On what sort of time scale would you prefer your reminder of the transience of human glories?
Last night offered two brands of television vanitas, one of them – Niall Ferguson's Civilization: Is the West History? – framed in the familiar terms of dynasties and empires and the other – Brian Cox's Wonders of the Universe – taking a longer view. That's putting it mildly, frankly. "Life as we know it," Professor Cox explained at one point, "is only possible for one thousandth of a billion billion billionth, billion billion billionth, billion billion billionth of a percent" of the lifespan of the universe. And of that barely conceivable fraction, a human life occupies only a tiny space. You wonder whether it's really worth getting up in the morning.
You might also wonder whether this represents the proportion of time the producers spent on trying to think of an innovative way to open the series before they settled for the same boilerplate cliché we've seen a hundred times before – the presenter perched on a ridgeline spouting grand abstractions, while a helicopter wheeled around him. What is it with the BBC and mountain tops? Is there supposed to be some hint at Mosaic inspiration here? Or is it a veiled allusion to the romanticism of Caspar David Friedrich, in whose paintings solitary seekers after truth gaze out from German mountain tops? Either way, it's become tediously predictable and it should stop. And it's particularly unforgivable when you have a presenter, such as Cox, who is actually capable of drawing you in without being marooned on an icy pinnacle, with a BBC safety officer having kittens somewhere just out of shot.
Wonders of the Universe is an attempt to take advantage of the success of Professor Cox's previous series Wonders of the Solar System, which unexpectedly spun out of low-Earth orbit to find a substantial general audience. Like its predecessor, it's big on cosmic dazzlement and mind-boggling perspectives and full of epic orchestration and screen-saver graphics, most of which are much less successful at conveying the immensity of the ideas involved than one human being talking to you directly. This time the scope is a little less parochial, astronomically speaking. What Professor Cox was introducing us to here was ideas about deep time and – more ambitiously – the concept of entropy, which both underwrites human life and also guarantees its eventual extinction. In Kolmanskop, in Southern Namibia, he sat down in a sand dune with a child's bucket and spade to explain the second law of thermodynamics succeeding rather better than you might have expected.
It helps that he doesn't go too deep. Once you start thinking about it this is counter-intuitive stuff. It's relatively easy to make the point that time travels in one direction towards greater disorder – a bit more complicated to explain how primeval slime gave rise to something as comparatively ordered as us. But the point of such programmes is less to explain every detail than arouse a generalised sense of awe that might spin off into further thinking, and Professor Cox is very good at that. When he tells you that a photograph of an unremarkable red blob in a field of fuzzy white blobs is "one of the most interesting images taken in recent astronomical history" you're inclined to believe him, or at least give him time to explain why. And the final sequence – in which he outlined the unimaginably distant moment when the last star gutters to a cinder and "nothing happens and it keeps not happening for ever" – conveyed a genuine chill of mystery.
He certainly doesn't strain nearly as glibly to win us over as Niall Ferguson, who began Civilization: Is the West History? by proposing that the secret to the West's dominance over the last 500 years lay in six "killer apps". If you object to the "z" in that title, incidentally, take it up with Professor Ferguson for whom I'm guessing it represents a teasing little jab of Americophilia. Ferguson likes annoying people, and he particularly relishes annoying those who've argued that the history of the West's ascendancy is a tale of rapine and oppression. Hence, the triumphalism of this account, in which Western dominance of the globe in technology, trade and intellectual is unquestioningly asserted. "We've been brainwashed into thinking that every aspect of Western expansion after 1500 was evil imperialism," he said. He's set the washer on opposite spin.
Like quite a few of Ferguson's targets this struck you as being something of a straw man, similar to his later assertion that "we tend to assume that our civilisation will last for ever". Really? I think it's quite hard to think of anyone outside a primary school who would think that, given the ubiquity of the ruins of previous civilisations. He also leans on the scales to make his evidence fit his thesis, as when he contrasted Henry V's England with the far more civilised China of the Emperor Song Le. London, he told us, "stank to high heaven, whereas human excrement was routinely collected in Chinese cities and spread on nearby fields". Where, presumably, it smelt of jasmine petals and lime blossom. It was a bit puzzling too that the Chinese empire that failed appeared to possess more of the killer apps (Competition, Science, Democracy, Medicine, Consumerism and the Work Ethic) than the European civilisation that displaced it. Still, he's irritating in a very thought-provoking way, which isn't to be sniffed at.