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Tour the solar system ... on Earth

One 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.

Martian sunset


The sun descends toward the Martian horizon in a picture taken by NASA's Opportunity rover.

The wonderful thing about Titan is that you have the Huygens landing video available. It looks unreal when you see it. This was actually one of the problems we had when it was shown in England. People couldn't tell the difference between the graphics and the reality. You need to flag it, because the reality is so astonishing. ... The other time that happened was when we showed a sunset on Mars, taken from Opportunity. Half our audience thought that was purely a graphic, when you know it's real.

Q: I'm wondering how you balance the astrophysics with the particle physics, because I know you're very active in that field as well. Did your head spin, or do you find it's natural to balance the very small and the very large in physics?

A: It's interesting, my career actually has been a progression in that direction. I started off doing astrophysics. The first year of my Ph.D. was designing supernova neutrino detectors. I moved into particle physics via supernovae, doing what we call particle astrophysics. The switch in scales is not so difficult or surprising to me. But what was actually very surprising was the last episode, which to me is the most interesting, because that's about extraterrestrial life. I didn't know much about that.

I learned that the feeling among the astrobiology community now is that microbial life should be present. I think the balance of probability seems to have shifted, certainly with the discovery of the oceans on moons of Jupiter, including Europa, and these cracks in the ice of Enceladus. And Mars, as well. One of the wonderful things we did is we went to a glacier in Iceland, and it was a glacier that had been cut through by a heated river. There had been a volcanic eruption, and it cut a cave through. So you have pristine ice that's been isolated for many thousands of years. We went into the cave with an astrobiologist from NASA [Richard Hoover] and took an ice core, and took it back to our camp and put it under a microscope. Immediately, when it thawed out, you saw organisms swimming around in the water.


NASA / JPL / Ted Stryk

The Galileo probe spotted brownish lines crisscrossing Europa's surface ice.

His theory — which is kind of disputed, but it's not wild — is that organisms can live in ice. It's not that they exist in suspended animation and thaw out when you melt the ice, but they actually secrete antifreeze proteins so they can melt the ice around them and live there. To them, a frozen ice sheet is an ocean.

The controversial aspect is that when you look at Europa, you see these colored lines on the surface, red and brown. Some astrobiologists think that they could be cyanobacteria, and the colors are actually living bacteria in the near surface ice of Europa. That's a remarkable proposition. It means that we've seen extraterrestrial life already.

Q: Is there anything you'd like to say about having the whole series together on the DVD set? You do have those extra documentaries in the package that aren't so much about the solar system...

A: They're very much about the cutting edge of theoretical physics, whereas "Solar System" is the cutting edge of exploration. I should say that, for me, the best science documentaries — "Cosmos" being my favorite — have an agenda underlying them. There's some kind of philosophical thread running through them. Sagan, of course, had a very political agenda. The 13th episode of "Cosmos," for example, is essentially a polemic against nuclear war. He asserts our value as a species, and our potential.

I tried to do that in "Solar System." We talk about the wonders of the solar system on Enceladus and Io and Europa, and the rings of Saturn, but actually at the end I say something I believe — which is, if you came into our solar system from outside, then the first thing you would notice is the civilization on the third planet. Without a doubt, that is the wonder of the solar system, by any measure. So at the end we come back to really assert our value.

There's a great quote from T.S. Eliot that I love a lot, which is: "We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." It's a beautiful quote. That thread runs through "Solar System." Why do we do it? Why do we explore the solar system?

We not only learn that there are these wonderful places out there, but we've also learned that you need a very rare and fragile balance to have a world such as ours where complex life can develop. It teaches you about your own place in the solar system, and your place in the wider universe. That's what exploration has always done. The gift awaiting the explorers when they return home is a different view of home.

For more from Brian Cox, check out his TED talk about the Large Hadron Collider or this video about "Why Does E=mc2?" — the book he co-wrote with Jeff Forshaw.

If you're in the Seattle area this weekend, stop by the downtown Seattle Public Library at 2 p.m. Sunday and join me in a conversation about "The Case for Pluto" and the search for planets in our solar system and beyond. Even if you're not in the Seattle area, you can join the Cosmic Log corps by signing up as my Facebook friend or hooking up on Twitter.