“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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