TV review: Orbit: Earth's Extraordinary Journey

Gary Day is fascinated by explanations of the Earth's path through the heavens and the Sun's hold over us

March 8, 2012

Credit: Miles Cole

By the end of the first part of Orbit: Earth's Extraordinary Journey (BBC Two, Sunday 4 March, 9pm), my head was spinning almost as fast as the planet, whirling through space at 100,000 kilometres an hour. That was roughly the speed at which facts and figures flew out at the viewer, inducing a state of vertigo that was intensified by their being catapulted into the stratosphere at regular intervals.

Kate Humble and Helen Czerski were our guides to the Earth's journey round the Sun. They began gently, creating a mild dizziness by dancing ring-a-ring o' roses. We are going to "reach for the greatest heights" and "dive to the deepest depths", they said, but there was nothing about why the programme needed two presenters. Was Kate there for the non-geographers and Helen for those who already knew a little about airflow, climate zones and ocean currents? Incipient nausea made it hard to decide the matter. And the titles hadn't even finished rolling.

Kate materialised in northern Norway, where the Sun greeted her by setting for the first time in 64 days. If she felt snubbed, she didn't show it. The change was all to do with the time of year and the tilt of the Earth. Now it was Helen's turn. Kate had relied on computer graphics to show how night was banished from the Arctic Circle, but Helen preferred a more hands-on approach. She sent a balloon equipped with four cameras and a GPS tracker 20,000 metres into the air to show how the Earth's spin affected the atmosphere. "Follow that balloon," she commanded, leaping into a car. It suffered the fate of all things that fly too high and came hurtling back to Earth at more than 100 miles an hour, its cameras flipping over the nation's stomachs with film of spinning sky and cloud.

At the close, we'd learned that the Earth's rotation was responsible for the tides and the weather, that Kate likes to be beside the seaside and that Helen enjoys jumping out of planes and standing perilously close to cliff-edges in gale-force winds. We also found out about the Coriolis effect, which causes the wind to blow to the right in the northern hemisphere and to the left in the southern hemisphere. The intrepid Helen demonstrated the process by trying to throw a ball in a straight line while attempting to maintain her balance on a spinning roundabout. This isn't just a matter of geography. If the trade winds had blown in the opposite direction, history would look very different.

The Mayans predicted that the world would end on 21 December 2012, which, if it happens, will be a bit sad as it means we'll miss Christmas. Those who believe the prophecy point to the recent increase in sunspot activity (Horizon: Solar Storms - The Threat to Planet Earth, BBC Two, Tuesday 6 March, 9pm).

Seen through a sophisticated piece of equipment known as smoked glass, the spots look tiny, but they are the size of Earth. And, like acne in adolescents, they are a sign of turbulent times ahead. Sunspots trigger solar flares, mass coronal ejections that can shut down power stations, cripple transport systems and silence every mobile phone on the planet, which, in itself, is almost worth the collapse of civilisation as we know it.

Quebec had a foretaste of the apocalypse back in 1989. A jet of plasma and the city's grid fell dead, leaving people without power for nine hours. If we are not careful, said one scientist, we could be cast back into "an electronic dark age". To prevent that, we first have to find out what causes sunspots. One theory is that they are the product of intense magnetic activity that solar winds twist into tight knots. It's like winding a rubber band round your finger until it snaps.

The phenomenon of "reconnection" is also a factor in coronal eruptions. Magnetic "lines" link up with other "lines" to hurl spears of fire into space. I have no idea how that works, but I enjoyed the spectacle. Scientists are already developing the technology to predict when solar flares are likely to occur. Stathis Ilonidis of Stanford University is at the cutting edge. He has devised a way of listening to our star. It sounds like a washing machine. If there's a change of rhythm, that means we have about a week before the Sun blows us a devastating kiss. Time enough, say the scientists, to do something about it.

Melvyn Bragg, who looks like a grown-up Hugh Grant, continues his exploration of class and culture (Melvyn Bragg on Class and Culture, BBC Two, Friday 2 March, 9pm). It's all familiar stuff. Lots of padding but not much penetration. No danger of vertigo here.

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