The Daily Telegraph
‘Science must survive in our post-truth universe’
Could a ‘new Einstein’ finally solve the puzzle of the cosmos? Prof Brian Cox hopes so, finds Nick Curtis
‘I don’t want my son to be aware of fame. We stay out of everybody’s way’
In our post-truth universe, where facts kowtow to personal belief, where does that leave science? Professor Brian Cox thinks carefully before saying: “It is important for people in my position – by which I mean scientists that have some sort of public voice – to say that not all opinions are equal.”
The 49-year-old physicist, television presenter and all-round cheerleader for rational thought has seen long-held facts under fire of late. Last week, basketball supremo Shaquille O’Neal expressed his view that the Earth was flat; Donald Trump’s former rival and now colleague Ben Carson says he doesn’t believe in the Big Bang.
“Well,” comes Cox’s straight-tothe-point reply, “we can see it.”
The son of bank employees, Oldham-born Cox was, famously, a keyboardist with rock band Dare and then synth-pop outfit D:Ream while studying physics at Manchester University. He re-entered the public sphere as an academic in 2007 to combat a government spending review that was “accidentally bad for physics”.
Broadcasters quickly cottoned on to the fact that he was telegenic and a born communicator on one hand, and quite feisty on the other. “Anyone who thinks the Large Hadron Collider will destroy the world is a t---,” was one of his pithier epigrams. When I interviewed him in 2013, three years after the television series Wonders of the Solar System made him a star, he frequently got into fights on Twitter with anyone he considered a “nobber”.
“I am a bit less combative [now],” he says. “Outwardly.” Last year, he decried the effect Brexit might have on global funding for science. “I have realised that confrontation is not the way forward,” he says today. “I think that people like me – in all different fields – have a responsibility to try to civilise the debate.”
Recently there has been a spate of findings breathing new excitement into our discussions of the universe: in February, Nasa announced the discovery of a new solar system that might have “potential for life”. This month, it revealed plans for a telescope that could study “dark matter”, the mysterious substance that might unlock astronomical secrets.
Does Cox feel we are getting closer to understanding the universe? “I think the mysteries are increasing, actually, certainly in cosmology,” he says. The universe is not behaving as data from the Hubble telescope, and the discovery of the Higgs boson particle by the Large Hadron Collider, suggest it should, but he hopes “an Einstein” will come along and furnish the next leap of connective theory.
In spite of our ignorance about the galaxies, Cox seems upbeat. I wouldn’t call him a “glass half full” person – as a scientist, he’d probably say the glass was the wrong size – but his undying sense of awe and his wish to share it is essentially optimistic. And we certainly have the appetite for that knowledge: this week brings the return of Stargazing Live, the “amateur astronomy show designed to get people looking at the sky”, which he has fronted since 2011. This time he will broadcast from an observatory outside Sydney, which means he can look straight at “the centre of the galaxy: there’s a black hole there, four million times the mass of the Sun, a very exotic object”.
In this year’s associated Citizen Science Project, organised by astrophysicist Chris Lintott, he hopes to get up to a million viewers sifting online through thousands of images from telescopes to find proof that suggests “there is another, Neptunesized planet out there, beyond Pluto”.
He is also embarking on the second leg of his lecture tour about the universe, which went into theatres before Christmas, and will play “eight or nine-thousand-seat” arenas this year. In his D:Ream days (he left before they recorded Things Can Only Get Better, which became New Labour’s anthem, but has reunited with them to play it since), he was always at the back, hiding his boyband smile behind the keyboards. Does he get stage fright now, alone in front of all those people? “No, I really enjoy it,” he says. “There is complete freedom because it’s my show, so I can do what I want.” It is, he says, “a very pure way of communicating. There’s a wonderful thing that happens when thousands of people in a room all think about something difficult and start to understand it. Sometimes you can hear a pin drop when you are talking about general relativity.”
His own sense of awe is undimmed. He thinks that life, in the form of microbes, will be discovered in his lifetime on Mars or on Jupiter’s moon, Europa. And he is excited by the space travel – and eventual Mars-colonisation – plans of Elon Musk, Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos et al, and of the possibilities of mining asteroids. These initiatives would reduce “competition for resources, a big driver of conflict. There’s water – rocket fuel – all over Mars. There’s everything you need on Mars to go and live there.” Cox quite fancies a trip on one of Branson’s “beautiful” Virgin Galactic ships, but he has commitments on Earth that prevent him traversing the planets. As well as the television and radio shows and tours, he still works part time at Manchester University and is professor of public engagement for the Royal Society. He has been married since 2003 to television presenter Gia Milinovich, and they have a seven-year-old son, George; Milinovich also has an older son from a previous relationship.
How does travelling affect his family life? “I do less of it now,” he says. “I wasn’t in a lot of my last series [BBC One’s Forces of Nature].”
Is George into science? “Yes and no. You know what seven-year-olds are like.” How does he feel about you being famous? “It’s not a thing I want him to be conscious of particularly.” He laughs awkwardly. “We stay out of everybody’s way.”
Talking about family and fame is the only time Cox becomes tonguetied. He says he has grown used to unsought public recognition but still likes to go to places where he is unknown, such as France (he is big in Estonia, apparently, as well as here and in Australia).
His early ambition, “to keep science in the public eye”, has spiralled into a wider spokesman’s role on behalf of public service broadcasting, investment in research, and education. And he is one of the few people sticking up for knowledge in a world where, as the classicist Mary Beard put it, “ignorance is something to be proud of ”.
“Yeah, I didn’t think we’d have to fight that battle,” says Cox, still smiling. “I thought at least people in general accepted that knowledge is a good thing. But even that might need to be addressed now.”
Stargazing Live begins on BBC Two tomorrow at 8pm. For details of Cox’s tour, go to briancoxlive.co.uk.