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
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