Wonders of The Universe” – BBC

Of the many mem­o­rable images in Prof. Bri­an Cox’s regal Won­ders of the Uni­verse, the one that lingers longest is that of Androm­e­da, which he shows us on his lap­top from the jeep he sits in near the Great Rift Val­ley in east Africa. Androm­e­da is the near­est spi­ral galaxy to our own. Indeed it’s so near, that despite the fact that prac­ti­cal­ly every­thing else in our expand­ing uni­verse is accel­er­at­ing away from each oth­er, the force of grav­i­ty between our two galax­ies is so strong, that they are set on a crash course that should see them col­lide in about 3 bil­lion years. For Androm­e­da is just two and half mil­lion light years away. But what exact­ly does that mean?

Well, two and a half mil­lion years ago our ear­li­est ances­tor, Homo habilis appeared on the African plains where he fash­ioned the first ever stone tools. And as he evolved through Homo erec­tus, ante­ces­sor, nean­derthalen­sis and even­tu­al­ly into sapi­ens, those tools become increas­ing­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed. But with the advent of agri­cul­ture after the end­ing of the Ice Age, around 15,000 years ago, he stopped roam­ing the plains and began to set­tle down. And when he did that, he start­ed to look up and into the night skies, because agri­cul­ture needs a cal­en­dar, and for that you need the rhythms of the sun, the moon and the stars.

Over the thou­sands of years that fol­lowed we got bet­ter and bet­ter at read­ing the night skies, until final­ly, in the sec­ond decade of the 17th cen­tu­ry, Johannes Kepler arrived at his third law of plan­e­tary motion as, at last, their mys­ter­ies were revealed. At exact­ly the same time, Galileo (and oth­ers) invent­ed the tele­scope, giv­ing one as a gift to Kepler, and we began the busi­ness of sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly chart­ing the heav­ens. So that by the time we get to where we are now, we can read the skies with such pre­ci­sion, sophis­ti­ca­tion and sub­tle­ty that we can point to Androm­e­da and say what it is, and how far away it is. Two and half mil­lion light years.

In oth­er words, when the light that we see today left Androm­e­da, Homo habilis had just set foot in Africa. And dur­ing the time that it took that light to trav­el from there to here, at the fastest speed in the uni­verse, we went through the whole of human evo­lu­tion. Until even­tu­al­ly it reached us, its near­est neigh­bour, two and half mil­lion years lat­er. That’s how vast the uni­verse is, and that’s how much we can now say about it. And that’s why Prof. Cox was show­ing us that image, there, against the back­drop of Africa.

Incred­i­bly, sci­ence is so bad­ly taught at school that most of us leave with a pro­found aver­sion to it. And the full fail­ings of our edu­ca­tion sys­tem are only real­ly exposed as we lat­er come to real­ize what a mag­nif­i­cent vista it reveals. Which is why this series and the book that accom­pa­nies it is so impor­tant. Any­one with even the vaguest inter­est in a gen­uine edu­ca­tion and all that that is sup­posed to encom­pass should have this series, its book, or both in their house.

You’ll prob­a­bly need to watch the four episodes at least a cou­ple of times – I cer­tain­ly did — to digest all the infor­ma­tion they con­tain. But be warned, the first episode bizarrely takes ful­ly 30 min­utes to get to its first bit of sci­ence. It’s then that he explains the sig­nif­i­cance of the sec­ond Law of Ther­mo­dy­nam­ics and its rela­tion to the con­cept of entropy. And from that point on the series takes flight.

Entropy, the idea that time is only ever one-direc­tion­al, that things only ever end up bro­ken, they nev­er end up whole, is some­thing we’ve known instinc­tive­ly for mil­len­nia. Indeed, it was the sub­ject of the very first philo­soph­i­cal idea, by the Greek Anax­i­man­der, and lies at the very core of Judeo-Chris­tian­i­ty. Ash­es to ash­es, and dust to dust. But it was only in the late 19th cen­tu­ry that we came to under­stand it sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly. And both the series and the book illus­trate and explain this, and much else besides, pristine­ly. What fol­lows is three and a half hours of glo­ri­ous­ly com­pact, unabashed­ly intel­li­gent yet bril­liant­ly acces­si­ble insights into the incom­pa­ra­ble won­ders of our universe.

Every house should have a copy, as they should the pre­vi­ous series, the equal­ly impres­sive Won­ders of the Solar Sys­tem.



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