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October 28, 2011 9:18 pm
Brian Cox has it made. The cheerful, good-looking physicist is the face of British science. After a brief career as a chart-topping pop musician in the early 1990s, he is now a university professor who fronts epic BBC television series on life, the universe and everything.
Cox and I meet to discuss these matters over lunch in the Coal Hole on the Strand, along with Jeff Forshaw, a fellow professor of physics at the University of Manchester. The two men have written a new book, The Quantum Universe, about an area of science that is generally considered inaccessible to the public.
Quantum physics is concerned with the constituent subatomic parts of the universe around us, whose behaviour – for a species more versed in dealing with much larger objects – can seem extremely perverse. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Switzerland, which sits in a massive underground laboratory, has been built precisely to explore this baffling world.
Cox and Forshaw are a long-established writing and research double act in this area – not that they came to their stations by the same route. “We’re the same age,” says the 43-year-old Cox, “but because I’d had my little sojourn into pop music I started at university late. So I was actually a PhD student when Jeff was a very young lecturer.”
The two professors now stand together on the cutting edge of their discipline: their most high-profile research paper outlined a method by which scientists might be able to detect the Higgs particle (an elusive subatomic particle believed to exist by most quantum physicists), using the Large Hadron Collider.
Despite their elevated status, both men remain tiggerishly excitable about their subject. They cut in on one another as we work through our beer, pies and sausages, evangelising about why science needs to be better understood. “Obviously it’s an important part of culture,” Cox says, “and there are certain things you should know about in the same way you should know a little bit about Shakespeare.”
Cox also wants the public to understand what scientists actually do, so that government policy is effective. He became more engaged in selling science in 2007 when the Labour government “messed up” physics funding, then “allowed it to continue to be a mess because they didn’t think it was really very important”. He wants to raise the political cost of making mistakes on science.
But he and Forshaw do not just want the public to learn trivia; they want people to grasp the scientific method – how researchers test ideas against evidence. “Evidence-based thinking [has] been shown to be the most successful way of thinking that humans have yet developed,” Cox says. “One of the questions that always occurs to me is why on earth didn’t the Greeks do this, or the Romans, or the Egyptians. It would have been brilliant.” He jokes: “We would have been living on Mars now, if those idiots had just thought.”
Both men suggest that quantum physics should be taught in schools because it forces an understanding of scientific method: “It’s not technically difficult, but it’s intellectually challenging in the sense that the evidence tells you you have to think in a different way,” Cox says.
Forshaw says quantum physics is so counter- intuitive that “nobody got it right first. Everybody had to have their intuition beaten out of them by the data.” He points out that, 20 years after the first great breakthroughs, senior physicists “were still being swayed by the idea that the world should be something like their everyday experiences of the way the world is.”
He gives a classic example: “I can throw a ball through the air and we think the ball is kind of moving along some definite trajectory and that it’s always somewhere,” Forshaw says. “But that’s not what’s happening; every atom in that ball is in a real sense exploring the entirety of the universe at every instant.”
Grasping how a ball can behave in a different way to its component parts requires both patience and suspension of disbelief. Cox and Forshaw’s book is a carefully guided tour through this quantum world – but an uncompromising one. It is an attempt to popularise without dumbing down. “We both have a view that physics is understandable to everybody,” Cox says, “if you just take your time and explain it. But it shouldn’t be simpler than that.”
Despite their enthusiasm to sell science, both men are keen to distance themselves from the recent flurry of popularisation led by Richard Dawkins, the Oxford biologist, which links science to atheism. Cox says: “The atheism thing, to me, is unhelpful as a label for popularising science.” Forshaw agrees with him: “I think Dawkins polarises it too much… [The argument] turns people away from science a little.”
Quantum physicists do not face the same kind of opposition from religion as evolutionary biologists, but Cox does not think that there is any necessary conflict between religious thought and “sensible” scientific thought. (“If you think the earth is 5,000 years old then you’re just not right. So we can’t do anything about that.”) Ultimately, Cox would rather be “some kind of unifying figure that celebrates the achievements of science than a divisive figure”. It seems not even the Almighty can distract Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw from their mission to sell science.
Chris Cook is the FT’s education correspondent. ‘The Quantum Universe: Everything That Can Happen Does Happen’ by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw is published by Penguin (£20). To comment on this article, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
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