A star is born

He was hooked on as­tron­omy as a child, now Brian Cox has made a stel­lar ca­reer out of it.Here, as he pre­pares for a new se­ries of his bril­liant TV show, he says it’s beau­ti­ful – and in­spi­ra­tional

The Irish Mail on Sunday - TV Week - - NEWS - Guy Wal­ters Stargaz­ing Live, March 28-30, BBC2

W hen Brian Cox was grow­ing up in Old­ham, near Manch­ester, in the 1970s, his fam­ily couldn’t af­ford to buy him a tele­scope. In­stead, in or­der to ob­serve the night sky, which was his pas­sion, the fu­ture pro­fes­sor of par­ti­cle physics and stel­lar TV pre­sen­ter had to make do with a cheap pair of binoc­u­lars. ‘I was al­ways in­ter­ested in the stars for some rea­son,’ says Brian, who’s about to present a sev­enth se­ries of BBC2’s phe­nom­e­nally pop­u­lar as­tron­omy show Stargaz­ing Live. ‘I loved the con­stel­la­tions and I’d spend ages look­ing at star maps.

‘I was born in 1968, a year be­fore the first man landed on the Moon, and grow­ing up there was a sense of ex­cite­ment about the space pro­gramme. I got caught up in the Apollo Moon land­ings and I thought look­ing at the stars was a re­ally powerful, beau­ti­ful thing to do. I was a very, very nerdy child. When I was six, I was col­lect­ing as­tron­omy cards and stick­ing them in a book. And every Sun­day I’d go plane spot­ting at Manch­ester Air­port.’

Brian’s pas­sion for as­tron­omy makes him per­fect for get­ting more peo­ple to en­joy look­ing at the stars. Stargaz­ing, in­sists Brian, is a pas­time you can en­joy with no ex­pe­ri­ence and next to no equip­ment. The night sky over Ire­land is teem­ing with stars, plan­ets, con­stel­la­tions – even other galax­ies – all vis­i­ble with the naked eye.

One of Brian’s most prized pos­ses­sions was his 1979 edi­tion of The Ob­server’s Book Of As­tron­omy, which he won as a school prize for 100% at­ten­dance over the year. The au­thor was none other than the late Patrick Moore, the leg­endary pre­sen­ter of BBC’s The Sky At Night which marks its 60th birth­day this year. ‘Later in life I met Patrick when I filmed the 700th Sky At Night with him,’ Brian re­calls. ‘I took the book for him to sign. I’d rather that he thought I’d won the book for sci­ence, but when he opened it he laughed when he saw what it was for.’

It was read­ing the best­selling book about the uni­verse, Cos­mos by Carl Sa­gan, at age 12 and watch­ing the ac­com­pa­ny­ing tele­vi­sion se­ries that was a key fac­tor in in­spir­ing him to be­come a physi­cist. ‘I was in­spired by that amaz­ing se­ries, and I want to do the same for the next gen­er­a­tion,’ he says. ‘My grand­par­ents, who’d started in the cot­ton mills, chipped in for my ed­u­ca­tion. The idea of ed­u­ca­tion be­ing a path to a world they didn’t have ac­cess to was val­ued. I was one of those kids who’d be up­set to get a de­ten­tion. But I was only re­ally in­ter­ested in sci­ence. I didn’t bother with French, and when I ended up work­ing at the Large Hadron Col­lider in Switzer­land I couldn’t even or­der din­ner!’

The young Brian was an avid viewer of The Sky At Night and wor­shipped Patrick Moore. ‘That show was re­ally big for me,’ he says. ‘Patrick Moore in­flu­enced a lot of peo­ple of my gen­er­a­tion.’ He was so ob­sessed with as­tron­omy he dreamt of fly­ing to Mars and even at the age of ten he wired him­self up with switches and lights.

But his pas­sion for physics was matched by a love of mu­sic, and when his grand­par­ents died when he was 14 he started to rebel. He joined the al­ter­na­tive rock band Dare at 16 as the key­boardist and started stay­ing out late play­ing mu­sic. The night be­fore his maths Alevel he didn’t come home and ended up with a D. ‘But I got an A in physics,’ he says, ‘so I was just be­ing lazy. I thought, “It doesn’t mat­ter what I get in my A-lev­els be­cause I’m go­ing to be a mu­si­cian.”’

He toured with Dare for four years, and made two al­bums with them. At the height of their fame they were play­ing 9,000-seat venues. ‘It was a tremen­dous feel­ing,’ he re­calls, ‘but then we were in Ger­many and had a big fight. That day I picked up the phone to Manch­ester Univer­sity and said, ”I want to come and do physics.”’ And so be­gan his sec­ond ca­reer. He car­ried on his mu­sic with D:Ream, whose lead singer Peter Cun­nah was a friend and who are best re­mem­bered for their 1994 hit Things Can Only Get Bet­ter, but when the band em­barked on a tour of Aus­tralia Brian had to make a de­ci­sion. ‘I had to de­cide be­tween mu­sic or physics,’ he says, ‘and I de­cided to stay at uni. You do have that, “Is this right?” feel­ing, but self-ev­i­dently it was.’

There’s no doubt that Brian Cox and his hero Patrick Moore are very dif­fer­ent types of TV as­tronomer. Whereas the portly Patrick, with his sham­bolic dress sense, mon­o­cle and clipped speech was the model of a post-war bof­fin, Brian is the op­po­site. Still blessed with a full mop of hair that is be­ing al­lowed to go grey taste­fully, a sparkling set of gnash­ers and a youth­ful wardrobe that re­minds us of his pop star past, Brian looks like the sort of lec­turer stu­dents swoon over when he talks about neu­tri­nos and neb­u­lae.

But what the two men had in com­mon was a ter­rific tal­ent for en­thus­ing peo­ple about sci­ence and the joys of as­tron­omy. ‘I want peo­ple to have an emo­tional re­sponse to sci­ence, be­cause that’s what I have,’ says Brian. ‘Think­ing about the stars throws you out­side of your own world and into the uni­verse, and it’s in­spi­ra­tional. Think about how rare life is, for ex­am­ple. The uni­verse has been go­ing for bil­lions of years. In all that time the pe­riod when con­di­tions have been right for life to ex­ist will have been lu­di­crously small.

‘Now think about the size of the uni­verse,

‘Most of the time you can see Mars and Jupiter’

which may be in­fi­nite. So far we can only say there’s life on this one Earth. So in all that time and space, life is very rare. That can make you feel ex­tremely small, but it should also make you feel spe­cial be­cause we live in a mo­ment that’s so rare.’

With so many ad­vances in sci­en­tific knowledge, it’s tempt­ing for us to think we know an aw­ful lot about our so­lar sys­tem. Yet as Brian is the first to ad­mit, we’re ac­tu­ally as­ton­ish­ingly ig­no­rant about so much of it. ‘We don’t know lots about our own planet, let alone the oth­ers,’ he says. ‘If you think about the Earth, we’re not sure, for ex­am­ple, of the com­po­si­tion of the core. And we don’t know ex­actly how its mag­netic field, which pro­tects us from harm­ful ul­tra­vi­o­let ra­di­a­tion, works.’

If we know so lit­tle about the planet we ac­tu­ally live on, there’s still much we have to learn about plan­ets such as Venus and Mars be­cause land­ing probes on such places is so dif­fi­cult. ‘We can’t get to them very of­ten,’ says Brian, ‘and it’s very ex­pen­sive to do so. And of course, the probes can only re­veal so much. Just imag­ine if you were an alien life form and all you knew about Earth was what you’d gath­ered from a probe. The aliens wouldn’t know much about our planet, would they. Well, it’s like that for us when it comes to what we know about the plan­ets in our so­lar sys­tem.’ Nev­er­the­less, we’re not com­pletely in the dark. ‘The Cassini probe, which en­tered Saturn’s or­bit in 2004, is send­ing back some in­cred­i­ble stuff.’ Cassini has shown, for ex­am­ple, that Saturn’s largest moon, Ti­tan, is an Earth-like world with rain, rivers, lakes and seas. ‘And we’re do­ing a great job with our ex­plo­ration of Mars,’ he adds. ‘I’ve just been film­ing a pro­gramme about com­mer­cial space flight and ev­ery­one I’ve spo­ken to is con­vinced we’ll get to Mars within a decade.’ For Brian, look­ing at the night sky has al­ways been a very per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence, and one he’d like us all to share. ‘I’ve al­ways been drawn to the pass­ing of the sea­sons, and I’ve long made a con­nec­tion be­tween the po­si­tion of the con­stel­la­tions and the sea­sons. I like it, for ex­am­ple, when you see Orion in its win­ter po­si­tion; it puts you in touch with those larger cy­cles go­ing on in the uni­verse.’ To­day, of course, he’s able to gaze at the night sky with some­thing a lit­tle more im­pres­sive than a pair of cheap binoc­u­lars. Al­though he spends much of his time in Lon­don, where stargaz­ing can be more of a chal­lenge be­cause of light pol­lu­tion, Brian is for­tu­nate enough also to have a home in France, where he keeps a de­cent 5in re­frac­tor tele­scope. ‘When the skies are clear there – and they usu­ally are – I use my tele­scope a lot,’ he says. ‘I usu­ally pop out at night and I never get sick of see­ing things like the An­dromeda Galaxy.’

There’s no doubt Brian Cox has come a long way since his days as a space-mad young­ster in Old­ham, but it’s ob­vi­ous he’s just as en­rap­tured by stargaz­ing as he was back then. Even if he didn’t win a school prize for sci­ence, both he and the late Patrick Moore would ad­vise that there are plenty of prizes to be won for just turn­ing up – and that’s some­thing we can all do.

The Sky At Night pre­sen­ter Patrick Moore in 1982

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