It isn’t easy making complicated ideas accessible to a mass audience, but Professor Brian Cox has spent the last decade doing precisely that to stunning effect.
His exploration of particle physics and astronomy on TV shows such as Stargazing Live, Wonders Of The Solar System and Forces Of Nature have entranced millions in their living rooms. And given the vast numbers of people who got up from their sofas to witness his last live tour, people clearly can’t get enough of Brian Cox in person. So much so that he’s even earned himself an entry in the Guinness World Records for ‘most tickets sold for a science tour’.
While Brian can be rightly proud of such an achievement, it merely confirms a longstanding belief.
‘I’ve always thought that most people are interested in these ideas. If science is available they will come and they’ll listen and think and enjoy being challenged. Everybody is interested in questions or ideas that are best addressed by astronomy or physics or biology or geology: they’re interested in whether aliens are out there or how the universe began or how it’s going to end.’
This natural curiosity has been answered by Brian’s addictively watchable TV shows and dramatic live events. ‘Some people get the mistaken impression that they can’t understand it and that science is for weird boffin-type people. It’s very important to get the message across, especially to children, that scientists have chosen a career in finding out about nature, and that’s it. You don’t have to be freakishly clever. You don’t have to be Mozart to be a professional musician or Einstein to be a scientist, otherwise we wouldn’t have many!’
With his current tour, he will once again aim to have audiences walk away with more of an understanding about the universe’s origins and evolution than they had when they bought their ticket.
‘For the last tour, we had a lot of dates in smaller venues and they sold out very quickly. So we decided to put more shows in arenas, which I thought I wouldn’t enjoy because it wouldn’t be the same experience. But what it allowed us to do was to use these enormous hi-res LED screens, and suddenly the images from the Hubble Space Telescope and the Cassini spacecraft around Saturn came to life in a way that I’d never seen them. You usually look at them on a computer monitor. I think the audience really enjoyed the spectacle that astronomy can deliver. The only downsides are that you have to book that kind of technology a year-and-a-half in advance or you can’t get it – lots of massive rock bands like Coldplay and U2 use it – and it’s really expensive, so you take a risk. But it’s worth it to see these images of the cosmos as you’ve never seen them before.’
That mention of globetrotting rock behemoths is the perfect excuse to ask him about his own previous life as a member of 90s bands Dare and D:Ream (with Things Can Only Get Better, the latter had a number one hit and New Labour anthem for the 1997 General Election). Is there a little bit inside him that wonders whether he’d have loved to still be in a band?
‘There really isn’t. I’d say I am a competent musician, but not that good! I think if I’d got to my age now in music I wouldn’t have been creating great things; I don’t think I have it in me. I couldn’t write Abbey Road and that’s what I’d have wanted to do so I think I’m not good enough, I can play and operate in a band but that’s about it. I’m definitely better at science than I am at music.’
Joining Brian onstage for the Q&A section will be comedian Robin Ince, the pair having worked on Radio 4’s The Infinite Monkey Cage since 2009. Was he a fan of the stand-up before they teamed up on the radio?
‘I’d never heard of him until I worked with him,’ Brian admits with a chuckle.
‘There was this idea of doing a topical science show on Radio 4. I was introduced to him because the producer wanted to see if it would work having a comedian and a scientist co-presenting. And it did work because, among other things, Robin is one of the most well-read people I know, so he’s full of information and he knows something about everything. He’s also been trying to teach me how to impersonate John Peel but I just can’t do it.’
Talking of impersonations, Brian Cox is one of those who has been immortalised in mimicry by Dead Ringers’ Jon Culshaw. Does he take this as a compliment?
‘I know Jon very well but he’s doing the 40-year-old me and hasn’t moved on to the almost 50-year-old me. I’ve evolved in the way I present television programmes but the early ones are exactly like Jon Culshaw. But now I speak a bit faster and keep my arms in check a bit more.’
As well as putting on entertaining and enlightening live shows, Brian is also keen to dispel some myths about his work. One of them is that scientists don’t spend hour upon hour every day on their own in the lab, shuffling home to write up their research before doing it all again the next day.
‘One of the key points about modern science – certainly astronomy and particle physics - is that it’s extremely collaborative and international. With the science I do, no single country can build those facilities any more. One of the great attractions of the job, which I emphasise particularly for younger people thinking of a career in science, is that you get to travel and meet different people from different cultures and countries and this is vitally important.
‘The more perspectives we can get the more likely we are to understand nature. This collaboration is a blueprint for the way that our civilisation must develop. We all live on the same planet, after all.’
PROFESSOR BRIAN COX: LIVE
The Brighton Centre
Wednesday, February 26