Zombie suns & diamond planets in Universe Season 1

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Presenter Brian Cox and executive producers Gideon Bradshaw and Andrew Cohen talk about creating Universe Season 1

Zombie suns & diamond planets in Universe Season 1

Are you ready for the travel show of a lifetime? Over the course of five episodes, Professor Brian Cox takes us on a magic carpet ride through the universe.

“The most valuable thing about science is not a list of facts. What is valuable, is the intellectual challenge that nature delivers, and the process of acquiring that knowledge, which is at the heart of this series,” says Brian.

“There are telescopes and space probes, the things that allowed us to, to acquire this data. And the idea that there is such a thing as reliable knowledge, that is the foundation of our civilisation. There's a deep message here, which is a celebration of science, because it's forcing us to think very differently about the world,” Brian says.

We chatted to Brian and Universe’s executive producers, Gideon Bradshaw and Andrew Cohen, about imagining and designing the series, so they could show us this Universe of knowledge.

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Watch Universe Season 1 on DStv
Universe Season 1 Executive Producer Brian Cox

Exploring Universe

What’s the most “out there” thing that you cover in the series?

Brian: Easily black holes. It's one of my current research interests, so it was one of my favourite things to make a film about. We know they're there, we have a photograph of one. They're physical objects in the universe, so we have to explain them and understand them.

They are, in a very real sense, the end of time in space. Time ends in a black hole. That's a really strange thing to say. And nothing can escape from inside the horizon of a black hole, but it turns out that they have a temperature. And temperature tells us that there's something there that they're made of. Black holes are telling us that there’s something deeply hidden, in the structure of reality itself.

This is work that's been done in 2020. So the other unusual thing about this series is that we have scientific research in the series that was done last year, the year before.

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What principles shaped the visualisations you present in this series? 

Gideon: There's two styles of graphics. We have these spacecrafts throughout the series that are really our sentinels, going out there trying to understand what the universe is all about, without which we've got no story to tell. And they're meticulously researched. Those are the best we can possibly do with current technology to render.

When data is then reported in the episodes, it is the material that they're really sending back. We have an episode about the Milky Way, where the Gaia space telescope from ESA (European Space Agency) is reporting on this extraordinary data that they're getting back about how our galaxy evolved.

The other is where we take you to glimpses of the universe from its beginning to its far distant conclusion. You're talking about images of the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago. That's quite challenging to do in a photorealistic way, yet we have to put something on the screen.

We work quite carefully there to be poetic – not literal, but factually correct as far as we can be. We cherry pick the most dramatic moments that we can invent or imagine, all soundly based on physics.

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On that note of intriguing visualisations, which of the alien worlds that you show in this series would you most like to visit? 

Brian: I would say that all of them that we represent, we wouldn’t be happy on them. We're better off here! But we're just right at the edge of our ability now to begin to characterise those worlds and that makes it difficult as a film, because you're visualising things from a few bits of information. And so getting that scientifically plausible, was probably the biggest challenge in the series.

Andrew: I'm going to be more of a tourist for you and say that I'd be happy to go anywhere with a binary star system, just for the thrill of seeing two Suns in the sky, regardless of how safe it was.

Brian: One of the big debates we had with our advisors, because we work with experts in the field of exoplanets, is the extent to which you can have a stable habitable environment in a binary star system. It is not fully understood.

Gideon: Mine they haven't discovered yet. What I'm looking for is an Earth-like world with a lower gravity as I age. It would be quite nice to bounce around, I think, on an Earth-like world. We haven't got to that level of being able to detect them yet. So who knows if they exist? They're all Super-Earth at the moment. Slightly heavier. But that film (the alien worlds episode) is incredibly challenging, because we have just a very small dataset. We add together what we know about our own solar system, with a result that we've seen on a faraway world, and then we computer model, and try to guess what these things may be like. So that episode probably will go out of date the fastest. As the next Webb (telescope) goes up, there'll be a raft of new data. It'll be interesting to see what we got right and what we got wrong in the years to come.

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What kind of story are you telling in the episode The Age of Stars?

Brian: They are creators, in the sense that without them, there would be no carbon and oxygen and iron in the universe. Life exists, because there's a hot spot in the sky and the coldness of space. So they are, in some sense creators, but they're mortal. And one day, they'll all be gone. We realised that there's a story to be told from the first star (because there was a time before the stars), and the last star, because in a universe that expands forever, there comes a time when no more stars are born, and they all die. It’s the story from the first star to the last star. That's an emotional arc.

Gideon: It's a tragedy. It's inevitable, where it's going to end, but it's how you get there, and what happens along the way, that's so fascinating.

Watch Universe S1, Thursdays from 18 November on BBC Earth (DStv channel 184) at 19:00

BBC Earth (DStv channel 184) is available on DStv Premium, Compact Plus, Compact, Family and Access. To upgrade your existing package, click here. Or if you'd like to Get DStv, find a service that suits your needs here

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