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Aug. 15, 2011

Wonders of the Universe: An Evening with Brian Cox

by Kaitlyn Gerber

By Kaitlyn Gerber, Carleton College

Professor Brian Cox, one of the world's leading particle physicists

What are the physical laws that govern our universe, and how can we explain distant phenomena using basic materials here on Earth? On Wednesday, July 26, the New York Academy of Sciences hosted Professor Brian Cox, of the University of Manchester, as he introduced his new book and its accompanying Science TV series, “Wonders of the Universe.”

Witty and charismatic, Professor Cox is one of the world’s leading experts in particle physics. His previous series, Wonders of the Solar System, was a five-part BBC program, for which he won the George Foster Peabody Award for excellence in documentary filmmaking. His new series, Wonders of the Universe, is a four-part program on the Science Channel, which aired in the U.S. beginning on July 27. In addition to the series, Professor Cox also recently released a companion book for the television series, also titled Wonders of the Universe, featuring stunning photographs and detailed explanations of the physics of our universe.

At the NYAS event, Professor Cox spoke at length about his series, his book, and the future of physics. The philosophy of his new show, he said, was to “illustrate” the concepts that govern our universe using “real things” found on Earth. Audience members witnessed this method firsthand in a sneak-preview video clip of the new documentary series, in which Cox used a collapsing building in Rio to model the creation of the periodic table of the elements. He also spoke at length about several other experiments that he conducted for the show. One of the most notable sequences in the series involves a giant centrifuge, used to simulate the impact of increased gravity in space. Used to train fighter pilots, human centrifuges can spin at speeds of nearly 9G. “The idea was that we wanted to illustrate the different gravitational fields on different planets, but also in the exoplanets” he explained. “If [a planet’s] acceleration due to gravity is 4G, what does that feel like?” For the series, Cox himself entered the centrifuge so that he could experience the phenomena of increased gravitational pull. “It was horrible,” he said with a laugh, noting that he experienced tunnel vision and a strong sensation of falling forwards. However, he noted that this type of training is “an essential part” of astronaut training because it helps prepare the body for different gravitational fields.

Professor Cox also spoke about the creation of the series in the first place. It began, he noted, as a series about the laws of nature, which quickly evolved into the story of the universe. At its heart, the series still primarily revolves around the thermodynamics of the universe. Cox explained the concept of entropy as a statistic: the universe has a statistical tendency towards disorder. For instance, if you dumped a bucket of sand onto the pavement, there is a tiny, minute chance that the grains could fall into the exact position to form an enormous sandcastle; however, it is much more likely to simply form a nondescript pile. Entropy, Cox said, was one of the hardest but most essential concepts to explain when discussing the fate of the universe.

Professor Cox also gave more in-depth insight into his new book, also titled Wonders of the Universe. Although it “loosely follows” the show, the new book is much more extensive, providing several “real explanations” where the TV series can only provide one example. He also spoke to the audience about the importance of studying science -— and why he chose to become a physicist himself.

“I’ve always been fascinated by astronomy,” he said, but the most important aspect was merely “being curious about the universe…and [wanting to] investigate it.” As a result, he said, nearly anyone could become a scientist with the right kind of curiosity and drive. “You’ve got to keep saying ‘no, we don’t know enough,’” he told the audience. “If you’re curious about how the world works, you can be a scientist.”

Following the talk, Professor Cox took answered several questions from the audience, and signed copies of his book for attendees.

Wonders of the Universe airs Wednesday nights at 9 PM on Science.

**To hear a podcast of the talk, visit The New York Academy of Sciences Web page
____________________________

Kaitlyn Gerber will be a sophomore at Carleton College, where she plans to major in biology or physics. Originally from Ridgefield, CT, she likes soccer, reading, and science, especially ecology and astronomy.

About Kaitlyn Gerber

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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