Bri’ on the Sky

Front cover of Wonders of the Solar System by Brian Cox and Andrew Cohen

Bri’ Eyes the Sky

Wonders of the Solar System, Professor Brian Cox and Andrew Cohen (Collins 2010)

One of the most powerful images in this book is also one of the most understated. It’s an artist’s impression of a dim star seen over the curve of a dwarf-planet called Sedna. The star is a G-type called Sol. We on Earth know it better as the sun. Sedna is a satellite of the sun too, but it’s much, much further out than we are. It takes 12,000 years to complete a single orbit and its surface is a biophobic -240°C. It’s so distant that sunrise is star-rise and it wasn’t discovered until 2003. But the sun’s gravity still keeps it in place: one of the weakest forces in nature is one of the most influential. That’s one important message in an understated, crypto-Lovecraftian image.

Sedna has been there, creeping around its dim mother-star, since long before man evolved. It will still be there long after man disappears, voluntarily or otherwise. This frozen dwarf is a good symbol of the vastness of the universe and its apparent indifference to life. We don’t seem to interest the universe at all, but the universe certainly interests us. Wonders of the Solar System is a good introduction to our tiny corner of it, describing some fundamentals of astronomy with the help of spectacular photographs and well-designed illustrations. You can learn how fusion powers the sun, how Mars lost its atmosphere and how there might be life beneath the frozen surface of Jupiter’s satellite Europa. The text is simple, but not simplistic, though I think the big name on the cover did little of the writing: this book is probably much more Cohen than Cox. Either way, I enjoyed reading the words and not just looking at the pictures, all the way from star-dim Sedna (pp. 26-7) to “Scars on Mars” (pp. 220-1) by way of “The most violent place in the solar system” (pp. 198-9), a.k.a. Jupiter’s gravity-flexed, volcano-pocked satellite Io.

Pockmarked moon -- the Galilean satellite Io

Pockmarked moon — the Galilean satellite Io

Everything described out there is linked to something down here, because that’s how it was done in the television series. Linking the sky with the earth allowed the BBC to film the genial and photogenic physicist Brian Cox in various exotic settings: Hawaii, India, East Africa, Iceland and so on. I’ve not seen any of Cox’s TV-work, but he seems an effective popularizer of science. And the pretty-boy shots here add anthropology to the astronomy. What is the scientific point of Cox striding away in an artistic blur over the Sahara desert (pg. 103), staring soulfully into the distance near the Iguaçu Falls on the Brazilian-Argentine border (pg. 37) or gazing down into the Grand Canyon, hips slung, hands in pockets (pg. 163)? There isn’t a scientific point: the photos are there for his fans, particularly his female ones. He’s a sci-celeb, a geek with chic, and we’re supposed to see the sky through Bri’s eyes.

But he’s also a liberal working for the Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation, so he’ll be happy with the prominent photo early on: Brian holding protective glasses over the eyes of a dusky-skinned child during a solar eclipse in India. The same simul-scribes’ Wonders of Life (Collins 2013), another book-of-the-BBC-series, opens with a similarly allophilic allophoto: a dusky-skinned Mexican crowned in monarch butterflies. This is narcissistic and patronizing, but the readiness of whites to “Embrace the Other” helps explain science, because science involves looking away from the self, the tribe and the quotidian quest for status and survival. Of course, Cox and Cohen would gasp with horror at the idea of racial differences explaining big things like science and politics. Cox would be sincere in his horror. I’m not so sure about Cohen.

But there are wonders within us as well as without us and though you won’t hear about them on the BBC, the tsunami of HBD, or research into human bio-diversity, is now rolling ashore. It will sweep away almost all of Cox’s and Cohen’s politics, but leave most of their science intact. It isn’t a coincidence that the rings of Saturn were discovered by the Italian Galileo and explained by the Dutchman Huygens and the Italian Cassini, or that the photos of Saturn here were taken by a space-probe launched by white Americans. But the United States has much less money now for space exploration. That’s explained by race too: as the US looks less like its founders, it looks less like a First World nation too. It’s fun to see the world through Bri’s eyes, but he’s careful not to look at everything that’s out there.

5 thoughts on “Bri’ on the Sky

  1. I really liked reading about the solar system when I was 9-10, especially the far away parts like Pluto (which was still a planet back then). I had a book with an artist’s impression of daylight on Pluto…with a blue sky, which makes no sense because Pluto doesn’t have an atmosphere. Still not sure why no-one caught that.

    Have you seen this video? It really makes you feel fear. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u1Yi58jtNdY

    • I had a good book by an American artist with his impressions of various parts of the solar system. But I lost it and can’t remember his name. I will try and find who it is. Someone I can remember:

      THE status of Pluto, recognised since its discovery in 1930 as the outermost planet of the solar system, is threatened by American astronomers who maintain that it is not a planet at all but merely the largest of the icy bodies, called the Kuiper Belt, that orbit Neptune. The American Dr Neil Tyson, whose astronomer’s heart seems to be as warm as Pluto is reputed to be cold, explains how Pluto has changed “from the most puny planet to the King of the Kuiper Belt. I think it is happier that way,” he says consolingly. But an English astronomer, Jacqueline Mitton, says “we have come to know Pluto as a planet and there is no need to downgrade it now”.

      The latest probe by the columnar space vehicle “Don Carlos and the Holy Alliance III” sheds a new, balmy light on this quarrel. Daguerreotypes just received from space suggest that Pluto, far from being a miserable ball of ice and rock, is a pleasant little world with many lessons to offer our own. For such a small planet, it seems to have a remarkable variety of landscape. There are fertile valleys, mountains neither too big nor too small for symmetry, trout streams and salmon rivers, forests plentifully supplied with deer and other game, as well as wolves and bears. Towards the poles there are wild regions to attract adventurous explorers. [Cont.]

      The Peter Simple Column

      • Well, he was ahead of its time.

        Pluto wouldn’t be a King for long, though. Not only is it now a dwarf planet, it’s not even the biggest dwarf planet. Edna, discovered in 2005, is just a little bit larger.

        Up until 2006, there actually wasn’t a scientific definition of the word “planet”. Astronomers would call any large object orbiting the sun one. It was very arbitrary, you had Pluto being classed as a planet while Ceres was considered an asteroid, and when various large spherical bodies started showing up beyond the orbit of Pluto, astronomers realised they had to come up with a better definition. I think now a planet has to 1) orbit the sun, 2) be spherical due to gravity, 3), dominate its neighbourhood (which means it sweeps up comets and dust and other debris that cross into its orbit). Pluto does the first two but not the last one.

        The astrophysicist mentioned in that column is still around. You’d probably call him a Guardianista, but he runs a hilarious twitter feed.

        “Watching on the FX network the film “2012” in which 6-billion people die. Was prepared: the rating warned of “mild violence””

        https://twitter.com/neiltyson

      • Pluto wouldn’t be a King for long, though. Not only is it now a dwarf planet, it’s not even the biggest dwarf planet. Edna…

        Barry Humphries might be pleased by that, but Edna herself would want a galaxy, at least.

        Up until 2006, there actually wasn’t a scientific definition of the word “planet”. Astronomers would call any large object orbiting the sun one. It was very arbitrary, you had Pluto being classed as a planet while Ceres was considered an asteroid…

        If Pluto had been discovered by chance, like Ceres, rather than by prediction, like Neptune, it might not have been called a planet from the beginning or might not have stayed one so long. But Clyde Tombaugh’s story was a good one. It gets better in a way now that the prediction turns out to have been faulty.

        The astrophysicist mentioned in that column is still around. You’d probably call him a Guardianista, but he runs a hilarious twitter feed.

        “In terms of” is the key metric. But being on Twitter is a metric too. As a member of the tinted community, tho’, he might tend to take advantage of Guardianistas rather than genuinely be one himself.

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