15 March 2010

The Rock Star Physicist and the Wonders of the Solar System

Here is someone to look out for – the Rock Star Physicist.  RJ Evans takes a look at the man behind the moniker and his new TV series.

The UK has a history of scientists who manage to popularise their subject on TV.  Anyone who remembers Magnus Pike, the archetypal mad-scientist with arms flapping and wild eyes, probably thought we would never see the same again.  Likewise Patrick Moore, who at eighty seven is still out there popularising astronomy to audiences old and new alike.  Who would be their natural successor?

The BBC have probably found their man.  Professor Brian Cox has been seen over the last two weeks presenting his series Wonders of the Solar System.  As his profile on TV increases he has already been labeled as the Rock Star Physicist and not because of his ever so slightly grungy appearance.  This guy actually has history – playing in a rock band called Dare fronted by a former member of Thin Lizzy.

Although he is known in academic circles as Professor B E Cox his new Sunday evening five episode saga exploring our solar system will no doubt further this scientist's propulsion in to the cerebral celebrity stratosphere and to be quite frank it is a relief: a relief to see someone on prime time television whose brain has been augmented by years of serious study rather than an augmentation of a totally different kind thanks to several months under the scalpel of a surgeon.

He is far from new to the media, having appeared in many documentaries over the last three years or so.  However, Wonders of the Solar System is his first solo series – and if it is anything to go by then TV viewers have years of marvelous, educational television to look forward to.  Cox, who holds a chair in Particle Physics at the University of Manchester, is a natural for TV.  Anyone who risks life and limb - death or whiskey as he puts it - in order to explain the rings of Saturn to a wide TV audience is fine by us!

Besides his natural good looks and nature (only a few grey hairs give away the fact that he is in his forties) his obvious huge enthusiasm (no, scratch that, love) for his subject makes watching him expound on mind boggling theories an enjoyable experience.  And it is mind boggling – the first episode of this series dealt with the formation of the solar system and last night’s episode looked at Saturn and its sixty one moons. The way he enthuses about grainy photographs taken by the various satellites make you look twice and reconsider them.  Yes – they are amazing.  The shots of sunrise on Mars look, well, ordinary, until you hear him describe it and then you just can’t help getting enthusiastic too!

The TV series is causing quite a stir in the UK.  Cox travels the globe in order to help us to understand the miracle of the vastness around us – and certainly – there have been moans that it is something of a waste of money.  Why not just tell us about solar eclipses rather than go and see one in Varanasi?  Why not just tell us about the icy rings of Jupiter without going to the poles to stand somewhat unsteadily on icebergs?

Why not take a look and decide what you think for yourself?  Here is that total eclipse mentioned earlier.

From my perspective the answer is simple – this is wonderful, entertaining and clever TV.  There is only a limit to what CGI will do to keep our interest (even though it is marvellous here) and these interesting mini travelogues help illuminate the science.  The parts where he gets a stick and draws the solar system in the sand of the desert to explain why our planet is not at the center of the universe was priceless!  If you ever wondered how Saturn got its rings, then take a look at this.

Another highlight from yesterday's episode was him taking speedy, giggly cover from a possible tornado inducing storm in the US.  Priceless.

A fascinating TV series and one which I will most certainly be tuning in to until its conclusion.  My only complaint is that there are only five episodes.

Second Image Source
Third Image Credit