From black holes to cosmology, the popular scientist tells @JanetChristie2 about Life, The Universe and Everything
The prospect of interviewing scientist Brian Cox is intimidating if you’re someone who responded to their children’s why is the sky blue and how does electricity work questions with a pathetic “because”.
However, five minutes into a conversation with the professor of particle physics at the University of Manchester, The Royal Society professor of public engagement in science and Fellow of the Royal Society and OBE holder, he’s become just “Brian”. Lulled by his flat Oldham accent and reassured by his good humoured chuckling about Life, the Universe and Everything, I’m having the Brian Cox experience, where the big questions about the solar system, the essence of our existence and what exactly is up there, are brought right back down to earth.
“Why are we here on this little rock? Is the universe infinite? These are the questions we all think about late at night and science can give us some of the answers,” he says. “Don’t think ‘why is the sky blue’ is an uninteresting question. It’s very interesting. We know why and you can explain. So why are we here, what’s out there? All there is is human curiosity and science is just the realisation that if you want to understand something, it’s best to have a look at it.” He laughs. “And that’s it.”
With his planet-sized brain and populist persona, there’s nothing of the stuffy, unapproachable academic about Cox the communicator. He’s given us award-winning TV shows from Horizon to the Wonders of... series, Forces of Nature and Stargazing Live for BBC, as well as Radio 4’s lighthearted science show, The Infinite Monkey Cage, live world tours, best-selling books, Why Does E=mc²? and The Quantum Universe, all earning him the sobriquet of ‘The David Attenborough of science’. Although watching him on YouTube rock the keyboards back in his days with D:Ream, all lanky limbs and long, glossy hair, he’s more ‘the Bobby Gillespie of science’. So it’s fitting he’s about to fill music arenas like Glasgow’s SSE Hydro again with Professor Brian Cox Live, Universal: Adventures In Space And Time, shedding light on black holes, the wonders of the solar system and the origin and evolution of our universe.
“I can’t wait,” he says, “particularly for the Glasgow show because it’s such a great arena, purpose built. Last time it was amazing and this time it’s bigger, more spectacular, with bigger ideas.”
Size matters because where the last show used vast screens to show 30 metre wide images from the Hubble Space Telescope, this time Cox is boldly going even further – to the horror of his promoter. “Because it’ll be bloody expensive,” says Cox, “but it’ll be bloody spectacular as well.”
Billed as an exploration of the possibly infinite universe and our place within it, Cox is joined again by Monkey Cage co-host, comedian Robin Ince. The 2016 show set two Guinness World Records by selling out to 150,000 and this one promises to be even bigger, taking in the UK, Ireland, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Singapore and Scotland.
There will be state of the art graphics and imagery from telescopes and space probes, using the latest hi-res LED screen technology, and a journey into a black hole, created with Double Negative, the four-time Academy Award-winners responsible for the effects in Interstellar “with massive screens, because it’s even higher resolution than for the film,” says Cox.
Space missions, the nature of space and time from the Big Bang to black holes and life and intelligence in the universe, as well as questions about the value of science will all be covered.
“It’s the first time I’ve sat down and written a show from scratch and thought about the messages I want to convey,” he says. “The main one being that the way we observe and think about nature is useful in any area of your life. BECAUSE, nature is first of all, strange. The way I demonstrate that is with black holes, the most counter-intuitive objects in the universe, the places where time itself stops. So our idea that time is just a thing that ticks along is completely wrong. Everything you thought you knew about the way you live and what existence is, gets twisted and turned around inside a black hole. So the lesson is that your first take on any problem, your preconception, is not right and you’ve got to think.
“Also, there’s an idea that came from Carl Sagan, who said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. I think that the size and scale of the universe is necessary if you’re gonna ask the questions that we all ask: ‘why am I here?’, ‘what’s the point?’” He chuckles, then adds “if you’re going to ask ‘what’s the point of existence?’ it’s necessary to understand the arena you exist in.”
To which end we’re to be taken on a flight through the Sloan Digital Sky Survey which has mapped and measured the observable universe. “We know there are something like two trillion galaxies in that bit, each of which has on average about a hundred billion stars: it’s a vast arena. At first it looks like a snow storm, but every snowflake is a galaxy the size of the Milky Way. So, if we’re going to have discussions about The Meaning of It All,” here he undercuts the mind-boggling vastness of the question with another chuckle, “then we need to know all that. The show has an element of what do we know about the universe, and also, the questions we all ask.”
Warming to his subject, Cox explains that his mission is to show us that space is not just about ‘out there’, it’s about down here on earth too, not just about potential life on other planets, just as much about us.
“While we are undoubtedly physically insignificant, a speck of dust in the universe, the likelihood that we are rare is quite high. In the Milky Way we could be one of a handful [of life forms], so in answer to the question ‘what is the meaning of it all’, I would argue that WE bring meaning to the universe. Because our planet used to be dead, right, when it formed four and a half billion years ago there was no life, no thoughts. And now there are. There might be very few places where that happens. So we’re not physically significant, but we might be very valuable.”
And once we recognise our probable rarity and value, we have to maximise our time in this universe, because it’s limited, personally, and as a civilization.
“It’s carpe diem,” he says. “And that message is hammered home by cosmology.”
Maximising his time here, Cox doesn’t hold back on the contemporary issues of this speck of dust, tweeting his disapproval of Brexit and its consequences.
“Elevation above the earth gives perspective. I work with a lot of astronauts and they ALL say that when you go up into space and look back, you see it’s a single planet. So the trajectory has to be for people to work together. Brexit is the opposite of that. It’s obvious you trade and interact with your nearest neighbours and anything that takes away from co-operation to me is just philosophically bad. Also, those who voted Leave felt the status quo was not working for them, and the political reaction to that has been pathetic. The job of politicians is to listen and work out complex solutions, not just rip up trading agreements. They’ve not done their job.”
Nowadays living in London with wife US TV presenter Gia Milinovich, Cox is the son of bankers, a teller mother and middle manager father. Born in Oldham in 1968, he always loved science, especially after reading Carl Sagan’s Cosmos aged 12, devouring sci-fi fiction by Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov, and watching Patrick Moore’s The Sky at Night. He loved music too, and his interests fused when he decided to solder a keyboard soundbox to mimic Ultravox, being a big fan of the new wave band along with Kraftwerk and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark.
It was while studying physics at Manchester University that he also played keyboards with Dare then D:Ream, whose Things Can Only Get Better became the soundtrack of the 1990s and the 1997 Labour victory. After D:Ream disbanded, Cox continued with his PhD, working on particle accelerators that were the precursors to the Large Hadron Collider. Later working on the Collider in Geneva he caught the eye of a BBC producer who signed him up to present a few Horizon programmes. When the Collider was fired up in 2008 and it caught the public imagination, so did Cox, talking about it on Newsnight, and a TV star was born.
So how does he make science palatable for a non-expert audience, or to put it a more populist way, how did he make science sexy?
“Well... what is science? It’s an emotional response to nature first of all, and people want to understand it. Secondly it’s the way we answer questions that occur to everyone. Everyone wants to know why we’re here. And that’s a scientific question.”
Cox reckons advances in science mean we have the beginnings of an answer. Because we definitely know there was a Big Bang 13.8 million years ago, the question now is whether the universe existed before that.
“It could be that the Big Bang created the universe, or it could be it was there already. We have data now, theories that allow us to ask is the universe eternal, did it have a beginning in time? We don’t know! But it might have, or it might not, which leads to what WAS the Big Bang, was it just something that happened in a universe that was already there? If we’re ever going to answer these questions it will be in the domain of science, and that makes science interesting to everybody.”
Leaps and bounds in science mean we have more answers than ever, according to Cox, especially when it comes to cosmology.
“It’s down to a few instruments, such as a European satellite called PLANK, which sits and measures the oldest light in the universe and has given us insight into the origin of the universe. Whether it’s cosmology or looking for life, we can measure it, we’ve got a powerful enough telescope now to see what happens in the first few hundred thousand years of the universe’s life. And big things like the Large Hadron Collider capture the imagination because they’re an amazing engineering achievement as well. So more people ask the question what is the point, and science provides a framework within which you can think; it tells us size and scale and the likelihood of there being life across the universe.”
For his part Cox reckons we’ll find life in the subsurface of Mars in the next few years.
Information gives us a more informed perspective, he says and zooms back down to earth again, castigating those who stay in their own “digital ghetto, only listening to certain opinions and hiding their heads in the sand. The more you know, the more ideas to which you are exposed, knowing the size and scale of the universe, then you are informed about your place within the universe.”
Key to the show, a part that Cox loves, is the audience Q&A and everyone has questions for Cox. I’m armed with plenty that people have asked me to pose and he’s answered some already, how he feels about making science sexy and whether we’re alone in the universe, what’s the point of it all. Finally, does he still play the keyboards, and because as it turns out no question is too stupid for the very intelligent but also very game Prof Cox, if he had to give one thing up for eternity, would it be cheese or orgasms?
Keyboards first. “Yeah, in fact I co-wrote my first song for years for the new Orbital album, Monsters Exist (released in September last year). It’s called There Will Come A Time, which is me saying all the things I’m saying to you now. It’ll be in the show somewhere. But I prefer talking about physics to playing music on stage though I play at home a lot.”
Talking of music reminds me his favourite film is Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi classic, Alien, with Sigourney Weaver and John Hurt, despite being blown away by Interstellar, Christopher Nolan’s 2014 hit starring Matthew McConaughey.
“There’s always a film that makes a massive impact when you’re young and I saw Alien when I was 11, can you imagine? I got to know John Hurt later in his life and I once told him it was my favourite film. He said [here he does a very good John Hurt, slightly slurred, impression] ‘I... I... I didn’t do anything, I jesh laid there and went aaaaahhhhh. I was gone after about 20 minutes!’”
And as for Sigourney Weaver, when I ask if he’s ever met her the eloquent Cox becomes tongue-tied. “Yes, I did the Graham Norton Show with her once. Em… just wonderful… just the way she is so… sort of… I don’t know what the word is. Not NICE, that’s a bit of a weak word… she’s so ELEGANT, and CULTURED and WONDERFUL… I thought she was just… MAGNIFICENT!”
Cox still teaches at Manchester University, and while music and TV may come and go, science is a constant, whatever he does next.
“Physics is the only thing I’ve done and been interested in all through my life really. I was a musician for about six years, then after about ten years in physics just doing pure research I’ve done about ten years of telly. I think my psychological make up is to want to do different things, for about ten years or so.
“I’ve never seen myself as having a career in TV as such. I just do stuff I’m interested in. At the moment I’m interested in these live shows, and I love writing books. I think it’s likely I won’t carry on doing as much TV because I don’t want to keep making the same documentaries, and I get interested in other things. I have a limited amount of time. I’ve just finished a programme about the planets, but I don’t think oh, what’s the next one? If someone comes along with something, or I think of something, then I’ll think about it.”
And finally, because he’s game, and very patient, Professor Brian Cox OBE, professor of particle physics at the University of Manchester, Royal Society professor of public engagement in science, Fellow of the Royal Society, takes on the big question: If he had to give up either cheese or orgasms for the rest of eternity, and this is a man who understands eternity, which would it be?
“Definitely cheese. Let’s be clear on this. I would give up cheese.”
Professor Brian Cox Live – Universal Adventures In Space And Time World Tour 2019 is at Glasgow’s SSE Hydro on Tuesday 19 February, 6:30pm and Aberdeen’s AECC Oil & Gas Arena on Wednesday 20 February, 6:30pm. Tickets available www.briancoxlive.co.uk and www.ticketmaster.co.uk