Q&A with Brian Cox, part 3: ‘Wonders’ and Popularizing Science


Professor Brian Cox is the Chair in Particle Physics at the University of Manchester, and works on the ATLAS experiment (A Toroidal LHC ApparatuS) at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. But he’s also active in the popularization of science, specifically with his new television series and companion book, Wonders of the Universe. Universe Today had the chance to talk with Cox, and on Tuesday he told us about the recent advances in particle physics, and on Wednesday we asked him about his favorite space missions and his hopes for the future of science. Today, Cox tells us about his role in sharing science with the public, and talks about his new book and filming the television series.

For a chance to win a copy of the “Wonders of the Universe” book, see our contest post.

Universe Today: You’ve been really busy, with writing books, filming two television series and DVDs. Do you have time to do research in particle physics as well?

Brian Cox: Well, I must say I’ve been a bit restricted over the past couple of years in how much research I’ve done. I’m still attached to the experiment at CERN, but it’s just one of those things! In many ways it’s a regret because I would love to be there full time at the moment because it is so genuinely exciting. We’re making serious progress and we’re going to discover something like the Higgs particle, I would guess, within the next 12 months.

But then again, you can’t do everything and it’s a common regret amongst academics, actually, that that as they get older, they get taken away from the cutting-edge of research if they’re not careful! But I suppose it is not a bad way to be taken away from the cutting edge, to make TV programs and push this agenda that I have to make science more relevant and popular.

UT : Absolutely! Outreach and educating the public is very important, especially in the area of research you are in. I would guess a majority of the general public are not exceptionally well-versed in particle physics.

Cox: Well, Carl Sagan is a great hero of mine and he used to say it is really about teaching people the scientific method – or actually providing the understanding and appreciation of what science is. We look at these questions, such as what happened just after the Universe began, or why the particles in the Universe have mass – they are very esoteric questions.

But the fact that we’ve been able build some reasonable theories about the how old universe is — and we have a number 13.73 ± 0.12 billion years old, quite a precise number — so the question of showing how you get to those quite remarkable conclusions is very important. When you look at what we might call more socially-important subjects – for example how to respond to global warming, or what should be our policy for vaccinating the population against disease, or how should we produce energy in the future, and if you understand what the scientific method is and that it is apolitical and a-religious and it is a-everything and there is no agenda there, and is just pure way of looking of universe, that’s the important thing for society to understand.

UT : Please tell us about your new book, “Wonders of the Universe.”

“Wonders of the Universe” is a book about the television series. Traditionally these books are quite ‘coffee table,’ image-heavy books. The filming of the series took longer than we anticipated, so actually the book got written relatively quickly because I had time to sit down and really just write about the physics. Although it is tied with the television series, it does go quite a lot deeper in many areas. I’m quite pleased about that. So it’s more than just snapshots of my view of the physics of the TV series.

I should say also, some parts of it are in the form of a diary of what it was like filming the TV series. There are always some things you do and places you go that have quite an impact on you. And I tend to take a lot of pictures so many of the photographs in the book are mine. So, it is written on two levels: It is a much deeper view of the physics of the television series, but secondly it is a diary of the experience of filming the series and going to those places.

(Editor’s note, Cox is also just finishing a book on quantum mechanics, so look for that in the near future)

Brian Cox, while filming a BBC series in the Sahara. Image courtesy Brian Cox

UT : What were some of your best experiences while filming ‘Wonders?’

Cox: One thing that, well, I wouldn’t say enjoyed filming, because it was quite nerve-wracking – but something that really worked was the prison demolition sequence in Rio. We used it as an analog for a collapsing star, a star at the end of its life that has run out of fuel and it collapses under its own gravity. It does that in a matter of seconds, on the same timescale as a building collapses when you detonate it.

Wandering around a building that is full of live dynamite and explosives is not very relaxing! It was all wired up and ready to go. But when we blew it up, and I thought it really worked well, and I enjoyed it a lot, actually as a television piece.

The ambition of the series is to try and get away from using too many graphics, if possible. You obviously have to use some graphics because we are talking about quite esoteric concepts, but we tried to put these things ‘on Earth’, by using real physical things to talk about the processes. What we did, we went inwards into the prison and at each layer we said, here’s where the hydrogen fuses to helium, and here’s the shell where helium goes to carbon and oxygen, and another shell all the way down to iron at the center of the stars. That’s the way stars are built, so we used this layered prison to illustrate that and then collapse it. That’s a good example of what the ambition of the series was.

UT : You’ve been called a rock star in the physics and astronomy field but in actuality you did play in a rock band before returning to science. What prompted that shift in your career?

Cox: I always wanted to be a physicist or astronomer from as far back as I can remember, that was always my thing when I was growing up. I got distracted when I was in my teens, or interested I should say, in music and being in a band. The opportunity came to join a band that was formed by an ex-member of Thin Lizard, a big rock band in the UK, and the States as well, so I did that. We made two albums; we toured with lots of people. That band split up and I went to university and then joined another band as a side line, and that band got successful as well. That was two accidents, really! It was a temporary detour rather than a switch, because I always wanted to do physics.

UT : Thanks for taking the time to talk with us on Universe Today – we appreciate all the work you do in making science more accessible so everyone can better appreciate and understand how it impacts our lives.

Cox: Thank you, I appreciate it!

Find out more about Brian Cox at his website, Apollo’s Children

Nancy Atkinson

Nancy has been with Universe Today since 2004, and has published over 6,000 articles on space exploration, astronomy, science and technology. She is the author of two books: "Eight Years to the Moon: the History of the Apollo Missions," (2019) which shares the stories of 60 engineers and scientists who worked behind the scenes to make landing on the Moon possible; and "Incredible Stories from Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos" (2016) tells the stories of those who work on NASA's robotic missions to explore the Solar System and beyond. Follow Nancy on Twitter at https://twitter.com/Nancy_A and and Instagram at and https://www.instagram.com/nancyatkinson_ut/

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