Interview: Brian Cox

by Diana Wichtel / 10 December, 2012
Celebrity scientist Brian Cox is in the business of making people excited about astronomy and “this little ball of rock” we call home.
“Lift your eyes off the ground when the cloudless skies are there.”
– Professor Brian Cox (Stargazing, series one).

Brian Cox
Brian Cox, photo Vincent Connare

He may have the cherubic look of a much younger, much hipper (who isn’t?) Cliff Richard, but celebrity scientist Brian Cox calls a spade a spade; a knob a hopelessly unscientific knob. “It’s okay to say that if you believe the world was created 6000 years ago, as the Creationists do, then you are an idiot,” he explained in the Telegraph. Those expecting the end of the world, courtesy of a Mayan prophecy, may be relieved to hear Cox, who presents high-rating, popular-yet-brainy BBC science series with such epic names as Wonders of the Solar System, isn’t bothered.

As he says in the first BBC Stargazing series, “The Mayans had no clue about anything. They were useless.” There’s this pithy, professorial pronouncement: “Anyone who thinks the LHC [Large Hadron Collider] will destroy the world is a twat.” But even without the help of priests and infernal machines, our world will one day be gone. “You wonder whether it’s really worth getting up in the morning,” mused one television critic.

“Certainly, if the universe continues to accelerate in its expansion, it will end up in this heat-death scenario,” Cox says down the phone from Sydney, in a Lancashire accent that makes him sound like a graduate from the Coronation Street School of Particle Physics. “But in an immensely long time. The universe has existed for the blink of an eye on these timescales. It will exist for significantly longer than it has existed for, if you see what I mean.”

I do. We’re munted. Ultimately, humankind and all its dreams, desires and triumphs will be so much stardust. In his Wonders of the Universe series, Cox notes, “Life as we know it is only possible for one thousandth of a billion billion billionth, billion billion billionth, billion billion billionth of a per cent of the lifespan of the universe.” He likes nice round numbers. You can buy a Brian Cox T-shirt emblazoned with: “A billion, billion, billion, billion …” etc.

Telegraph blogger Brendan O’Neill (a “knob”, apparently) took Cox to task for revelling in human insignificance. “The floppy-fringed professor massages the fashionable prejudice that humanity isn’t all that special; no, we’re just a cosmological accident, which will exist only fleetingly before being wiped out by the explosion of our Sun or some other cataclysmic event,” wrote O’Neill. Such thinking was, he railed, “a big black challenge to the idea of human historic purpose”.

The blog annoyed Cox because it’s the opposite of what he believes. The bald facts of existence are nothing to feel depressed about, he insists. Rarity confers value. “A transient and rare phenomenon is a more valuable phenomenon than something that’s eternal and common,” he says. “So I never understand the idea that astronomy somehow devalues us. Civilisations probably are rare in the universe. We have no measurements of any other than this one. That makes us special.” Consciousness itself is, he says, “almost certainly” a transient phenomenon. “It’s not been around in the universe for very long, as far as we know, and it may disappear again. But that seems to make it more valuable.”

He’s not a religious man. Science tells us there will eventually be no trace that we ever existed. Isn’t it all ultimately meaningless? Cox has no time for such defeatist talk. He recalls working on the movie Sunshine, screenplay by Alex Garland, author of The Beach. “He said a beautiful thing: ‘It’s part of the human condition to look for meaning. Well, self-evidently there’s meaning in the universe now, because it means something to me.’” Nice. We remain munted.

Still, in the remaining billion, billion, billion, etc, years, there’s much to learn, he says, if we lift our eyes from the ground. “How do we know that the universe is expanding at an increasing rate? How do we know how our galaxy is moving in answer to all the other galaxies in the universe?” Cox demands down the phone. “All you have is the light from the stars. You’ve got nothing else. All that information is buried in the light.”

Geeks, they say, are the new rock stars. Cox is a geek who actually was a rock star. He is also, surely, the only particle physicist to be voted People magazine’s – or anyone’s – Sexiest Man Alive. He messes about with the “God particle” at the Large Hadron Collider at Cern and teaches at Manchester University when he’s not striking ecstatic poses on imposing geological high spots, the better to express the majesty of the cosmos.

In a former life, he lent his lanky frame and “Madchester” hairdo to playing keyboard for punctuation-challenged 90s band D:Ream. One of the group’s singles helped the British Labour Party to victory in 1997. The song was called Things Can Only Get Better, a title that, scientifically minded commentators have noted, laughs in the face of the second law of thermodynamics. If I understand Cox’s explanation of entropy, everything in the universe tends towards chaos. Still, Cool Britannia probably had its place, even in a cooling universe.

Planet Mars
Planet Mars, photo Getty Images

And Cox’s pop credentials have helped make him the somewhat unlikely media phenomenon he is. When we speak, he’s in Australia, working on a new series in the “Wonders” franchise, Wonders of Life, and doing the media rounds for the second Stargazing series. He also pops up on shows like the brilliant QI to riff with Stephen Fry and Co on such topics as shattering Ewoks on Titan (something to do with lakes of methane on one of Saturn’s moons and their theoretically entertaining effects on the physiology of small furry bipeds). “We recorded two and a half hours of that, actually. Those are the broadcastable bits. A lot of it probably didn’t pass the censors.”

He has corralled Monty Python’s Eric Idle for Wonders of Life. “I asked him if he’d write a song for it and he loved the idea. He rewrote Galaxy Song, so we’ve got this wonderful thing – a Pythonesque look at biology and the origin of life.” Cox had to correct the maths. Idle had the Earth revolving at 900 miles an hour. It should be a slightly less lyrical 1038mph.

All good fun, but Cox isn’t about to do the parrot sketch. He’s in man-on-a-mission mode. “I get involved in political arguments in the UK and, increasingly, elsewhere. We have a lot of discussion about things like ‘Why couldn’t we try a different thing and use reason in politics?’ Make reason sexy. They talk about evidence-based policy. What other kind of policy is there?” he says, laughing. He wants to do the same for science – make it sexy. Thus the comedy, the music, the general pop-culture arsing about. “Entertainment is obviously a powerful force in society, so why not deploy it?” he says. “Science is far too important not to be part of popular culture. It’s the foundation of our civilisation. That’s not overstating it.”

He’s an advocate for greater funding of science. “I can give you the figures. We have a gap of a million engineers by 2020. We’re just not producing them at the rate we need to. So, how do you do that? Well, the excitement of these subjects needs to be presented in a way that is both accessible and enjoyable and makes people want to watch,” he says. “You can’t say learning about the universe is self-evidently good and therefore you have to do it.”

Actually, he would if he thought he could get away with it. Behind that floppy fringe lurks an evangelical will. “I actually think it is self-evidently good and therefore you should have to do it.” A benign scientific dictatorship being out of the question, he does what he can. “There is a serious point to programmes like QI. They make being smart cool if you get them right.” There’s evidence, he says, that the sort of programmes he makes with the BBC have an effect. “In the UK, we are getting more schoolchildren applying to do science degrees at university by quite a large number. I could talk forever about this, because I think it’s a very serious argument for public service broadcasting. You need a company capable of making these big programmes,” he says.

“It’s about giving people permission to want to know these things.” They’re lucky they at least still have public broadcasting in the UK. “We don’t know it, though,” he says indignantly. “The thing is it’s under constant political attack from the choice brigade, but my argument is this is not choice. In order for people to have choice, they need to know what the choice is. You need to know about the landscape of human knowledge and then you can make an informed choice about what you’re interested in.” Amen to that. Which brings us to Stargazing. The first series offered three days of live … star gazing from observatories around the world, plus Cox showing a bewildered Jonathan Ross how to use his telescope.

The new series, broadcast from Jodrell Bank radio observatory in Cheshire, begins with Mars. There will be no epic shots of Cox broadcasting from the Red Planet, but surely that can only be a matter of time. The search for life on Mars is suddenly fashionable again, he says. “There’s a strong possibility there’s liquid water beneath the surface. So it’s become extremely mainstream science because of the discovery of water; on Jupiter’s moons as well. There’s real, serious thought now going into missions to Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. To look for life on a moon around Jupiter – that was unthinkable.”

He means microscopic life, presumably, not aliens. “Yes. But they would be aliens,” he explains patiently. If life is found? “If you can show it arose completely separately, in an unrelated way, then suddenly your statistics for thinking ‘Is there other life in the universe?’ have radically changed … You talk about paradigm shifts in science,” he says. “Well, they’re coming thick and fast at the moment.”

Of course, people take the piss, lampooning the Attenborough-in-space style of Wonders of the Universe and Wonders of the Solar System, with Cox popping up like a human exclamation mark, gesticulating earnestly in improbable locations around the globe. Even he is a bit over that. “If you’re not careful, you end up sort of inventing your own clichés.”

Wonders of Life took a new approach. “Just for our own amusement, really. Just to say, ‘Can we not find a different way of making this landmark television?’, we decided to film every episode in one geographic location.” One episode is set entirely in Australia. But mostly the series he has done have shown that engaged, intelligent, big programmes can get an audience. “What we seem to have succeeded in doing in Britain is make people excited about astronomy,” says Cox, of Stargazing. “Just a bit. Changed their view. So they’ll turn to look at the stars. A sky full of points of light is a very different thing to a sky full of worlds. It’s surely a valuable thing to have been given.”

Brian Cox
Brian Cox: making science sexy.

In the process, he has become a bit of a star himself. These days he can’t go into a pub without someone wanting him to explain entropy to them. The life of a celebrity, eh? “I’m still an academic,” he hastens to point out. But he gets recognised a lot. “It’s almost – no, it’s always positive. People just want to say hello and have their picture taken.” Which can make shopping a bit trying. “It’s quite wearing, in that sense. People want to talk. Why wouldn’t you? If you see someone and you think, ‘Well, they know the answer to this question that’s been bothering me.’ I get a lot of that.”

Indeed. So, while I’ve got him on the line, what, exactly, is the meaning of life? And don’t say “42”. Cox swerves the question by leaving it to his childhood hero. “Carl Sagan always used to say, ‘Just imagine for a moment that we’re the only intelligent civilisation in the universe. How should we behave given that knowledge? We wouldn’t behave as we do.’ Sagan was a wonderful Californian hippie in a way, but he’s kind of right. It sounds cheesy, but why would you continue to mess around fighting each other on this little ball of rock?” he says. “All those lights in the sky – there are no other ones that contain anyone who can look out into the universe and consider how it works, consider its beauty. That’s what science is telling us. That’s the perspective astronomy is giving us at the moment.”

Fair enough. And if this little ball of rock is all we have, Cox has a way of making it seem like enough. As he says in the book version of Wonders of the Solar System, “We have written the evidence of our existence onto the surface of our planet. Our civilisation has become a beacon that identifies our planet as home to life.”

STARGAZING will be showing on BBC Knowledge early in 2013.


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