Monday, September 15, 2014

Wonders of Life

Wonders of LifeThere is no recent nature documentary to compare this with, other than going back several decades to Carl Sagan's groundbreaking Cosmos series.

Those who've followed Professor Brian Cox, PhD. on his extraordinary previous astronomy-centered releases "Wonders of the Solar System" and "Wonders of the Universe" will find this series far more gratifying than his previous work. Here, the Cox-team maintains the physical dissection of reality by turning the lens inward, looking at the origins and consequences of life from the perspective of a physicist. I'll explain why this is such an achievement in a moment.

Cox is rakishly magnetic, and his teaching methodology for conveying scientific principles and laws is marvelously intuitive and delivers one-on-one. He shows you evidence, lots of evidence. This isn't an experiment-centered documentary, Cox isn't lecturing in a lab-coat like Bill Nye; though Cox's demonstrations are incredibly cool and peppered throughout (you'll surly want to attempt them with your family).

The series is broken into five hour-long segments:

What is Life

Expanding Universe

Endless forms Most Beautiful

Size Matters


Cox`s team asserts the traditional BBC Earth legacy, with extraordinary sweeping high-definition aerial footage featuring vast wildernesses teaming with animals, balanced with richly detailed up-close and microscopic footage showing the natural world at all scales. Throughout the series, visuals telescope outward to a larger scale: exploding with colorful vibrancy and pattern. From the complex microscopic life (which echos that of the Last Universal Common Ancestor [LUCA] -another thing I learned from the series) to inquisitive Madagascar lemurs, intelligent jungle primates, boisterous sea-faring animals and outward again to the heavens: gigantic galaxies and nebulous solar nurseries, the one true genesis.

Cox asserts that life is a natural consequence of physics, he does this by emphasizing that in all its forms life is a "system" subject to the laws of physics, while shoring his claims with biological and chemistry evidence.

I can't overstate how important that seemingly trivial fact is. He shows you, with reiterative attention to ensure you understand the subject -like your favorite teacher, the one who influenced you to pursue the career you have today -with practical, intuitive evidence. Cox shows you how to make a homemade particle detector, which he demonstrates in the middle of the desert, he shows you how to isolate and view your own nebulous DNA using little more than dish soap, salt and vodka. He shows you that life is fueled by a fascinating quantum principle called photon gradients, then demonstrates not just their effect, but inventories a legion of photon gradients within all life forms and biological facets around the planet, further understating life's (indeed, humanity's) requirement to obey the laws of physics. He shows you the evolution of the ear and the eye with emphasis on incremental steps during the glacially onward natural selection process. Then he shows you how to make a primitive eye. As we all know, showing is more effective than telling, and in this regard, the Wonders of Life has a brilliant learning core.

You'll see how our DNA is examined to seek common ancestors we share with ANY life on the planet. Yes, ANY LIFE -as in bacteria, insects, whales, chickens, whatever. Go back far enough in time, by examining the two DNA strains, and you will find harmonious segments of DNA code in both species. This not only provides evidence for the first rule of ecology: that everything is connected to everything else, but more importantly assures the viewer how incredibly rare, incomparable and uniquely adapted we are.

It's horrifyingly difficult trying to make thermodynamics fascinating, here again the team negotiates the boredom-minefield with spectacular ease and intuitive visuals.

Take, for instance, the First Law of Thermodynamics: energy is neither created, nor destroyed, it simply changes form.

And the Second Law of Thermodynamics: order tends to disorder; otherwise known as entropy.

And from these large, somewhat vague-sounding laws, life exists in complexity and order, a seemingly jutting paradox with the two thermodynamic laws. Nevertheless, Cox explains again with insightful evidence how life is part of the larger system, and that we are merely participants, unknowingly bound by the laws. We consume and radiate energy from our tissues outward into the universe as heat, a more disordered energetic state.

These are big, fascinating concepts I've never had presented so effortlessly in other documentaries. I forget how life is subject to the laws of physics, because when I think about physics my mind never presents an image of biological systems. I conjure instead pulleys, objects in motion, things like planets and machines. So with all the physics concepts injected with stirring real-life, non-theoretical application, you quickly begin viewing the world through the eyes of a physicist.

From a traditional nature documentary standpoint, there are countless creatures with strange adaptations ready to boggle your mind. Take for instance the spider that produces the world's largest web (25 meters 75 feet) only discovered in 2009 and still shrowded in mystery. And other creatures, like the glowing ultraviolet desert scorpion, the intelligently resourceful Florida octopi and the surprising aquatic genesis of the dragon fly. Frankly, right out of the gate, I never knew dragon flies spent their first months as an underwater predator. I say a reasonable estimate for the portioning is a solid 50-50: physics to traditional nature biology. And in that sense, the series is a groundbreaking triumph. There is NO OTHER nature documentary that tackles biological life with such an engrained physics approach.

I truly wish this series aired in the US. I hugely admire the BBC for how they fearlessly present complicated scientific topics better than American nature doc producers. The US always seems to dumb-down and infuse their documentaries with unintentionally annoying "macho" narration, guitar-solo soundtracks and overly dramatic, to the point of silly and gratuitous, sound-effects with face palming references, "LOOK AT THIS SHARK! LOOK HOW IT CHOMPS! LOOK AT THAT!"

So annoying.

We are not five-year-olds.

It's hard for me to believe that the US would produce a series at the caliber of the Wonders of Life, considering its emphasis on evolution, quantum and classical physics and the origins of chemistry (and life, in general). Not to over-editorialize, but the subjects covered in this series would be deemed too controversial for American audiences. I say this respectfully, acknowledging that Americans gave the world Carl Sagan's "Cosmos," which is clearly a Wonders of Life influence. I merely dare US producers to match the caliber of this or any BBC Earth nature series, with the exception of those lame CG dinosaur documentaries they produced a couple years back (avoid, avoid, avoid).

Fortunately, thanks to the internet, anyone in the US can buy this spectacular visual opus and walk away from each episode FILLED with new and progressive knowledge. You will learn so much about the world -scratch that -about the UNIVERSE, thanks to this series.

I also recommend buying the series used; I paid a little less than $30.00 for my copy, which plays perfectly on my computer drive Blu-ray player, connected to my LCD screen via HDMI, with Dolby surround output. Wonders of Life is 100% worth your time, you'll be as entertained as you are educated, presented with startling intuition and Cox's charismatic one-on-one style.

As an aside, and also as the news has been out for a couple months, it's appropriate to include the following fact: Sir David Attenborough recently announced Professor Brian Cox as successor for when the charismatic knight hangs up his mantle. Long may Attenborough remain at the pinnacle of his gift. I should also mention that if you haven't watched BBC's Africa, Madagascar or Frozen Planet, do yourself a favor and have your mind blown by any of those releases (especially Africa).

Cox, who earned his PhD in Physics from the University of Manchester, works at the ATLAS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN; surprisingly, he was also the keyboardist for the `90s Brit-pop band, D:Ream.

As the other reviewer stated, excellent series well presented by Prof. Cox. Amazon mentions nothing about this in their specs, but this is a Region B set and will not play in most U.S./North American Blu-ray players. You will need a "region-free" player to view this (or a computer drive). Hopefully, BBC will release a proper Region A version soon.

Buy Wonders of Life Now

It is a terrific Blu Ray set. It is a beautifully crafted story about life. In fact it is the best I have ever seen about the evolution of species. Brain Cox talks in more detail than any other scientist about the organs of our body and what did our eyes, ears, brains and so on develop from. For instance our inner ear with the specialized bones that allows us to hear came from an ancient mouthless fish where it's gills moved and developed not only a mouth but a sensory organ that could pick up vibration. After coming on land the species was unable to pick up sound from the air like it could from the water so the sensory organ changed further and further until it became the inner ear of animals. He goes into the same kind of detail on how the eye developed. Now I have to say I believe in God the Creator and therefore believe all of this developed to eventually create US. If you don't believe that and believe that it is just accidential that is up to you. Either way you look at it, it is fascinating all life developed in the way that it has (either through accidential evolution or created evolution). We have watched all three of the Wonders series by Brian Cox and they are all great. We really enjoy the way Brian Cox presents the Solar System, Universe and in the case of this set, Life. My only problem was that I purchased it for region B/2 rather than A/1. Luckily I had purchased an LG 3D smart Blu Ray machine that can play region B/2 discs. Had I not purchased the new 3D Blu Ray player I would be returning the set. It pays to look at the region that DVDs and Blu Rays are made to work in. I lucked out. After writing this review I went back to the product page and evidentally it only comes for Region 2/B at the present time. I don't think that the Blu Ray Disc or the case indicate the region it was made for. It is only found in the information on the Amazon product page. I recommend the Wonders of Life to any one who enjoys science both physical and biological, but make sure you have a machine it will play on. If in doubt go to the internet site for your blu ray player and check to see if it will handle discs for region 2/B.

Read Best Reviews of Wonders of Life Here

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