Brian Cox is giving audiences a front row seat for the greatest show in the universe.
This month, the physicist/professor is hosting the new BBC Earth series aptly called Universe. The series marks a continuation of his previous series called The Planets, which focused on the story of the solar system. However, Universe will explore far beyond that.
A natural successor for the BBC’s scientific programming by the likes of David Attenborough, Brian serves a professor of particle physics in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Manchester. He uses his vast knowledge to great effect in this new series as he guides viewers on a tour of the cosmos. In this new series, audiences will embark on an interstellar journey with Brian to places that we didn’t even know existed 10 years ago.
Exploring The Mysteries Of The Cosmos
Throughout the five episodes, Brian Cox will delve into the vastness of space, uncovering the moments of sheer drama when the universe as we know it changed forever. With impressive special effects accompanied by insightful narrative, audiences will experience the power of a supermassive black hole, the birth of a star and many other miracles of the cosmos.
“Incredible CGI lets us witness the ignition of a new star and stand on the surface of planets that could harbour life in other galaxies,” explains Professor Brian Cox. “We used to look to the sky and see only questions. Now we are beginning to see answers.”
In this exclusive interview to promote the upcoming series, we query the professor about the vastness of space, and the secrets of the cosmos as well as the age of old question – are we really alone in the universe?
So what fascinates you most about space?
Oh, the infinite possibilities that are out there. Just imagine, there are two trillion galaxies and it’s very difficult to just picture what that means. However, we have strong evidence to show that it extends way beyond that. We talk about that in the series, and we also think that our entire universe could be just a bubble in a larger multiverse of universes. In that sense, there are endless possibilities out there and there are so many things that we don’t know and that’s what interests me.
Universe, continues where Planets left off. Was this an intentional approach or was it something that happened naturally?
Yeah, in a sense it was a natural progression. In Planets, talk about the sun, the earth and so on, but Universe is about Cosmology, and it goes much deeper and to live this short life in this vast and possibly infinite and maybe eternal universe. That’s pretty much the intro of the series, I say that astronomy challenges us that and that’s probably the most valuable thing about it.
So it’s not about the fact that we’ve discovered all these galaxies – you know, the 400 billion suns in the Milky Way and so on. It’s the fact that intellectually, those discoveries challenge us by asking us to think about what our place is, and what it means to be human in this much wider universe.
Considering the infinite possibilities and topics to cover, was it hard to finalise the subject matters or episodes to be addressed in the series?
It is hard to wrap them up all up. To write these stories, these little films so to speak, is difficult because they are supposed to be entertaining and self-contained. But it is a tall order because the universe is so big, and it’s got a lot of things in it. It’s quite a challenge to build five films around themes.
One subject matter I am particularly interested in is black holes. That’s part of my academic research and there’s an episode on that. I love that particular story because it’s probably the fastest changing and most challenging area of theoretical physics. There’s also one on stars, which is pretty hard to do because there have been so many films made about them. We thought very hard on what story to tell, and we came up with the idea of the very first star.
We know that there was a time after the big bang when there were no stars. So there was a first star, and we know that because the universe is continuing to expand and accelerating in its expansion, there will also be a last star. So we thought, let’s do one on the first star to the last star, and explore that unique narrative. It’s a good old fashioned dramatic story that has a beginning, a middle and an end, which is sometimes pretty hard to do.
With the advancements of technology, space exploration like the Hubble and Pathfinder and things like that, are we discovering new things about the space and universe?
Oh, every day, and as you alluded to the, the way that we discover things about the universe is to is to explore it. So the exploration with telescopes and with space probes, that’s what’s driving these ideas about the nature of reality itself. But we couldn’t take the physics of black holes seriously without knowing that they exist.
We know they exist because of telescopes that we built. So that’s what science is. It is the interaction of data of observation of nature, and the human mind and theoretical physics and so on. In the series we deliberately celebrate the instruments like telescopes and space probes. We have pictures and graphics of these tools that we used to gather the data that has led us to think more deeply about the nature of reality.
You probably get asked this a lot – are we alone in the universe?
Yes, it’s one of the most often asked. One of the films in this series is called ‘Alien Worlds’ and it explores exoplanets. It’s about new discoveries we’re making in terms of discovering planets around distant stars. Obviously, the moment you start exploring planets around stars, then the question of life arises because planets are the places in the universe where life begins and exists.
The answer is, of course, we don’t know. But I think it is inconceivable that we are alone because the universe may even be infinite in extent. So if it’s infinite, then we’re not alone, right? But there’s different degrees of alone – it is certainly possible that there will be a microbes subsurface on Mars, or on some of the moons of Jupiter or Saturn. So we might not be alone in the solar system in that sense. However, what we really mean when we say are we alone is to ask if there are other civilizations out there.
I think the only observation we have at the moment is that we haven’t seen any. We know that, so you any plausible arguments that other civilizations exist may be extremely rare. Not only have we not seen any, but the history of life on earth tells us that it took pretty much the entire age of the planet, right close to four billion years to go from the origin of life to civilization. And that is a long time, that as you may know is a third of the age of the universe.
As a professor and space enthusiast, what’s your personal take though on alien life?
Well, it is certainly possible that we are alone in our galaxy, right in the Milky Way Galaxy. It is certainly possible that we’re the only civilization at present. And I make the argument that even if that’s not the case, it’s a good working assumption.
Because what it might do if we internalise that, is that it might make us behave differently because we might not withstand our physical insignificance. We might turn out to be extremely valuable because this might be the only place where anything exists that bothers to explore the universe involved.
That said, I cannot imagine that there aren’t civilizations out there. We have two trillion galaxies out there and a single galaxy is all you really have access to ever. No matter how long we exist and how clever we become, I don’t think we’re going to be journeying between the galaxies because the distances are too long. So if you’re alone in your galaxy, which is possible, then you’re effectively alone, because you’re not going to meet anyone else.
Catch Brian Cox in Universe premiering Sunday, 5th December at 9:00pm, on BBC Earth available on StarHub channel 407 and BBC Player; Singtel channel 203