Monday, October 31, 2011

Wonders of the Universe Blu-ray Review

The universe is 13.7 billion years old.  It spans 93 billion light years across and is filled with over 100 billion galaxies, each filled with hundreds of billions of stars.  A place so unimaginably vast and complex, it is almost inconceivable that it could ever be understood.  But for 2,500 years, humanity has tried to unlock its secrets.  Taking science away from telescopes and labs, this series travels into the natural world and across the planet, from the scorched plains of Africa to the snow capped Canadian Rockies.  These journeys, across the planet are combined with spectacular images of space. Inspired by the latest data and imagery captured from telescopes and using stunning high definition CGI, Wonders of the Universe offers views of giant supernova, gamma ray bursts and recently discovered galaxies, and sheds light on the furthest reaches of the universe, just moments after its creation.  This groundbreaking four-part series explores some of the most profound questions we can ask about ourselves and the celestial world in which we live.

Film (5 out of 5 stars)

When I see shows like Wonders of the Universe I wish that it had been around when I was going to school because Professor Brian Cox has found a way to make physics fun and accessible.  This show isn’t a dry boring lecture from an elderly man in front of a chalkboard which drags on so long that it  seems like you are actually trapped in a space-time continuum of your own.  Brian takes the opposite approach and shares his knowledge in the outdoors usually at  location relevant to what he’s talking about or at the very least in a scenic spot.  Even if he wants us to see some video, he brings out a portable screen and projects his info in these remote locations. There’s something to be said about watching a video of galaxies spinning around the Milky Way galaxy on a screen that is itself  under a canopy of stars.

Brian not only makes these difficult to understand subjects accessible, but he also does it with a boyish enthusiasm that is infectious. You can tell that he genuinely loves what he’s talking about and that he’s just as fascinated by the concepts as the viewer is.  He’s never condescending and I really liked his presentation style.  A lot of shows like this may help you understand the basic concepts behind something like gravity but he goes beyond that and answers questions that never get answered by snooty academics.  During the gravity episode “Falling” Brian explains how gravity works and provides examples of how it would affect humans by riding in the zero-G  ”Vomit Comet” and riding in a centrifuge.  While discussing black holes, I kept thinking “Yeah but what would happen if a human would enter one,” which I believed would never be answered just like on the other shows but Brian proved me wrong.  That thought occurred to him too and he said that your body would be stretched so much as you entered it that it would “spaghetti-fi” your body into shreds.  At that point I knew that this was my kind of science show.

Not only do I like that Brian is a straight shooter and knows his stuff, but he’s willing to use real world locations and items to prove his point.  To illustrate how a black hole works, he traveled to Africa’s Victoria Falls to show how from a distance, the water and pull of the black hole is gentle.  The closer you get to the either the Falls or the center of the black hole, it will get more violent and there’s no way that you can save yourself because the pull is too strong.  Another example he used was blowing bubbles to show how nuclear fusion works.  It’s that kind of low tech example to explain intricate concepts that makes this show work so well.  That’s not to say that it’s all low tech as there’s some breathtaking visual effects as well.  I’ve seen a bunch of these kind of shows that use special effects to help the viewer understand what they are saying, but none of them have looked as good as the ones on this show.  Seeing stars get born or turn into a red giant or  a neutron star is just amazing and it adds a lot to the show.  Each of the episodes was very interesting and not only are you learning a lot about physics, but you are also seeing the world as Brian travels to all points of the world including African deserts, Antarctica, the American southwest, Canadian Rockies, the Himalayas, India, China, and more.  Here are all of the episodes  on this disc as originally described:
  • Destiny – Who are we?  Where do we come from? For thousands of years humanity has turned to religion and myth for answers to these enduring questions.  But in this series, Brian presents a different set of answers – answers provided by science.  In this episode, Brian seeks to understand the nature of time and its role in creating both the universe and ourselves.  From an extraordinary calendar built into the landscape of Peru to the beaches of Costa Rica, Brian explores the cycles of time which define our experience of life on Earth.  But even the most epic cycles of life can’t begin to compare to the vast expanse of cosmic time.  For instance, just as the Earth orbits the Sun, the solar system orbits the entire Milky Way galaxy.  This orbit takes a staggering 250 million years to complete.  Ultimately, Brian discovers that time is not characterised by repetition but by irreversible change.  From the relentless march of a glacier, to the decay of an old mining town, the ravaging effects of time are all around us.  The vast universe is subject to these same laws of change.  As we look out to the cosmos, we can see the story of its evolution unfold, from the death of the first stars to the birth of the youngest.  This journey from birth to death will ultimately lead to the destruction not just of our planet, but also the entire universe, and with it the end of time itself.  Yet without this inevitable destruction, the universe would be without what is perhaps the greatest wonder of all; the brief moment in time in which life can exist.

  • Stardust - In the second stop in his exploration of the wonders of the universe, Professor Brian Cox goes in search of humanity’s very essence to answer the biggest questions of all: what are we?  And where do we come from?   This film is the story of matter – the stuff of which we are all made.  Brian reveals how our origins are entwined with the life cycle of the stars.  But he begins his journey here on Earth.  In Nepal, he observes a Hindu cremation.  Hindu philosophy is based on an eternal cycle of creation and destruction, where the physical elements of the body are recycled on to the next stage.  Brian draws a parallel with the life cycle of the stars that led to our own creation.  Next, he explains how the Earth’s resources have been recycled through the ages.  How every atom that makes up everything we see, was at some time a part of something else.  Our world is made up of just 92 elements, and these same 92 elements are found throughout the entire universe.  We are part of the universe because we are made of the same stuff as the universe.

  • Falling - In the third episode, Professor Brian Cox takes on the story of the force that sculpts the entire universe – gravity.  Gravity seems so familiar, and yet it is one of the strangest and most surprising forces in the universe.  Starting with a zero gravity flight, Brian experiences the feeling of total weightlessness, and considers how much of an effect gravity has had on the world around us.  But gravity also acts over much greater distances.  It is the great orchestrator of the cosmos.  It dictates our orbit around the sun, our relationship with the other planets in our solar system, and even the way in which our solar system orbits our galaxy.  Yet the paradox of gravity is that it is actually a relatively weak force.  Brian takes a face distorting trip in a centrifuge to explain how it is that gravity achieves its great power, before looking at the role it plays in one of the most extraordinary phenomena in the universe – a neutron star.  Although it is just a few kilometres across, it is so dense that its gravity is 100, 000 million times as strong as on Earth.   Over the centuries our quest to understand gravity has allowed us to understand some of the true wonders of the universe, and Brian reveals that it is scientists’ continuing search for answers that inspires his own sense of wonder.

  • Messengers - In the last episode of Professor Brian Cox’s epic journey across the universe, he travels from the fossils of the Burgess Shale to the sands of the oldest desert in the world to show how light holds the key to our understanding of the whole universe, including our own deepest origins.  To understand how light holds the key to the story of the universe, you first have to understand its peculiar properties.  Brian considers how the properties of light that lend color to desert sands and the spectrum of a rainbow can lead to profound insights into the history and evolution of our universe.  Finally, with some of the world’s most fascinating fossils in hand, Brian considers how but for an apparently obscure moment in the early evolutionary history of life, all the secrets of light may have remained hidden.  Because although the universe is bathed in light that carries extraordinary amounts of information about where we come from, it would have remained invisible without a crucial evolutionary development that allowed us to see. Only because of that development can we now observe, capture and contemplate the incredible wonders of the universe that we inhabit.

Video (5 out of 5 stars)

This 1080p (1.78:1) transfer looks amazing as the live action segments are filmed in high definition as are the CGI sequences.  Detail is very sharp and each location Brian visits is captured in all of its beauty.  Colors pop especially the CGI portions which just look amazing and I can’t tell what is real space footage and what’s been created for this show which is really impressive.  Black levels are contrast are perfect and the only issue I did notice was one fleeting glimpse of noise but it was gone as soon as it registered and that’s really the only issue I had with this disc’s video quality.

Audio (3 1/2 out of 5 stars)

Wonders of the Universe comes with a Dolby Digital Stereo track which I don’t understand since everyone involved in this production put so much effort into making this a cinematic experience, that it makes no sense that there isn’t at least a DTS-HS Master Audio mix provided.  The stereo track is acceptable and works for the program but it seems like a lost opportunity since the visuals were so strong.  Dialogue was understandable and the music and effects sounded good so it’s not like this is a terrible track, but it should have been as good as the video quality.

Special Features (0 out of 5 stars)

Sadly there are no special features which will drag the final score down lower than it should be.

Final Thoughts (3 1/2 out of 5 stars)

Brian’s willingness to go to any lengths to explain a concept and his common man explanations that convey difficult ideas in an accessible way make this a great show for people that have an interest in it but might feel intimidated by the subject.  So far, this is by far my favorite science show and I hope he does another series.  I just learned that his previous series was called Wonders of the Solar System so I will check that one out too while I wait for his next one.  It’s just a shame that the sound and the lack of special features hurth my final score as this is highly recommended!
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