Professor Brian Cox, musician, telly scientist and general go-to astronomical geezer, is already something of a national treasure, and I am pleased to say that, on his current trajectory, he is probing new altitudes of appreciation.
His latest manned mission, The Planets (BBC2), has now completed its five-week journey of discovery with visits to the further reaches of the solar system – Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, Triton, Quaoar, Makemake, Eris and their environs. Cox’s signature quality is inspiring in the viewer his sense of awe and wonder, and that same unquenchable thirst for knowledge. In this case, it is about worlds “far, far away, beyond Mars, past the storms of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn, where temperatures plummet”.
This time, Cox presents from Iceland – presumably because it is the nearest thing to the deep, frozen far reaches of the known planetary world in which the BBC can afford to film. It is well chosen, having the same variety of icy mountains, glaciers and explosive geysers as the “cold” planets. Even more spectacular and entrancing are the CGI effects, creating believable images of these eerie worlds, as if in a travel show. They are the kind of dramatic scenes you’d witness in a sci-fi movie, except of course that no sci-fi screenwriter has conceived of a world quite like, say, Neptune – with its swirling gas storms, where gusts of methane travel at 2,000 km per hour.
As Cox shows, thanks to the Hubble telescope and the New Horizon mission, we now have an idea of what the surface of Pluto looks like. It is remarkably earth-like and beautiful, with majestic mountain ranges as high as the Himalayas – and composed entirely of ice. There is also a large, smooth expanse of Pluto, with patterns of lines etched into the surface of solid frozen nitrogen. The region is known as the Tombaugh Regio (after Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto) and nicknamed The Heart (after its shape). Again it is a scenery, so to speak, beyond science fiction, a criss-cross of hexagonal and pentagonal shapes. How to explain such a landscape?
It would be tempting to think these are signs of a continent-sized alien settlement growing space wheat, but, as ever, Cox makes the real, sober science almost as exciting. Even though Pluto is some 3.7 billion miles from the sun, and the surface is minus 230C, radioactive substances under the surface act as a sort of giant nuclear power station. This warms the frozen nitrogen surface of Pluto, and thus creates steady, regular convection currents. It is these that etch the mysterious geometric patterns onto the face of Pluto.
Did you know Uranus has rings? Cox charms us with his explanation of how the bits of rock flying around Uranus are kept moving in orderly circles. This magical work is done by two of Uranus’ moons, named, romantically enough, Cordelia and Ophelia. Their complementary gravitational pull keeps the little moonlets from straying out of a given orbit. The pair are called “shepherd moons”. Aaahhh.
I happen to like the anthropomorphism that Cox sometimes indulges in. The way Cox tells it, for example, we almost feel sorry for Triton, the largest of Neptune’s 14 moons. It was, apparently, once on the edge of the Kuiper belt, an even more distant nexus. Then Neptune’s huge gravitational pull gradually moved it out of its old “home”, and so Triton was captured and trapped into the orbit of its nearest planetary neighbour. Cox makes Triton sound like a terrified kidnapped child, rather than a weird mass of frozen nitrogen with five-mile high geysers spouting out of it.
The only weak part of the show comes when Cox, too defensively, asks: “Why do we explore?” He gave some vague answer about not wanting to be huddled and isolated on our little planet, so that he sounds like a bewildered Remainer. In fact, the best reason to find out about new worlds is that they are endlessly amazing and nice to look at. Like its despised bastard cousin astrology, astronomy is becoming popular entertainment, and that is down to the efforts of the likes of Prof Cox. That, too, is a wondrous phenomenon.
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