It’s a busy lunchtime at the Hix Oyster & Chop House in Farringdon and Professor Brian Cox is weighing up the pros and cons of relocating to Mars. “The problem is,” he deadpans, “I’ve heard the vineyards are shit.”
Cox has been a wine lover almost as long as he’s been a scientist. But the son of two bank workers didn’t grow up in a winey household. “I was from Oldham, so I drank beer. Then my first band, Dare, got signed when I was 18 and all of a sudden we were recording in LA and eating in restaurants with record producers, who were ordering all these great wines. And I found out I liked it. Wine is like astronomy — the more you learn, the more interesting it becomes.”
It’s been nearly 10 years since Cox found fame presenting the Wonders of . . . series for BBC2. And these days, the professor of physics at Manchester University (where he completed his PhD in particle physics) has a CV that groans with accolades: an OBE, a clutch of prizes and medals, two honorary doctorates, as well as a Guinness World Record for the most tickets sold on a science tour. Even so, you get the impression that nothing has topped the moment David Attenborough hailed the physicist as his natural successor in science broadcasting. “There’s nothing you can say,” grins Cox.
We meet near the offices of BI Wines, a wine merchant in Farringdon where Cox has an account, to taste a few champagnes picked out by his account manager Tom Chadwick. The first wine to blow Cox’s mind was “almost certainly a white burgundy, probably a Montrachet”. And he’s remained a Chardonnay man ever since — “white burgundy and blanc de blancs champagne mostly”.
Chadwick starts by pouring a Clos des Goisses 2007, a cult single-vineyard champagne from Mareuil-sur-Ay’s Champagne Philipponnat. “It’s big, bigger than I remember Clos des Goisses being,” says Cox, giving his glass a swirl. “I’ve got some of the 2004 and 2008, but this feels almost as if it’s got more Chardonnay in it.”
One of Cox’s most recent projects was People of Science, a BBC iPlayer series in which he discussed scientific heroes with fellow members of the Royal Society, including Attenborough, writer Bill Bryson and Dame Sally Davies, England’s chief medical officer. I mention that the Royal Society was witness to a key moment in champagne history in 1662, when Dr Christopher Merret introduced his findings on secondary fermentation, paving the way for the méthode champenoise (the technique whereby still wine is mixed with yeast and sugar and left to ferment a second time in bottle, resulting in sparkling wine). I say I’m surprised how enchantingly written many of these early scientific papers are — liquids don’t just bubble, they “whizz”, “sparkle” and “vanish”, as if they had a life of their own.
“Yes, because you see science wasn’t science in those days, it was just natural philosophy, a reaction to nature,” says Cox. “There was none of this idea that you have to use some kind of fancy, technical, jargony language to describe what you were seeing. It’s really only in the last 100 years or so, maybe less actually, that science has been professionalised in that way. Before that, they were all polymaths, essentially.
“That’s a problem with the UK education system, compared to somewhere like the US — we over-specialise too early, we stop people being polymaths too early,” says Cox. Despite a prodigiously busy schedule, he still makes space every year to lecture first-term students at Manchester. It’s time, he says, that he “guards jealously”.
The second champagne we taste is Giraud Argonne 2008, from a 12th-generation producer in Ay. When Cox sees it, his face lights up. “Ah yes! Giraud did [a cuvée called] Code Noir to celebrate the sequencing of the Pinot Noir genome, didn’t they?” he says. “I’ve got a couple of bottles of that — it’s a fantastic wine.”
The Argonne isn’t Cox’s usual style — it’s almost 100 per cent Pinot Noir, with a pronounced oakiness — but first impressions are good. “I really like this,” he says, nosing it intently. “There’s a fresh appley acidity to it, but there’s toffee too.” I suggest it tastes a bit like Jamaican ginger cake. “You’re right, that’s better, much more precise,” he says. “It’s got that spice to it, hasn’t it?”
Number of bottles of champagne exported in 2017
Three years ago, Cox and his wife Gia Milinovich bought a second home in Provence, an acquisition that has deepened his appreciation of French wine. “To be honest I didn’t really get to know Burgundy properly until I started driving through it — now I always try and stop in Meursault on the way down if I can,” he says. “In Provence, I like drinking the local whites they make with a grape called Rolle. But I also love the rosés — they taste the way Provence smells.”
Average price of bottle of champagne sold in UK in 2017
I’d expected the scientist to have a state-of-the-art cellar at his home in Clapham, south London. But Cox says he just has a 100-bottle wine fridge (set at a precise 8C). The only other gadget he uses is the wine app Vivino, for storing tasting notes and comparing prices.
Next February, Cox will embark on his biggest gig to date, Brian Cox Live, a UK arena tour that will see the scientist ponder the wonders of the universe accompanied by ultra high-resolution images of space, 100ft wide. “When you look at images of thousands of galaxies in one photograph, then your reaction is to feel absolutely insignificant, so the aim is to discuss why that might not be the case, and to celebrate that,” says Cox.
Tickets sold by Cox on his record-breaking science tour in 2016-17
It’s clear that the former musician — who famously played keyboards in D:Ream, the band behind the hit song “Things Can Only Get Better”, which became New Labour’s 1997 election anthem — is delighted at the prospect of going back on the road. “We’ve got three lorry-loads of equipment — it’s like being the Rolling Stones!”
Chart position for single “Things Can Only Get Better” by Cox’s former band D:Ream
A waiter approaches with roast chicken and chips. “I love traditional English food,” says Cox, before admitting that he doesn’t cook much himself. “But I have got a temperature probe for roasting meat. That’s the kind of precision I like.”
Chadwick starts pouring the third champagne, Empreinte de Terroir 2004 by Eric Rodez, a grower in Ambonnay who specialises in biodynamic wines. But before we get very far, Chadwick decides that he’s not happy with the way the Rodez is tasting today and whisks it away.
In its place, we open a bottle of Dom Ruinart 2006, a blanc de blancs champagne I’ve brought along because Cox told me he was a fan. As soon as he gets his nose in the glass, he beams. “That is just great! There’s so much stone fruit, apple, spring flowers, it’s so mineral and fresh, but rich too. Initially, it’s so fresh it’s almost unchallenging but then you start to wander around in the flavours and explore, which is exactly how I want a champagne to be.”
I tell him that Ruinart’s chef de cave, Frédéric Panaiotis, is a semi-professional free-diver. “I find diving really enjoyable in shallow depths, in coral,” he says. “But I’ve also done dives for work where we’ve been 2.5km down in a tiny sub for 10 hours and that can be really challenging psychologically. You’ve got to think, ‘If something goes wrong, I have to be calm and take control.’ I like the intellectual challenge of it, certainly. But I don’t really like being put in a survival situation.”
By now, there are four bottles of champagne open on the table in front of us. But Cox himself has probably only drunk two or three glasses. “I can drink one bottle, absolute max, these days,” he says. “But I’m not really the kind of person who likes getting out of their head. I enjoy the euphoria of being clear-headed.”
Cox couldn’t get sozzled today anyway, because he’s got a meeting at the Royal Society later, followed by dinner with his friend, the Bishop of Leeds. “I don’t believe in God,” he says, “but I don’t use the word atheist because, to me, it’s a word that tends to set people against each other.
“Interesting discoveries come when you get orthogonal ideas,” he says, placing his slender hands at right angles to illustrate his point. “And that’s one of the great things that concerns me about public discourse at the moment: the tribal nature of it. Because of social media and this problem of over-specialisation I talked about, people end up being ghettoised politically — that’s my hypothesis, anyway. I think we saw that in the referendum.”
Cox has made it plain that he thinks Brexit is a bad idea. “But look, I’m from Oldham, my family’s still in Oldham and I’ve seen that town, a kind of typical northern town, decline over the last 20, 30 years. So I understand absolutely why people in, say, Oldham, would vote against the status quo and in a sense they are right to do so. I think [voting for] Brexit is the wrong response. But I understand why people voted for it.”
Cox has an eight-year-old son. As we pour the last drop of Giraud, I ask what the 49-year-old thinks the big scientific leap of that next generation will be. “I think it will be opening up access to space — but, of course, that is already happening now,” he says. “The one thing we know about the Earth is it’s a great planet — the best planet. And we have to protect it. But at the same time we want access to more resources. So we need to go get resources from off the planet. And that’s why the two most dynamic entrepreneurs in the world — Amazon’s Jeff Bezos with his company Blue Origin and Elon Musk with SpaceX— are building rocket companies. It’s not a coincidence. I think within the next 10 or 20 years, we’ll be on Mars and we’ll be mining asteroids. I think we’ll probably end up having a permanent presence on Mars within 20 years. And that will be it, we’ll be a space-faring civilisation.”
And if someone offered him a one-way ticket to Mars, is he telling me he wouldn’t take it? He grins. “When Jeff Bezos has managed to make the first champagne on Mars — the first good champagne — then I will think about it.”
Alice Lascelles writes about drinks and is an FT contributing editor; @alicelascellesWith thanks to Hix Oyster & Chop House
This article was corrected after publication to reflect the fact that D:Ream’s hit song “Things Can Only Get Better” became New Labour’s 1997 election anthem
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