I remember my first appearance on TV. It was almost 5 years ago at a Red Nose Rally event at the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus. We had to build little rockets filled with some chemical or other, which when lit would create a small explosion and shoot it into the air. I remember being interviewed by BBC South Today and saying lots of twaddle like ‘science is really fun and can be quite interesting.’ In reality, at the time, I couldn’t have disagreed more. I had just begun studying for my A-Levels, and had purposefully avoided anything involving Maths or Science. There wasn’t anything about either which struck me as interesting, and I certainly did not find it fun. I just wanted to get on the telly.
Five years later though and I have a completely different outlook on the world of atoms, quarks and gravity. This is thanks mainly to two people. The first is T, who studied physics for his undergraduate. As our relationship has grown, so has my fascination and admiration for his mind. I feel stupid compared to him, but I don’t mind. I find, having not been subjected to ruthlessly memorising the boring parts of physics – that I am like a wide-eyed child again, hearing about the fun stuff, the outstanding stuff, the stuff that simply blows my mind. How the sun was formed, that all the billions of stars we see are the same size as our sun, that when we touch things, we don’t actually ‘touch’ them – we are merely feeling the effects of electro-static force. I could even name you some constellations in the sky.
As if the BBC were in tune with my new found fascination with science, Wonders of the Solar System has started on BBC 2. Presented by the captivating Professor Brian Cox, a physicist based at my very own University of Manchester, a researcher on the Large Hadron Collider, and the keyboard player in 90’s band D:Ream. Things, it would seem, really did get better for Brian Cox. Now, whether you care about the solar system or not, it would have been very hard to miss this compelling TV series the past few weeks, or Brian Cox for that matter. A quick glance at twitter on a sunday will tell you that, or the fact that in the space of a week Cox has appeared on Radio 2 and the hugely popular Friday Night with Jonathon Ross – despite being relatively unknown. An amazing feat for a nerdy scientist.
So why is wonders so, wonderful? A lot of it is down to Cox – he has an amazing way of making the most complex theories understandable for any mind. But, for me, the most striking thing about him, is the childish fascination he still has for physics, despite having studied the topic for almost 20 years. You can hear in his giggles that the Universe simply amazes him. He explains theories by relating them to everyday objects, that are more manageable for our inferior brains. Explaining the heat loss of planet in episode 4 for example, by relating it to a cup of tea. In the very first episode Cox conducts a simple experiment to measure the energy of the sun. On discovering that the answer is an astonishing 400 million, million, million, million watts, he grins at the camera and states “and that’s why I love physics.” Well Brian, that is why the nation, loves you.
But it is not just about the charisma of the rock star physicist. Cox explains it well, but it is the topic itself that is, if you excuse the pun, the shining star. Where we came from is a question that has baffled and gripped the minds of civilisation almost from the very moment we came into existence. Religions sought to find the answer soon after that. But it is science, physics, that has in my opinion, come the closest. Physics, governed by the rules of mathematics, and yet it is so – magical. Wonders of the Solar System has brought the importance of this discipline, and how it can help us answer that unanswerable question, into the public and political arena. The programme has sparked articles from the likes of Suzanne Moore, as well as political debate as Cox tries to make science a key election issue.
I admit, I will never grasp the complicated equations, or truly understand quarks, but that does not mean the Universe cannot amaze me. The fact that we know so much about something so unfathomably big, is an achievement we as the human race should be very proud of. Yes there are flaws, or one big flaw if you think that we still don’t know what ‘dark matter’ is yet we know it makes up 90% or so of our Universe, but to send a satellite into space and capture an ice-volcano erupting from Titan, now that, is a wonder.