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Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Forces of Nature: Brian Cox dumbs down for BBC1?

Contributed by Pam Tonothy

I have a rule: If it’s got Brian Cox in it I have to watch it.  There’s just something about his gentle delivery and apparent lack of ego that makes him eminently watchable.  Plus, like most of his fans, I rather like science.  You might be just a teensy bit disappointed if you wanted lots of visuals of the presenter; there are some, but mostly he just narrates the programme beautifully.  I know this is sounding like more of a love letter rather than a review, but he does have a lovely voice and his delivery gives perhaps more than a nod at classic David Attenborough.


Brian's back for a new series entitled Forces of Nature. This four-part series takes Cox somewhere he's not been before: BBC1 in primetime. The opening episode, “The Universe in a Snowflake”, is about patterns and shapes in nature, so I was expecting a lot of talk about fractals.  No fractals in this episode as it’s mostly about symmetry, but plenty of colourful and dramatic explanation of forces of nature all the way through.  Human examples are often used, although I did learn that the “potato radius” isn’t about what chip suppers do to your waistline. Apparently it is the radius above which an object has enough gravity to naturally shape itself in a sphere.  The explanation is pretty good.


From Catalonian human towers to a mini-documentary on Himalayan honey bee harvesting, then to iceburgs, we are taken around the world to find out why things are the shape they are.  There was so much padding that it could have been confused with any travel documentary with just the odd bit of science thrown in.  However, it was entertaining and very informative in its way and with just enough physics to keep geeks like me happy.  It was such a very long-winded way of explaining why hexagonal is the most efficient shape for storage, though, that I kept thinking “oh please, get to the point”. What benefits might being spherical give to a living creature?  Find out with another mini-documentary on the lifestyle of the manatee in the Americas.  South Korea brings a talk about symmetry, its interesting relationship to the brain and why living creatures evolve to be symmetrical.

The main downside for me was the slightly patronising use of equations.  Throughout the programme, on the odd occasion that equations were shown, they seemed very complex and were only shown for a second or two.  I hope I’m not overstating it when I say that most people would barely understand them if we stared at them for an hour, let alone in that short time.  Presumably they, too, were added for dramatic effect, but it did seem as if the producers were trying to let us know how complicated this stuff really was and how we couldn’t hope to understand it really.  There was no attempt to explain what they were, though they were clearly quite advanced and rather contradicted the Prof’s regular assertions that these forces were all very simple. The equations may have been elegant but I wouldn’t call them simple.


The programme does round off nicely into a lovely descriptions of the physics of frozen water and how the forces of gravity, electromagnetism and nuclear forces all go together to form a snowflake. There’s some serious snowflake on snowflake action.  Even this is quite dramatic in places but does have some well described and relevant physics in it.  There is a lovely explanation of why all snowflakes are unique, though I believe there was an error when it was stated that the molecular forces in snowflakes hold Oxygen to Oxygen; in the case of snowflakes, this would be Oxygen to Hydrogen (two Hydrogens if you want to be really pedantic).  Perhaps I’m wrong, perhaps I just missed something vital or perhaps they couldn’t be bothered to do a re-take because they thought nobody would notice?  Answers on a postcard please…?


Brian still has all the gentle and humble charm you would expect, so he no doubt has a great future in front of him as a presenter.  Personally I preferred him in his rather more hardcore science programmes on BBC2

Forces of Nature Continues Monday at 9.00pm on BBC1

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