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The Cosmos: A Beginner’s Guide

(BBC; US DVD: 29 Mar 2011)

Originally broadcast on the BBC in 2007, The Cosmos: A Beginner’s Guide series is now available as a two disc DVD set. Over six episodes, host Adam Hart-Davis, and his co-hosts, Maggie Aderin and Janet Sumner, show how technology is rapidly deepening our understanding of the universe in which we live, while explaining what is currently possible and what may not be too far in Earth’s future as mankind expands its exploration of space.


First episode, Life in the Cosmos, introduces viewers to the SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) Institute. SETI has spent decades looking for any of the estimated 10,000 alien civilizations within our own galaxy that might be capable of communicating with humans. Hart-Davis visits the ATA (Allen Telescope Array) in California, which will consist of approximately 350 antennas when it is complete. Among other things, the ATA will be able to detect and classify extragalactic radio signals and survey for SETI emissions. This episode also discusses the discovery of—and continuing search for—micro-organisms on Mars and beyond.


Building the Universe explores the Big Bang Theory and new evidence supporting it, and travels to Geneva, Switzerland, where astronomers are recreating the Big Bang in attempts to track how the universe was made. There’s also a look at the probe that has brought back samples of stardust.  Seeing the Universe takes a closer look at several of the world’s biggest and most innovative telescopes, like the VLT (Very Large Telescope) and the Gemini Telescope, both in Chile, and the Hubble Space Telescope. It shows us stunning photos the universe’s past, as well as illustrating how artists and astronomers interpret the images that the telescopes capture.


The fourth episode, entitled Space Exploration, looks at the history of the subject, reminding us that the field is little more than 50 years old. This episode talks about traveling to Mars, which is clearly one of Hart-Davis’s passions, and other missions beyond our moon. It also visits a Utah training facility where people are training for possible future manned missions, discusses deep space exploration and explains research into new methods of reaching escape velocity so that future spacecrafts will be able to leave Earth’s atmosphere without all of the fuel needed by today’s shuttles.


Violent Universe is about efforts to track, document, explain and even predict explosions in space. Gamma-Ray Bursts, or GRBs, are captured, as are solar flares and other explosive phenomena. The final episode, Other Worlds, returns to the search for life in the cosmos, but this time it’s for Earth-like “exoplanets” outside our solar system. Scientists are attempting to identify stars that can support planets with atmospheres similar to Earth’s. One tool used is a Virtual Planetary Laboratory, which is used to compare Earth’s real atmospheric composition with that of theoretical worlds when placed in another star’s orbit, under those conditions, in what’s called “the habitable zone”. 


The episode also examines other tools and cutting edge tech that scientists are using to find such planets, as well as taking a closer look at the planets closer to home. We discover, for instance, that the Earth’s moon is still geologically active; that Saturn’s moons, Titan and Enceladus, hold many fascinating Earth-like features and that evidence of water has been found on several other moons and planets.


The Cosmos: A Beginner’s Guide is exciting, engaging scientific information presented in a simple, accessible way. 3-D recreations and state-of-the-art graphics mean that the visual images are stunning, of course, but what’s really wonderful about it is the hosts’ presentation. Obviously, Hart-Davis’s great love for space exploration is clearly matched by his expertise, and Sumner’s enthusiasm comes across as well, but it’s Aderin’s gleeful exuberance at sharing her knowledge that really makes her segments fun and especially intriguing. The Cosmos: A Beginner’s Guide includes a viewer’s guide insert with additional information and a “Gallery of Apollo Astronauts” on disc one.

Rating:

Christel Loar is a freelance writer and editor, a part-time music publicist, and a full-time music fan. She is often an overreactor and sometimes an overachiever. When not dodging raindrops or devising escape plans, Christel is usually found down front and slightly left of center stage reveling in a performance by yet another new favorite band.


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