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Wondrous place

08 February 2013

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WE DID not quite get what was promised. The latest science blockbuster from BBC2, Wonders Of Life, written and presented by the ever more engaging Professor Brian Cox, made a virtue out of its prime Lord's Day evening slot by kicking off its first episode with a religious phenomenon - the Day of the Dead observances on a remote hilltop in the Philippines.

It treated the faith that lies behind such observance with great respect, and set itself the task of responding to questions that are as much theological as scientific. What is life? How did life begin? What is the difference between life and death? Unfortunately, having posed them, Cox presented us with a glorious if simplified account of the current scientific understanding of these vital issues, but never quite related the purely rationalist to the religious understanding.

The first two episodes have been wonderfully compelling, presenting the basic laws of thermodynamics, and how the human ear and eye can be traced back through the fossils of our ancestors to origins perhaps one billion years ago. This development, he insists, is undirected. There is no "mystical or magical" explanation possible. But there is some logical inconsistency here, because, elsewhere, he personifies evolution, and reifies the process as though it, rather than the Deity, is in charge; but that is a common scientific error.

The failure is, though, that he does not engage with the kind of religious faith that celebrates the wonders that science reveals to us and finds them compatible with belief in a creator God who does not micromanage the process like some engineer, but sustains the cosmos through active and costly love. Cox explains that the energy in the universe is constant - there is the same amount today as there was at the Big Bang - but, with each of its constant transformations, it becomes more disordered.

This brought to my mind the climax of Jonathan Meades: The joy of Essex (BBC4, Tuesday of last week), which presented haunting images of everything returning to the primordial ooze. Meades is one of the weirdest presenters on TV today: sardonic, provocative - almost a self-parody. He is primarily an architectural critic, and yet his message was as much social as aesthetic. His greatest approbation was reserved for those buildings most despised by designers: the flotsam and jetsam of overgrown chalets and decaying boathouses, scattered higgledy-piggledy on the encroaching sea's margin, a truly democratic and vernacular creation.

Howard Goodall's Story of Music (BBC2, Saturdays) is another series of rare distinction. Goodall is the cheeky chappy of music documentarians, offering unexpected juxtapositions of the highest art music and pop and folk. It all uses the same conventions and patterns, he says, and they were all invented by a genius who worked out a new way to order sound into meaningful patterns of communication.

He promises us no jargon, but cannot avoiding talking about keys and intervals. And, movingly, at times he acknowledges the overwhelming glory of, for example, Bach and Handel. In the end, some things are better and more important than others - and, of course, church music is central to his story.

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