Weekend interview: Professor Brian Cox

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It used to be the case that poetry was seen as “the new rock ’n’ roll”. These days, though, perhaps science is more deserving of that epithet. After all, how many poets get to embark on global arena tours? Not many I suspect. But then few poets enjoy the kind adulation afforded to Professor Brian Cox who has become a household name thanks to TV shows like Wonders of the Solar System and Stargazing Live, which he co-hosts with Dara O’Briain.

On his last tour, Cox talked about astronomy and cosmology to packed out venues, and his new tour – Brian Cox Live – Universal: Adventures in Space and Time, which comes to Sheffield and Leeds 
in February – is even bigger.

As well as giving audiences an insight into the inner workings of nature he’ll be joined on stage by co-host of The Infinite Monkey Cage, comedian Robin Ince, for a Q&A.

And when Cox says his world tour has turned into “quite a big endeavour”, he’s not kidding. “We’re spending loads of money on graphics because I want a black hole on stage. I’m speaking to movie companies to reproduce a black hole as accurately as possible so I can talk about what it would be like to fall into it and what happens inside them,” he says.

“When you’ve got a show that’s going into arenas it means you’ve got a chance to create a spectacle out of cosmology, astronomy and physics and that’s worth seizing.”

Cox’s rise to prominence has coincided with an apparent renaissance of interest in science. “I think one of the reasons is the progress we’re making,” he says. “We had a space probe sending beautiful pictures back around Jupiter, and also companies like SpaceX and Elon Musk and Richard Branson’s company are capturing the imagination. This science fiction future of reusable rockets going into space and coming back again and the dawn of the age of space tourism (which we’re going to see within the next few years) all feeds into that.”

His own passion for science began. “As far back as I can remember I was interested in astronomy and looking at the stars. I remember slightly later in life I’d not gone to university and decided to be a musician for a while and one of the books that came out around then, when I was making my mind up what I wanted to do, was Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and that had a huge influence on me.”

It’s hard not to be inspired as he explains in layman’s terms a universe of gravitational waves and wormholes. It also makes me wish I’d paid more attention in science classes – and perhaps if I’d had a teacher like him I would have done.

The renewed interest in space exploration has been fuelled by the recent missions to Mars and is likely to spike next year as we reach the 50th anniversary of the Moon landings. “That will reignite that interest,” says Cox. “It’s taken a bit longer than everybody hoped to become a space-faring civilisation but I do think we’re on the brink of that now because we’ve got the technology and it’s cheap enough and it works.”

Cox believes engaging children in science from an early age is vitally important. “If you asked me a few years ago I would have said it was important for reasons of progress and economics. From a pragmatic point, we’ve had a shortage of engineers in this country and in an economy like ours we need to be at the cutting edge of technology so we need more of them, that’s clear,” he says. “But also the way that science teaches you to think is important because it teaches you that your opinion doesn’t matter, that you can be objectively and definitively wrong.”

However, he’s concerned at the way the views of scientific experts are being undermined. “I think recently the valuing of opinion and loud voices that shout things is extremely damaging. What’s interesting is if you go back to the 50s there were several people who worked on the Manhattan Project, like Richard Feynman and Robert Oppenheimer, and they spoke of the value of science and that the only way to make progress is by careful thought, and I think that’s faded away a bit.

“I think people were so worried about the atom bomb and the potential for the imminent destruction of the planet that they started thinking rather philosophically about the value of science. And I think we’re back at that position again and we’re at the point where we need to reaffirm those enlightenment values and say ‘this way of thinking in a humble manner is what got us out of the cave’, because I think we are losing sight of that, hopefully only temporarily.”

Cox says there needs to be greater understanding of whether information is reliable or not. “Science is not the only discipline that teaches you that, but it is very good at it. For example, experimental science teaches you that you can have an opinion about something like how fast will a pendulum swing, or something like that, but then you can go and measure it and find out whether your opinion is valid or not. That’s one of the key things science can do.

“One of my heroes, Carl Sagan, saw it coming in the Eighties. He said it was a paradox of the modern world that the more we come to rely on science – not just medical science prolonging our life expectancy, but in its everyday use with mobile phones and aircraft – the less we seem to trust it, the less we seem to understand it and the less we seem to want to understand it... and that’s the paradox.”

Cox says the most important lesson that nature and the universe teaches us is humility. “There was a great essay by Richard Feynman in the Fifties called The Value of Science in which he said the most valuable thing science has taught us is that we don’t know everything, that you have to leave some things to future generations. Certainty is the enemy of science undoubtedly, but it’s also the enemy of civilisation. If you see a politician who is absolutely sure that they’re right then don’t vote for them, that’s the scientific lesson.”

Despite his concerns about the anti-scientific sentiments being espoused in certain quarters, he says there are reasons for optimism. “We’re actually in a very interesting time because we’re close to the moment, probably in our lifetime, when we become a multi-planetary species. We now have the technology for the first time to start industrialising space and when we become a space-faring civilisation, as we will do in the next 30, 40 or 50 years, we’ll essentially be immortal as a civilisation and the possibilities are endless once we step off this planet.

“Not because we want to leave it. Jeff Bezos, who I spoke to recently, owns a rocket company called Blue Origin and he was saying this is the best planet in the neighbourhood so what we’re doing is talking about making this planet better by expanding off it to access new raw materials and resources.

“And I think we’ll do that, or destroy ourselves in the next half century. If we get through our lifetime then we’ll become a space-faring civilisation and then the future is like Star Trek...”

Brian Cox’s Universal tour will stop off at the FlyDSA Arena, Sheffield (flydsaarena.co.uk) 
on February 10 and First Direct Arena, 
Leeds (www.firstdirectarena.com) on February 14.