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Features: Faculty Insights


The Stephen Hawking Centre for Theoretical Cosmology (CTC) has teamed up with Discovery on a documentary series exploring new windows on our Universe. The collaboration celebrates and builds on the CTC's continuation of Stephen Hawking's research and outreach legacy.

The Universe Unravelled series premieres on Discovery+ in November 2020, coinciding with the UK launch of this new digital platform. It's aimed at anyone who is curious about the Universe we live in, with no previous knowledge of cosmology required. In over 20 short episodes the series explores what we already know about the Universe, what cosmologists are working on right now, and what they hope to find out in the future.

A golden age

The series comes at an exciting time in the development of cosmology and relativity. Following recent breakthroughs, the field has evolved to a fully-fledged precision science, assuming a central role in contemporary physics. Satellite observations of the cosmic microwave background – left-over radiation from the Big Bang – and the discovery of gravitational waves in 2015 were milestones in this context. Both provide powerful observational probes of our Universe which are being used to test our theories.

Stephen Hawking's career spanned much of this golden age of cosmology. In 2007 he founded the Stephen Hawking Centre for Theoretical Cosmology (CTC) within the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, which now enables researchers of all career stages to carry on his legacy. They develop and test mathematical theories that describe the history of our Universe, and investigate the two events that shake its basic fabric most violently, revealing its secrets in the process: the Hot Big Bang and the collisions and mergers of black holes. Underlying this work is a theory which recently celebrated its 100th birthday: Einstein's general theory of relativity.

"This was a remarkable collaboration... which we hope provides a great model for future science outreach" Paul Shellard, CTC Director

Universe Unravelled explores cutting-edge topics in cosmology and extreme gravity in a way that's accessible to everyone. It describes how massive objects warp the fabric of spacetime and how they can collapse under their own gravity to form black holes. It explores how these black holes can send gravitational waves rippling across spacetime, and what happens if you were to fall into a black hole. It also explores the violent explosion that marked the beginning of our Universe, and how the Universe expanded from this initial Big Bang, forming all the structures we observe today – galaxies, stars and planets. It also probes the mysteries that still puzzle cosmologists, such as dark energy and dark matter. Alongside the research of CTC members, the series features some of the stunning graphics produced by the CTC in collaboration with Intel's Advanced Visualization team.

The people behind the science

The series features 17 CTC researchers explaining these mind-blowing concepts, together with members of the Kavli Institute of Cosmology, Cambridge. It offers a glimpse of what it's like to work at the cutting edge of cosmology: confronting sophisticated mathematics with observational data, employing some of the world's fastest supercomputers, and even daring to challenge Einstein's highly successful theory in an attempt to explain what has so far defied explanation. In addition to exploring the deepest secrets of our Universe, viewers are also given an insight into the experience of daily life at this world-leading research centre.

The collaboration between Discovery and the CTC started in 2010. A highlight was Discovery live-streaming Stephen Hawking's 75th birthday symposium which was a huge success watched by millions, especially younger members of their audience. The series was filmed on-site at the Centre for Mathematical Sciences and the Institute of Astronomy and produced with the help of science editors from Plus magazine, part of the Faculty's Millennium Mathematics Project outreach programme. The CTC team worked closely with Matthew Scott and Beatriz Clemente from Navada Studios, who led the production of the series, with editorial oversight from Discovery producers. Funding for the project was provided by the Kavli Foundation, an organisation dedicated to advancing science for the benefit of humanity, promoting public understanding of scientific research, and supporting scientists and their work.

"We are grateful to Discovery and the Kavli Foundation for supporting this unique opportunity to continue Stephen Hawking's vision of reaching out, especially to younger audiences, to inspire curiosity about our Universe and the huge progress currently being made to unveil its secrets," says Paul Shellard, CTC Director. "This was a remarkable collaboration in which we were able to work closely back and forth with the production team, ensuring both viewer interest and scientific accuracy, which we hope provides a great model for future science outreach."

The series is available on the new Discovery+ service, which can be found here. To find out more about the Hawking Centre, please visit its website.