Aug. 27, 2010 at 8:28 PM ETOne of the most wonderful things about "Wonders of the Solar System" is that the TV series shows off the wonders of Earth as well as the cosmos. Want to see the ice geysers of Enceladus, a water-spurting moon of Saturn? The show's host, University of Manchester physicist Brian Cox, takes you to the geysers of Iceland. How about Io, a Jovian moon that's the most volcanically active world in the solar system? Ethiopia's Erta Ale volcano serves as a stand-in. How'd you like to sit amid the rings of Saturn? Cox finds the next best thing in an Icelandic lagoon, where the ice floes are about the same size as the ice chunks Saturn's rings are made of. There are times during the five-part documentary series when you forget that "Wonders" is a show about the solar system and start to think it's an exotic globetrotting travelogue. But just when you're settling into the scenery, Cox lays some heavy science on you, ever so lightly. For example, he'll draw in the dirt with a stick to show how astronomers traced the retrograde motion of the planets — and figured out that Earth was not the center of the universe. Or he'll use a water-filled tin can, a thermometer and an umbrella to calculate the total energy output of the sun. "And that's why I love physics!" Cox exults. His narrative is peppered with words that reflect the joy of discovery: Fantastic! Astonishing! Beautiful! Incredible! The 42-year-old Cox, who looks as if he's 22, is as much at the center of "Wonders" as the late astronomer Carl Sagan was at the center of "Cosmos" a generation ago. (When "Cosmos" premiered in 1980, Sagan was just four years older than Cox is now.) Like Sagan in his day, Cox is a scientific rock star. In fact, Cox used to be a rock star, literally, as a keyboardist for the British band Dare and the Irish band D:Ream. The series aired in Britain this spring on the BBC, and now it's closing in on its concluding episode on the Science Channel next Wednesday. But you can still catch all the episodes on reruns — or wait a week and a half to see the series on DVD. "Wonders of the Solar System" is due for release as a three-disc set on Sept. 7. In addition to the five hourlong episodes (which include footage that had to be cut for the U.S. broadcast version), you also get a couple of Cox's earlier forays into documentary TV: "What on Earth Is Wrong With Gravity?" (about the mysteries surrounding gravity and relativity) and "Do You Know What Time It Is?" (which covers topics ranging from the Maya calendar to time travel). The energy Cox exudes on screen is not just an act. It also came through in a conversation I had with him last week about the show and the state of planetary science. Here are some excerpts from the Q&A:Cosmic Log: There's been so much in the news lately about the solar system. I suppose there are two challenges that you face. One challenge is that people might think they know what they need to know about the solar system already. And the other challenge would be that so much is being discovered that it's hard to keep on top of what's going on. You must feel as if you need to ride a wave of information to get out the latest perspective. How do you balance those challenges?Brian Cox: The first thing to say is that the BBC would tend to do something like this every 10 years or so. That's for several reasons. One is, as you say, there are new discoveries. If you wind back 10 years, this is pre-Cassini. So some of the really big missions were not included the last time the BBC did this. And also, you have to remember, in television you get a new generation coming through. I grew up with "Cosmos" and Carl Sagan, of course, and I think it's the greatest documentary series ever made. One of the reasons is, in 1980, I was 12, and that was my first introduction to those wonderful ideas. And I think it is important to remember that it's a delicate balance when you make a TV program. You've got your astronomy-literate audience, but also what you aim to do is capture the audience that is not astronomically literate. So maybe you've never heard of Io, or Europa, or Enceladus. So you've got to bridge that gap. And you want those 10-, 12-year-old kids - the age that I was when I was fascinated by Sagan's "Cosmos." It is a difficult line to walk, actually. But certainly in Britain, the series crossed over. It essentially tripled the audience ratings of a standard science program, meaning that you got the kids and the family audience as well as the astronomers. Q: So are there things that have happened since the series came out that you wish you could have gotten in?A: The real ongoing, incredible data is coming in from two places at the moment. One is Cassini. Cassini is just consistently sending back better and better pictures. One of the stars of the series, one of the things that people liked the most, was the description of Enceladus, because that was genuinely new. Cassini discovered these fountains of ice rising up from this moon — which is only about 300 miles across. There's some strong evidence of liquid water beneath the surface of that moon to drive these fountains of ice. When we made the series, that was a very new discovery. But now recently, in the last week, Cassini sent back some astonishing new pictures of Enceladus. Just the photographs available from Saturn are getting better and better all the time. And the other one is the search for signs of subsurface life on Mars — the mounting evidence that perhaps there's liquid water beneath the surface. The discovery of minerals like gypsum on the surface. This is, again, quite new. We cover that in some detail in the last episode, which is essentially the search for life beyond Earth in the solar system. Those discoveries seem to be coming back from Mars every week, and the data is being analyzed. So it's an exciting time for solar system exploration. Q: You do make the science accessible. What are your favorite moments from the series that illustrate the ease with which you tell these stories about how we know what we know?A: One of the really nice ideas right at the start of the series, when we began discussing it, was we wanted to make a series that didn't have to rely on graphics. You usually have to with concepts about outer space. But the executive producer of the BBC had an idea: Could we go to landscapes on Earth that we could use to transport you to these places in the solar system? Perhaps the geology is similar, or perhaps there's some physical resemblance to photographs we see from space probes. When it worked, I thought it was profound, because it really did work, not only on screen but when we actually went there and talked about these astonishing phenomena out there. One that really was quite beautiful and very difficult to film was a volcano called Erta Ale in Ethiopia, on the Eritrean border. It's one of only four active lakes of lava in the world. It's incredibly inaccessible, because it's in this rather delicate political region in the world, and it's in the Danakil Depression, which is often the hottest place in the world. It vies with Death Valley for that title every day. But it's the most accessible, because the other lakes are in Antarctica, or in the Democratic Republic of Congo, that's pretty much cut off. So we got to go on this astonishing journey. I went there with an Io specialist from JPL. It really is a lake of lava. You stand there on this crater, and you look across a lake of molten rock, which occasionally erupts and throws this bright red rock into the sky. Although Io is significantly smaller than Earth, the lava lakes there stretch beyond the horizon. So they're enormous lakes of lava on a tiny volcanic moon. The thing about volcanoes is they're incredibly powerful presences on Earth, although they're not very big on Earth — certainly compared to the extinct volcanoes like Olympus Mons on Mars, but also compared to the lakes of molten lava that you find on Io. It really transports you to these places. One of the themes of the program is that we have these wonderful landscapes and phenomena on Earth, but there are other places in the solar system where these phenomena occur, and they dwarf the things that are accessible to us on Earth. Another one that worked beautifully for me was in Alaska. We went to a glacier in Alaska, absolutely spectacular place. But it's a place where you see ice, you see water, and you see clouds. You see the three phases of water laid out before you. The landscape is cut by the interaction of those three phases of water. You have the rain coming down, freezing on the glacier, cutting a way through the mountains. We use that as a way of talking about Titan [Saturn's largest moon]. Of course you don't find water on the surface of Titan, but you find liquid on the surface. You find liquid methane. The fact that Titan has a methanological cycle, in the same way that Earth has a hydrological cycle, is fascinating. You have methane rain on Titan. You have lakes of liquid methane. You have rivers of methane that carve the surface into river channels, and valleys, and river deltas. The landscape of Titan looks like the landscape of Earth, even though you're looking at essentially ice as solid as rock being carved by methane — a completely different substance.
NASA / JPL The sun descends toward the Martian horizon in a picture taken by NASA's Opportunity rover.
NASA / JPL / Ted Stryk The Galileo probe spotted brownish lines crisscrossing Europa's surface ice.