What was the last question you were asked by a complete stranger? “Have you got the time?” probably. Or just a simple yet polite, “How are you?” Well, it turns out that if you’re an internationally recognised particle physicist, people’s queries can be a little more complex.
“We were filming outside Oklahoma, right down in the sticks in the Midwest, and I went into this gas station. I walked in and the guy behind the counter just went: ‘String Theory. Does it require 10 dimensions of space, or is that just a mathematical model?’ That’s it. That’s all he said.”
Obviously Professor Brian Cox, one of the world’s most well known and popular communicators of science, put the man’s mind at ease (M-theory postulates an 11-dimensional model, obvs). But it goes to show that even in the middle of Nowheresville, 4,600 miles from home, people see Cox and they don’t have time for formalities – they want answers. “Either that,” muses Cox, “or he asks that to everyone who walks in, on the off chance they’re going to tell him the answer...”
Happily for service station employees the world over, Professor Brian Cox positively welcomes people’s curiosity. Since giving up a living as the keyboardist in 90s pop outfit D:Ream [eight Top 40 hits and a number one single], he has devoted his life to furthering our understanding of the universe, and everything in it.
Over the course of 20 years, thousands of hours of research, three award-winning TV series – with a fourth starting this month – and countless live shows, Cox has become the familiar, comforting face of science. Not just in Britain, but across the States, Australia, India and much of Europe too.
In an age where intellectual deficients like Joey Essex and Louis Walsh can carve out successful TV careers, it’s more impressive – and important – than ever for Professor Brian Cox to clock some decent screen time. A man who makes science awe-inspiring, accessible, even cool.
You probably think of him as the pensive Lancman with the boyish face, quiet charm and neat hair that your mum likes so much. And based on the man sitting opposite us wearing jeans, t-shirt, comfortable walking trainers (we put him in the suit), and a friendly smile, you’d be right.
As soon as you get him going on dark matter, inflationary cosmology or quantum mechanics, he becomes that thoughtful stargazer; the one who looks dreamily out over mountain peaks, and who could simultaneously soothe and educate a screeching toddler with his softly spoken wisdom.
But there’s another Professor Brian Cox – the one you might have seen on Twitter, or heard on his science-meets-comedy BBC Radio 4 show The Infinite Monkey Cage: a witty bloke who is passionate about spreading the good word of science, and straight-up rude to purveyors of stupidity.
“People see the way I am when I present documentary series, which is probably quite nice,” says Cox. “But I’m not actually
nice.” (Over the course of the afternoon we spend with him, he is – undeniably, unwaveringly nice.) It’s just that he, like so many stupidly smart people, doesn’t have time for idiots.
Anyone who gave weight to the idea that the ancient Mayan calendar could be used to predict the end of the world, for example, was “ a moron” according to Cox. Young Earth Creationists, who take the chronology of the bible at face value and take issue with the idea that we’re descended from chimpanzees, are talking “bollocks”. And people who believe the Large Hadron Collider, a project that Cox himself works on, could destroy the planet, are simply “twats”.
It’s hard to imagine the late, great Sir Patrick Moore talking about the anti-science brigade in such terms, but that’s part of Professor Cox’s charm: he’s got the spiky vocabulary to match his rock star hairdo. “Because people see me on telly, they forget that I am actually just one of those academic people. And the whole point of scientific training is not to accept things that are nonsense. I’ve always been a bit aggressive in that sense.”
A lot of family-friendly BBC presenters might prefer to keep tight-lipped, rather than very publically engage people in these arguments and potentially land themselves in trouble.
Only in Cox’s eyes, bad science is a real and present danger – one that he has a responsibility to take on. “None of it’s harmless,” says Cox, “because there’s a correlation between believing in astrology and believing that not vaccinating your children is a good idea. When you don’t believe some science, there’s a tendency for you to become suspicious of the whole knowledge base that we have as a civilisation, and that becomes problematic.”
This isn’t the softly-softly Brian here, but a passionate campaigner for scientific smarts. “The point of science is to argue with itself, but you’ve got to argue with specifics. So you’ve got to say, ‘I don’t agree with that piece of climate change data because the satellite wasn’t calibrated right.’ You can’t just say, ‘Oh I don’t believe it’. There’s quite a lot of it not to believe.”
This is all pretty serious, political stuff for a TV personality who has been flippantly described by the Daily Mail and others as a “pin-up” and “sex symbol”. Only, Cox isn’t a television presenter who does science; he’s a proper scientist who fell into television by accident, after producers saw him debating the importance of science funding as a guest on Newsnight.
Unlike Dr Fox or Mystic Meg, Brian Cox’s title isn’t just a stage name. He is a real-life professor at Manchester University. He got his professorship years ago, not for his work on TV – which he hadn’t yet begun – but for leading an international project at CERN, the research organisation in Switzerland and home to the Large Hadron Collider. He still conducts research on particle physics, has academic papers published, and lectures hungover undergraduates on general relativity.
Yet despite his day jobs, and his relentless campaigning for government investment in science (Cox worries about a brain drain – losing all our top mind s to developing nations like India and China), he’s got plenty of detractors, and they’re not all crackpot Creationists.
On the one hand, he’s got critics within the scientific community who think he’s wasting his time and should focus on sciencey things. Cox doesn’t mind these people – he likes their “idealism”. On the other hand, he’s got the critics who slate his films for being dumbed down.
“The people who talk about dumbing down, what they actually mean is that they don’t to understand. They only think the intellectual content is high enough if they don’t understand what you’ve said,” argues Cox.
“Actually, you can explain quite complex ideas in a way that can be understood. I can sit there and talk shit, about the metric expansion of the universe and quantum field theory and blah, blah, blah, but that’s not actually very clever. It’s extremely lazy, and actually quite a dumb thing to do.” This is classic Good Cox, Bad Cox – the passionate professor who doesn’t suffer fools.
It’s an outlook, you might imagine, that would make for a pretty impatient dad. The 46-year-old Cox is a father of two, and lives with his family in South London. His youngest is five years old. Does Cox laugh in his son’s face when he mentions Santa Claus at Christmas? Does he snap his Harry Potter DVDs in two? Crush his fanciful childhood dreams? “We told him that Scooby Doo is the model of reality,” says Cox.
“There’s only one Scooby Doo where they mess it up and have actual monsters in it. Apart from that, every other one is absolutely scientifically accurate, right down the line. So we’ve told him that Scooby Doo is the way forward, and he’s happy with that. Although he loves Ghostbusters. A lot.”
Cox knows the value of a youthful imagination – a love of Star Trek and the classic sci-fi novels of Isaac Asimov were what sparked his love of science in the first place. So what kind of kid was Brian Cox? Why, a total nerdlinger of course.
“When I was 11, 12, I was into physics, astronomy, electronics. I used to like building things and wiring things up. Really geeky. I got a fuse box for Christmas once.” That little geek turned into a massive dork – complete with a goofy laugh that rings out on a regular basis during his FHM shoot – but one with a contagious enthusiasm for his subject.
His grandparents, who worked in the Oldham cotton mills, would probably never have imagined their grandson would be responsible for doubling the nationwide sales of telescopes following his first TV series.
Neither would his parents, for that matter. His mum, a bank teller, and dad, a junior branch manager, watched a teenage Brian go off and become a musician.“I went the other way, which is probably quite common for geeks – suddenly you find yourself in an overcoat with purple hair listening to The Smiths.”
A short-lived career in music saw him join first rock band Dare, and then synthpop group D:Ream. Cox and his keyboard toured the world, supported the likes of Take That, and released Things Can Only Get Better, a feel-good anthem that was adopted by Tony Blair’s Labour party for their victorious 1997 election campaign.
But when a tour of Australia clashed with his timetable as a Manchester Uni undergrad, Cox quit the band to focus on his studies. What followed was a first-class degree, a PHD and postdoc work in his beloved quantum fields.
Now, surely, it’s only a matter of time before Cox, already holder of an OBE, joins the likes of Sir David Attenborough and Sir Patrick Moore as a knight of the realm. “You can’t second guess the honours list!” says Brian, between guffaws.
But come on, he’s smart enough to see the pattern emerging here. “I don’t know… My mum and dad would love it,” he says, wearing the kind of smile usually reserved for discussing the hot, dense phase of the Big Bang.
His latest series can only help his cause. As ever, the programmes will combine good science, good cinematography and good hair. And as ever, his audience of millions – eclipsing all other science series, and enough to keep the creators of any primetime drama series happy – are likely to have their minds tickled, challenged and blown into a cloud of spacedust.
Human Universe, in Cox’s words, is “a love letter to the human race”, following our journey from ape to space. Though as exceptional and ingenious as we humans can be, we’re also more likely than not to destroy everything we’ve built, and the planet that we’ve built it on.
So let’s get very real for a second: what is the most likely cause of our race’s demise? “Oh, stupidity,” says Cox, as if it’s the most obvious answer he’s given all day. “If we get wiped out, we’ll either do it ourselves with nuclear weapons – which we are still well capable of doing. Or we could get hit by an asteroid, and that would be our own stupidity, because we know how to move them and we can’t be bothered.
To be less brutal about it – although stupidity is probably the right word – we can do it by not investing in research & development, by not investing in education, and not making progress. So that’s the biggest threat to us. Short of aliens.”
Oh, very reassuring, thanks Brian. Well, assuming that we manage to keep ourselves alive, there is something else that troubles us, and makes us feel very small, and very sad. Koalas, you see, aren’t smart enough to understand the fundamental laws of physics. And we wouldn’t expect a dormouse to unlock the keys to the universe.
So what’s to say that we humans, just because we’ve got satellite dishes and smartphones and dishwashers, will ever be able to truly comprehend our existence? What if we’re just not smart enough?
“I don’t agree,” says Cox. “The thing that interests me at the moment is Inflationary Cosmology; we’re beginning to understand how it could be that you get Big Bangs. We’re making astonishing progress, faster than we’ve ever done. The way that things are coming together now, with the discovery of the Higgs particle, is a tremendously important discovery about the universe.
And that’s amazing, the fact that someone predicts in the 1960’s that there’s something that condenses out into empty space less than a billionth of a second after the Big Bang and interacts with everything to give it mass – that’s an incredible statement. And then you go and find it, 50 years later…”
OK, now we feel a little bit better. Not because we do, or ever will properly understand space, time, quarks, muons, the increasingly likely existence of an infinite number of universes, or how Brian keeps his hair looking so damn lovely. But because at least someone does. And barring nuclear war, asteroid strikes or alien invasion, we’ll have Professor Brian Cox to answer our biggest questions, and guide us through the cosmic mindwarp of it all...
Brian says: “Into the future, yes; into the past, no. Because into the past, you break causality, so you can reorder cause and effect. In relativity, it’s the speed of light that protects the past, but allows you freedom of movement into the future. Though you can never get back…”
Brian says: “It isn’t. Space-time is expanding – it’s the fabric of the universe itself that’s expanding. So you’re not to think of an arena into which the universe expands. There’s nothing outside it.”
Brian says: “There’ll be simple life all over the place, by which I mean single-celled life. We may well find it on Mars, or some of the moons of the solar system. But if you’re talking about complex, intelligent life, I think we might be the only civilisation in the Milky Way galaxy. We needed 3.8 billion years to pop up, and we’re the first things that can build telescopes and space ships. Now that’s a long time – a third of the age of the universe.
Brian says: “Undoubtedly more stars in the sky, because there are 350 billion galaxies in the observable universe, and each one of those has 100-200 billion stars on average. And the universe extends beyond the visible horizon, and may be infinite. If you do the sums, there’s a huge number of stars. But if you’re talking about the stars you can _ see _ with the naked eye, there aren’t that many – a few thousand.”
Words: Daniel Masoliver
Photography: Pal Hansen