Human Universe by Brian Cox
The emergence of Homo Sapiens as the dominant life-form on Earth is an ambitious story to tell. Even more ambitious is to then explain how we journeyed beyond Earth. First with our minds; using science to both see and theorise about the universe around us; and then with our bodies, out of the orbit of our planet. That is quite an achievement, for we are only one branch of the hominid lineage. Human Universe, presented by Brian Cox, sets out to tell that story. Essentially, from ‘apeman to spaceman.’
I found the whole series delightful having only recently watched my first Professor Brian Cox documentary. A professor of physics, he is a well known ambassador for science, especially in the last decade, all the while giving only the barest few hints to his original career as a keyboard player in two eighties rock bands. Perhaps it comes through with the passion that he communicate esoteric topics, a stage presence turned to unexpectedly useful purpose. I think Brian Cox is the face of science that we need. One that feels warm and inviting, drawing people into the delights of a wonderfully complex and fascinating world. We too easily forget just how much wonder there is.
Backed by strong production values and a no-doubt high-calibre production team, in five short episodes Human Universe provides a broad sweeping narrative that explores some of the biggest questions you can imagine: Where have we come from? Why are we here? Are we alone? Where do we fit in space and time? What is our future? Human Universe explores these against the backdrop of very human settings, both old and new: the ancient caravan city of Petra, salt farms in South America, islands in the Caribbean, the bustling metropolis of Tokyo, modern scientific facilities in California and more.
On the surface it might seem a dizzying tour, but each location provides useful and interesting backgrounds, exploring the evolution of our understanding of each pivotal question. From the development of tools and writing that let us began to build human civilisations, to telescopes that let us explore the stars, through to rockets that carry us out of the deep gravity well of Earth.
Human Universe explains how each shift in our thinking has fundamentally changed the way we see ourselves, perhaps most intrinsically, changing the way that we see ourselves fitting into the solar system, galaxy and universe. We realise that we as individuals, much less an entire planet, are an improbable speck against the vast backdrop of the stars.
What is more confronting than seeing all of Earth’s life contained on that single blue marble, is the knowledge of just how many challenges had to be surpassed for life to develop at all. Only through a narrow set of probabilities did the conditions are Earth stay stable long enough for the type of chemistry to occur that would eventually lead to life. Then, for conditions to ebb and flow in ways that allowed time for that life to evolve. With so many difficulties, perhaps it is no surprise that we have so far found no other life in the universe.
This brings us perhaps to the heart of the story in Human Universe. It is possible that we are a technologically dominant species on what could be the one living planet amid the galaxy of life. Worse, it could be the only life among an empty universe.
From one perspective, that is a crushingly lonely realisation. There is another perspective though. That there is a tremendous responsibility to that solitary oasis fo life. Clearly, it is up to us to how we shape our future. The omnipresent question is whether we are committing the right effort.
Brian Cox notes rather disparagingly, while we should be pouring all our effort into trying to develop new sources of energy, we spend more on pet grooming than the United States fusion program. Regardless of how successfully we can use fusion to solve our energy crises, it seems a terrifying misapplication of our precious and dwindling resources.
When it was released in 2014, Human Universe was not without its critique. A reviewer noted;
“To posit humans as something extra-special in some qualitative way is called human exceptionalism, and this is invariably coloured by subjectivity. Of course we think we’re special, because it’s we who are awarding the prizes…”
“…human beings do not stand at the top of a ladder of creation, above the apes and below the angels, naturally superior to all other species. Instead, humans represent one twig in a very busy bush of twigs, each one representing one species, living or extinct.”
“Neither, then, should we judge the abilities of other animals by our own, unique, species-specific standards.”
There is merit in these points. From a purely biological lens, perhaps we are no more unique than any other species on Earth. Every living thing has developed sophisticated and usually unique adaptions to their environmental niche. However, a biological review of human progress seems to reductionistic, as if we are still the naked ape. It ignores the vast socio-technical infrastructure that we’ve built up around ourselves. Physical and cognitive upgrades to our basic biology.
We don’t need to see ourselves at the top of any ladder to realise that the human species has the unique power to build up and destroy life on Earth at a speed and scale unmatched by any other species so far evolved. This affects our lives and all the lives of all the other species that share the planet with us.
Human Universe ends with a strangely bittersweet twist to the tale, leading us on a tour of the precious Svalbard seed storage vault. Deep in the Arctic circle, it is offered as an example of human ingenuity and hope. Saving as many of humanity’s precious seeds in a bio-bank against future catastrophes. The series was released in 2014, however since then the Svalbard seed vault has already suffered severe floods, potentially from the effects of climate change on the Arctic.
Something meant to last for a thousand years may already be under threat. Somehow, with that news, the message of the show has a way of landing with more force. We are an insignificant speck in the universe, but that should only give us the motivation to embrace higher ideals of kindness, knowledge and the power of reason.
“Science is unreasonably effective. It’s generated knowledge beyond all expectation. It’s also delivered perspective. Yes, we are an insignificant speck in an infinite universe. But we’re also rare and because we’re rare, we’re valuable. So, what are we to do to secure our future? Well, we must learn to value the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake and not just because it grows our economy or allows us to build better bombs. We must also learn to value the human race and take responsibility for our own survival. Why? Because there’s nobody else out there to value us or to look after us. And finally, most important of all, we must educate the next generation in the great discoveries of science. And we must teach them to use the light of reason to banish the darkness of superstition. ‘Cause if we do that, then at least, there’s a chance that this universe will remain a human one." (Brian Cox, Human Universe)
I wonder if we really appreciate both the wonder, fragility and responsibility of our position.
Gee, Henry (2014) Brian Cox’s Human Universe Presents a Fatally Flawed View of Evolution. Retrieved September 2019 from: https://www.theguardian.com/science/blog/2014/oct/14/brian-coxs-human-universe-presents-a-fatally-flawed-view-of-evolution
Carrington, Damian (2017) Artic Stronghold of World’s Seeds Flooded After Permafrost Melts. Retrieved September 2019 from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/may/19/arctic-stronghold-of-worlds-seeds-flooded-after-permafrost-melts
Earthrise, taken on December 24, 1968, by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders.