TV-Review: Human Universe 5

In What is our Future, the final episode of his new series Human Universe, Brian Cox takes a look both forwards and backwards in time to ask what will become of humanity in the near and distant future. This maybe inevitable question the overall theme leads itself to takes the astrophysicist again literally from apeman to spaceman and beyond, going to amazing places from caves in Spain, one of the most northern places on Earth, an underwater training facility, the remains of the mighty Apollo rockets in Florida and many more. It’s a wonderful conclusion to the whole series with a mostly positive and hopeful message, although Brian Cox does not shy away from delivering some stern warnings.

The episode starts out with the very beginning of humanity in a cave in northern Spain, where Brian Cox has a look at a long series of cave paintings, showing how the first humanoids were meeting there to depict their environment on the walls and displaying the first concept of past, present and future. From this darkness the story travels to the opposite, visiting the community of Longyearbyen in the Svalbard Islands, located in the Arctic circle where the sun never sets in the summer. This astronomical uniqueness makes Brian Cox wonder if the true nature of the solar system would have been figured out much earlier if Galileo or others had visited the remote island. Humanity’s ability to predict the astronomical future of the universe in this way leads to the question how we should be able to guarantee our survival in the long term.

The matter of getting off the planet first brings Brian Cox underwater to the Aquarius laboratory on the Florida coast, where NASA is simulating spaceflight missions under extreme conditions. Other than a tour through the really cramped habitat with Brian sounding “like a munchkin” because of the higher air pressure, a simple experiment with a pendulum and magnetics balls is shown, representing the orbits of an asteroid that may hit earth and we won’t even be able to see it because of its unpredictable orbit. Stating that advanced asteroid tracking technology and ways to get to them in time before they do harm are a must for the future, the episode then takes the Rosetta mission as an example. The amazing images of its target comet are shown, released only a short time ago and even the planned landing of the Philae probe on the comet’s surface next week is mentioned – depending on the success of the mission, this part of the episode will probably be changed or amended in future broadcasts and home video releases.

In a tragic case of current events overshadowing the hopeful tone of the documentary, the episode then turns to new ways of space exploration in the private sector with a solemn appearance of Virgin Galactic’s chief pilot David Mackay, whose colleague Mike Alsbury had died last week during a test flight of SpaceShipTwo. Footage from an earlier flight of the space plane is shown, but the dangers of those endeavours are not left unmentioned. Coming to a long gone chapter of space exploration, Brian Cox then meets Apollo 16 lunar module pilot Charlie Duke, one of the eight men still alive today who walked on the Moon. In a wonderful little chat the astronaut tells a few anecdotes from his moon flight, but also rightfully complains that in the current day something like Apollo would simply not be possible in the short timeframe it was done in the late 1960s because the necessary economy and manpower is simply not existing anymore.

To show why no human has gone back to the moon after 1972, Brian Cox then walks through the exhibit of a life-size Saturn V rocket at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, demonstrating that the energy needed to escape Earth’s gravity is unbelievably huge, but still uses the very old method of the combustion engine. This brings the episode to energy and its use by humanity from burning wood to fossil fuel, which Brian Cox concludes may be its downfall. Climbing into a Tesla electric car for the next part of his journey, he is so fair to mentions that this kind of transport just moves the problem one step further away, with many power stations still relying on non-renewable energy sources.

Arriving at the National Ignition Facility, he says he believes that the research of this laboratory may result in an alternative energy source in the not too distant future. Almost as giddy as a schoolboy, he lurks in the control room of the lab, where a group of giant lasers are fired on a small capsule of hydrogen fuel to achieve nuclear fusion. The result of the experiment is invisible and only shown in an overly dramatic jumpcut montage, but Brian Cox says with full conviction that this may really be the future and once fusion can be made economical, itcould change the world by making humanity not dependent on burning fossils for energy anymore.

In the next segment, Brian Cox returns to Svalbard and pays a visit to the Global Seed Vault, deep in the rock of the Spitsbergen island, where seeds of food crops from literally all countries in the world are stored, underlining the importance of preserving food sources and their diversity for future generations. Brian talks to the agriculturalist Dr. Cary Fowler, the initiator of the seed vault, who sees its contents not only as insurance for the future, but also as an historical archive and a rare occasion of international cooperation in the most hopeful way.

Finally, Brian Cox concludes that humanity does have a chance of surviving by way of today’s scientific knowledge and that we have the enormous responsibility to use it for guaranteeing a future for our children. By returning once more to the cave in Spain, he underlines this statement by the stark revelation that the paintings might not have been created by humans, but by neanderthals, showing that the possibility of extinction might be all too close. His last scene is an urgent plea to embrace science for the sake of improving humanity’s chance to survival, but the episode actually ends with something more positive and awe-inspiring. It’s a wonderful scene in which astronaut Steven Swanson, who just returned to Earth in September, receives a letter on the ISS from his small grandchildren with their handprints, linking all the way back to the beginning where a prehistoric handprint on a cave wall was shown.

This finale of Human Universe was nothing short of astounding, full of amazing ideas and brilliant storytelling. With a topic that is very close to his heart, Brian Cox’ unlimited enthusiasm has its best chance to shine and it shows that this is really a very personal matter for the astrophysicist and yet is important for the whole world. There is nothing unreasonable or polemic in his approach, but he manages to display very strong opinions about the current state of humanity, it’s future and especially space exploration, making this episode essentially a warning and a call to action.

In a very nice touch, Brian Cox and his team also decided to dedicate this final episode to test pilot Mike Alsbury, who lost his life in the SpaceShipOne crash the week before the episode was first broadcast.

This episode was originally broadcast on Tuesday, November 4th 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.

Charlie Duke and Brian Cox having a friendly chat.

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