Wonders of Life by Brian Cox – with added Eric Idle

December 22, 2012 • 10:48 am

by Matthew Cobb

Here’s something to whet the appetite of UK readers and to make those elsewhere pester their TV providers. It’s the trailer for Wonders of Life, the new series by University of Manchester particle physicist Professor Brian Cox:

The series consists of five episodes, will begin broadcasting on BBC2 on 29 January, and continues two earlier and highly successful series, Wonders of the Solar System and Wonders of the Universe. As Cox is a particle physicist, he is especially interested in the physical underpinnings of life and evolution, and the physical constraints within which evolution operates.

The series has its usual beautiful USP – Brian wandering around the world pointing at things. Seriously, the series is stunning and very different from traditional BBC natural history programmes. (I should point out that I would say that, wouldn’t I, for I was a scientific advisor on the series, along with Nick Lane from UCL. However, any errors are Brian’s!)

The song – I imagine many WEIT readers will recognise it instantly, is a new, specially-written evolutionary version of the “Galaxy Song” by Eric Idle, from the Monty Python film The Meaning of Life.

Brian is a very popular TV science presenter in the UK, and is regularly spoofed for his enthusiasm and his Oldham accent. Here are a couple of spoofs:


Jerry’s update: Over at the New Statesman, Cox and Robin Ince (Cox’s co-host of “The Infinite Monkey Cage,” discuss the profoundly antiscientific nature of climate change denial, and along the way explain the nature of science. The piece is a bit turgid and preachy, but includes a wonderful quote from Feynman that I hadn’t heard:

The key to science is in this simple statement from the Nobel Prize-winning scientist Richard Feynman, who once remarked: “It does not make any difference how beautiful your guess is. It does not make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is – if it disagrees with experiment it is wrong.”

The assertion is surely uncontroversial, but implementing it can be prohibitively difficult, primarily because it demands that everything be subordinate to evidence. Accepting this is fraught with cultural difficulty, because authority in general rests with grandees, gods, or more usually some inseparable combination of the two. Even in a secular democracy, a fundamental tenet of the system is that politicians are elected to reflect and act upon the opinions of the people, or are at least given temporary authority by the people to act upon their own. Science is a framework with only one absolute: all opinions, theories and “laws” are open to revision in the face of evidence. It should not be seen or presented, therefore, as a body of inviolate knowledge against which policy should be judged; the effect of this would be to replace one priesthood with another. Rather, science is a process, a series of structures that allow us, in as unbiased a way as possible, to test our assertions against Nature.

31 thoughts on “Wonders of Life by Brian Cox – with added Eric Idle

    1. It is telling that all organized skepticism (TAM et cetera) declares that they base their skepticism on accepted science.

      So science denialist “skeptics” aren’t that.

      They do correlate well with pseudoscience traits, and score high on Baez’s crackpot index. [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pseudoscience ; http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/crackpot.html ]

      “Pseudoscience is a claim, belief, or practice which is presented as scientific, but does not adhere to a valid scientific method, lacks supporting evidence or plausibility, cannot be reliably tested, or otherwise lacks scientific status.[1] Pseudoscience is often characterized by the use of vague, contradictory, exaggerated or unprovable claims, an over-reliance on confirmation rather than rigorous attempts at refutation, a lack of openness to evaluation by other experts, and a general absence of systematic processes to rationally develop theories.”

      “A simple method for rating potentially revolutionary contributions to physics:

      A -5 point starting credit.
      1 point for every statement that is widely agreed on to be false. …”

      A typical climate denialist scores high on false claims and falsified thought experiments, as well as on the conspiracy aspects of crackpotism.

    1. Why is that? Why do TV networks from other (especially English speaking) countries actively refrain from getting a share of the biggest English speaking TV market?

      It makes no sense for ITV to block US viewers from seeing programming they have put on the web for Brit viewers. If they can detect that a US viewer is attempting to view that content, why not sell ads targeting that US viewer, and allow the content to be seen at a profit to themselves?

      It makes no sense; especially when US content is seen even in non-English speaking countries, almost as soon as US viewers.

      1. Usually it’s because the broadcasting company (e.g. BBC, ITV, C4) has signed a contract with the programme makers that only gives them the rights of distribution in the UK.

    1. The book’s great too! Very beautiful and packed full of fascinating facts. And yes I was involved in that too 😉

    1. *That* Brian Cox has been doing a series on the Beeb for the last couple of weeks about our drugs of addiction : alcohol, nicotine so far, not sure what next week’s will be … or indeed, if there will be a next week’s episode … nope ; it looks as if I didn’t notice the first two episodes on sugar and opium.

  1. Here’s young Feynman with that quote. Start at 39 sec in. Though it’s all worth watching.


    1. Thanks for the link. I totally agree with the top commenter: “It should be mandatory viewing for everyone”.

      I recently read “Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman”, and can thoroughly recommend it as an entertaining insight into the character of a character! As you read it, you can hear him talking just like on the video.

  2. “It does not make any difference how beautiful your guess is… if it disagrees with experiment it is wrong.”

    That reminds me of the disappointment that Kendrew and Perutz apparently felt, on solving the tertiary structure of myoglobin in 1958 – the first 3D protein structure to be solved, which resulted in a Nobel prize. Hot on the heels of the beautiful symmetry of the DNA double helix and predicted regular secondary (alpha-helical and beta-strand) peptide secondary structure, they could only sadly remark on the irregular blob their data revealed: “Perhaps the most remarkable features of the molecule are its complexity and its lack of symmetry.”

    1. Hi interested in your base premise that if something is ordered it is beautiful and if something that has been experimented on is right. Both sound a bit rigid to me. Sorry if I offend and sorry if my understanding seems lacking.

  3. Brian does great work popularising science. His TV shows get really big audiences. 6 million in the U.K. which translates to about 30 million in U.S. terms. And he’s not too keen on philosophy.

  4. I am a big fan of Brian Cox and have watched all the episodes of Wonders of the Universe and Wonders of the Solar System on the Science channel. The absolutely stunning photography and the way Brian explains things makes me giddy with the gorgeousness of our universe, and I am filled with awe at our place in it!

  5. The linked article starts off by saying: “The story of the past hundred years is one of unparalleled human advances, medically, technologically and intellectually. The foundation for these changes is the scientific method.”

    This is also an unsubstantiated claim as the practice of science does not occur independent of the social institutions that make it possible (not much science advancement for the population in communist Germany, was there?)

    Challenging climate science, as the linked article claims, is not “challenging science itself”, but rather challenging the conclusions given the state of knowledge. A computer or a car – the function of which can be directly verified – is equated to the unknown veracity of a computer model of the weather 100 years into the future. That’s just a false analogy. Whether anthropogenic warming is true or false, it would be better if articles were more exacting in their presentation.

  6. Whilst I have always been a fan of Monty Python and their brilliant stabs at convention and especially the British establishment I do worry about the tendency for new aetheist to make either simplistic and condescending comments about faith and religeon. The characters of an old guy with a beard being God to a modern theologian is patently ridiculous. By characterising all believers as people who think on this level is not only wrong but sounding a little desperate. I agree with the idea that the truth is more weird than we can ever imagine and I would say that that was the same about God. Newton described his knowledge of both science and God as something infinitely small compared to the sea of potential knowledge set before him. Theology was once considered the master science which fed all others. This is not a simple statement made by cave men this was the norm in a society which had a massive input into the physical sciences as well as philosophy. Previous generations of thinkers didn’t have this characature either. Brian Cox is very endearing and he has a very nice budget to produce wonderful films. His summary of religeon is weak and untutored leaving him less of a scholar than he should be. I see a slow maturing from the rankings of Dawkins to a more gentle approach of Cox , however therei s a long way to go before the new atheists can truely be given the credibility they should as true knowledge seekers.
    Hers,s hoping we can all expand our minds. Best wishes to all

        1. Yes, you got it wrong. Again.

          You strolled into this room and tossed off a slur against a great many of us here.

          “…however therei s a long way to go before the new atheists can truely be given the credibility they should as true knowledge seekers.
          Hers,s hoping we can all expand our minds. Best wishes to all”)[sic]

          It is pretty clear that you don’t have a very good understanding of the subject or the folk who hang out in these parts.

          1. Why so defensive? We all have a long way to go ……who have I offended and how? You’re comments about my abilities to understand is based on no knowledge of me…..my comments were about popularists represented by Dawkins an latterly Cox. There is a style which is being portrayed which I was saying misrepresents the new aetheists thinkers. Can’t you see the defence I am making for open minded people. You mentioned I strolled into the room. Did I need to be invited into an exclusive club? Is there an exam I have to take or a creed I have to sign up to? I did think my comments related to the invited blog which to comment on Cox and the theme tune. I like Cox I just think he sells himself short.

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