Wonders of Life by Brian Cox – digested read

John Crace reduces Brian Cox's journey through the marvels of the known universe to a more manageable 600 words

Here's a photo of me standing on a rock looking wistful. Here's another photo of me sitting on a bench looking soulful. Here's yet another photo ... Cut them out. Put them on your wall. Make a calendar. B xxx

I confess that when we began thinking about Wonders of Life, my first thought was "Why me?" as I gave up biology as an academic subject in 1984. But then I looked in the mirror and I thought: "Yeah. That's amaaazin." Evolution, DNA and butterflies. They're amaaazin, too. I mean, look at this blade of grass. It's basically made of the same shit as you and me. That's like, mind-blowin. More so for me than for you. I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.

Water. It's magnificent. Every time a new star is born, a chain of events is set in place, catapulting hydrogen and oxygen atoms on an interstellar journey of billions of miles that ends up in my bath. I find it so hard to get my head around that. Did you know there are two species perfectly adapted for walking on water? One are insects known as gerridae; the other is me.

Then there's sunshine. Virtually every living thing on the planet is ultimately powered by sunshine, which is why I started writing this sentence lying down in a field near the South Downs and finished it on a train in Mexico. See my tan? That's what happens when UV photons travel millions of miles to react with the melanin in my skin. Beautiful, isn't it? It's OK if you linger on this page. I don't mind.

Colours. They are amaaazin and all. Who'd want to do all those drugs when you can just go out into nature and see all these reds and blues and yellows and greens. Wow! And then there's my eyes. Have you ever seen such a hypnotic brown? Pigment of the gods.

Now take a look at this picture. Do you notice anything unusual about it? Yes, that's right. I'm not in it. It's just a boring shot of cyanobacteria under the microscope. So let's move on. Air. Weird how something so light can be so heavy to explain. Like when did it first support life? I mean, what is life anyway? Not even Schrödinger knew for sure. So here I am on the Taal volcano in the Philippines to purr on about the first law of thermodynamics. Are you getting sweaty? I know I am. Try hard and you can measure your desire.

Now let's think about photosynthesis and entropy. On second thoughts, let's not. Let's just look at some more amaaazin pictures of animals and birds and fish and insects and all sorts. Some of them are really, really big and some of them are really, really small and the totally amaaazin thing is that it's not a coincidence. We're all one big family made out of the same molecular compounds. Though some of us are arranged rather more photogenically. And the most amaaazin thing of all is that we are all still evolving, so it's possible that there will one day be a scientist even lovelier than me.

There's so much left to say about carbon and quasars and mitochondria, but what really does my head in is that there are over half a trillion galaxies in the observable universe; the idea that there are no other planets out there with webs of life at least as complex as our own seems to me an absurd proposition. Which means that somewhere in a parallel space-time continuum, there is another drop-dead gorgeous rock legend standing on a Pacific atoll as David Attenborough whispers from on high: "Verily it is written that you are the chosen one."

Digested read, digested: The Life of Brian


John Crace

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Universal: A Guide to the Cosmos by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw – digested read
Everything you need to know about space, told by John Crace in even fewer words than TV’s favourite cosmologist

John Crace

02, Oct, 2016 @4:00 PM

Article image
Quantum Mechanics: A Ladybird Expert Book by Jim Al-Khalili – digested read
The scientist’s bid to explain quantum theory in the style of the much-loved children’s books is raised to a new state by John Crace

John Crace

05, Feb, 2017 @5:00 PM

Article image
Digested read: Wonders of the Universe by Brian Cox

To imagine the collapse of a star, just watch me blow up an old prison in Rio and then think of something a lot bigger and more powerful. Amazing

John Crace

21, Mar, 2011 @9:30 PM

Article image
The Quantum Universe by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw - review
David Kaiser is impressed by a popular account of the oddity and beauty of quantum theory

David Kaiser

16, Nov, 2011 @9:00 AM

Article image
‘I’m very pleased we’ve got the same name’: Brian Cox meets Brian Cox
The actor Brian Cox used to be irked by the success of his upstart namesake. Now, for the first time, he and Prof Brian Cox talk science, Succession and what Shakespeare and black holes have in common

Rich Pelley

23, Jul, 2022 @6:00 AM

Article image
Sir David Attenborough passes natural history crown to Brian Cox

Veteran broadcaster says 'if I had a torch I would hand it' to former pop star turned particle physicist professor. By John Plunkett

John Plunkett

30, Jan, 2013 @3:36 PM

Article image
Professor Brian Cox review – science and hair combine in arena spectacular
Universal: Adventures in Space and Time is a jaw-dropping reminder that human life is both irrelevant and hugely precious

Dave Simpson

13, Sep, 2019 @10:56 AM

Article image
TV review: A Night With the Stars; Just Henry; Young James Herriot; and Lost Christmas
Brian Cox can't do jokes. Jonathan Ross doesn't get quantum physics. Each to his own, writes Sam Wollaston

Sam Wollaston

18, Dec, 2011 @10:06 PM

Article image
Science Britannica; The Three Day Nanny – TV review

Sam Wollaston: Brian Cox is back – and this time he's delving into all our darkest fears

Sam Wollaston

19, Sep, 2013 @6:00 AM

Article image
Got a question for Brian Cox and Robin Ince? We want to hear it
This week we’ll be speaking to the physicist and the comedian ahead of the latest series of The Infinite Monkey Cage and we want to ask them your questions?

11, Jan, 2016 @2:41 PM