A great documentary series kicks off with an interesting first episode,
although it only fairs as average compared with future episodes to come.
When it first came out, the interest generated by this series caused it
to be dubbed by some as
"The new Cosmos",
but one of the big improvements that "The Universe" made over
"Cosmos" is in interviewing a broad range of scientists on any given topic,
thus getting a wider and often more balanced perspective than
Carl Sagan could manage all on his lonesome in his classic 1980 series.
This first episode for "The Universe"
begins with the mystery of how the sun generates so much energy for such a
long period of time, noting how dependent the Earth and entire solar system is
on this primary source. Craig DeForest's beach campfire becomes a metaphor
for early theories of coal burning in the Sun which quickly proved
Holly Gilbert's pool game gets some wicked CGI enhancement
until it becomes a metaphor for nuclear fusion.
The first chapter continues with tracking the long journey of light within the sun
before it finally makes the short 8-minute crossing to Earth.
We also get a quick review of the process of the solar system's formation,
stressing the idea that the presence of atoms more complex than iron
in our solar system indicates that we came from a giant supernova explosion
Also mentioned is the Sun's "goldilocks zone" and how the Earth orbits luckily
right in the center of it.
This first chapter covers a LOT of ground in a short space of time,
and perhaps works better as a quick review of the topic
rather than an introduction.
The second chapter is concerned primarily with an in-depth look at
the twisted, complex magnetic field lines of the sun,
how they are generated by uneven differential plasma rotations,
and how they drive the explosive "weather" of the sun.
The big sun-quake of 1998 is one of the highlights here.
The third chapter focuses on one of the favourite topics of "The Universe",
namely Coronal Mass Ejections - also known as solar storms.
We get some good details on the limits of the abilities of the
Earth's magnetic field to protect us from CME's, and see many
of the activities of the NOAA space weather forecasting center
in predicting outbursts and warning the public, as well as
various things that satellites and power grids can do to minimize
The production of polar auroras is also discussed, which leads
into an introduction of an historic "perfect storm".
Chapter four focuses on the great solar storm of 1859,
how much of our technology was affected then, and how much more
technology we have that could be affected were it to happen again today.
Also noted are the predictable cycles during which storms and CME's
are more likely to happen.
"The Sun reverses the direction of its magnetic field every 11 years."
The documentary moves into its last chapter with a discussion of the temperature variations
at the different layers of the sun, which seem to defy common intuition.
"The Sun is a tremendously LOUD place!"
We also get a brief discussion of solar eclipses by the moon, and the
reasons for their frequency.
Finally, the end of the Sun's life cycle is discussed, as well as
the fate of the Earth and its orbit at that time.