crouching beside giant sea turtles at night, a moment that spoke strongly of his clear desire to be the Attenborough of astronomy.
But if Attenborough shows you a sea turtle, it’s because his theme is sea turtles. Everything Cox shows really stands for something else, which the BBC – and, perhaps, even more so, its American co-producers the Discovery and Science channels – fear may make viewers switch off, protesting their brains hurt.
The problem is that the point B that’s being made by showing us sight A frequently feels underwhelming. The Costa Rica turtles, for instance, stand for How Long Everything Has Been Around, as this nocturnal migration “has happened on hundreds of millions of nights stretching back into the past”. The Patagonian ice fields look solid and unchanging but “seen close up, it’s constantly on the move, as it has been for tens of thousands of years”. Like – geddit? – the universe.
Presumably, because of the anti-evolutionists in the American audience, Cox talks about the universe being “built”, which could mean accumulation of gasses but leaves enough wriggle room to prevent the creationists and intelligent designers posting their faeces to the TV station.
Featuring an intelligent man being encouraged to pretend he’s less intelligent than he is, Wonders of the Universe is symbolic of modern factual television. The tone of the voiceovers is often apologetic: “The fact that the sun will eventually die and obliterate everything may sound a bit depressing!”
The single consolation is that during the sequence on red dwarf stars, Coxy doesn’t actually turn to camera and say: “A term you probably know best from that Craig Charles sitcom. Here’s a hilarious clip!” It tells you something, though, that it would have been absolutely no surprise if he had done.