Professor Brian Cox: The universe, conspiracy theories, and music
The Tab sat down with Professor Brian Cox to discuss the universe, the music industry, and making science accessible.
On Wednesday, the Tab was lucky enough to sit down with the one and only Professor Brian Cox during his visit to the Cambridge Union. Professor Cox, who is well known for his television appearances on programmes such as Wonders of the Universe and his music career in the band D:Ream, chatted to us about everything from space to music.
The nature of the unknown within our universe helps give rise to a lot of conspiracy theories, but Professor Cox believes the answer is not to laugh, but to “make an effort.” He stated that “just laughing at people is not the answer,” as people in a democracy need to understand how we gain “reliable knowledge about the world” and many conspiracy theories, especially those concerning climate change and vaccination, can be extremely dangerous.
On the issue of climate change, Cox believes that people need to understand that our knowledge of how humans are hurting the environment is based on “our best understanding of how the climate system works” rather than a “random opinion.”
When asked how to deal with a flat earther, he believes the same principle applies – we should aim to explain rather than dismiss. He then suggested that we can explain such concepts using models: by taking the “cosmological model” of a flat earth, you can go through that model and explain logically why that model “might be accurate or inaccurate.”
Whilst on the topic of conspiracies, I just had to ask about one of the most discussed ones – did man really land on the moon in the 60s? In response to my question asking why we had not put another astronaut on the moon since the Apollo missions, despite the advancement of technology, he reasoned that “we could, except it was really expensive.” The reason, in Cox’s view, to send someone to the moon and justify spending so much had “evaporated” with the end of the Cold War.
Considering the launch of the Artemis I mission to the moon happened on the day of the interview, he explained that “now, it’s a lot easier and a lot cheaper. So, one of the reasons we are going back is there is a plan, which is to establish a permanent human base on the moon and then head to Mars.”
Making Science Accessible
Professor Cox’s rousing success in the media has allowed him to reach the population and educate them on physics, simplifying grand concepts in a way that people can understand. He told me this focus on accessibility was in fact, “slightly accidental.” Cox described how his media career stemmed from forming a physics action group which aimed to educate the population on their research, in response to cuts in government funding to physics. Cox claimed that “all I wanted to do was research, and the research budgets were being cut because nobody seemed to care.”
From this, Cox discussed how he was invited to talk on Newsnight, which he described as his “way in.” His media career that followed was illustrious, making programmes like Wonders of the Universe and Wonders of the Solar System.
The Politics of Science
When describing his inspirations, Professor Cox mentioned American astronomer Carl Sagan and the series “Cosmos,” saying it was “incredible to me as you didn’t have much science on television.”
But, the thing Cox really loved about Sagan’s show is that it was “a polemic.” Cox talked at length describing his belief that science is political, as it provides perspective for politicians. He described his video introduction to the COP 26 conference in Glasgow, in which he claimed that we might be “the only civilisation in this galaxy.” For Cox, this was a political statement, as if politicians mess it up, they might “eliminate meaning forever in a galaxy of 400 billion stars.”
Space and its Portrayal in the Media
For many, films depicting space will have been a core part of both childhood and adult life, perhaps leading to misconceptions about space. When asked which television shows and films are accurate in their depictions of space and which ones are not, Cox replied “as a way of teaching relativity, interstellar is very good,” mentioning Kip Thorne’s book “The Science of Interstellar.”
However, Cox’s accounts of sci-fi films that are less accurate will come as a disappointment to many Star Wars fans. Despite admitting that it is a great film, he said that “the problem with Star Wars is not travelling in the Millennium Falcon really close to the speed of light, jumping vast distances in short spaces of time, it’s that when you go back again, everyone will be dead.”
As well as being successful in the science world, Professor Cox has also enjoyed success in the music industry – most notably as the keyboard player in the band D:Ream, but also in the rock band Dare which he described as his “main detour.”
Although he only intended to take one year off before going to university, Dare, which he joined when he was 18, got a record deal so he ended up taking five years off. He discussed that even though D:Ream was the “most famous stuff,” mentioning the success of the 1993 song “Things Can Only Get Better,” he spent the most time in Dare. He described his first professional show, supporting Jimmy Page, which was the first time he earned money from music. He added: “I never thought I would be in a band like that when I was growing up in Oldham.”
Due to Cox’s great success in both science and music, I asked how he decided between the two career paths. Although he admitted that a lot of the decisions he made, “didn’t close off the other path,” he said that in the second year of his degree, he had to make a choice to either stay at university or go on tour with D:Ream. “If I had gone off with D:Ream then I would not have finished the degree.” But, as he was “loving doing physics,” he chose to stay and finish his degree.
Career Advice and Impostor Syndrome
Cox kindly offered up some career advice. He emphasised how important it is to finish things and see them through, saying that “It is the hardest thing in the world to finish stuff, not to start it,” and he used the example of completing a PhD to illustrate that although the going can get tough sometimes, it is important to persevere.
As the interview drew to a close, I thought it would be fitting to ask Professor Cox for his take on impostor syndrome given that most Cambridge students experience it. His take was that “if you become successful in any field, it’s a mixture of luck and work.” He claimed that for him, a lot of things were “just being in the right place at the right time, but I don’t beat myself up about that because I think that is the same for everybody.”
So there you have it, the wise words of Professor Cox – the antidote for everything from conspiracy theories to impostor syndrome.
All images including feature image credits: The Cambridge Union