Star­ing at the stars, says Pro­fes­sor Brian Cox, re­veals great truths about our lives. But the big ques­tion is… Team Trek or Team Star Wars?


Star­ing at the stars, says Pro­fes­sor Brian Cox, re­veals great truths about our lives. But is he Team Trek or Team Star Wars?

DNA: Your Stargaz­ing Live TV show in Aus­tralia ear­lier this year set a new world record for peo­ple look­ing into the night sky.

Brian Cox: Yes, we did! I was amazed at the num­ber of star par­ties around Aus­tralia. There were thou­sands! Vir­tu­ally every­where, peo­ple were par­tic­i­pat­ing to get the world record for the num­ber of peo­ple look­ing up into the sky at any one time and it was achieved! When you see a whole coun­try join­ing in as­tron­omy it’s won­der­ful. There were ten-year-old kids, some who will go into sci­ence and as­tron­omy as a re­sult of the Stargaz­ing Live week. It may have been the first time they looked through a tele­scope, and those are the mo­ments where I think it’s more than just a TV show.

What can peo­ple ex­pect from your Uni­ver­sal World Tour next year?

I talk about the ques­tions that are gen­uinely ex­is­ten­tial in na­ture be­cause I think as­tron­omy and cos­mol­ogy force you to con­front such ques­tions. It’s un­doubt­edly true that we are, in one sense, ab­so­lutely in­signif­i­cant in the face of the uni­verse. We’re one planet around one star among 250 bil­lion stars, in one gal­axy – among two tril­lion galax­ies! But, in an­other sense, we know of nowhere else where life ex­ists, and nowhere else where there’s a civ­i­liza­tion. That means there’s nowhere else where things think. We’re col­lec­tions of atoms that think, and that could be an ex­tremely rare phe­nom­e­non in the uni­verse. That also means there’s nowhere else in the uni­verse that there’s any mean­ing!

That’s all quite deep, but you have an en­gag­ing way of ex­plain­ing it.

I like to mix in very spec­tac­u­lar im­agery, and I’ve man­aged to get the big­gest LED screens avail­able in Aus­tralia. The whole the­atre wall will be a high-res­o­lu­tion LED screen. I’m also work­ing with the com­pany who did the graph­ics for the movie In­ter­stel­lar. We sim­u­late a black hole on stage us­ing state-of-the-art graph­ics from that film. I’m also go­ing to dis­cuss what it’s like to fall into a black hole, and Ein­stein’s the­ory about space and time – what it tells us about the ori­gins of the uni­verse and its fu­ture. But, most in­ter­est­ingly, I talk about our place within it.

This is our En­ter­tain­ment is­sue. What movies about the cos­mos do you think get it right? In­ter­stel­lar re­ally gets it right! One of the in­sti­ga­tors heav­ily in­volved in the film was Kip Thorne, a No­bel Prize-win­ning physi­cist, and a world ex­pert on grav­ity. In fact, the com­puter

code that we’re us­ing in my show to gen­er­ate black holes is the same com­puter code Kip de­vel­oped for In­ter­stel­lar. He cal­cu­lated all the things about be­ing on a planet and or­bit­ing around a black hole where one hour of time passes while seven years of time passes out­side. In­ter­stel­lar is a bril­liant film be­cause all the rel­a­tiv­ity is ab­so­lutely cor­rect.

Any oth­ers?

I also love 2001: A Space Odyssey be­cause Stan­ley Kubrick wanted to make a film about the lim­it­less pos­si­bil­i­ties hu­man­ity will open when we be­come a space-far­ing civ­i­liza­tion, and that’s ex­actly what he did. We’re a very in­ter­est­ing and valu­able part of the uni­verse, but we’ve only just be­gun to take the first steps into it, and to un­der­stand it.

Team Star Trek or Team Star Wars?

That’s a dif­fi­cult ques­tion! I was nine when Star Wars came out and it dom­i­nated my life. I’m very fond of it but Star Trek has longevity and depth and a more com­pli­cated phi­los­o­phy. Gene Rod­den­berry had an op­ti­mistic view of what our so­ci­ety could be like. If you look at the orig­i­nal Star Trek it does what great sci­ence fic­tion al­ways does, which is to ap­proach dif­fi­cult con­tem­po­rary sub­jects and sneak that dis­cus­sion into pub­lic dis­course. There was that clas­sic episode with the peo­ple with half black, half white faces, and the great con­flict it caused, in­clud­ing the threat to de­stroy their planet. In­ter­est­ingly, you couldn’t re­ally tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween th­ese peo­ple at all. There’s an ob­vi­ous mes­sage, but for 1960s tele­vi­sion in the US, it was in­cred­i­bly pow­er­ful. Whoopi Gold­berg has spo­ken pas­sion­ately about the char­ac­ter of Uhura [played by Nichelle Ni­chols in the orig­i­nal se­ries] be­ing a black woman on the bridge of the En­ter­prise, and how she had a tele­vi­sion char­ac­ter to aspire to. Speak­ing of which, the cur­rent se­ries, Star Trek: Dis­cov­ery, has a gay cou­ple.

Yes, it’s bril­liant. You have the cen­tral char­ac­ter who hap­pens to be gay, but the plot­lines are not about be­ing gay. In the ab­so­lute spirit of Star Trek there is a se­ries of char­ac­ters play­ing piv­otal roles that you can look up to and iden­tify with. That’s why it’s a bril­liant se­ries. You also had a role in The Sci­ence Of Doc­tor Who. Dis­cuss!

Yes, I got to film in the TARDIS for a day with Matt Smith. I’m not an ac­tor but the ex­pe­ri­ence of stand­ing in front of one, and get­ting a sense of what it’s like, was won­der­ful. It’s also the most amaz­ing set, and it all works! You press the but­tons and lights come on! I grew up with Doc­tor Who so it was quite an ex­pe­ri­ence.

How about Big Bang The­ory?

Again, it’s an­other great piece of tele­vi­sion. I don’t know how ac­cu­rate the por­trayal of physi­cists is but there are def­i­nitely quite worldly the­o­ret­i­cal physi­cists out there. So, in that sense, it’s prob­a­bly quite true! [Laughs.] Have you been ap­proached to guest star?

I haven’t, but I live in hope. I’ve been in Doc­tor Who and I keep try­ing to ma­noeu­ver my­self to be­come an ex­tra on Star Wars. I ac­tu­ally met JJ Abrams at a re­cent gig and sug­gested it would be a good idea if I were a storm trooper!

What do you re­mem­ber of your days in the bands Dare and D:Ream?

I did Dare in the late ’80s, which wasn’t where I thought I’d end up! I was a big Du­ran Du­ran fan and then be­came a goth. I was also into Joy Di­vi­sion, The Smiths and other bands from Manch­ester, where I lived. I wanted to be in a band so I taught my­self to play key­boards. Then I ac­ci­den­tally ended up in a rock band. It wasn’t my kind of stuff, but we had a great time and made two al­bums and toured with the likes of Jimmy Page [Led Zep­pelin]. I be­came sick of that, and got into as­tro­physics at the Uni­ver­sity Of Manch­ester, but needed a job so I be­gan driv­ing D:Ream around the coun­try. When they got a record deal they asked me to play key­boards, so I ac­ci­den­tally joined D:Ream. Lon­don, at the time, was full of en­ergy and D:Ream was a club band all about white la­bel vinyl and 12-inch remixes. To be part of that scene in 1992 was very ex­cit­ing and, in hind­sight, a spe­cial time for mu­sic and pop­u­lar cul­ture.

Who is your mu­si­cal diva?

I’m a huge Kate Bush fan, how­ever, in terms of an ab­so­lute diva it would be Ber­nadette Peters. I went to Rock­e­feller Uni­ver­sity for a time in New York, which meant liv­ing on the Up­per East Side. I went to a lot of Broad­way shows and Ber­nadette Peters was in the re­vival of An­nie Get Your Gun. She was bril­liant! I went to see it about seven times. Ber­nadette Peters – you can’t get any more diva-ish than her!

In 2009 you made Peo­ple’s Sex­ist Men Alive. How did you feel about that?

I was very sur­prised be­cause it’s an Amer­i­can mag­a­zine and I don’t have the same kind of pro­file there, but it’s a great ac­co­lade and, prob­a­bly, my most trea­sured award!

You also have great hair. Al­most Bea­tle-like! Yeah, it evolved into that Manch­ester look, which is an echo of the ’60s, but I got stuck in Manch­ester in the ’90s! I don’t know if I’m more Paul McCart­ney or Liam Gal­lagher!

Do you hang out with gay mates or fam­ily?

I have lots of gay friends and, it’s the big­gest cliché, but my hair­dresser for the past 20 years is a gay friend. My hair­cut is re­ally his cre­ation and no one else has cut my hair since. His name is Stephen Glendin­ning and he’s quite a fa­mous stylist in Bri­tain. I met him on a TV show and we’ve been friends ever since.

What would you say to a Star Gaz­ing Mardi Gras float, right un­der the Syd­ney night sky? That would be won­der­ful! As I said, as­tron­omy and cos­mol­ogy gives us great per­spec­tive. My hero, Carl Sagan, said one of the most valu­able things about as­tron­omy is that it gives us per­spec­tive in that we are a sin­gle civ­i­liza­tion on a very frag­ile planet. As­tro­nauts have al­ways ex­pressed how the mo­ment they see the Earth they see it as one world and that’s re­ally the Mardi Gras mes­sage, isn’t it? It’s quite cen­tral to that idea that we are one peo­ple on one world to­gether and that’s a very as­tro­nom­i­cal per­spec­tive. A cel­e­bra­tion of “one world” on a Mardi Gras float de­voted to as­tron­omy would fit per­fectly.

Your favourite Bowie al­bum is Hunky Dory, which in­cludes Life On Mars. Have you heard Streisand’s ver­sion? Bowie said it was “bloody atro­cious”!

No, I haven’t, but there’s a great ver­sion of Life On Mars in the Bowie mu­si­cal Lazarus. That whole mu­si­cal is bril­liant. It’s hard to do a great Bowie cover be­cause they are such de­fin­i­tive songs, but I’m go­ing to lis­ten to the Streisand ver­sion now! Last but not least, are you briefs, box­ers or free-balling?

Boxer briefs be­cause I find they’re the most com­fort­able.

In one sense, we are ab­so­lutely in­signif­i­cant… But we’re col­lec­tions of atoms that think, and that could be an ex­tremely rare phe­nom­e­non.

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