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By Roger Highfield on

Brian Cox and the forces of nature

Roger Highfield reflects on a new TV series by Prof Brian Cox, Forces of Nature.

Brian Cox stars in his first BBC One series, Forces of Nature, in which he will take viewers on a grand tour of planet Earth to explain what lies behind its startling beauty. Roger Highfield describes a Royal Society event to celebrate his latest foray into popular science.

If you need yet more evidence that a series by the BBC’s best-known science presenter is a national event, you would have found it a few days ago in the Royal Society. There President and Nobelist Venki Ramakrishnan introduced Brian Cox, who talked about his new foray into popular science with Tony Hall, Director General of the BBC.

Since he presented Horizon around a decade ago, and provided science advice for the movie Sunshine, the Manchester University professor with an Oldham twang has pulled off the remarkable feat of becoming a household name, Fellow of the Royal Society and professor of public engagement, who is also a passionate advocate for investment in science.

Sitting before him in world’s oldest academy of science were the Minister for Universities and Science, Jo Johnson, Nobel prize winner Sir Tim Hunt and other eminent scientists, schoolchildren and many representatives from the cultural sector: in a recent speech, Tony Hall declared how he wants the BBC to work more closely with leading national institutions, from the Wellcome Trust to the Science Museum, in a project called the New Age of Wonder.

Cox is a familiar sight in the Science Museum: he features in our Collider exhibition about the search for the Higgs particle, which has now been seen by more than half a million people worldwide, staged the puppet show Quest for Wonder in the Museum, recorded Infinite Monkey Cage in our IMAX theatre, helped us to celebrate the launch of Tim Peake, interviewed Buzz Aldrin and, most recently, launched a competition for schools for its new interactive gallery, Wonderlab: The Statoil Gallery.

Over the past three years Cox has been working on Forces of Nature, which begins with the first of four programmes on July 4. Hall declares the series to be ‘as beautiful and wonderful and difficult to understand as things should be’ and is in the spirit of the great Reithian tradition of creating programmes that inform, educate and entertain. ‘Great programmes do all of those things, all at that same time – this is exactly what this remarkable series by Brian does.’

For the series, Cox drew on many inspirations. One was Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, which he describes as the ‘best science documentary ever made’ because it was as polemical as it was factual. When it comes to Force of Nature, there were two more ingredients. The BBC team led by Andrew Cohen, Head of Science, sent film crews to capture spectacular events that illustrated big ideas, such as how geochemistry evolves into living biochemistry. In this way, Cox was given the ‘freedom to make a beautiful series.’

The programme makers were looking for ‘powerful standalone stories,’ said Cox. That meant, for example, recording the extraordinary challenge facing Nepalese villagers who climb precipitous cliffs on rope ladders in search of honey. ‘They are immune to bee stings,’ said Cox. ‘There was one scene of a guy pulling a bee off his eye – very good television.’

Then most important of all, he looked for a narrative to make these powerful images crystallize into a sparkling intellectual whole. He found his muse in  “On the Six-Cornered Snowflake,” written by Johannes Kepler, 1571-1630, who is best known for his laws of planetary motion.

Kepler describes how in 1610 he walked across a bridge in Prague when a snowflake settled on his jacket. ‘He started asking questions,’ recounted Cox. ‘Why are they six sided? What does that tell me? Why are they all different? What does that tell me?’ And, like his contemporary peers, Kepler ‘gets excited’ by the quest for answers. ‘You get an insight into the genius of this man,’ said Cox.

Kepler speculated that the six-fold structure of each snowflake provided a deeper insight into nature and was something to do with water. Today, we know that all of its strange properties can be understood in terms of water’s molecular make-up.

In 1784, the English chemist Henry Cavendish (1731-1810) described its chemical composition, a combination of hydrogen and oxygen, marking the first step towards cracking its molecular structure. Each molecule consists of one oxygen atom and two relatively tiny hydrogen atoms, arranged in a V shape.  At atmospheric pressure and temperatures below freezing, the molecules link up in networks whose fundamental building blocks are six-membered rings of hexagonal symmetry. This symmetry is preserved in snowflakes.

Simple questions about the patterns, structures and shapes of nature, from pomegranate seeds to spherical planets and the hexagonal shape of honeycombs, can help reveal the deeper laws of nature, explained Cox, referring to Plato’s allegory of the cave. We can only ‘see the shadows of the beautiful platonic reality outside the cave.’

Cox hates to compromise so wanted to ensure that the stunning footage fits the narrative so, for example, the six fold symmetry of snowflakes leads to the honeycomb conjecture, which was only proved in 1999. He added that the way bees construct a honeycomb is still a matter of debate among biologists: do bees build a hexagonal structure or cylindrical structures which form hexagons to pack together most efficiently?

As another example, the programme illustrates gravity with children who participate in a remarkable festival in Spain in which ‘castellers’ – human tower builders – from across Catalonia gather before the town hall at Vilafranca. There they build living towers before a crowd of 10,000 people in a daredevil event which, said Hall, ‘makes Morris dancing look tame.’

Children as young as five, wearing helmets, clamber to the summit of these living towers. ‘These children are going into battle with gravity,’ explained Cox. They do it by harnessing geometry, arranging their team to buttress towers consisting of up to ten tiers of people.

Because gravity works equally in all directions, Cox continued, the Earth ended up being a sphere. And that led Cox on to discuss what is known as the ‘potato radius’, referring to how, below this size, there is not enough gravity to smooth misshapen cosmic objects, such as icy moons and rocky asteroids. A back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that a lumpy fate befalls any heavenly object smaller than around 200km across.

Before Forces of Nature, Cox had only worked for BBC Two and Four, where he had enjoyed great creative freedom. He admitted to being apprehensive about having to make compromises to chase a bigger BBC One audience but had been reassured by Charlotte Moore, Controller of BBC One; the he could stick to his tried and tested creative formula.

That meant using dramatic TV to give the audience ‘permission to view integral calculus’. The hope is that he can in this way bring a broader audience to science. (‘Thank heavens for iPlayer,’ added Moore, who explained that to understand big answers to big questions, such as summing up the history of the atom in an acorn, a second viewing is sometimes necessary.)

In his conversation with Hall, Cox tackled other patterns of nature: some are temporal, such as tides. Permission for the audience to dive into the arcane details of this rhythm of nature was provided by the pororoca, a tidal wave that surges down the Amazon for hundreds of kilometres. Cox told his BBC colleagues ‘I will explain it, but you are not going to like it.’ However, the footage is so spectacular that it is able to propel the audience through an explanation devised by American theoretical physicist Richard Feynman which, said Cox, relies on ‘rotating frames of reference, centre of mass of the Earth-moon system and fictitious forces.’

Cox moved on to relativity, Albert Einstein’s greatest contribution to science, which rests on the fabric of the universe being viewed as a unified whole, consisting of spacetime, rather than as separate space and time. Seasonal visits to a wood in Oxfordshire helped Cox to illustrate an associated idea of ‘block time’ or a ‘block universe’ where space-time is seen as an unchanging four-dimensional block, as opposed to the conventional view of the world as a three-dimensional space modulated by the passage of time.

During the event, Cox was grilled by four Pimlico Academy students, members of the BBC News School Report Club. He told them that his favourite moment came during a chilly stunt to explain why water is blue. Cox found himself in a red diving suit submerging into 4 deg C crystal clear waters in Silfra in Iceland, a fresh water fissure between continents. At a depth of about 15m his suit turned black because all the red light had been absorbed by water molecules.

‘Water is very strange stuff. The way they vibrate and oscillate takes the red light out and that’s a beautiful illustration. So I enjoyed it because I got to dive in between the continents but it’s also a really good idea to illustrate some physics about the way that water interacts with light.’

What was most interesting aspect of making the series? It was the ever-present challenge of explaining everyday phenomena, such as the tides or growth of ice crystals, he said. Cosmological explanations often rely on ‘quite a lot of hand waving’ but, by comparison, more accessible phenomena only have one explanation which has to be correct, which ‘you have to understand’, can be complicated and where ‘the detail matters’.

As he wrestled over the past three years with the Forces of Nature, Cox said he was driven on by one simple thought.

‘The world is beautiful to look at but even more beautiful to understand.’

The first of four episodes of Forces of Nature will be broadcast on Monday 4 July, BBC One, 9pm.