I was round at a friend’s flat the other day when he reached behind the sofa and proudly pulled out a telescope he’d recently purchased on eBay. After setting it up we searched the skies for a few minutes, realised that we couldn’t tell a supernova from a smudge on the eyepiece and eventually ended up spying on people while we enjoyed a couple of beers. But it’s the thought that counts..
The fact that my mate had actually gone to the effort of sourcing a telescope speaks volumes for the amount of interest Brian Cox has sparked in the cosmos and we’ve seen a vast swathe of similar programmes of late. Thankfully this episode of Horizon (the second in a series that opened strongly last week with a exploration of the human eye’s perception of colour) is a little more high-brow than Richard Hammond’s pretty basic scientific journeys of last month. The BBC docu-series has a reputation for breaking new ground and here we get a look at some of the finest telescope’s project humanity has so far managed.
Starting with the VLT (Very Large Telescope), we learn how astronomers must often go to the most inhospitable parts of the world to get the best views of the cosmos. There are parts of the Atacama Desert in South America which haven’t had rain in living memory, so you can be pretty sure of a cloudless night for star-gazing. Unlike Journey To The Centre of the Planet, this is an understated documentary which is light on graphics and moving parts, but rich with genuine discovery and scientific intrigue.
With an ambient soundtrack that sounds like one of the ‘Chill-out Dance Mixes’ I purchased in my youth, we move on to various other star-gazing devices, each more impressive than the one that came before it. We’ve all heard about the Hubble space project, but watching a telescope operate from an aeroplane is a genuine eye-opener. “Images like this represent the very limits of our understanding.. the limits of how we can describe the world,” says an expert pointing out a few pixels which highlight a black hole four million times heavier than our own sun. It’s difficult to disagree with him..