A neutron walks into a bar and asks, "how much for a drink?". The bartender replies, "for you, no charge".
While I can't take the credit for that feeble joke, it stands to represent the extent of my physics knowledge. But researching for an interview with Brian Cox, particle physicist, professor at the University of Manchester, television presenter, former pop star, and one of People magazine's Sexiest Man Alive, needn't have been so daunting.
New Zealanders may be most familiar with Cox's documentary series Wonders of the Solar System and Wonders of the Universe, where he traverses the globe, from Norway to Death Valley in California and even 18 kilometres above the surface of the earth, to showcase astonishing aspects of science.
Over the phone from Sydney, Cox's delivery mimics his presenting style: the soothing northern English accent, the calm and patient tone. He says words like "incredible" and "fascinating" and "beautiful", because can you ever use enough hyperboles to describe the complexities of space?
Cox's latest venture is Stargazing, a live (when it screened in the UK earlier this year) astronomy series he hosts alongside comedian Dara O'Briain, biochemist Liz Bonnin and astronomer Mark Thompson (plus there's an appearance from Queen guitarist and astrophysicist Brian May). While keen astronomers can start polishing their telescopes, Stargazing is pitched at anyone with an interest in space.
The series is in its third year, spanning three episodes that focus on Mars, Earth and the Big Bang respectively. It has a number of components - experiments, explanations, interviews, live crosses to Nasa - to encourage us to have a gander at the night sky and all it beholds.
Despite the delay, New Zealand audiences will get the essence of the live version, which Cox says is important. "I think you can get a lot more information across [with live television]. In a documentary format there's a lot of television in there. It looks beautiful, it's more of a filmic experience," he says. "Whereas with a live show, what both myself and Dara love is that we're in control of it so it doesn't actually matter what everybody else thinks, if we think something's interesting, we'll do it . . . it's rather anarchic in a sense and I love that."
Cox's expertise lies in making science become mainstream and busting the myth that's its impenetrable. "The first step to understanding is to be excited and to be interested," he says.
These days a good measure of someone or something's position in mainstream popular culture is Twitter. Cox has been a trending topic on the social media website with the hashtag BrianCoxKnowsEverything. Has he heard of it? He laughs, "No, so there you go, it's obviously wrong."
But does he know, as the hashtag suggests, things like "if a tree falls in a forest and Brian Cox isn't there to stare meaningfully at it, does it make a sound?" Or does he know "what Meatloaf wouldn't do for love"? He laughs again: "No, I don't." So what does he think about such frivolous anecdotes? "The idea that science should be part of popular culture is really an important idea and so Twitter is a big part of popular culture . . . The alternative is to have Twitter dominated by people on reality TV shows or something like that. Why would that be a healthier situation? It wouldn't."
Of course, like anyone who holds stern scientific views, Cox has been faced with opposition and Wonders critics have suggested Cox is dumbing down science, an accusation he says is "idiotic". "Popular culture is the battleground where you fight for people's time and if you don't recognise that, if you think that this subject is too worthy and too grand for the masses, or some ridiculous statement, then what you're actually doing is you're condemning your economy into decline because you need public support and you need people who want to go into the area. So it's not even as though I have no time for people who say that, I'm actually actively irritated by them."
THE BRIAN COX EFFECT
The Brian Cox Effect is well-documented. Amazon reported a 500 per cent increase in telescope sales following Stargazing 2012 and the University of Manchester has seen an increase in enrolments, with astronomy up 45 per cent. "But it's not just me, it's down I think to the BBC in general and their commitment to science programming. There's a lot to be said for having broad-based public service channels where people can just dip in and they'll see something they wouldn't have normally watched and it can actually change the course of their life in fact," says Cox.
A love for science changed the course of Cox's own life. In the 1980s Cox was a member of rock band Dare, and he joined pop band D:Ream before completing his university studies. But the pull of physics was stronger than having the lifestyle of a long-haired keyboardist.
Currently Cox is deeply involved with CERN, working on a particle detector called the Atlas experiment, at the underground Large Hadron Collider in Geneva. Called "the biggest experiment of all time", one of the aims is to isolate the Higgs Boson, or "the God particle" by replicating conditions present in the universe less than a billionth of a second after the Big Bang.
He is venturing into biology with the new Wonders of Life series. It has seen him work with Monty Python's Eric Idle, and has prompted David Attenborough to say, "if I had a torch I would hand it to Brian Cox".
Cox's rising star status has led to regular public recognition when he's out and about. "It is quite hard in Britain because you don't notice yourself getting well-known. It has got to the point now where if I step out of the house and go to a shop I will be asked questions about physics, which is actually really great but it does end up changing the way you behave a bit."
"I get asked a lot about black holes and things like that, Big Bang, a lot about CERN. Very few people ask me about astrology because they know what's going to happen . . . people know actually if they follow me on Twitter not to ask me about bollocks."
Stargazing, Sunday, 8.30pm, BBC Knowledge
- © Fairfax NZ News
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