TV: Seven things we learned from Brian Cox's new show

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By Georgia Humphreys

If you watch a show presented by Professor Brian Cox, you can guarantee by the end of it you will feel that bit more intelligent. His latest project, BBC Two's The Planets, which is co-produced by the Open University, uses data from the very latest space explorations to tell the extraordinary life story of our solar system, while mind-blowing CGI brings the planets to life.

It follows a number of other landmark BBC documentaries fronted by Prof Cox, who has completed decades of work as a physicist at the University of Manchester, as well as bringing us Wonders of the Solar System, Human Universe and Forces of Nature with Brian Cox - and a spell in the band D:Ream.

Asked how he finds interacting with the fans he has amassed through his TV work, the Oldham-born academic, 51, suggests: "Science is one of the ways that we understand what it means to be human. "I would say to get a complete picture of the things that we all care about, science and the arts and literature and music are all part of an attempt to understand why we're here and what it means.

"So I'm delighted that people, not just myself but Alice Roberts and Helen Czerski and Jim Al-Khalili, are now big public figures.

"And it should be said it's because of a decision that was taken some time ago at the BBC, which is still the policy now, to have academics present television programmes.

"That's ultimately what we are and that I think it's extremely important. We need more public intellectuals in every field, we really do."

So, what's new about The Planets? Prof Cox explains what we can expect from the eight episodes.

"Particularly things like the grand tack model, they've only been around a couple of years and it's unusual to put those cutting-edge theories into landmark television, you tend to be rather more conservative.

"The other difference is there's an underlying philosophy to the series. I like the Jupiter film, in particular, for this reason.

"The philosophy is that the solar system is a system but I think that's quite surprising, and an important point actually, because it is quite natural for us, I think, to focus our eyes on the Earth alone and think that we're isolated from the goings on in the rest of the Universe."

THERE IS AN INCREASING NUMBER OF OBSERVATIONS OF OTHER SOLAR SYSTEMS

"It's critically important in our understanding of the solar system today that we've now seen well over 3,000 planets around distant stars.

"And what we've seen is the geography of solar system, the layout of solar systems, are not like ours in general."

THE PLANETS ARE PERSONIFIED IN THE SERIES - JUPITER IS THE GODFATHER

"When you start a series like this, there are different writing ideas and one of them was to characterise the planets in that way. And I think it's survived to some extent.

"I have conflicting emotions about that - intellectually, I'm conflicted about that.

"But in this case, it works because it (Jupiter) is a presence in the solar system.

"It's much more massive than any of the planets put together, so its influence is real, and has been real."

COX THINKS SATURN IS THE MOST BEAUTIFUL PLANET

"I'm always looking for the philosophical underpinnings of the films - it doesn't necessarily become explicit but it's there.

"And Saturn, it's obviously characterised as being the most beautiful of the planets - it's a beautiful stunning thing, with its rings.

"What I found interesting is that it's very likely those rings are very temporary. Beauty is so temporary.

"It's very likely dinosaurs - if they'd had telescopes - would not have seen the rings, they wouldn't have been there.

"So, they're probably tens of millions of years old and they will be gone in not too long."

THERE ARE PROBABLY STILL PLANETS WE DON'T KNOW ABOUT

"We didn't (look at that) in this series but there does seem to be circumstantial evidence there's certainly other small things out there - Pluto-sized objects, lots of them.

"But in terms of a big planet - yes, there is some circumstantial evidence there might be.

"The distances are so vast and the sunlight is so dim out there, there could be big things and we wouldn't have seen them."

NEPTUNE AND URANUS ARE THE TRICKIEST PLANETS TO TALK ABOUT

"Because we've been there once, with Voyager, for about an hour at a time - a very old spacecraft, it was designed in 1960s.

"Uranus and Neptune are difficult planets to characterise because we don't know a lot about them.

"And even the moons... we know that Neptune's moon, Triton, seems to be active and we talk about that in the last film.

"It seems to have these eruptions from the surface - a complete surprise.

"The thing about Uranus is its tipped over completely, it's rotated through 90 degrees.

"These models we've got, they're not able to explain the specifics such as why Uranus is tipped up.

"Maybe we will never know what happened. It obviously collided with something but we don't know what."

MARS, VENUS AND EARTH ARE THREE PRETTY SIMILAR PLANETS

"They're all in what's called a habitable zone around a star so if an alien astronomer saw our solar system, they would label those as potentially habitable planets.

"Yet Venus is undoubtedly not habitable now because of this trajectory it went on. So, it shows you one possible future for a planet like Earth.

"Similarly, with Mars, early on its history it certainly had oceans but it lost them.

"And so, I do think you tend to start to build a picture of what a really rather fortunate planet Earth is.

"And that's important. Because we want to know what the probability of finding life on other worlds is."

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