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University helps reveal the Wonders of Life

23 Jan 2013

The wonderful world of biology will take centre stage on BBC 2 at the end of this month with the BBC’s new series Wonders of Life. Not only is the programme being presented by Professor Brian Cox but The University of Manchester also had a starring role behind the scenes.

Brian Cox, Robber Crab, image copyright BBC
Brian Cox, Robber Crab, image copyright BBC

Professor of Zoology, Professor Matthew Cobb, was one of two named consultants on the ambitious series. He also worked as a consultant on the accompanying book alongside Nick Lane from University College London. Other Manchester staff involved include the Dean of the Faculty of Life Sciences Professor Martin Humphries, Professor Andrew Loudon and Dr Bill Sellers who all offered scientific advice to the programme team and are thanked in the credits.

“Wonders of Life” aims to tackle the fundamental question “What is Life?” From the Philippines to the US, Madagascar and Mexico, Brian uses his scientific knowledge and engaging presentation skills to reveal how a few fundamental laws of science gave birth to the most complex, and unique feature of the universe - life. He also gets up close and personal to a wide variety of wildlife, not always to his liking.

The exotic destinations are a far cry from Oxford Road in Manchester. Matthew explains how the university became involved: “Because Brian was presenting the series he already knew what expertise the university could offer. The Faculty of Life Sciences was approached by the producers and we had an initial meeting with them and Brian. We discussed what aspects of the evolution of life the series could cover from a scientific perspective and looked at the science behind some of the ideas the producers already had.”

After that initial meeting Matthew became the main point of contact at the university for the producers. As the ideas for each programme and the exotic locations were chosen for filming Matthew and his fellow academics helped to ensure the science in the series was accurate. He also worked closely with Brian and the producer on the script.

Series producer James Van Der Pool said: “It was fantastic to work with the experts from The University of Manchester. What was interesting about this project is that our advisers were in from the start. We kicked the series off with brainstorms involving a number of the faculty. Matthew and Brian worked well together and so the collaboration continued.”

Matthew says: “Brian was great to work with. It was an interesting experience for us to look at biology through a physicist’s eyes which is why Brian’s unique scientific perspective has helped to take Wonders of Life to a whole new level, offering viewers something they haven’t seen before.”

Of course telling the story of the evolution of life through the visual medium was a new challenge for the academics involved. Matthew says: “It was really interesting having to think about how to explain our science through pictures and how the locations for the filming helped with the narrative. The producers chose some stunning locations for the series, such as Taal Volcano lake in the Philippines. Using the lake Brian was able demonstrate how the first spark of life may have arisen.”

However, there were some ideas that couldn’t translate to television, such as the evolution of sex. Matthew explains: “We still don’t understand why sex evolved, and explanations of it are heavily mathematical actually making it a rather unsexy subject for television! But Brian and the production team did an amazing job of finding a way to tell some really quite complex scientific ideas in an engaging, understandable and visually stunning way. ”

Once the filming was complete, including shots of Brian swimming with millions of Golden Jellyfish, meeting one of our closest cousins, the orang-utan and hiking up volcanoes, it was into the edit suite to put the programmes together and make any final changes.

Having had a sneak preview of the series Matthew says it will fascinate both scientists and non-scientists alike: “The final programmes are a wonderful mix of science, natural history and stunning images from some of the world’s most dramatic landscapes. It will make people look at the natural world in a totally different way. In fact, after watching the series I learnt a few things about the wonders of life!” 
Wonders of Life will air on BBC 2 from Sunday 27 January at 9pm for five weeks.

Picture credits

This page: Brian Cox sitting by a Robber Crab on Christmas Island, Australia – BBC/Paul Olding

Home page: Brian Cox with a lion cub in South Africa – BBC

Notes for editors

Professor Matthew Cobb is available for interviews. Several high res images from the series can also be obtained from the press office and published with the relevant credit.

A trailer for the programme can be viewed here

Series synopsis:

Starting off in the fiery, volcanic landscapes of South East Asia, Brian confronts science and humanity’s most enduring questions – What is life? And how did it begin?

On the edge of Taal Volcano lake, Brian demonstrates how the first spark of life may have arisen. Here, heat energy from the inner Earth forces its way to the surface and changes its chemistry, just as it did in our planets infancy. It is now believed that these chemical changes set up a source of energy from which life first emerged.

Experiencing how life has flourished since, Brian swims with millions of Golden Jellyfish. Embedded in their structures is algae which draws the energy from the sun and nourishes the jellyfish. As a physicist Brian is only too aware that energy can neither be created or destroyed, so living things don’t 'use' the energy - it passes through them.

In the Borneo rainforest, Brian encounters one of our closest cousins, the orang-utan, which shares 97 per cent of our DNA. The common heritage reveals that DNA is not only a record of the evolution of life on Earth, it connects us to everything alive today and everything that has ever lived. It is the means by which life has endured.

Brian concludes that far from demanding a mystical explanation, the emergence of life might be an inevitable consequence of the physical laws that govern our universe.

For interview and image requests please contact:

Suzanne Ross
Media Relations
The University of Manchester

Tel: 0161 275 8258