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'One Strange Rock' Offers a New View of Planet Earth
March 26, 2018  | By David Hinckley

National Geographic loves nothing more than taking something we all think we know and giving us a whole different perspective.

One Strange Rock, a reference to the planet we live on, continues that tradition with a marvelous 10-part series that kicks off Monday at 10 p.m. ET.

One Strange Rock explores the planet the way BBC America’s recent Blue Planet II explored the oceans.

With spectacular imagery and a canvas that ranges from things we take for granted to things we never knew existed, it’s a reminder of the extraordinary natural phenomena that came together to let us be here at all.

Will Smith opens the first episode of One Strange Rock by gently correcting our perception of the sun.

Most of see it as our big warm friend rolling across the sky, he says. In reality, it’s “a monster” that bombards us with, literally, death rays.

The sun’s radiation would cook everything on Earth that didn’t live underwater, were it not for the protective atmospheric blanket called the ozone layer.

Yes, that ozone layer, the one in which we have been punching holes with man-synthesized chemicals. The ozone layer keeps the sun’s radiation from burning through, which is good, because if it ever did, that would be the end.

The ozone layer isn’t our only shield. Earth also has a magnetic field sheathing us. That field is illustrated here by spectacular footage of the aurora borealis, a/k/a the Northern Lights, photographed from an orbiting space station.

Much of One Strange Rock draws on the reflections of astronauts, who have seen Earth in a way most of the rest of us never will. Seeing it as they have seen it is, among other things, a humbling experience. For the next few minutes it’s hard to feel very important.

The sun’s third weapon, in any case, is heat. Earth defends itself against that one by filling its atmosphere with oxygen, which began bubbling up out of the sea hundreds of millions of years ago as a waste product.

It was also around 400 million years ago, incidentally, that the first aquatic vertebrate left the water and started crawling around on land. The rest is history. Slow-moving history, perhaps, but history.

Lest anyone doubt the potential impact of the sun’s heat, One Strange Rock notes that the planet Venus, whose atmosphere is mostly carbon dioxide, is boiling hot. It’s hotter than Mercury, even though Mercury is closer to the sun, because the carbon dioxide traps all that heat.

With all these elaborate checks and balances that sustain life on Earth, it might seem like our Strange Rock occupies a fragile and precarious position.

Yes and no, says this series, whose future episodes move on from the sun onto topics like air. We certainly could be susceptible to a natural catastrophe, but because Earth is a living, breathing, changing entity, it is also capable of healing its wounds.

Like, say, those weakened spots in the ozone.

One Strange Rock is One Fine Ride.

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