Friday, May 31, 2013

The curious guide to the galaxy

Brian Cox feels duty-bound to spread the word about science.

Brian Cox feels duty-bound to spread the word about science.

Jangly guitar plays. A helicopter shot swoops, Mission: Impossible-style, over a big, derelict building and captures a tiny figure: Professor Brian Cox walks across the roof, down into the stained interior. ''Imagine this old prison in Rio is a dying star,'' he says to the camera. ''Out there is the bright surface shining off into space.''

He starts to descend a grimy staircase. ''As I descend deeper and deeper into the prison the conditions would become hotter and hotter and denser and denser until …''

He gestures down a dark hole into the dusty depths of the building. ''Down there in the heart of the star is the core. And it's in there that all the ingredients of life are made.''

Some computer-generated models follow; a dying star roars and groans as the guitar plays on.


Cox spray-paints chemical symbols onto the prison walls. He explains a bit about gravity and nuclear fusion.

And then, the money shot: the prison block implodes, crumbling into dust in the same amount of time a star takes to finally collapse.

This moment from Wonders of the Universe is classic BBC science documentary stuff: beautifully shot, dripping in money, and not a little educational. Cox loves it. ''It was very televisual; it was a stunt in a way but, actually, it does illustrate the point very well.''

Cox, who is coming to Melbourne for ''An Evening of Scientific Phenomena'' at Hamer Hall in August, is often referred to as the ''rock star'' scientist. It's not just cliche: he played keyboards for D:Ream (Things Can Only Get Better) in the 1990s while studying for his PhD in high-energy particle physics. Then, for a few years, he quietly beavered away at science. But about 2005, the BBC's science team discovered that he made for a charismatic talking head.

That year he popped up in a Horizon documentary on Einstein, sitting in front of some ''E=mc-squared'' graffiti, looking like Keanu Reeves and sounding like an Oasis band member (he's from Oldham, outside Manchester).

A few years later, he graduated to presenter, in a documentary on his workplace, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Switzerland. His hair was less shaggy but his easy charm and boyish enthusiasm were undimmed, and he helped Britain get its head around the world's biggest physics experiment and theories about the birth of the universe.

A star was born (sorry).

He now has three Wonder series under his belt: lavish documentaries in which he travels to exotic locations around the world, using them as metaphors to understand the nature of the universe.

His programs have been credited with a surge in the number of British students who want to take physics - especially in Manchester - a phenomenon the media dubbed ''the Cox effect'', though he prefers to broadly credit the BBC's ''year of science'' in 2010, of which his Wonders of the Solar System was just one highlight.

In person, Cox is like his TV persona, only dialled down a little. We meet in a little cafe in Clapham - he's wearing sneakers and a grey tracksuit top - the interview a break in his day of writing for a book and his next documentary series. Less than an hour later, I have a much better understanding of Einstein's theory of relativity, I've had a brief education in the basics of cosmology, and I've learnt a bit about the Higgs field and its troubling role in dark energy. ''The amount of energy tied up in the Higgs field per cubic metre, it's more energy than the sun outputs in a thousand years,'' Cox says. ''That should blow the universe to bits. It doesn't. Nobody knows why.''

I'm not clear on what the Higgs field is, but I want to be. This is why Cox is such good TV talent. He's not didactic or condescending. He's not old-schoolmaster BBC.

He's genuinely excited by physics, and assumes that either you already are, or you will be once you hear a bit more about it.

Cox isn't in science education TV for the fame or the money. He thinks it's his duty, that it makes the world a better place. ''I've always thought that science should be part of popular culture,'' he says. ''It's way too important not to be. When I first started out years ago [in TV], that was one of the motivating factors. Science is so important, it has to be visible and in the conversation. So I've always thought scientists should be celebrities.''

He passionately believes that putting science into the public arena improves society as a whole. It's not just about economic growth, though that has been demonstrated again and again to follow investment in education in science and engineering.

''A curiosity-led exploration of nature has always turned out historically to be useful,'' he says. ''Without that basic premise that we should explore the universe and understand it, you wouldn't have science.''

One of his favourite quotes is from the birth of modern science in London, at the founding of the Royal Institute (RI) in the late 18th century. Part of their purpose was to convince the rich and powerful that engineering and science were the basis of civilisation.

Scientist Michael Faraday, who later invented the electric motor and the generator in the RI's basement, was under political pressure to justify its existence. ''Nothing is more fatal to the progress of the human mind than to presume … that our triumphs are complete, that there are no mysteries in nature,'' he declared.

Cox says every generation of scientists has to fight complacency among society's rulers, the assumption that most of what's useful has already been discovered.

''You can feel it now,'' he says. ''When you've got difficult economic times you see governments saying, 'Well, maybe we should cut back on this kind of blue-sky stuff'. It's just drivel. You imagine if that had happened in 1799 when the Royal Institute was being set up. Then, in the worst-case scenario, you don't get electricity.''

Cox still finds time for science. ''I always wanted to be a scientist and that's what I think of myself as, even though most people think of me as some sort of light entertainer these days.''

He lectures at the University of Manchester, teaching quantum mechanics and relativity to first-year students. It ''keeps your mind working'', he says, because it demands more discipline than television.

Cox also continues his research. He is part of a team that runs experiments at the LHC, though it's undergoing maintenance, so he is working on a few theories on the troubling nature of cause and effect in the quantum basement of reality.

He says it's not always easy. There is a ''central tension'' in scientific documentaries between information and entertainment. Sometimes he gets it right, such as when the building in Rio blew up.

But sometimes it goes wrong. In Wonders of Life, he used a great white shark to talk about the Reynolds number, which measures the balance between viscosity and ''drag'' in water and explains why sharks are a similar shape to submarines. ''But, you know, there's a temptation in television to go, 'Wow, it's a shark!''' he says. ''It got moved up to the front of the film, and I fought that. I don't usually lose battles but I lost that one and I think it's worse for it.''

The first episode of his next series (which he's dubbed Human Universe) will be about humanity's ''ascent into insignificance''. In 400 years we've moved from the centre of the universe to an insignificant speck in one galaxy among 350 billion. ''But it is an ascent,'' Cox says, with his customary infectious enthusiasm, ''because we've understood that.''

Brian Cox, with host Adam Spencer, is at Hamer Hall on August 14.
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