THE COMPLETE COSMOS. Channel 4. Fridays, 10-10.10am. September 25 to December 4. January 15 to March 25, April 23 to May 28. Age range: 11-16.
Robin Buss is dazzled by a series of short programmes with universal appeal.
The first term's output in this series of 10-minute programmes on astronomy for secondary schools deals with the solar system, from the Sun to Neptune and the comets. The two subsequent terms will range further - in time and space. But it is the first group that most clearly lives up to the claim to constitute a "television encyclopedia" and benefits from the results of recent exploration.
The visual material is superb. Computer simulations and animations seamlessly combine with photographs from space probes and telescopes to fill each 10-minute slot with mind-blowing images. It would be possible to sit and watch without sound and still be enchanted - if not particularly educational. But each programme is structured in such a way that it invites comparisons, following a more or less set pattern (like an encyclopedia entry), covering the planet's position in the magnetic field and other features.
The most casual viewer could not fail to gather some idea of how the planets relate to one another and the differences between them - or be impressed by the variety life has brought to the surface of our own planet, compared with the relative uniformity of its neighbours.
On the other hand, the solar system is shown as a place of wide contrasts. The first programme deals with the Sun itself, followed by the planets, more or less in order, from the centre outwards. "Earth" (October 16) provides an opportunity to explore the seasons and to show how they are affected by the rotation of the planet. "The Moon" (October 23), though only a humble satellite, has a programme to itself. "Jupiter" (November 13) is an opportunity to display the splendid pictures showing the impact of comet Shoemaker-Levy, while "Uranus and Neptune", distant and relatively unknown, have to share a slot (November 27), before the term ends among the comets and other inhabitants of the outer reaches.
The spring term's work follows a less systematic pattern. It starts with the use of satellites to monitor the Earth's ecological health, then deals with aspects of space exploration, including the evolution of life on this planet and the possibility of its existence elsewhere. By the time students reach this point, they should at least have an impression of what we know about the universe and how we found it out.
Some will want to go further, or to consolidate what has been learned so far. Unfortunately, there are no printed resources to back up the series, the only materials being a CD-Rom, The History of the Universe, and net notes on Channel 4's Schools Web site. This is not always the most convenient type of resource, even for schools with the necessary equipment - and it is clearly of no use to those that don't. Given that the series is a collaborative effort involving television companies from seven countries (the United Kingdom, the United States, Ireland, France, Denmark, the Netherlands and Finland) the failure to produce an illustrated book and some teacher's notes in printed form seems like skimping.
This could be a serious drawback to an otherwise excellent series. The commentary, by newsreader Jon Snow, is good, apart from an apparent inability to use any tense except the present. But it delivers lots of facts and figures, from which the sensational images can be a distraction.
Of course, the information is available elsewhere, but teachers will have to work out carefully how to fit it into the syllabus. Otherwise, their pupils may end up with only hazy notions of brightly-coloured clouds and chunks of rock swimming around in their heads.
The series comes on five videos, eachcontaining five 10-minute programmes and costing pound;14.99. 'The History of the Universe' CD-Rom plus pack costs pound;34.99, CD-Rom only pound;19.99. Net notes on the programme are available on http:www.channel4. com schools online_resources