TV-Review: Human Universe Episode 4

The penultimate episode of Brian Cox’ new documentary Human Universe was again a return to the old form. Called A Place in Space and Time, this time the astrophysicist takes a look at how humanity found out about its locations in the universe. As usual, this again involves travelling to a lot of exotic locations, but not without very good reasons – this time the journey goes to England, Morocco, Italy, the USA and Poland. It’s one of the most epic, but also most amazing and entertaining episodes of the series so far with many surprises and a wonderful surprise guest.

Brian Cox starts this episode where it all began – at least for himself, in the hospital where he was born and the grammar school he attended, reminiscing about how his own world slowly expanded as he grew up. Visiting an ancient trade city in Morocco and the ten thousand year old Berber people brings the episode to the long-held belief in the geocentric universe, concluding that it was inevitable until the first telescopes revealed more about the solar system. This, of course, brings Brian Cox to Venice as an example of the center of the renaissance. Visitng a glass blower whose trade made the first astronomical observations possible, the discoveries of Galileo are mentioned as the pivotal turning point in humanity’s history.

Zipping around Rome in a tiny classic Fiat 500 to much comedic effect, Brian Cox then recounts the journeys of the many unmanned probes through the solar system, most notably the “grand tour” of the two Voyager probes starting at the end of the 1970s. The wonder of human space exploration and seeing the Earth for the first time rising over the Moon are represented by none other than Bill Anders, who is visited by the film team, but apparently not by Brian Cox himself, at his home in Washington State. Anders, still flying his own small airplane in his early eighties, recounts his flight together with Frank Bormann and Jim Lovell around the Moon in December 1968 and especially how the first earthrise photo was taken. The essentials of the mission are lovingly recreated with the help of original footage and audio and some well-made CGI shots.

The next part of space exploration and observation brings Brian Cox inexplicably to a rodeo ranch in Utah’s Bryce Canyon, where he compares the need of three-dimensional vision for the art of lassoing cows to the parallax technique used to calculate the distances. He follows this up with a visual demonstration of Henrietta Leavitt’s discovery that the brightness of further away stars can also be used to measure their distance. Back in Morocco, he again visits the Berber people in Atlas mountains and their annual marriage festival, where the local tribes interact and form new families, comparing their small world to the heritage of humanity all the way back to the big bang.

A bit suddenly, Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity is then introduced into the episode, mentioning the physicists ability of thinking like a child, discovering the theory of relativity as a result. One of the most impressive sequences of the episode then begins with a visit to NASA’s Space Power Facility in Ohio, housing the world’s largest vacuum chamber. Here, Brian Cox and his film team recreate Galileo’s acceleration experiment, only performing it in a vacuum to show in a most impressive way that that two bodies really seem to fall at the same speed without air friction. This experiment even stuns the technicians at the facility, who seem to be happy that something simple, but yet exciting is happening at their workplace.

This proof of Einstein’s theory of general relativity brings Brian Cox to the Arecibo Radio Telescope in Puerto Rico. A binary pulsar, whose decreasing orbits can be measured to the millimetre by the telescope, is taken as a stunning example of Einstein’s relativity theory, which the physicist sees as one of humanity’s greatest intellectual achievement. With the stunning landscape of Morocco behind him, he also explains that the relativity theory is not just about single stars, but describes the whole nature and structure of the universe from its present state all the way back to the big bang. The logical conclusion of this segment is the Planck space telescope, which took the famous image of the cosmic microwave background, representing the shape of the Universe in its infancy. Looking at a giant printout of the image at a campfire – one of his trademark scenes none of his series can go without – Brian Cox marvels at the significance of this discovery.

For his final monologue, Brian Cox had chosen an unusual backdrop – a midsummer festival in Poland, where a great crowd of people launches hundreds of paper lanterns, resembling a starry sky. He concludes that while mankind has discovered that it is just an almost inconsequential part of a huge universe, it also means an enormous scientific achievement and the self-knowledge about not only humanity, but the whole universe.

Apart from a few uneven moments, this episode of Human Universe was again one of the best of the series, with very well structured storytelling, wonderful visuals and interesting people in addition to Brian Cox’ own brilliant way of explaining science. This relatively vague theme could not have been tackled better.

This episode was originally broadcast on Tuesday, October 29st 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. The DVD and Blu-Ray will be released on November 10th in England.

Brian Cox, Italian hot-rod driver!

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