Profile: Professor Brian Cox - Reaching for the stars

IF DOCTOR Who's Matt Smith is reviving Harris Tweed's fortunes with his latest get-up, then back in the real world "rock star" physicist Professor Brian Cox is giving Smith's geek chic credentials a run for their money.

Boasting something of an early-years-Ronnie-Wood-meets-James-Blunt phizog, Cox has emerged as the hip, young(ish) face of science, and an unlikely sex symbol to boot. No mean feat for a 42-year-old best-known to some for playing keyboard with pop group D:Ream on 1997 Labour election anthem Things Can Only Get Better. For Cox, at least, the song's mantra has proved prophetic.

A BBC regular, his radio and television shows have proved popular – no small success for a genre often light on ratings and struggling for crossover appeal – while Cox's ungeeky look has made him a poster boy for the world of science, with fans tuning in across the globe.

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His latest series, BBC2's The Wonders Of The Solar System, which inspires his talk at this month's Edinburgh International Science Festival , has been championed by the critics, with millions tuning in to witness Cox's latest adventures, whether he's watching a total eclipse of the Sun in India or trekking through Alaska. The physicist's high energy appearance on Friday Night With Jonathan Ross simply cemented his seemingly unstoppable appeal and final emergence into pop culture.

For Cox, it is recognition hard-earned and long-craved. Born in Oldham, Lancashire , to banker parents, Dr Cox – or Prof Cox the Fox – as some of his groupie-like fans call him, has always marvelled at the unknown. "I was a very, very, very nerdy child,' Cox has said. "When I was six I was collecting astronomy cards and sticking them in a book." Every week he would go plane-spotting at Manchester Airport and, by the tender age of ten, was dreaming of flying to Mars.

The future seemed set, until rock intervened, just not of the meteor kind. Inspired by a Duran Duran gig, aged 15, Cox became determined to become a pop star. By 18 he had joined local rock band Dare, with whom he would go on to record two albums. With no discernible talent as a singer, he taught himself keyboards, referring to their acrimonious split a few years later in Berlin as "like something out of This Is Spinal Tap".

Exhausted by the rock'n'roll lifestyle and eager for a change, the 23-year-old Cox decided to return home and begin a physics degree at Manchester University, quickly gaining first-class honours. Excited by this latest adventure, he was encouraged to stick around and get his doctorate. But where Cox went, rock followed. And in 1993 he joined D:Ream, "by accident", picking up work as a technician for the band and later standing in when one of the players dropped out.

He became two people: science tech by day, pop star by night, complete with Top Of The Pops appearances and MTV Music Award nominations. He said of that time: "I remember once I was in the lab all day and when I finished I walked up the road to support Take That at the G-Mex in Manchester. My friends at university just thought it was so funny." Before long his work hard, play hard philosophy caught up with him. He would leave D:Ream shortly after playing Labour's election night party at the Royal Festival Hall in London. He has since said he has no regrets, and with good reason. Cox's second shot at the fame game was only just beginning.

DJ Chris Evans has said that his Wonders series is one of the best he has ever seen, while director Danny Boyle continues to be a fan of his work since hiring him as a scientific adviser on his 2007 sci-fi flick Sunshine. Boyle has said of his time working with Cox: "He somehow makes (science] accessible and puts it in human terms."

Indeed, it's Cox's verve for stripping back the stuffy science stereotype – as well as his easy presenting style – that has helped make such firm hits out of his television and radio work.

Seldom one to shy away from the bigger questions the cosmos presents, Cox has built a reputation as a man who loves debate, once saying of the great science versus religion divide: "If you say the world is 6,000 years old, then you're daft. It isn't.

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"Some people just don't understand rational thinking. We know that the Sun is 4.5billion years old and the universe is 13.7bn years old.

"But I do think there's common ground between religion and science in that you notice that the world is beautiful and that nature is absolutely fascinating."

Never one to rest on his laurels, as well as his television and radio work and public appearances, talks and tours around the globe, Cox enjoys a day job at Manchester University, last year becoming a Professor of Particle Physics there. Last year also saw the publication of his book, Why Does E>mc2?

When he's not enjoying some well-earned downtime running marathons, watching his beloved Oldham Athletic or listening to a spot of Billie Holiday, Cox is generally to be found campaigning for "greater visibility" over the cash crisis facing the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), which funds the UK's astronomy and physics facilities. In 2002 he was elected an International Fellow of the Explorers Club and, in 2006, he received the prestigious British Association Lord Kelvin award for his work in promoting science to the public.

And then, of course, there's his ever-expanding fan base to contend with, only further fuelled by his place on People magazine's 100 Sexy Men of the Year Poll. He came in at No 70, just one place behind Prince Harry but insists the "Prof Cox the Fox" moniker is all just smoke and mirrors: "I'm not a proper sex symbol. I like talking about plane and bus-spotting – that's the sort of thing that excites me."

Besides which, his wife's blog updates about her increasingly well-known husband should keep any admirers at bay. Cox met American wife Gia on 9/11 and four years later married with little fuss in Minnesota. They live happily between London and Manchester with baby George and Moki, Gia's son from a previous marriage.

For Cox, the rise and rise of his fortunes was inevitable, or so history would have us believe. "To many people science looks like an old man's game, but it isn't. Most of the science in this country is done by people in their 20s," Cox has said.

"Even Einstein, who we all think of as an old wise man with white hair, did all his world-changing work when he was a young, good-looking man who drank and misbehaved a bit. So it's possible to do both."

Take that, Doctor Who.