Well, at least of the wonders of the universe aphorism. In that regard he’s truly up there with Carl Sagan. And having criticised him for an archaeological presentation, I was delighted to see him at his best on Easter Island.
I wrote earlier about a sequence in the first of the BBC’s Human Universe films. Cox talked about modern human origins, and a – plausible – link with climate changes. I complained about how, I thought, a complex story was simplified to the point of being misleading (Henry Gee, a senior Nature editor who has handled many of the journal’s important science stories about human evolution, really didn’t like this bit). I ended my piece with a photo of Cox on Easter Island, with the caption, “Dare I watch?”
I did, and it was wonderful. The third programme began on the island, with some characteristically lovely film and snap-perfect editing. The narrative used the island – people so often use the island – to make a point about isolation.
Here on this remotest of inhabited places, where, as Thor Heyerdahl memorably put it, the closest visible land is the surface of the moon, people must have wondered if they were alone. Was there anyone else out there? When an European ship arrived in 1722 its crew would have appeared like aliens.
So we think of Earth, and Cox delivers this dazzling passage.
“Think about this. There are billions of habitable Earth-like worlds out there in the galaxy – and yet we are alone.
“Think about this. There are billions of habitable Earth-like worlds out there in the galaxy – and we are not alone. There are others.
“One of these statements is true.”
I suspect that future research may show that Easter Island was less isolated than we imagine – that other Polynesians were in touch across the ocean from the west, and quite possibly that Europeans stopped by before 1722. Archaeology can tackle such questions. But that doesn’t matter, as it doesn’t spoil Cox’s line. He caught our imaginations with words and a mesmerising location, without patronising or manipulating the story. And on Easter Island, that doesn’t happen often.
And just for fun, here’s a screen grab from the film, with my photo of Hoa Hakananai’a as it now looks in the British Museum; the red spot is about where it originally stood.