Physicist Brian Cox: ‘The side of me that people don’t tend to see is the side that argues’

With his planet-sized brain, good looks and knack for simplifying the most complex ideas, Brian Cox has become the country’s best-loved physicist. On the eve of his latest series, Human Universe, Tom Lamont has a few questions of his own

Tom Lamont
The Observer, Sunday 5 October 2014

“Brian,” it comes over me to say, as I’m teeing up a question about this or that, “you have a large brain.” And because he has a large brain, stretched and improved over two decades’ work as a physicist at the University of Manchester, not to mention his last five years as a BBC TV personality making hard science seem half-way intelligible to the majority of us dumbos, Brian Cox can’t help correcting me. “In terms of volume,” Cox says, smiling, “it’s the same as anyone else’s.”

We’re sharing breakfast outdoors on a sunny September day in London. Cox, 46, is wearing a long-sleeved T-shirt and has a dark helmet of hair striped with grey. He eats a pastry while we talk. I’m on the coffee and almost tearful with the effort of keeping up with Cox’s rapid chat about inflationary cosmology and exponentially expanding space-time, “a fractal tree of universes”. These are just some of the topics explored in his new BBC series, Human Universe. “An attempt to humanise cosmology,” as Cox describes it.

“The series, as a whole, is physics- and cosmology-based,” he tells me. “But it really addresses the human response to ideas as much as the ideas themselves. Was the universe around forever? Is the universe eternal? What does that mean? The questions cosmology raises are essentially inward-looking. Questions about why we’re here.” It seems early in the day for it. Cox hasn’t touched his coffee yet. But OK, why are we here?

“Now that’s an idiotic question, in a way. ‘Why’ questions always fail, scientifically. Why does that object fall to the ground? Because of the force of gravity. Why is the gravity there? Because of the curvature of space-time. Why does it…?” Cox rolls a hand in the air, suggesting endless questions. “In the end you always get to I don’t know. Science is really about ‘how’.” He takes a bite of his pastry. “But with cosmology you do tend to start to touch on these ‘why’ questions. And what we’ve tried to do in this series is play with that tension.”

In Human Universe he’ll be seen prowling among Ethiopian baboons, also dressing up in an astronaut’s compression suit to simulate a space walk. At about the time it broadcasts, Cox will be back in Manchester, seeing to the non-public-facing side of his career as an academic, this term lecturing a fresh crop of undergrads on relativity and quantum mechanics. “It takes me 24 lectures, each an hour, to teach introductory relativity,” he says, happily. His TV work requires considerably more concision. In an episode of Human Universe, for example, Cox gets just under an hour to explain “the whole of human history – agriculture, cities, bit of writing, and suddenly we’re in space. You’re not gonna tell that story in any detail! So it’s an impressionistic thing.”

I have a vivid memory of Cox, in one of his earlier programmes, discussing the Andromeda Galaxy (2.5m light years away) and instinctively pointing that way, as if it were a couple of streets over. He has a favourite- teacher’s knack for reduction, making enormous subjects seem local and relevant, finding accessible routes into hilariously complicated theories. In the 2011 series Wonders of the Universe he demonstrated thermodynamics (hours in a classroom) by building a sand castle. A year earlier, in the programme that made him famous, Wonders of the Solar System, he sat in the Mojave desert and knocked up a shonky but memorable experiment with a thermometer, a tin of water and an umbrella.

In that debut programme, Cox aimed to help us understand the “colossal fiery sphere of tortured matter” that is the sun, and he did so brilliantly. He went to Peru to consider sunrises, to India to stand before a solar eclipse. Cox, as 3.5m watching Britons discovered that first night, was unpatronising, pleasantly Lancashire-accented and, in the eyes of a great slew of his viewership, fit. A colossal fiery sphere of tortured matter was born.

“It was a big surprise,” recalls Cox, of that 2010 broadcast. “I’d done a couple of Horizons. I was still very busy, basically a full-time academic at Manchester. Suddenly you’re a guest on Jonathan Ross. Suddenly you’re famous. I didn’t like it very much. You’re no longer anonymous. It’s not paranoia when everyone is looking at you. It’s odd, at first, and then you get used to it. You block it out.”

Raised by bankers in Oldham, Cox was a studious, science-bent teen who was essentially waylaid on his natural path to academia, and kidnapped for five years by the pop industry. He played keyboards with a group called Dare and later with the more famous D:Ream, whose hit, “Things Can Only Get Better”, stands as a textbook example of hazardously optimistic 1990s pop. It was later co-opted to soundtrack Tony Blair’s rise to power, the ultimate irony of which has been much discussed.

“When you’re 18, 19, 20 years old, you’re not thinking: pop music is a waste of my intellect. You’re thinking: this is brilliant.” Was he the cleverest person on the tour bus? “I mean, obviously, in a rock band,” Cox says, giggling. He remembers taking science books on tour with him, always sure he’d end up back there in the end. At 23 he enrolled to study physics at Manchester and the university has been his base ever since: “For half my life.”

As a postgraduate, Cox spent time in Hamburg and in Chicago, crunching data on particle accelerators that were forerunners of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), built in the 1990s at the Cern research centre in Geneva. By the time the Collider was ready to be switched on, in 2008, Cox was senior enough as a particle physicist to be in charge of his own team of data-crunching postgrads. Wandering the halls of Cern, with the confident bearing of an ex-pop star, and nattily dressed, he was sometimes asked to appear on television – a handsome talking head who had a talent for boiling down and explaining the complicated work that was being done at Cern. “They thought: he’s been on Top of the Pops. He’ll be all right with a camera in his face.”

It was at around this time that Cox met his wife, the TV producer Gia Milinovich, a fellow science enthusiast. Cox once said he won Gia over, after initial resistance, by having a cool Cern email address. (They married in 2003 and have a five-year-old son.) While working on the Collider in Geneva, Cox also met Andrew Cohen, a BBC producer, then running the Horizon series, who felt Cox was charismatic enough to helm a show of his own. Cox was given the chance to present a few Horizons – “Can We Make a Star on Earth?” was the title of one – but his producer had trouble persuading BBC executives to invest in Cox further. Until an episode of Newsnight…

It was 2008, and the Large Hadron Collider had just been switched on. There was a lot of news coverage around the event and Cox, justly proud of the project, was invited on to the current affairs show to talk about it. Newsnight being Newsnight, a cantankerous opponent, the president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, had also been arranged, to slag the LHC off. “I was ready for him,” Cox remembers. “I’d been taught an underhand trick.”

The comedian Chris Morris, an old friend of Cox and Milinovich, had spent years studying news presenters, better to pastiche them in his comedies, such as The Day Today. Before Cox went on Newsnight, Morris told his friend that when he was ready to interrupt the other guy, all he had to do was open his mouth, contort his features, and start thrashing and flailing his arms – the camera would find him. “Chris told me: ‘Paxman does it all the time!’ So when you want to deliver that killer blow…” Cox used the trick and won the debate. He says footage of it finally convinced BBC bosses to give him his own series. “They thought, he has some attitude.”

There’s a combative, agitated side to Cox that isn’t often seen in his science programmes. “The other side of me that people don’t tend to see,” as he puts it, “the side that argues.” I get the sense of him as a bit of a taskmaster, for instance, when it comes to working with his small production team. During our conversation he briskly writes off an entire series (Wonders of the Universe) as “not doing what I thought it should… It was a lot of me walking on my own in landscapes.” Until he made Human Universe this year, which he says he’s pretty pleased with, Cox was worried he’d never top the first episode of Wonders of the Solar System, the one with the umbrella experiment that made his name. “For the last five years I’ve been thinking, is that it? You make one great film and everything else is kind of… all right?”

I wonder what kept him fronting kind-of- all-right programmes. Cox could easily have retreated back to Manchester, to his research and his marathon relativity lectures. Why make telly at all? “Because it’s a cool thing to do,” is Cox’s first, simple answer. It’s his nice-guy answer. But he takes a moment, has a bit of breakfast, and lets the other side of himself have a go. “Because otherwise, what do you do? You cede the public sphere to people on The X Factor? To footballers? We want people who do things, academics, to be part of the public sphere.

“Universities – they’re not supposed to be inward looking, they’re supposed to be engines of change, almost. They’re not a conveyor belt for the knowledge economy, just bringing students in and throwing them out, and doing some research that’s good for a particular bit of industry. They do that. But they also do other things. And my bit is one of the extreme ends of that mission that higher education has. Academia can become stronger and actually contribute more to society by being public-facing. Having public intellectuals is a good thing.”

He’s persuasive; he’s built a career on it. In the upcoming Human Universe, Cox is seen crouching in the Kenyan desert, arranging a row of ancient skulls, small to big. They’re props for a bit about how our brain capacity has grown over the millennia, from something “not much larger than a chimpanzee’s… to my brain size”. And isn’t that Cox’s skill? Helping us make a little version of that jump, winding up bigger-brained, Cox-brained, at the end of an hour in his company?

“You can easily target your television way too low,” he says. “I get told: ‘The audience won’t understand that,’ and I think that is bollocks. I think that’s a recipe for boring television. When I watch TV, if I understand every sentence, it means it’s below my intellectual capacity. So pitch higher.”

Human Universe with Professor Brian Cox starts Tuesday 7 October, at 9pm on BBC2

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