Scientist Brian Cox gives lecture at new UCD science centre

BBC presenter keeps audience on their toes with explanation of Higgs boson discovery

Prof Brian Cox photographed in front of a Peter Monaghan installation called Concave Convex at the new O’Brien Science Building UCD. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times

Prof Brian Cox photographed in front of a Peter Monaghan installation called Concave Convex at the new O’Brien Science Building UCD. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times

 

Rock star turned scientist turned rock star scientist Professor Brian Cox is one of the great explainers.

But even his gifts of communication could not stretch to explaning to an invited audience the significance of the discovery of the Higgs boson.

Prof Cox, a man who has done more than scientists in recent years to popularise science and make science accessible to a lay audience through his series on the BBC, was the guest speaker at a lecture to open the UCD O’Brien Science Centre today.

He spoke about life, the universe and everything (to quote Douglas Adams) in a discursive and fascinating lecture which started with the Big Bang and ended in a lot of head scratching among the invited audience especially when it came to explaining where the elusive Higgs boson fits into the standard model of particle physics.

The bit about how the Higgs boson and it place in the infinitesimally small soup of electrons, protons, neutrons, neutrinos and all the other forces which make up the standard model was lost on many in the audience despite his renowned ability to convey the most complicated ideas in the clearest form possible.

“I was struggling,” said businessman Denis O’Brien whose money was a major contributor to getting the 67,000 sq m state-of-the-art facility up and running.

“It was almost bordering on undergraduate stuff,” confessed Prof Cox afterwards.

“It is a beautiful but unfortunate fact that the language of nature is mathematics. It is difficult because not everybody speaks that language fluently.”

Just why the Higgs boson is so significant may be something that physicists understand best, but Professor Cox left nobody in any doubt about its importance.

It was one of the “great discoveries of science”, he said, made greater still by the fact that it had been predicted decades ago by Professor Peter Higgs who won the Nobel Prize for Physics last week.

Prof Cox described the Large Hadron Collider at Cern as the “most complicated thing mankind has ever built” even surpassing the Apollo moon programme and he expressed surprise that Ireland was not a member, assuming that it was “because everybody else is”.

He said Cern - the European organisation for nuclear research - had already paid for itself “thousands if not million times over” most notably with the discovery of the world wide web and medical imagining.

Some 88 countries contribute to Cern on a yearly basis and the cost of it was only about €1 billion, the same size as running a mid-sized university, he said.

When asked the eternal if exasperating question as to whether his knowledge of the cosmos brings him closer of further away from a belief in God, he responded: “I don’t believe in God. I don’t think about it all. I don’t think it has any bearing.

“ There are only two answers to why the laws of nature exist. Either we don’t know or God did it and I’m in the don’t know camp which, actually, does allow for the possibility that God did it.”