It is almost two years ago now, that Professor Brian Cox, treated us to his splendid series The Wonders of Life, which I raved about here at the time. So, it was with a real sense of excitement that I watched the first episode of his brand new series Human Universe.
He began by asking us to consider the significance of the International Space Station. We are the only species on Earth that has managed to leave the ground and head out into space. It is a wondrous technological achievement. What made this possible?
Cox goes to the Ethiopian Highlands and visits a group of Geladas. Science has established that these primates are evolutionary cousins of ours. Around 250,000 years ago, our ancestors first began making spears out of Obsidian – black stone that forms as a result of volcanic activity. Yet why have the Geladas remained in that part of Africa while we humans – who also emerged in Africa – have gone on to colonise the world and even reach out into space?
The key difference, says Cox, is language and writing. Writing meant that knowledge could now be transferred much more simply and widely. It “freed the acquisition of knowledge from the limits of the human memory…[and]… created a cultural ratchet, an exponentiation of the known which ultimately led us to the stars”.
Cox’s lyricism here about writing is surely justified and will surely cause many Muslims to pause for thought, for the very first words of the Qur’an revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in Surah al-Alaq drew the attention of humankind to this very phenomenon:
Recite in the name of your Lord who created –
Created man from a clinging substance.
Recite, and your Lord is the most Generous –
Who taught by the pen –
Taught man that which he knew not.
Cox moves swiftly from the construction of spears to agriculture and the building of the earliest cities to space travel. It is a giddying journey. He finishes back with the astronauts of the International Space Station. While waiting in Kazakhstan for them to arrive back on Earth in their Soyuz module, Cox calculates mathematically exactly how the Soyuz module will first slow its entry into Earth’s atmosphere and then let gravity do its work. It is all based on two equations that we owe to Sir Isaac Newton.
Newton was one of humankind’s true geniuses. Cox reminds us that when Newton was asked about his outstanding contribution to our store of knowledge, he famously said he had not done this by himself but had stood “on the shoulders of giants”. People like Galileo, Descartes and others all the way back to Euclid and the Ancient Greeks.
The first episode was entitled “Apeman, Spaceman” and is available to watch on the BBC iPlayer for another 29 days.