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Snapshots from our solar system: a lively, info-packed guide
on 23 March 2010
This is a superb series which graphically illustrates some of the high points of local cosmology. Each hour-long episode is visually striking and easily accessible for all ages. Presenter Prof Brian Cox never patronises the audience and has a special knack for explaining quite complex theories with real-life examples. There are five episodes in total, each one highlighting a different theme to explain some of the compelling forces at work in our solar system.
There isn't a dull moment in the whole series, and it avoids much of the over-blown drama and pointless repetition which can plague current popular science programmes. Mind you, at times it feels a little like you've tuned into an episode of Top Gear by mistake (!), with 4x4s in the Namib desert, jet fighters on the edge of space, skidoos across snow-scapes, and such. That's because Prof Cox visits a whole range of striking landscapes on Earth, to demonstrate that the same cosmic forces which have a profound effect across the universe are at work here.
`Wonders of the Solar System' features plenty of excellent visual stimulation and makes great use of CGI as well as plenty of original images from space probes (the sun rise from Mars is magnificent, and the rocks from the moon Titan are spookily familiar). The animations usefully demonstrate some of the trickier aspects of planetary geometry - for instance, I never realised quite how far over the earth tips on its axis which creates the seasons, and the graphic illustrated this perfectly.
Similarly, understanding how the magnetosphere protects the earth from the solar wind isn't exactly easy to picture from a wordy description, but the CGI showed it perfectly. The whole series has helped to expand my understanding of how the solar system was formed and is still changing, and there are plenty of little nuggets of new info in each episode - often fresh from whichever new probe has sent back data in recent years.
The series starts by studying the sun, the star at the heart of our solar system. Prof Cox immediately involves the viewer with a simple experiment to show how you can calculate the energy that the sun puts out using an umbrella and a can of water, and this is typical of how cosmic themes are grounded in earthy practicality throughout the series. This episode explains the cosmic coincidence which means we on earth can enjoy total solar eclipses, thanks to the size of the moon and its distance from us.
Prof Cox uses tornados to explain how the planets originally formed from clouds of dust and relates that to the rings of Saturn - again, there's some gorgeous imagery in this segment including genuine footage from the recent mission to Saturn's many moons. The pictures of the ice volcanoes erupting are amazing.
Another episode studies the atmosphere of planets and explains why Mercury doesn't have one; why Venus' is so thick, and why Earth's atmosphere is so important. (A great excuse for a trip in an English Electric Lightning jet fighter!). It also reveals the other body in our solar system which has a similar atmosphere to ours, and which also appears to have lakes and rivers on it. All through, the cosmological details is compared to similar settings on our world, making it easy to understand and visually exciting.
Size really matters when it comes to planets and another programme looks at planetary cores and how they differ, which is a great excuse to stand on the tallest mountain on earth and look at live volcanoes! One of the moons of Jupiter, which should be cold and dead, is actually home to extraordinary lakes of lava and giant volcanic eruptions. We also enjoy a great explanation about the chances of finding life on other planets (including a look at some of the truly alien life-forms here on earth). Prof Cox also reminds us that life evolves over geological time and that when change happens fast we tend to go extinct. But he doesn't labour the point.
All through this series you are swept along by Prof Cox's enthusiasm for the subject and his delight in each new discovery. If I have to criticise it for anything then it's for indulging so much in the terribly fashionable trend for science-by-globetrotting, but Prof Cox comes over as such a likeable guy that it's easy to forgive him.
The science is solid; the explanations are easily understood yet of enough depth to interest adults with a decent understanding of popular science. So this series should suit all ages of people with an interest in other planets, and it's very easy to recommend. I finally understand why most planets spin, and it's taken 42 years for that to sink in! Plus, the photos from the Mars rovers, showing their own tracks in the dust of another world, make me choke up every time I see them.
The Blu-Ray version will make the most of the graphics, too.