Human Universe's Brian Cox anwers the big questions

Brian Cox is back on the small screen this week in the five-part series Human Universe
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Brian Cox is back on the small screen this week in the five-part series Human Universe

Brian Cox has been turning viewers onto science for the past decade. He talks to James Croot about his latest, five-part series – Human Universe.

What was it about this particular project that appealed to you?

It's really the series I've been groping towards throughout my whole television career. It's the closest thing to what is my favourite series, which is Carl Sagan's Cosmos – in terms of the questions that it attempts to address.

What made Sagan such a great science communicator?

When I first saw that show in 1980, the thing that surprised me was that he connected astronomy, science and cosmology with very human concerns.  There was a strong element of polemic in what he did, which also runs through Human Universe. He was a very powerful campaigner against the use of nuclear weapons and we used his 13th episode to talk about nuclear disarmament. The fact he did a campaigning programme I thought was very important. He was also the first person to explicitly talk about the perspective science delivers to arguments like the one about whether we are alone in the universe. It is possible to argue that because the universe is infinite, we are physically insignificant. However, it is also possible to argue that civilisations like ours may be extremely rare. That means we are valuable.

With all the other options out their now, do you think that television is still the best medium to communicate scientific ideas?

Yes, it's still the most influential medium, especially in popular culture. You can't get too grandiose about it, but if there's a message you want people to think about, I can't think of a better medium.  It's a difficult medium because it's superficial – you don't have very long – it's not like a book. And if you want to make a point, you've got to get people to watch, so it's got to be entertaining as well. I find that balance very difficult. There's a great creative friction between myself and television producers in general because I think television habitually underestimates the audience, but it also needs a counterbalance to that, otherwise you go off into something that becomes too academic. I think you see that battle go on on screen in my programmes. The great thing about some of the theories that we talk about on the show is that nobody knows what they mean or what to make of them. That means the question then becomes what does it mean to you? In America, one of the TV executives got most upset. He said to me, "you can't do that, you can't ask the audience to think, can you answer the question please!". I said, "no, I don't know the answer to the question of life, the universe and everything. He was most upset.

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So what's the biggest challenge facing science in 2016?

Finding a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance. Take the bible – according to some, if it didn't begin with Genesis then the world would be a better place. The key to the success of science, and why we have satellites and internet and mobile phones – verything we take for granted – rests on the idea that people didn't know and did the best they could. They always knew something wasn't right and kept going, kept testing, kept standing on the edge of the known and the unknown. The very acceptance that there is an unknown and being comfortable with it is what's key.

I guess Google has made things harder then?

They say an answer is always a click away. But the point is there aren't any answers, which is something that is often misunderstood. My colleague warn me against saying that because people will say 'well then, we didn't land on the moon'. Of course we landed on the bloody moon!There's a balance of probabilities, I think. We know some things as certainly as we can – the earth goes round the sun. Knowledge in science comes from a consistent picture with many piece of evidence. That helps you come to a view about something that is most likely right. The problem with the internet is that it confuses things and you get ghettos where people of like minds reinforce their ideas, build a wall and will not be open to challenge or scrutiny - and that's a problem. That's the challenge the education system is meant to address, teaching people to make up their own mind about questions with regard to what we do and don't know.

Space travel is a hot topic at the moment, what do you think is the best way forward?

Oldham Athletic need a financial saviour if they are ever to compete in the Premier League again believes former season ...
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Oldham Athletic need a financial saviour if they are ever to compete in the Premier League again believes former season ticket-holder Brian Cox.

I think Nasa have it right now in handing low-orbit travel and the International Space Station over to the private sector. But if we want to go to Mars, because that's what we should be doing, then that's not going to be done by the private sector anytime soon.  It is very risky and requires a lot of research and development – but the rewards are enormous, by the way. It has been absolutely demonstrated that public investment in high-tech pays back remarkably. The figures on the Apollo programme show at least a 7 to 1 return by 1980 and arguably 14 to 1. There were 400,000 engineers in Nasa by end of 1960s and the average age in Mission Control was under 30, so no wonder America got economic growth. 

So do you think we'll see a mission to Mars in your lifetime?

It depends on politics to an extent – someone bold enough to do the right thing in the way that Kennedy did.

Brian Cox believes The Martian is one of the best advertisements ever for a career in engineering.
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Brian Cox believes The Martian is one of the best advertisements ever for a career in engineering.

To more earthly, but no less important to a football club supporter like yourself, matters. What is the key to turning around the fortunes of your beloved Oldham Athletic?

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They probably need to be purchased by a billionaire. It's a great problem in football in Britain. You've got the Premier League that is so astonishingly rich, that it's extremely difficult for clubs lower down to compete. Oldham were a founder member of the Premier League, I was a season ticket holder at the time. We've seen something special with Leicester this season, so perhaps competition is coming back. But we need some money.

Finally with the rebirth of Stars Wars and Trek and a bunch of smart science-fiction films there seems to be a bit of a renaissance of the genre in popular culture – do you think that is helping or hindering mainstream science?

I think Interstellar was a brilliant film. The Martian – I think I tweeted that was the best advert for a career in engineering I've seen. We've seen it before too – 2001 grew out of the Apollo atmosphere. Science has to be part of popular culture, it is way too important not to be. And I think the more science you get in there, the more likely we are to make progress.

Human Universe 8.30pm, Thursday, BBC Knowledge.

 - Stuff

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