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Of Stars and Scientific Phenomena – Interview With Professor Brian Cox

Curiouser and Curiouser

Kylie Sturgess

October 3, 2013

Brian Cox

He is the United Kingdom’s, and perhaps the world’s, foremost communicator of all things scientific. Professor Brian Cox, OBE is an English particle physicist, a Royal Society University Research Fellow. He is a member of the High Energy Physics group at the University of Manchester, and works on the ATLAS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, near Geneva, Switzerland.

Professor Cox is best known as the presenter of a number of science programmes for the BBC, boosting the popularity of subjects such as astronomy and physics. He also had some fame in the 1990s as the keyboard player for the pop band D:Ream. In August, he toured Australia, with the sold-out tour “An Evening of Scientific Phenomena.”

Referenced in the interview: The lady vanishes: Invisible Wife Syndrome – By Gia Milinovich.


Kylie: Star Wars or Star Trek?

Brian Cox: Both, for very different reasons! Star Wars I saw in 1977 when I was nine. I was just interested in astronomy at the time. But I couldn’t tell—when you’re nine or eight or seven, I don’t think you can tell—the difference between science fiction and science fact and it all merges into one.

It just came along at the right time for me. But when you look back on it, then I think Star Trek is better science fiction because some of the stories are remarkable.

We managed to get Patrick Stewart onto our radio show, “The Infinite Monkey Cage,” for an episode about space travel. I said to him, my favorite episode is “The Inner Light,” which is the one where, if you’re a Trekkie, you’ll remember it: Captain Picard lives out a whole life in a space probe which has been put there to have the memories of a civilization that’s been gone forever.

It’s an absolutely brilliant story. He said that that episode was his favorite as well. I thought it was a remarkable bit of science fiction, absolutely beautiful. Star Trek, at its best, I think operates on a way higher level to Star Wars. I’ll probably get slagged off for that! Everyone will know what I mean, I hope. Star Wars has a massive influence on me. I still love it and still watch it.

At its best, the writing in Star Trek is amazing. I think it’s probably just because if you make so many of them you can afford to make a statement. Some of them are just action and running around. The same with “Doctor Who,” actually: you can have some running about with loads of monsters, but you can also have some brilliant science fiction writing.

Kylie: That’s actually my next question. The new Doctor Who—what are your thoughts?

Brian: Superb, I’m so excited about that. I thought Matt Smith did a brilliant job. The way that he transformed the character when he played it…. When he first started, there was this kind of almost naïve kind of teenager. You’ve got to have that underlying sort of sadness if you’re playing Doctor Who. I thought the way that he brought it out was he went through his career and changed the character, was magnificent.

But I think that after David Tennant and Matt Smith who are different but in a similar vein. They’re kind of a younger man playing Doctor Who. I’m sure Peter Capaldi will play it with a darkness… I don’t know, a cynicism maybe? Or maybe I’m reading Malcolm Tucker into it! It’s great, I think, to just have someone completely different.

Kylie: I agree to that. What’s your favorite planet or star?

Brian: My favorite star system at the moment is Alpha Centauri. That's not only because you can see it from Australia and you don't get the chance to see it in Britain, but because it's a triple star system which is fascinating in itself! There are three stars there, including the dwarf star, Proxima Centauri. Also, a planet was found, a rocky planet, just a few months ago, actually, by the European Southern Observatory. It's rocky, but it's very close to one of the stars, so it's a candidate for life.

I think the consensus now, which has changed since the Kepler mission, since we've started discovering planets around virtually anywhere that we look, is that solar systems are common. The chances are that there’s a solar system around at least one of the stars in the Alpha Centauri system, and that's the closest system to Earth.

At four light years away, you think, “Well, actually, if we really wanted to, we could get a space probe to that system.” It would take, at the moment, hundreds of years to get there, but not thousands. When I say that, sometimes people laugh.

But you can say, “Look at that cathedral over there that you like. That took 500 years, 600 years to build. People do those things.” I think that given that there's now almost certainly a solar system, at least one planet in that system, we should get that. That's become my favorite at the moment.

Kylie: You're here for the Australian tour. You've done previous big tours with Robin Ince. Do people behave at science shows the way they do at rock shows?

Brian: Yes.

Kylie: Really?

Brian: Yes! I remember one in Newcastle, Newcastle City Hall, which actually was one of the first gigs in a rock band I had to play. It was in 1988 I think, or 1987? It was supporting Jimmy Page, and we played there. I went back with Robin Ince and a few other people. Tim Minchin was there as well, actually.

There was a whole girls’ school that came along, and we have a little part in the show where we look at Twitter and we answer questions. Someone said, “Can you give a shout out to Saint Mary's Catholic School?” or whatever it was. And there's a scream like the Beatles used to get! We thought it was amazing, because we just talked just about publication bias in medical research! The audience is so varied. You've got students there, but you also get these teenagers basically who come in as a group for a night out to see science. That's superb. That's the way it should be.

What you realize is that, for whatever reason they come—maybe because of Tim Minchin or something like that or because or they've seen it on television—what actually happens is they get captivated by the ideas. The ideas have always been obviously fascinating and interesting and can change lives. It can change the direction of their future choices easily, just one little idea.

I think the most gratifying thing is, for whatever reason, they come into these shows. They will go out with ideas.

Kylie: What are some of the biggest challenges you've faced when it comes to communicating science? I've seen the media do things like #BrianCoxKnowsEverything—but how can he know everything? How come he's talking about evolution when he's a physicist? What makes it extra challenging?

Brian: I've always thought, or for a long time, that science is too important not to be part of popular culture. It definitely, definitely is central to civilization. It's central, obviously, to the way the world works in the 21st century. Therefore, you've got to play in that sphere—scientists should.

The more scientists, and, indeed, just academics in general, the more of them that are interested and learn how to play in that sphere the better it is. You just raise the level of conversation. As I said before, you introduce ideas into popular culture, which is where they should be.

I think you've got to take it on the chin, really. You've got to understand that if you're playing in the arena with pop stars and footballers and cricketers and sports stars and those things, then that discourse comes with the territory. We have to operate in that sphere, because if you don't then you leave a vacuum there. It is only full of pop music and sports, and you don't want that.

I think that it's just one of those things. You find it with anyone who becomes successful in the sense of being well known. People will whinge occasionally: “Everyone always misrepresents what I say...” Actually, when you think about it, that's just the way popular culture is. I think you've just got to live with it, and you've just got to correct it. You've just got to try your best.

Kylie: Isn't that a huge responsibility, though? Here you are doing the hardcore work of doing science, and then, “Oh, by the way, don't forget to brush up on your communication skills and here’s how to talk to people and how to write a press release.” Isn't that just overwhelming?

Brian: The problem you get as an academic, I think, or the problem in general, is there are obviously lots of different people with lots of different skills who want to do lots of different things.

I think the problem can be when government policy or university policy or something like that—when it’s decided that a component of your career should also involve learning how to communicate with the public, or you have to learn how to manage a department too, or you have to learn business skills or whatever it is. Of course, it's ridiculous, because lots of different people have different abilities in the academic sphere.

I think what you've got to do is if you have an academic that enjoys talking to the public or policy makers or whatever it is and can do that stuff? Then they need to get credit for it in their career, because otherwise they won't do it. If you've got a system where their professional advancement depends on ticking particular boxes and none of them are communication with the public—then very few academics will do it because they don't get credit for it and it doesn't help their career.

It should be seen as extremely positive and should be part of the promotion case for academics if they do good stuff—whether it's writing books or radio programs or podcasts or whatever it is, books. If you don't want to do it, it cannot be a black mark against you.

You cannot just decide that you want everybody to be able to communicate science, because not everybody can—in the same way that you can't decide you want everybody to manage research, because not everybody can.

It seems to me to be common sense that it must be valued because it must be the case, and we're talking about science specifically now—but it's any academic discipline. In science, it must be communicated.

The big issues of our time, things like climate change or public health policy or whatever, we could list them all—they're all scientific debates that will have solutions that are part scientific and part policy. The science has to be in there and must be discussed and debated and up front.

Any idea you present in public, you won't be able to get the full nuance of the idea across, whether it be a scientific theory or a policy decision based on science or whatever it is. There's obviously a huge hinterland of facts and papers. If you wrote an academic paper you'd probably have 100 references there. You can't incorporate that in a few sound bites. I think the point is you've got to give a lot of support from colleagues, institutions, and ultimately government funding agencies.

Kylie: The government support is so vitally important. It's something that's huge.

Brian: There have been income streams made available for the public, whatever the current word is, like “public understanding.” There are debates about what you should call it, which is ridiculous, but it’s essentially public engagement.

There needs to be income streams for that, because universities are the businesses. They need to fund salaries of academics. You've got an academic spending 20 or 15 percent of their time, on engagement activities. There needs to be some way of getting money in.

The model that we have at the moment comes from student feeds or government; certainly in Britain and it's probably the same here in Australia. That's what government can do to help. If they want a bigger conversation about scientific issues, they need to reward the scientists for engaging that conversation.

Kylie: What do you feel is lacking in representation in the fields of science and science communication? I worry about minority groups, I worry about women; the account by Gia Millinovich about what she and other women face, for example, made me cry. It makes it very difficult not to tear up immediately thinking about it! What do you worry about representation in those regards?

Brian: I worry a lot because I think or believe, whatever the word is, that science and engineering and these disciplines are central to the way that our civilization works. Therefore, you want input into science and then the output back out again from as wide a pool as you can, as wide a number of interests, as many ways at looking at the world as possible.

Fortunately, we're drifting away from the extreme, but the extreme version is where science is the domain of old men, the very extreme stereotype. Now that's not true, but it's still statistically the domain of men. I'm not sure what the numbers are in Australia. I think it's mainly about 15 percent in physics in Britain. I'm not sure, but it's certainly not 50/50!

That just means that you're missing out on talent for a start. You're also missing out on viewpoints and ways of looking at the world, because different people look at the world in different ways. Given the importance of the pursuit, it's clear that you want the widest possible representation of different talents and views and viewpoints. That's just a pragmatic issue about research.

Kylie: People talk about the next female Brian Cox all the time. I go, “What the heck? Why can't there be just the next woman in science, full stop? Let's just have more people regardless of gender, age, background.”

Brian: The fact that there are people like that—Alice Roberts comes to mind in the UK and at the BBC, Helen Czerski—there are plenty of people who are doing a great job academically.

It just seems to me that if you look in when you go into schools and you try to say to everyone who is interested in science—male, female, whatever they are—that the field is dominated by old men, you turn off a large number of girls. And that perception is still there; Einstein is the iconic physicist still! Although, indeed, he wasn't an old man when he actually did his work, he was a young man. But it's the “gray haired Einstein”! If that perception is there, then you miss out on talent because you discourage women.

If you're a sixteen‑year‑old girl, why would you want to go into a field that's dominated by old men? You wouldn't. Actually, even if you're a sixteen‑year‑old boy you probably don't want to! It turns people off. That means that the outward face of science needs to be not just old men.

It needs to be attractive and representative. I was going to say accurate, but then, of course, you almost want to over-represent. We need to redress the balance for so many reasons, primarily a practical reason which is you want the widest field of talent available. It's a problem, probably in engineering as well. It's interesting. It's less of a problem in biological sciences. But physics and engineering in particular have a problem.

Kylie: What’s next after this tour of Australia?

Brian: I just started making a new series for BBC that at the moment is called “Human Universe” and it’s exciting! We just finished the first film, which, at the moment, I’m calling “The Ascent into Insignificance.” It's really the story of our journey from the center of the universe to the true position. It's part history from Copernicus through to the Planck data, the new measurements at the CMB, et cetera. It's also a story... It's trying to explain why I think that the journey from the center of the universe into an insignificant position is actually an ascent. It's an intellectual ascent. It's far, far more wonderful that we know our place in the universe and we've been able to measure it so precisely.

If you look at the age of the universe, 13.798 plus or minus 9.35...

Kylie: People create songs over it because they care that much about it, which is awesome…

Brian: Yes! One of the fun things about “Wonders of Life,” the last series, was working with Monty Python’s Eric Idle, which actually came from a discussion about the fact that his song that he had written in the 1980s called The Galaxy Song was now sort of derided on the Internet as being inaccurate!

My friend Robin Ince even does a whole comedy routine about it! People saying, “The problem with you scientists is you keep changing things. How can you be right when everything you say changes from one year to the next?” Of course, that's the thing about science!

So we updated the song, and one of the things in there is the diameter for the universe, the diameter of the whole universe. That causes loads of discussion even now, because it's 90 billion light years or so. A lot of people say, “How can it be 90 billion light years, because the universe is just less than 13.8 billion years old. So shouldn't it be 27 or 28 billion light years?”

But the point is that the universe has been stretching. It's quite an interesting calculation you can do. If you're a physics student, an undergraduate even or maybe even eighteen years old—if you're good at math you can do the calculation with the Hubble Constant! You can ask the question, “Where would the cosmic microwave background be now?” which is the furthest thing you can see. Where would it be now? Although it's taken the light 13.8 billion years to journey across the universe, the universe has been stretching in the meantime. You've got to factor in the red shift.

We even did some calculations in the recording studio and Idle loves that stuff: “Why is that?” He sat at the thing with the microphone and we did some calculations to work it out, and he loved it. We'll probably update it again in about ten years!

Kylie: So anyone can do the math and help out with the song?

Brian: It's easy!

Kylie: It's easy?! Thank you so much for talking to me!

Brian: It's been a pleasure.

Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is the host of the Token Skeptic podcast and regularly writes editorial for numerous publications and the Token Skeptic blog. She was the co-host for the Global Atheist Convention in 2010 and 2012. An award-winning Philosophy teacher, Kylie has lectured on teaching critical thinking and anomalistic beliefs worldwide. In 2011 she was presented with the Secular Student Alliance Best Individual Activist Award and presented at the World Skeptics Congress 2012.