Brian Cox is the perfect person to front the excellent new BBC series, The Wonders of Life.
The series takes on the not inconsiderable task of attempting to explain current theories on the origins and nature of life (even though Professor Cox is an astrophysicist and thus no doubt acquired quite a lot of the information that he imparts in the programmes from other, perhaps less televisual, personages than himself).
The first programme does ramble a bit, and it’s sometimes easy to get lost and to forget exactly why he’s (for instance) standing in front of a waterfall describing the first law of thermodynamics. The amount of time apportioned to different topics is poorly handled too. There’s an extended section showing Cox swimming with jellyfish (because they are all very photogenic) and saying nothing of particular significance,and then later he mentions the importance of mitochondria but doesn’t have time to explain exactly what it is.
As for the explanation of dna, I think it was the worst one I’ve ever seen, especially when there are orangutans swinging in trees in the background distracting you from what’s being said in the first place. There wasn’t a single mention of the double helix structure of the molecule, just images of pages and pages of the letters CATG as if it was just computer code (and a bad explanation of what it actually was). The single graphic showing the double helix molecule was on screen for less than a second at the very end of the explanation, wasn’t announced, and didn’t relate to the commentary.
The central argument in the programme is that life is a straightforward, naturally occurring phenomenon that came about as an inevitable part of the evolution of the universe – stars form, planets form, life forms. It’s as simple as that. Mundane almost (but only mundane in the way that everything in the universe is bother mundane and incredible at the same time).
Life is in essence a particularly complex interaction between various forms of energy and matter (and matter’s actually a very stable manifestation of energy rather than something different and ‘solid’, so it’s all about energy really). Professor Cox quoted Schrödinger on this point, stating that there was nothing mystical about the origins of life, but he could have quoted from any number of people.
On the subject of numbers. Professor Cox uses quite a few of them in his programme, which I thought was, at times, too many numbers. In one sequence he stood in front of a waterfall to explain the concept of the conservation of energy. To paraphrase: “If 0.5 kilograms of water falls 30 metres down the waterfall behind me, it converts its potential energy at the top to other forms of energy at the bottom, using the formula kilograms times metres squared divided by time squared…” – see, you’ve drifted off already! Lots of people shut down when it comes to numbers. Maybe Professor Cox likes using them because they are evidence of scientific rigour. The other trouble with the waterfall as an example of energy changing from one form to another was that you couldn’t actually see the energy in the water being changed. It just fell over a cliff. A much better example, in my opinion, would have been a waterwheel (of the type found in mills). With a waterwheel the water can be seen to turn a wheel rather than just cascading downwards. The water’s potential energy can be seen to be converted to kinetic energy. Instantly understandable, and not a number in sight. Also very photogenic, especially with Professor Cox standing in front of it.
That’s a relatively minor presentational quibble though.
On the whole Professor Cox is excellent, and is the perfect presenter for a programme the implications of which some people will find unsettling – that implication being that we, as life forms, are nothing particularly special.
People of a religious or spiritual bent may be uncomfortable with the idea that life is a mundane emergent property of the universe. They want us to be special in some mystical sort of way. They feel threatened, understandably. But Professor Cox is anything but threatening (although I wish my wife would stop telling me how gorgeous he is – so he’s definitely not being invited round to my house for dinner). His screen persona is one of intense niceness and boyish wonder. He doesn’t seem to have any axes to grind, chips on his shoulder, points to score, personality defects to compensate for. It’d be hard to pick an argument with him (in contrast to, say, Richard Dawkins). You feel that there’s no reason why he’d want to say that life is simply the manifestation of highly complex physical and chemical processes other than because it’s probably true. And because it’s amazing.
Find out more about my own book on the nature of life, Where Are We, What Are We, Why Are We.
More on Brian Cox
The BBC series The Wonders of Life