Brian Cox goes beyond the solar system with Science’s “Wonders of the Universe”

Brian Cox in Wonders of the UniverseThe L.A. Times called him “the nerd who is cooler than you.” Rock-star-turned-physicist Brian Cox is back on TV this summer in the follow-up to his popular Wonders of the Solar System series. In the new eight-part series, Wonders of the Universe with Brian Cox, premiering July 27 on Science, Cox takes us beyond our world to talk about the big picture — literally, the biggest picture, as he relates the known laws of physics to the universe and illustrates our place in the continuum of its history.

We caught up with Cox to discuss the series and how one begins to tell the universe’s vast story in a way that the everyday person can comprehend.

“We had the idea for a series that was actually about the universal nature of the laws of physics, essentially,” Cox recalls. “So at its heart, this series was built around the great ideas in physics: gravitation, thermodynamics, what we call stellar nucleosynthesis — the origin of the chemical elements — and light. So they were four overarching themes.”

One of the great attributes of Universe is the simple way in which Cox and his team, like Carl Sagan did in his influential Cosmos series decades ago, relate the grand concepts of science to the familiar world around us.

“It’s quite difficult, if you think about filming a physics series, to decide what you’re going to point your camera at,” he explains. “We talked about entropy — one of the most difficult subjects, actually, in undergraduate physics. … We had the idea of setting that in a broken-down mining town and we had the idea of using a sand castle to explain the transition from order to disorder.”

By simply showing the effect of wind blowing minuscule particles of sand off a sand castle — eventually changing a solid, albeit temporary, structure into something utterly different and chaotic — Cox effectively demonstrates how the forces of the universe continue their ebb and flow, and why we’re just a temporary and fantastic blip in a story that’s incomprehensibly more vast. It’s that illustration through the relative that makes the series so accessible to the everyday viewer who’s not a scientist, and it’s a point that Cox feels especially strongly about — that everyone has the opportunity to comprehend these often seemingly ungraspable concepts.

“There’s sort of a general thread through the series that we are part of the universe,” he says, opening up the vast scope of the series’ intent further still. “Human beings and human civilization should correctly be seen as structures in the universe, almost in the same way that planets, stars and galaxies are seen. They come from the same origin, and the physics that built them is the same.”

“So one of the episodes deals with how the atoms, the chemical elements, came into being. The carbon in our bodies — the oxygen in our bodies — how did they get here? Because we know that at the start of the universe — let’s say a minute after the big bang — only hydrogen and helium were present in the universe, the two simplest elements, in a ratio of about 75 percent hydrogen, 25 percent helium. That was it. There was no carbon, so where did the carbon come from? Well, it got made in the hearts of stars. So you need to understand how stars work — how stars live, how stars die.”

Explaining the life cycle of stars brought Cox and his crew to the far side of the world. “We actually start the episode in Kathmandu, with one of the burial ceremonies there, because the Hindu belief is — which is actually correct, in this sense — is that your elements, your body, you cremate the body when someone dies, and its pieces are returned back to the universe again, as is your spirit, in the Hindu belief — and then it comes back. … That’s what happens. You get the elements fused together inside stars, which are born, and then they die, and they explode, and the elements go out into the universe and they recollapse in stars and planets, and eventually form complex structures like people.”

Profound? Poetic? Definitely. But as Cox points out, Wonders of the Universe is also full of fun. “In the gravity [episode], for example, I get spun around in a centrifuge to 6 G, to experience what gravity would be like on some of the planets we’ve discovered out there in the universe,” he explains. “Because we’ve discovered over 500 planets now, around distant stars. Some are really big and massive planets — huge gravitational fields. So I get to experience what it would be like to go and live on some of these exoplanets out there on distant stars.”

That’s a pretty literal way of keeping all of this down to Earth, but like the best science teachers, Cox has that skillful way of engaging you with the unfathomable question and using the familiar to explain the answer, or at least its theory. As a series, Wonders of the Universe is elemental, enlightening and provocative, and, like the best television based on something so academic, it’s accessible in the pop-culture sense and anything but dull. If you’re at all curious about the cosmic soup of which we’re a part, you’ll want to see where Cox takes it.