Brian Cox, face of physics, is in his element. He is leading a two-day science event at St Paul’s Way Trust School in east London, conveying the joys of science to hundreds of enthusiastic teenagers in lectures, workshops and one-to-one encounters.
After Professor Cox has delivered a lucid opening lecture about the origins of the universe, answered questions such as “what came before the universe?” and obliged one or two students who want to take selfies with him, he and I retreat to a quiet room where we can talk about his multi-faceted career.
He is a physics professor at the University of Manchester where he lectures to undergraduates and carries out research. He is a stellar presenter of television science programmes. And, as Royal Society professor of public understanding of science, he promotes science to the people young and old.
In conversation Prof Cox, 47, maintains a serene demeanour with an almost-smile playing on his face. Gentle northern vowels decorate his mellifluous voice, a legacy of a middle class upbringing in Greater Manchester. He attended the private Hulme Grammar School before going on to study physics at the University of Manchester, where his academic career has always been based. He is wearing his signature outfit of black T-shirt beneath a grey jacket and jeans.
With all the conflicting demands on his time, Prof Cox has no doubt where the priority lies: the university. “I’m a professor there and I like lecturing and teaching undergraduates,” he says. “I also enjoy doing research.”
He made his academic name in particle physics. That means trying to understand the universe by smashing together atoms and their subatomic components at (almost) the speed of light, and analysing the plethora of particles that emerge from the minuscule fireballs created by the collisions. Prof Cox has worked in large research groups at high-energy physics centres such as DESY in Germany, Fermilab in the US and above all at Cern, the European lab outside Geneva where he is involved in experimental work on the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s most powerful atom smasher.
But recently the academic side of Prof Cox has been seduced by the smaller-scale joys of theoretical as opposed to experimental physics. “The last paper I published was on an esoteric subject: ‘Manifest causality in quantum field theory’. It came out of a popular book I wrote on the Quantum Universe and from some of my public lectures.”
The paper focuses on the one aspect of ‘quantum weirdness’, the counterintuitive fact that “when you do something in one part of the universe, the rest of the universe has in some sense to be aware instantly of that change,” he explains. “We haven’t solved the problem but it’s the beginning of developing an answer.”
As a physicist Prof Cox likes working in a small group of colleagues who can talk deep theory around a blackboard — and he promises more theoretical work to come. He wishes he were better at maths but believes he can deliver physical insights, with the help of postdocs who do the harder calculations.
“I am not a natural mathematician but few people are. I am not a natural keyboard player and few people are,” he says — alluding to his role in the successful pop rock group D: Ream in the 1990s.
“You have to practise. I didn’t work hard enough at maths at school,” he confesses. “I would have found it hard to get into university today with my A-level grades but it was much easier then.”
Of course Prof Cox’s greatest contribution to science is as a populariser. His television career started with a series of one-off programmes for BBC2 from 2005 to 2009. “One of the great things about the BBC is the way it puts academics like me on television and helps them improve as presenters on the job,” he says. “That is vital because we want public academics in all fields.”
He is a strong defender of the BBC’s public service role, currently facing government-imposed cuts in its income. “It is a unique national resource acting in the interests of the country,” he says. “The pressure from government should be to maintain the BBC as a powerful voice helping to make this country a better place. I cannot accept the argument about it crowding out commercial competitors.”
After presenting six programmes about physics, Prof Cox and his TV mentor, BBC head of science Andrew Cohen, felt he was ready to make a blockbuster series of his own. Wonders of the Solar System established his mass appeal in 2010. Today, after the airing of Wonders of the Universe, Wonders of Life and Human Universe, and countless appearances on other programmes he is the undisputed heir apparent to David Attenborough as Britain’s premier presenter of science.
Recently his TV career has encompassed biology as well as physics, and in the spring he will transfer from BBC2 to the mass market BBC1. His first series there, provisionally entitled Forces of Nature, will tackle big issues by answering simple, universal questions such as Why does Earth have seasons?
“My knowledge of biology was frozen in the 1980s. To learn, I become very friendly with other professors and seek out colleagues.”
Scientific knowledge and understanding, combined with his power of persuasion, enable Prof Cox to exert control over the programmes he makes. “I can’t order BBC people around but I can persuade them,” he says. “It is like running a project in particle physics where you don’t have line management control over people, because they are employed by universities around the world, but everyone pulls together to get it done.”
As a public figure, Prof Cox is increasingly speaking out on science policy issues. He has added his powerful voice to those making the case for research to be spared from the cuts expected in many areas when George Osborne, the chancellor, announces his public spending plans next month.
“I find it inconceivable that the science budget will not be increased as part of a clear strategy aimed at closing the widening investment gap [with] all other knowledge-based economies,” he says. “It is inconceivable because every study, every report, every piece of evidence points to a simple conclusion: Investment in the science base leads directly to increased productivity and increased economic growth over relatively short timescales.”
“It will be nothing short of a national disaster if further damage is done to the already creaking foundations of our knowledge-based economy. The converse is also true,” he adds. “This could be a transformative moment, laying the foundations for the government’s aim to make the UK the most prosperous country in the world by 2030.”
The theme of the St Paul’s Way Trust science school this year is “Britain — the best place to do science”. To nudge the ambition towards reality, Prof Cox bids me goodbye and heads back to his young fans.