TV-Review: Human Universe 2

In the second episode of his new series Human Universe, Brian Cox travels to India and Japan to try answering one of the biggest questions of humankind – how we came to be here on this planet. The main themes of this episode are actually random chance paired with the laws of nature and how they are responsible for just the right coincidences to make the evolution of humankind possible. The approach is somewhat less scientific and a bit more philosophical and unfocused than in the first episode, with the many examples and analogies missing a common thread.

India proves to be an interesting source for Brian Cox to explain the origins of humankind. Looking first at how the ultimate question has been answered throughout history he points out a particular part of the ancient Hindu Rigveda hymn learned by young monk apprentices, which says that the Gods came later than the creation itself as an example of maybe the first glimpse of scientific thinking. Indias Chambal River serves as a great example of patterns in nature with the meanders occuring like waveforms and a beautiful, but elusive leopard found in the Indian wilderness demonstrates the occurence of patterns in nature.

A slightly too drawn-out excursion to a cricket game mainly seems to be the setup for one of the funnier revelations of this episode, namely that the rules of cricket seem more complex than the laws of the universe, although this part actually wants to explain how rules and random chance together make predictions impossible and even the slightest differences can change the outcome. Returning all the way to the cosmic scale, an ancient Indian temple built in a giant meteor crater brings Brian Cox back to the big, random catastrophic changes in Earth’s history like the extinction of the Dinosaurs which probably allowed the evolution of humans in the first place.

Comparing his own cells under a microscope to that of an unsuspecting camel, Brian Cox then delves deep into biological territory explaining how the mitochondria of living cells was created, again as an example of random evolution without higher life would not have existed. At this point the episode dramatically switches gears with Brian Cox visiting a Japanese samurai sword maker in an attempt to explain the origins of the laws of nature and what might have come before the big bang. Then the journey begins to unravel a little with Brian Cox buying a lottery ticket to explain how our universe has all the right conditions because we are just the lucky ones among many parallel universes.

His last stop is the Miyake Jima island, an active inhabited volcano. By making the comparison of the seemingly random occurrence of volcanic islands to quantum mechanics and the theory of inflation, Brian Cox actually explains successfully what might have come before the big bang – only the analogy itself does not work very well. His closing words leave the actual question how humanity came to existence mysteriously wide open – and in a nice touch, a Carl Sagan quote of a more philosophical nature from the final pages of his novel Contact also appears on screen.

Despite Brian Cox’ very good efforts to embrace this difficult theme and successfully explaining and demonstrating a lot, this episode feels more like a travelogue with the science tacked on as an afterthought. The locations are beautiful and the cinematography and music make them as breathtaking as they can be, but there’s always a lingering doubt here if he really needs those backdrops to make his explanations easily accessible. That aside, the second episode of Human Universe is still enjoyable as a whole, although it is a slight departure from his usually more straightforward style.

This episode was originally broadcast on Tuesday, October 14th on BBC2 and will be repeated on Sunday on the same channel at 8pm British time. For UK residents, it is also available on the iPlayer streaming service, but an airdate for North America on the co-producing Science Channel is still unknown.

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