Ask someone where they are from and most likely they will tell you their hometown, perhaps even a specific neighborhood. Put the same question to physicist Brian Cox and you get an entirely different response—one that involves the recycling of atoms brought together from the far reaches of the universe. Cox likes to remind people that every atom of their bodies used to be part of something else, and will become part of something new in the end.
This heady, top-down view pervades Wonders of the Universe, a four-part television series making its U.S. debut July 27 on Science Channel and hosted by Cox, a Royal Society University research fellow and professor at the University of Manchester in England. Each episode takes on different scientific concepts—including matter, energy, time, gravity and light—by explaining how they function not just on Earth but also in the vastness of the universe.
"The first show is about the origin of the building blocks of the universe, the building blocks of us," says Cox, who played keyboards in the U.K. pop band D:Ream during the 1990s while studying for his physics PhD degree. The launch episode's narrative thread follows the origin of several different elements—including hydrogen, helium, carbon and iron—and the role they play on Earth. "To tell that story, you have to tell the story of the stars, how they're born, live and die," he adds.
One of Cox's favorite segments, addressed in the episode dealing with time, involves scientists' best estimate of the universe's growth and its ultimate fate. "It appears for the moment to be accelerating in its expansion," he says. "Eventually, no new stars form and the old ones die." This is not expected anytime soon. "There are more years to the future of the universe, to the time the last black hole evaporates, than there are atoms in the observable universe," he adds.
Cox [see video interview below] points to his experience on board NASA's so-called "vomit comet" (its nickname derived from the airsickness experienced by some riders) as a high-and-low point of the show. This is because the vomit comet is a fixed-wing aircraft that flies along a sharply parabolic path that briefly provides a nearly weightless environment in which to train astronauts and conduct research. "The fact that all objects fall at the same rate in the absence of gravity is called the equivalence principle," Cox says. "This drove Einstein to this beautiful theory of space and time. Einstein would have loved the vomit comet."
Wonders of the Universe takes advantage of diverse locales across the planet to make its points. Cox traveled to the deserts of Namibia in Soutwestern Africa to demonstrate how the universe continues to become increasingly disordered and how ultimately there will be no stars, planets or galaxies left in the cosmos. Victoria Falls in Zambia serves as the backdrop for explaining how water can behave the way light does around a black hole. He also spends time in a deserted prison in Rio de Janeiro describing how the chemical elements originated in the stars before making their way to Earth.
Too often, he hears the question, "Do we need to know more?" The answer, to Cox, is obvious. "You could have asked that question at any point throughout the history of science—and you could have stopped," he says. "The Victorians thought they knew enough, and that was before quantum mechanics, the theory of relativity and transistors. No, we didn't know enough then, and it's no different now—we don't know enough. Tomorrow, a paradigm-changing discovery will be made—not might be made—it will be made."
The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, the high-energy physics lab near Geneva, Switzerland, where Cox contributes to the ATLAS (A Toroidal LHC ApparatuS) experiment, is a prime example of pressing toward the unknown. Scientists there recently announced detecting a hint of the elusive Higgs boson, which they hope, for starters, will help explain why some particles are heavy and others have no mass at all. Of course, the LHC could ultimately turn up little that these scientists did not already suspect about the subatomic composition of matter and energy in the universe. A risk worth taking, according to Cox and his CERN colleagues. "We don't know if [Higgs] is there yet, but it's looking actually pretty suggestive," he says. "It's a real glimpse of something new I think."
Like CERN's ambitions, the scope of Wonders is nothing if not grand, but this seems appropriate given the subject matter. Yet Cox also tries to entertain as he educates. Such treatment is necessary, he reckons, to rekindle a flagging interest in science and discovery. "Time and again throughout the whole history of science you see that the instinct to explore nature, to understand the universe, has led to the most profoundly useful things," he says.