[19 April 2011]
Recently pop-star turned physicist Professor Brian Cox wrapped up the final episode of his latest series, Wonders of the Universe, and set sail back to the shores of Academe with a boat load of the kind of plaudits usually reserved only for an Attenborough or a Hawking. Though he initially made waves because he was considered unusually hunky for a physicist, albeit in an elfin man-child kind of way, Cox’s two series for the BBC, Wonders of the Solar System and Wonders of the Universe, have earned him a place at the table with those great popularisers of science.
The key to the success of Cox’s shows is in their titles: Wonder. Each episode is replete with stunning nature photography shot in some of the grandest locations on Earth. Whether in the foothills of the Himalayas or arctic ice-caves, Cox selects locations whose scale and alien majesty connect our world with the stuff of the stars. They also have the neat effect of drawing in an audience far wider than scientific documentaries can usually manage, by attracting lovers of natural history and wildlife programming as well as hard-headed rationalists.
These wondrous locations are further enriched with a battery of digital effects which help us to envisage places that are rather more remote. We skim the rings of Saturn, travel forward in time to the death of our Sun and sit at the heart of a nebula to witness the birth of a star. However, it’s not only through digital trickery that Cox approaches the actual wonders at the centre of his shows. He also incorporates the instruments and images which have informed human understanding of the universe, from the Ancient Egyptian temple to the sun god Amun Ra to the Hubble Ultra Deep Field image.
Equally important in linking the earthly with the stellar are Cox’s affable presence and the insistent, epic score provided by composer Sheridan Tongue. The first is indisputably charming – Cox is the kind of man who can wax lyrical about the glories of an ancient temple aligned with the rise and fall of the sun and then innocently exclaim that he’d like to build one in his garden. The music, however, has been less universally welcomed, and the BBC made the decision to remix the sound on Wonders of the Universe after receiving more than 100 complaints from viewers. Perhaps because of Cox’s background in popular music, a certain kind of cultural snob has seen the music in these shows as yet another sign of the endemic dumbing down of our culture.
Yet to quibble about the music seems to miss the point. For Cox, the wonder of the universe and the wonder of music seem intimately interrelated, an idea best summarised by his description of our galaxy as ‘a symphony of light’. His series deal with the epic forces and enduring questions at the centre of human (and all other) existence. ‘Why are we here? Where do we come from,’ runs the narration which opens every episode of Wonders of the Universe, over images of Cox standing heroically atop a mountain peak, backed by a sweeping electronic score. Yes, it’s grandiose and even cheesy if you’re disposed to read it that way. However, it also manages to express something of the ineffable wonder which Cox has taken as his subject in a way that words are unlikely ever to manage.
What makes Cox’s brand of joyous awe particularly refreshing is that science hasn’t seemed especially wonderful of late. Ever since Richard Dawkins became the poster-boy of popular science, the discipline’s public face has become increasingly combative and mean-spirited. There might still be wonder in there somewhere, but it is a greedy, selfish kind of wonder, hostile towards the awe of other, less ‘rational’ people. Cox, however, finds equal wonder in the Hindu doctrine of reincarnation and in the sun-worship of ancient peoples, seeing in them a kinship with his own entirely secular joy at the beauty of creation. His is a generous, giving sort of wonder, and this makes Wonders of the Universe a true treasure of modern popular science.