The Weekend's Viewing: Brian Cox's Night with the Stars, Sun, BBC2
James May's Man Lab, Sun, BBC2

 

First, Brian Cox made science TV-friendly.

There's even talk that he made it sexy. Now, he's making it starry. But does it render an hour-long explanation of quantum physics any more comprehensible to the average viewer if it takes place before a galaxy of stars? The answer is no, but the shiny-eyed, perpetually smiling professor certainly tried his damndest to make physics more accessible with comments like, "If I were a nucleus perched on the Cliffs of Dover..." and "I think of the universe as a vast box of atoms" (perhaps a little too reminiscent of Forrest Gump's "Life is like a box of chocolates").

The show was staged as a lecture at the Royal Institution of Great Britain before a guest audience, at the start of which Cox pledged to bring quantum physics home to all of us. His method was Blue Peter-style science involving Sarah Millican pouring some sand over a double-slitted board, Simon Pegg and Jim Al-Khalili wibbling a piece of rope, Jonathan Ross doing sums on the blackboard and looking as if he were in school detention, and James May singeing his hand when Cox sprayed hydrogen gas into soap-suds. Did this "science made fun" unravel the mysteries of quantum physics for the starry audience? Not if the camera-panning was anything to go by: they looked back with flummoxed faces. No one wanted to say it until Ross blurted it out on stage: "I'm so out of my depth here. It's the worst thing that has happened to me as an adult."

Yet Brian Cox's Night with the Stars was not a bad hour's TV. There was something very refreshing in the simple lecture format, harking back to the days of Tomorrow's World, in which a TV audience has to be consistently attentive. And there were, within the confusion, epiphanic moments. Cox opened the lecture by bringing out a three-billion-year-old diamond and talking about how it was both the hardest thing in the world but also ethereal enough to filter light. As he talked about atoms, protons, electrons (lighting up brain cells that might not have been exercised since GCSE physics), he spoke of the contradictory nature of matter, which is "empty yet solid". Physics began to sound first like metaphysics ("Particles that make this diamond are in communication with every one of you and with everything in the universe") and then, like Buddhism ("When I heat this diamond up, all the atoms in the universe change their energy levels... Everything is connected to everything else"). These wondrous statements made quantum physics seem suddenly clear cut, until it got complicated again. Yet the biggest scientific conundrum for me remained how Cox's ability to talk and smile at the same time, for a full-hour, actually made my face ache.

If silly science is more your thing, and you happen to be a middle-life, middle-class "lad" in the same vein as James May, you might have preferred being in his Man Lab before Cox's head-spinner. Apparently filmed in August (before the singed hand), May and his gang prepared for yuletide, man-style, with a tool kit wrapped around their thickening hips. So a tree was felled explosively, and baubles were fired ballistically on to its branches. There was turkey-making for men, and a host of other festive preparations that incorporated loud, explosive sounds. But the real "tool kit" obsession of the hour was trying to make it snow. This was first attempted in the real world as May's sidekick, Oz Clarke, was dispatched on a small airplane and filmed as he vainly tried to spray dry ice on to a cloud. No luck, but they did succeed in having a white Christmas back at the man lab (with the help of a lot of hydrogen canisters).

It was men behaving badly in woolly jumpers, with May's usual blend of popular science, the odd good tip and a lot of silliness that makes for easy, unchallenging viewing. Having said that, I actually learned something: a six-kilo turkey should be cooked on gas mark five for three and a half hours. Thanks, guys.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood

'Whether he left is almost immaterial'TV
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before