Brian Cox, master of the universe

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.

From Human Universe 3: Are We Alone (photo BBC/Paul O’Callaghan)
From Human Universe 3: Are We Alone (photo BBC/Paul O’Callaghan)

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.

Rapa Nui and Hoa Hakananai'a

4 thoughts on “Brian Cox, master of the universe

  1. Think about this – the premise of the question!!

    The statement takes for granted that an ‘earth like planet’ (if it existed) would develop a civilisation that is dependent on technology who sends signals to say ‘I’m here’?

    Consequently, the statement claims our technological society is evolutionary progressive and necessary – but is it?

    Think about this:

    What progressive civilisation spends its resource flying to the moon as millions of its inhabitance starve to death every year or live in poverty?

    What sophisticated society enslaves its occupants historically for the last 5000 years (including economic slavery) bring the vast majority into misery for the sake of a few oligarchs?

    What advanced culture rips apart the earth in search of raw materials that feed this wonderful technological boom of ours condemning planet earth to pollution and climate change that will probably wipe out all life on earth eventually?

    What cultivated humanity uses technology to built bombs and weapons of mass destruction to be used on they own kind for the benefit of ego or profit?

    If there are other intelligent life on other planets they are probably happy, contented and living on their green and pleasant land, fulfilling their humanity not playing with mobile phones and stupid computer games!!

    Sadly, we once did have such a society in prehistory which has all but been forgot. It started 30k years ago (not 60K as Brian Cox incorrectly suggested) and its inhabitance, painted, played music, had woven clothing, sailed the oceans, lived as long as us, were taller and stronger, had a better diet (from teeth records), were more intelligent than us (as they had a larger brain capacity) and consequently their society lived for over 15K years – and looking at our current societies 5k year span since the ‘so called’ agriculture revolution, they will beat us by about 9 – 10K years, when the history of the world is finally written.

    So Mr Cox (and mike) if you wish to get the answers to the universe and ‘why we are here’ – don’t look towards the stars, look back at prehistory.


  2. Dear Mike, I am from Riga, I really approciate what you wrote about Hoa. At the same time I will be grateful if you might help me to get additional information about 19th century images of Hoa. You published one from 1899. I know this picture, and my question is – what is the name of photographer? The same image was used by Routledge and by Latvian artist Matvejs/Markov who published the same image in 1914. I treid to get an issue No. 28, 2014 of Rapa Nui magazine, but they do not reply alas as I am not from Rapa Nui area
    Thank you for your replay in advance
    Sincerely Irena> Email

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