Prof Brian Cox: ‘It would be great to put Donald Trump in a classroom for a week’
One of his society-enriching ideas is a crash course in human knowledge for world leaders
Professor Brian Cox: “Most scientists who really think about their field need it to be simple so that they can understand it. For me, understanding something is a process of simplifying it.” File photograph: Nicky J Sims/Getty Images for Phil McIntyre Entertainment
If Professor Brian Cox picks up a rock, it’s time to listen. Not because he’s the threatening type, of course, but because it means he’s employing items around him to demonstrate to viewers the science bit of a befuddling law. A single dollar bill unlocked the mass-energy relationship in Horizon, a sandcastle demonstrated the concept of entropy in Wonders of the Universe, and a tiny acorn demonstrated the endurance of protons from the Big Bang to the present day. We’ll never see them as ordinary objects again.
This relatability, and the enthusiasm with which he delivers these monologues, explains the breadth of his impact. More than his peers – science broadcasters such as the authority that is David Attenborough, the always-witty Dara Ó Briain and the late, great Stephen Hawking – his work has brought high concepts to everyday folk who might usually switch off at these ideas… literally, when it comes to telly-watching. With a first-class physics degree earned at the start of his academic life, which later led to becoming professor of particle physics at the University of Manchester, one might think it frustrating to explain things so reductively. Actually, he explains with a calm that I suspect knows no bounds, rationalising complex theories is useful for him too.
“Scientists aren’t some kind of weird, other, super-intelligent beings,” he says, with his famous Mancunian lilt. “Most scientists who really think about their field need it to be simple so that they can understand it. For me, understanding something is a process of simplifying it.
Being really careful
“If you watch a lot of theoretical physicists doing calculations, they’re often pretty slow. It’s because they’re being really careful, and they are making sure that they understand every step. Sometimes it takes me weeks to understand something, or sometimes I understand it really quickly, and that’s different for every person. As long as you don’t try and trick yourself into thinking you understand it if it’s not clear.”
Today, 50-year-old Cox lives in London with his wife, broadcaster Gia Milinovich, and their two children, but it was in Greater Manchester he was born and raised. His parents, bank workers, afforded him a private education where physics was a favourite subject early on, though at A-levels, the UK equivalent of the Leaving Cert, he was too distracted by indie bands to get more than a D in maths.
The dual calling continued thereon; he studied for his degree while playing keyboards for Dare, the later band of Thin Lizzy’s Darren Wharton, and played with D:ream, most famous for Things Can Only Get Better, during his PhD.
The rock star within him is still evident in his floppy fringe and stylish, casual attire, the type that reinforces his point that he’s not the aforementioned “weird, other, super-intelligent being” we might associate with scientists. This not-so-hidden history has not only added to his appeal, but more generally, it’s helped science geekery infiltrate popular culture, as proved, for example, by the Bluedot Festival, a music/science weekender in the UK in which he’s appeared with his radio show, The Infinite Monkey Cage.
Cox still dabbles in music too. One year on Brian and Robin’s Christmas Compendium of Reason – his annual charity event with The Infinite Monkey Cage co-host Robin Ince – he played alongside special guests The Cure, and another, New Order. Last December, Cox performed with Orbital, after making a spoken word contribution to their new track There Will Come a Time.
Is he tempted to return to music-making alongside his science career again?
“It’s possible, actually,” he says, hinting of grand plans. “I’m not announcing it yet, but it’s possible. I might have something that I’m working on. I’m not telling anybody else that either, but there you go.”
Highest-selling science tour
While we wait for him to reveal these plans, he’s proving you don’t need to have an instrument onstage to be a rock star. This year sees him headline arenas in UK and Ireland, and theatres from Auckland to Ottawa. It comes after his last tour became the highest-selling science tour – as certified by Guinness World Records.
“I actually got two world records for that tour: one was for the number of tickets sold for a science tour, though I don’t know how much competition there was for that, but also for the biggest individual show,” he adds. “Until the morning of the London show that eventually won it, the Dublin [show] was the biggest, and there was about five seats between them. I’m hoping Dublin wins this time, because it was a fantastic experience. Almost 9,000 people were in the arena and it felt really magical. It’s also Saturday night when we come back, so hopefully 10 more people will come out than last time.”
The set involves the largest, highest definition LED screen taken on tour, and uses the latest technologies and knowledge to simulate how black holes look and behave in space. Cox will also cover the recent discoveries of thousands of planets in the Milky Way.
“And I want to ask questions about our place in the universe,” Cox says. “Cosmology challenges and makes you feel small, but does that mean we’re insignificant? I don’t think so, personally.”
That’s reassuring, given existential crises must be an occupational hazard for him. Even hearing about the age of the universe, let alone its vastness, is enough to have me skipping the gym and ordering pizza, because what does anything matter anyway?
“I think it’s worth reminding ourselves how remarkable it is that we exist at all, actually, and how fragile our position is on this planet,” he says, as measured as ever. “Sometimes it sounds so naive or hippyish to take this wider perspective, but Carl Sagan, one of my great heroes, said ‘astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience’. Once you start to elevate yourself and look at the Earth from a distance, even in your imagination, you start to see that it is quite nonsensical to behave in the prideful way that we do. The more people that take that view, the safer we will be.
“Also we are, to paraphrase Richard Feynman, collections of atoms that can contemplate atoms. What a wonderful thing to be. It’s worth reminding yourself, every day, that you came from a cloud of dust that just collapsed under gravity four and a half billion years ago, yet you can look out onto the universe and feel emotion. That’s remarkable. So science – astronomy and cosmology in particular – adds value to the experience of being human. It reminds us that we’re lucky.”
Being an authority on the subject, Cox has been mined on all the world’s weighty questions: religion (“there is naivety in just saying there’s no God”), aliens (“there is only one advanced technological civilisation in this galaxy and that’s us”),time travel (“possible”), and ghosts (“almost inconceivable”). Given the world’s stage, it was only a matter of time before he became embroiled in politics, especially with the increase in anti-experts, whether around vaccinations, climate change or, in England, around Brexit.
“If you see your country or the world going in a direction that you think is wrong or even dangerous, there’s two responses,” he explains. “I could carry on with science and making TV programmes and hope it will all be okay, or I can say, why shouldn’t I offer an opinion and say what I believe is the wrong thing to do?
“At its best, a democracy is supposed to be about debate. That means that we accept and understand the fact that there are different points of view, and many different ways of running a country. So when people express an opinion, it’s a contribution to a debate rather than an invitation for an argument. For example, Brexit is a big deal and it has an impact on Ireland, so it would be odd if there wasn’t a debate about whether it was the right thing to do and if so, how to do it?”
Not without backlash
While entering the foray has not been without backlash, one of his society-enriching ideas that might come to fruition is a crash course in human knowledge for parliamentarians and world leaders.
“It started up as a joke on the radio initially,” Cox says. “I think we were saying that it would be great to sit Donald Trump down in a classroom for a week, to attend a very short course about everything we know. So there would be a lecture on music, a lecture on art, a lecture on political philosophy, a lecture on theology, all given by the best minds in the field.
“Since then, loads of people think it’s a good idea. It’s actually turned into a thing, so we’re going to have a few meetings about it, and try to open to everybody.
“Can you imagine if, in all the parliaments across the world, all the people who sat there actually had to go and sit down for a few weeks, and learn about human knowledge? It would be great.”
And so continues Brian Cox’s unwavering enthusiasm.
The Universal: Adventures in Space and Time visits SSE Arena, Belfast on Friday February 15th, and 3Arena, Dublin on Saturday 16th