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Thursday, 10 March 2011

Wonders of the Universe, BBC2

What makes Wonders of the Universe so marvellous is that not only are the metaphors to explain the abstract concepts of otherwise baffling physics so perfectly orchestrated but also that the metaphors themselves are fascinating in their own right.

Take the first chapter of the opening episode, in which genial boffin Professor Brian Cox sought to elucidate the highly complex subject of time. He journeyed to the Peruvian coast to a temple built by an unknown civilisation some 2,500 years ago. The purpose of his visit was to illustrate the inextricable relationship between humanity and time, one that has existed since the dawn of our race.

As his longish hair flapped in the hostile desert winds, Professor Cox stood in front of the temple, essentially a humpbacked hill amid the rubble of decaying buildings. It didn’t look very promising. Until he revealed that its true majesty was only revealed as dawn broke. Then it became a calendar. A rather extravagant calendar, but a calendar nevertheless. Dependent on the time of year, the rising sun would shine between two of the humps.

The ingenuity of the lost civilisation was analogous with the same thirst for knowledge that still exists today, one that Professor Cox wonderfully conveys in this series.  '

He led us on to Costa Rica, to witness the millennia-long cycle of life and death of giant turtles as they clamber across the shore to lay their eggs in a process that has endured since before the time of the dinosaurs (although here we were spared the butchery of the hatchlings as they become a feast for every predatory bird as they race to the relative safety of the sea).   In spite of the longevity of this cycle, it led into the central theme of Professor Cox’s teaching – that nothing lasts forever. He explained, through a glacier collapsing into a lake, that although time moves forward, nothing in the laws of physics inhibit the melted ice from freezing once more and leaping back on to the edge of the glacier.

This was because of the ‘Arrow of Time’.

He’d settled us in gently, but this was where matters started to get very bewildering. Fortunately, this profound concept was explained through yet another perfect metaphor.

A redundant, derelict mining town in Namibia hardly looked like an enticing location to describe the concept of entropy, but Professor Cox managed it in spades.

Entropy, he said, is really what is commonly called ‘decay’. The atoms in a pile of sand, he said running it through his fingers, can be rearranged in many different ways and it would still remain a pile of sand. This means it high entropy. However, the atoms of a sandcastle cannot be rearranged into many different ways without it losing its shape. It is more likely that over time it will be rearranged into a pile of sand. It has low entropy. Everything, he says, has a tendency to form into low entropy objects like the pile of sand.

And he then applied this same theory to the universe, claiming that eventually everything in it will decay in the same way as the sandcastle becomes a pile of sand. All the billions of billions of stars will eventually collapse into photons, and subsequently into effectively nothing as they cool to a temperature of absolute zero leaving an unimaginably large void in which time has ended because there is nothing in it, and if something can’t change from into something else – even if it’s just a sandcastle – then time has ceased to exist.

It is perhaps the bleakest end to any programme in the history of TV since the final episode of Blake’s 7, yet the thrill of being educated about the doom of the universe and being able to understand it thanks to the brilliant techniques of Professor Cox and his team oddly made it seem like the birth of blind euphoria.

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