Wednesday 29 Oct 2014
Sunday 7 March BBC TWO
From Martian sunsets to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn's rings, BBC Two's Wonders Of The Solar System combines stunning photography, beautiful scenery and amazing facts to reveal just how lucky we are to live on a planet that has enjoyed such a long period of stability. The more that series presenter Professor Brian Cox explains about how everything fits together across the solar system and the wider universe, the more miraculous it seems that civilised life was able to develop on Earth.
Wonders Of The Solar System is not a science series in the usual sense, says Brian, who likens it to Sir David Attenborough's natural history series Planet Earth. "You might think space exploration is just an inhuman, technological thing, but the natural world extends far beyond our atmosphere. This is a series about where we live and I hope it resonates emotionally. We've chosen places that are interesting in their own right to tell much bigger stories about our evolution and the value of life, which is why the last wonder we've chosen is our own civilisation – if you were an alien entering our solar system, the thing that would most catch your eye would be the glowing cities of the third planet."
Brian explains how, driven by the universal laws of nature, clouds of dust and gas came together to form everything from the volcanoes of Io to the ice floes of Alaska. These rules apply at the beginning and end of the universe, whether here on Earth or out to the most distant stars, galaxies and black holes. But how do we know this? "It's because the light from the most distant stars, 12 billion light years away, is the same as the light from our own Sun," Brian explains. "We can see the way elements absorb light. If you look at the light of the Sun through a prism you don't see a continuous spectrum, you see black lines called absorption lines. These tell you about the structure of atoms. You can see the same structure in the most distant stars, so you know they are made of the same stuff and behave in the same way."
It may sound difficult, but Brian insists that it's not; Wonders Of the Solar System is designed to inspire everyone. "People think space exploration is something that only really clever people can do," he says, "that it's sort of other-worldly and not part of our lives, but the quest for knowledge and exploration has driven our civilisation. The great early 19th-century scientist Humphry Davy said: 'Nothing is so fatal to the progress of the human mind as to suppose that our views of science are ultimate; that there are no mysteries in nature; that our triumphs are complete, and that there are no new worlds to conquer.' He was absolutely right, I hope to explain why we should care about exploring, and the solar system is our back yard."
A key driving point of the series is to show that our environment doesn't stop at the top of the Earth's atmosphere: "You've got to go to the edge of the solar system at least. It's kind of obvious when you think about it – the Sun, which is 93 million miles away, is crucial to life on Earth. In this series we develop ideas about how the solar system interacts with us."
"As a production team we argued for ages about which wonders to choose. In a way it's driven by television concerns – can we find a nice place on Earth that allows us to talk about places in space that may be similar in appearance or have geological similarities? We didn't want to rely too much on graphics, which are kind of impersonal. Many of our pictures come from the great space missions, from the surface rovers on Mars, from the Cassini probe around Saturn and Galileo's astonishing pictures of Jupiter. There's also footage from the European Space Agency's Huygens probe, which was parachuted to the surface of one of Saturn's moons, Titan. "It's a beautiful and fascinating place and would look familiar to anyone who has seen Alaska," says Brian, "it's the only place in the solar system other than Earth known to have liquid on the surface. It's minus 180 Celsius and methane, but there are seas, rivers, lakes and oceans with rain, snow and ice."
Apart from a short break for the birth of his first child, Brian spent most of 2009 travelling the world in search of breath-taking examples, from arctic ice floes to the Aurora Borealis in northern Norway, from the Atlas Mountains of North Africa to the holy city of Varanasi on the Ganges, one of the world's oldest continuously inhabited cities, where he witnessed a total eclipse. "What a place," he says. "It's like a fairy tale city that has been built on top of itself. Mark Twain said it's older than civilisation, older than tradition, older than history, older even than legend, but looks twice as old as all of them put together."
Human concept of what is ancient is put into perspective, though, when considering the question of whether we are alone. "We think that conditions for life are probably present on a lot of worlds, even in the solar system," says Brian, "but there's something called the Fermi Paradox which states that, as the universe is 13.7 billion years old, there should be civilisations that are hundreds of million years in advance of ours, yet there's no evidence of them. This could be because there's some issue with travelling big distances or that conditions for complex life to evolve make civilisations astonishingly rare. It could be our rarity that makes us special. The human scale comes from the realisation that you need this vast and complicated environment, often violent and inhospitable, to produce a little corner of the universe where we can evolve to look at, explore and, it's not wrong to say, give meaning to it.
Brian believes we are in the greatest age of exploration which has made scientists increasingly confident that we will find life elsewhere. "I strongly suspect we'll find single cell life on another world as soon as we can be bothered to go and look for it," he says. "If you made me bet, I'd put money on that. The discoveries we've made in the last decade really point to finding it, probably on Mars, quite possibly under the surface where there are caves which should have conditions for life. There's probably liquid water down there, all the elements you need. We've detected methane in the atmosphere, which varies seasonally. On Earth methane is only made via geological processes like volcanoes or life – and we don't think there are volcanoes on Mars. It's not quite smoking guns, but there's evidence."
Elsewhere, he says, indications of the presence of liquid water are cause for further optimism. "Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter, has an ocean bigger than all the oceans on the Earth put together and there are plans to send missions there within the next 10 to 15 years. In the last programme we explore a controversial idea that the colours on its surface could be colonies of bacteria. Enceladus, a tiny moon no bigger than the British Isles which orbits Saturn, has massive fountains of ice spraying out from the surface. If there's life it would be microbes, but there could be quite big colonies.
"Of all the big existential questions, whether we are alone in the universe is one we might have a chance of answering in the next decade," Brian adds. "I think it will be the biggest discovery in human history. There's no other question of that scale that has been asked for so long – to find life on another planet would change the whole picture, it would be an amazing thing to discover."
While some scientists are hoping to find life elsewhere, others are concerned that our own existence could be under threat. "In the fourth programme we visit Hawaii, where they track space rocks which have the potential to destroy life on Earth completely," says Brian. "We will get hit by another big rock without a doubt. We have what's called a keyhole system and there's something like a one-in-40,000 chance of a big one going through this keyhole in 2013. If it does, it will come back and hit us 15 years or so later and it will be too late to do much about it. One in 40,000 is a big chance to take on a civilisation's destruction. We have the potential to move them if we can be bothered, it's a question of will. We've got here with a considerable slice of luck, but this is the first point in history where we don't have to be lucky any more. Are we're doing enough? I would say not."
Brian argues that not enough is being spent on learning how to explore or work in space. "We certainly spend too little on scientific research – less than one per cent of our GDP in Britain. Countries like China and India are spending more and President Obama has announced a doubling of the US science budget in a recession. France has announced a big input as well ... we're cutting, of course, because we're Britain."
Raised in Oldham from a working-class background, Brian was the first member of his family to go to university. He describes himself as very much a child of the late 20th century, inspired by the Apollo landings and particularly by Carl Sagan's legendary series Cosmos. "I think that's what the BBC can do uniquely," he says. "It has the resources to make programmes like Cosmos which can change the world. I was about 12 when that was on and I would say that most people currently looking for water on Mars were influenced by Cosmos."
Would he like to think that future generations might in turn be inspired by Wonders Of The Solar System? "I'm not saying it will have the impact of Cosmos, but I hope so. Why not aim for the top?"
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