British pop star, professor of physics and TV science presenter Brian Cox was in Australia last week on a mission to talk about life, science and the universe.
During his visit he revealed what inspired him to go into science, his work at the Large Hadron Collider and his ideas on how best to enthuse the next generation of scientists and engineers.
For most of us, the first we knew of Brian Cox (pictured right) was in 1993 when he played keyboards on D:Ream’s world-wide hit “Things can only get better”. This introduction is often why he is described as “pop star turned physicist”.
Yet he says this is quite wrong because his interest in physics and science started when, as a child, he watched the Apollo expeditions with his father.
“Watching those Apollo missions was my first real experience of wondering about space, the stars, the Earth and how the universe worked. Even as a very young child it fascinated me and I knew that I wanted to learn much more,” Cox said.
“Then later, when I was about 12, I read Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, and that was really when I knew I wanted to pursue physics.”
Interestingly Cox says that even though he was interested in science at school, he didn’t do well in maths, recording a D in his senior year at high school.
“What I realised later was that maths takes practice. It is like playing the piano – you can’t do maths unless you practice. So now, whenever I talk to kids now I tell them to practice their maths.”
So, with a budding interest in physics and science, how did he end up being in a pop band?
“It actually happened because of Duran Duran. My younger sister wanted to go to see them, but my parents said she could only go if I went with her as her older brother. When I got there and saw this amazing thing I thought “I want to do that”, as you do when you are 15 or 16”.
Cox becomes more serious and says that he does think that there is a link between science and music.
“There is an element of creativity in both music and science. Particularly when you consider the process of exploring that occurs in scientific research. However, it is something that is often overlooked and that disappoints me as I think there are many creative thinkers in the world that would bring a lot to scientific research.”
These days Cox is Professor of Particle Physics and a Royal Society University Research Fellow at the University of Manchester. He works on the ATLAS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, near Geneva.
“My work is really about ways we can get more from the LHC. The experiment I work on looks at how we can introduce new detectors at different points to examine what is happening in a number of ways.”
With these research roles and his work as a science presenter for the BBC, Cox comes into contact with a wide variety of people with a wide variety of connection and understanding about science.
“The thing I see is that science is such a big part of our lives. Everything we do in the modern world is based on science, so I believe that it is unacceptable and actually a dangerous thing for only a few people understand and practice it.”
“I actually think people are naturally interested in science. If you are asking questions such as “How did the universe begin?” or “How did it evolve?” or “Is there life on Mars?” these are all fascinating questions.”
“What we have to do is make sure people know that there are careers answering those questions. They are wonderful careers to have, as you get to exercise your curiosity every day. But also, these careers are extremely useful to the world.”
He is heartened by recent growth in science enrollments at British universities.
“It is very important and I’m sure it will happen here too, as people in governments and industry realise that we need to find some way of enthusing the next generation of engineers and scientists.”
For Cox, his mission to get more people in science is about encouraging people to be curious and to explore the world around them.
“Exploring the universe, invariably leads to learning something. By exploring and learning, we will then use that knowledge to do something useful. But it is very difficult to predict what will be useful, so we need to be exploring all the time.”
“The challenge for us as scientists and engineers is to associate the challenges society faces – with science. We need be curiosity-lead in our exploration of the world around us.”