herald

Thursday 14 December 2017

Science has never been so interesting

Wonders of the Solar System (BBC2, Sunday)
Supernatural (Living, Sunday)

Scientists on the telly used to be musty old geezers in tweed jackets and comedy glasses. It helped, too, if they had an eccentric quirk -- waving their arms wildly about, say, like Magnus Pyke, or peering out at us through a monocle, like the legendary Patrick Moore still does.

Not anymore, though. With his T-shirts, skinny jeans and floppy, carefully tousled Ian Brown haircut, Professor Brian Cox looks like he could have walked straight out of a Nineties pop band. Which, in fact, is exactly what he did.

He used to be the keyboard player with synthpop outfit D:Ream, whose best-known single, Things Can Only Get Better, enjoyed a zeitgeisty second chart life when New Labour adopted it as its anthem (some of us still cringe when we recall poor Neil Kinnock hopelessly trying to bop along to the song the night Labour stuffed the Tories in the 1997 general election).

Cox quit music that year to pursue a career in astrophysics, which is probably a more reliable line of work, what with earth perishing faster than independent record shops.

In Wonders of the Solar System, Cox aims to do for the space our planet floats in what David Attenborough did for the planet itself: namely, make us go "Wow, look at that!".

And there's quite a lot to go "Wow, look at that!" about in Wonders of the Solar System. For the first programme, Cox focused on "a vast wonder that greets us every day, a star that controls each and every world in its thrall".

No, not Simon Cowell, but the sun, which influences everything that happens on and around our planet, as well as on and around every other planet in the solar system. Some 400 million- million-million-million watts -- four times America's power consumption in a year -- radiate from the sun every second of our lives.

Cox himself radiates high-wattage enthusiasm for his subject, which translates into the kind of lyrical, romantic language you don't usually associate with the dry and dusty teaching of science we endured at school.

Watching a total eclipse of the sun from the banks of the river Ganges in India, Cox describes it as "the solar system coming down and grabbing you by the throat". Up in Norway, marvelling at the Northern Lights, he forgets that he's looking at magnetic fields and likens the rippling green glow to "spirits drifting up from the mountain into heaven".

It's seems foolish to describe a series like Supernatural, which I used to enjoy but haven't dipped into in quite a while, as silly, yet last night's episode was super-silly.

Sam and Dean discovered the ghosts of famous figures, including James Dean, Abraham Lincoln and Mahatma Gandhi, were running around murdering people and traced the source to a wax museum. So far, so satisfyingly creepy, at least until Paris Hilton turned up, playing a demonic version of herself. If there'd been a waxwork of the shark from Jaws, I'm sure Sam and Dean would have jumped it.

TOMORROW: Pat reviews The Secret Millionaire (C4) and The Oscars (RTE2/Sky 1)

Pat Stacey

Wonders of the Solar System ****

Supernatural *

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