Skip to main content

Cox on the Box

I'm feeling an addict's first twinges of withdrawal now that Brian Cox's excellent BBC 2 science series Wonders of the Solar System has finished. I'll admit that I didn't warm to the series as soon as I should have, put off by press descriptions of Cox as the "Rock-Star Professor". His Jamie-Oliver-like elfin cuteness put my back up at first sight too, portending a torrent of Disney-fied gush and wonder, and I expected that the content would be a rehash of every other astronomy series of the past 20 years. I couldn't have been more wrong. 

Slowly but surely throughout the series Cox used the existence of the other bodies in our solar system as a framework on which to integrate all the latest findings in terrestrial geology, geography and biology, but in such a subtle fashion that you hardly noticed him doing it. He did plenty of whizzing around the world in helicopters, jet fighters and submarines to keep the Top Gear crowd watching, but never for the thrills alone, always to show us how thin the blue layer of our atmosphere is, the enormous gap ripped by a post-Ice Age flood into the Scablands of Washington State, or the sulphur-eating inhabitants of a deep ocean smoker. Cox had sufficient taste to let magnificent film of the real planet do the talking instead of indulging the now-obligatory expensive CGI effects. 

Gradually two themes emerged: first of all a tutorial in energetics, and depending upon that a tutorial in the conditions that support life. Physics tells us that nothing  can happen without a source of energy to drive it, how to identify and measure such sources of energy, and once one has grasped its principles energetic analysis wonderfully clarifies judgment about the real world - you can accept or dismiss all kinds of stories about phenomena on energetic grounds alone. It's an aspect of science that's poorly taught in schools and of which most lay people (including politicians) are almost entirely ignorant, with disastrous consequences for the quality of debate about, for example, climate change and transport policy. 

Cox has a natural gift for making energetics sound so easy that it didn't even feel like a lesson, as he enthused over the sulphur volcanoes of Io, the ice-geysers of Enceladus and the way that Mars is now dead because, in effect, its battery ran out. In the last episode of the series it all came together in the most satisfying way as Cox inquired into the probability of life in other parts of the solar system, deploying a variety of extreme environments on Earth - from deep ocean to glacier to Atacama Desert - as clues. All a long way from the slightly creepy search for intelligent life performed by SETI, this was, er, down to earth biology concerning the possibility of slime bacteria living in caves under the Martian surface. 

Cox showed us the way life evolved on our planet and might be doing so on others in a fully cosmic context, with no agonising about whether evolution is a fact: he took that for granted, as intelligent lifeforms were able to do back in the 1960s before evangelical cretinism threw sand in the works. In the last minutes of the program he gave the most unaffected and touching defence of a higher humanism that I've heard for years: we're likely to be the most complex lifeform that has so far emerged and that now makes us responsible toward other life-forms rather than in dominion over them as believers in Divine Providence would have it. Fitting compensation for all the dumbed-down Horizons we've suffered recently, and well worth the licence fee.  


  1. Great job, couldn't have said it better myself!

  2. Thanks guys - it's not too often I get passionate about a telly program.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

A New Age of Sabotage

I haven't posted much recently because every time I think of something to say, the extraordinary pace of events makes it sound lame by the next morning: New York under water, Obama re-elected, News International in the dock, rockets falling on Tel Aviv, and that's even before we reach the Mayan apocalypse on Dec 21. However I've finally plucked up courage to wade into the torrent of the miraculous-horrific thanks to a fortunate discovery on the web. In this previous post I confessed an increasing interest in the radical Norwegian-American economist Thorstein Veblen, but that interest was quite narrowly based on reading only three of his works, namely The Theory of the Leisure Class, The Theory of Business Enterprise and his important essay The Socialist Economics of Karl Marx and His Followers. This wasn't just due to laziness but to the difficulty of obtaining many of Veblen's books, which have been out of print for a long time.

But I re-read Veblen's Wikiped…

Trump of Doom?

Thought for the day. The type of economy we call social democracy depended for its success on a willingness of the majority of the population to cooperate as well as compete with one another, giving up a portion of their income in taxes to be spent on various public goods like medicine, education and transport. If the population loses its willingness to make these reasonable sacrifices then it becomes impossible to maintain a social democracy.

The UK population was so willing for at least 30 years following WWII, to a large extent thanks to the experience of necessary cooperation among the generation who fought that war. But over the *last* 30+ years that willingness has been steadily eroded by many factors, including (but by no means confined to): greater individualism stemming from precisely the relative affluence and economic freedom that post-war social democracy conferred; successive economic crises (some related to oil, some to financial recklessness); industrial decline, outsou…

Social Democracy Uber Alles

The outcry over the revoking of Uber's London licence shows that the service it provides is popular, and it's unquestionably a significant, innovative use of new technology to improve transport. On the other hand the outcry from drivers about lack of benefits and job security show that the application of technology is being used (not uncommonly) both to increase exploitation of the labour force and to flout legal regulation designed to protect labour and customers. The outcry of Black Cab drivers against Uber ignores the fact that people flocked to Uber not merely for convenience (though that is considerable) but because Black Cabs had priced themselves out of the market with the last big price hike.

Put all this together and it's clear that all the parties need to get together and find a workable solution, which is highly unlikely to happen because of the vastly different political atmospheres between UK and USA, and a general lack of adult leadership on both sides. I ca…