Going all Jesus freaky over the solar system

Professor Brian Cox is an engaging guide to the wonders of space. But he might be just a bit too wide-eyed.

Patrick West

Patrick West

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When journalists write about Professor Brian Cox, there are three mandatory things for them to say about him. I thought it would be best to get them out of the way at the outset. First, Professor Cox is an astrophysicist. Second, he used to be the keyboardist in the pop group D:Ream – you know, the ones who produced that New Labour anthem, ‘Things Can Only Get Better’. Third, he has the kind of beaming, serene smile usually reserved for recovered alcoholics, people who have discovered God or those who are extremely stoned.

Cox is not a stoner. He’s way too intelligent for that. Actually, he’s far too clever for us all. And his latest TV programme left this viewer with much the same symptoms of someone who has smoked far too much marijuana: bewildered, disorientated and marvelling like a hippy at the wonders of the cosmos.

In Wonders of the Solar System: Empire of the Sun (BBC2, Wednesday), Cox explained that ‘We live on a world of wonders, a place of astonishing beauty and complexity. We have vast oceans and incredible weather… giant mountains and breathtaking landscapes.’ In various ways, this is all down to the power of the sun, he said. He took viewers on a tour of India (to view a solar eclipse), Scandinavia (where we witnessed the northern lights, the manifestation of the Earth’s magnetic field protecting us from solar winds), and to the Amazon (where we were shown how the sun affects water molecules). He then explained how the sun’s gravity affects the entire solar system, and that in five billion years our nearest star is going to die, taking the Earth and our solar system with it.

Now, I’m not especially worried about the annihilation of the Earth in five billion years’ time. I always think you should face life’s problems one at a time. Nor am I particularly concerned about the cost of sending Brian Cox round the world to shoot this programme, a cost probably matched by Top Gear‘s Jeremy Clarkson, whose round-the-globe excursions exercise furiously the minds of car-hating ecomentalists. We need both these shows. After all, Voyager II, the planet-visiting space probe, may be a feat of technological brilliance (as Cox explained), but so is the Bugatti Veyron EB 16.4, the machine that in 2005 became the fastest road car. In the world.

No, I’m more concerned about Cox’s implicit pantheism. Yes, he was engaging when he spoke of humanity living in the greatest age of discovery it has ever known, and his manifest enthusiasm for science and exploration is laudable. Yet there was something unnerving about his rapturous delivery and his vacant happy look – the same kind of look that people who mention Jesus in every sentence have. Witnessing a solar eclipse in India, he was close to tears as he remarked on ‘the solar system coming down and grabbing you by the throat’. He described the sun as ‘a colossal fiery sphere of tortured matter’ and the Arctic northern lights as ‘green shafts of light [that] look like spirits drifting up from the mountain into heaven’.

Professor Cox is a positive fellow, but perhaps too positive. He speaks of humanity and our planet in spiritual terms. It seems that for Cox it’s not enough to recognise that humanity is mostly rather good and that the cosmos does have a ‘wow’ factor. Instead, he wants to comprehend both on a poetic, even ethereal, level. This kind of dreamy, childish appreciation of Man and the Universe can only lead to religion and self-worship.

Still, Solar System: Empire of the Sun, with its panoramic shots, was visually very impressive. The same can be said for Is Everything We Know About The Universe Wrong?, also shown on BBC2 this week. It was even more baffling and centred on something called ‘dark flow’, a ‘celestial vacuum cleaner’ that could be hoovering up our universe and may be leading to an entire re-think of our understanding of the cosmos.

I don’t think it’s big or clever to boast that you don’t understand science, and I don’t think declarations of stupidity are to be admired, but in the interest of honesty I have to confess that I had no idea what anyone was talking about in this programme. All I know is that it was narrated by the solemn-voiced Sam West, which means its subject matter must be very serious, and that it was the stuff of nightmares or, rather, insomnia. It was the type of documentary guaranteed to keep you up at night wondering about the nature of existence. If Solar System: Empire of the Sun was astronomy for stoners, Is Everything We Know About The Universe Wrong? was cosmology on acid (if you will pardon a journalistic cliché).

The controllers of BBC1 and BBC2 must be having some collective, celestially-inspired existential crisis, as on Sunday we were also treated to an installment of The Sky at Night, a televisual institution that’s been broadcast since 1957. The latest episode was devoted to examining whether there might be extraterrestrial life. Alas, Danny Dyer was not featured as an expert ‘talking head’ on this matter, but I was greatly cheered to see the programme’s co-presenter, Chris Lintott, feature significantly.

Lintott, another astrophysicist, is often overshadowed by The Sky at Night‘s veteran host Sir Patrick Moore. Yet Lintott is a great character, far removed from the dishy Professor Cox. Lintott is a bit like Mr Logic from Viz comic. He has goggly eyes, a bad fringe, and a plummy, awkward voice. Whereas the doe-eyed, boy-next-door Cox has reveries and intimations of a deity when regarding the heavens, the geekish Lintott is content just plodding away with his computer programmes and telescope while regarding the skies, and he always conveys the same message at the end: isn’t the universe nice and rather interesting?

Chris Lintott is my kind of astrophysicist.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV and radio reviewer. Read his blog here.

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