Professor Brian Cox on his northern life and his love of science
PUBLISHED: 11:30 12 August 2014 | UPDATED: 16:58 24 October 2015
TV star talks about life, the universe and everything.
Professor Brian Cox is doing what he does best...turning brain-scrambling concepts into questions to fascinate even the science dunce.
‘The theory which has been around since the ‘60s is that empty space isn’t empty; it’s full of these things called Higgs particles,’ he says.
‘The electrons, let’s say, in our body, get their mass from talking to this stuff that’s like a sea permeating empty space. This filling of empty space happened less than a billionth of a second after the Big Bang, so you’re going back to the start of the universe.’
We meet at Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry where the exhibition Collider tells the story of the Large Hadron Collider, the 27km-circumference underground research facility at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research in Geneva, where Brian, professor of particle physics at Manchester University, has spent much research time.
In 2012, the LHC found evidence of that Higgs particle, the existence of which had been postulated almost 50 years earlier by physicist Peter Higgs.
‘Without the Higgs, we wouldn’t exist,’ says Brian, stressing the fundamental importance of this discovery. And yet there are more baffling questions, about dark energy, about why there is a universe at all, about whether, indeed, there exists an infinite number of universes.
‘It’s a great time to be a physicist,’ says Brian, relishing this befuddling uncertainty.
Despite being the face of TV science, Brian still teaches at the university, where another new intake this autumn will shuffle into a lecture theatre to be greeted by that man off the telly.
‘The first thing they get is me, doing relativity and quantum mechanics,’ he says. At about the same time, BBC2’s autumn schedule will feature Brian’s latest series The Human Universe, the result of a year of filming, about the history of human knowledge.
Brian juggles TV and academic careers as well as dividing life between a flat in Saddleworth and a London home shared with his wife, the American film maker Gia Milinovich. (She made headlines recently for giving a burglar a good thumping.) They have a five-year-old son, George.
With so many commitments, you wonder whether there is enough of Brian to go around. ‘The art is to know what to turn down and what to accept,’ he says.
How has he coped with fame? ‘It has its pros and cons,’ he replies. ‘The pros are the things you get to do and the people you get to meet. But the cons are quite large. It would be difficult for me to bring my little boy to the museum when it was open. I’d get a lot of attention.’
Brian, a very youthful 46, had been doing TV programmes for several years before the impact of the 2010 series Wonders of the Solar System made him a household name. Suddenly, there were invitations to appear on chat shows, and comedians lampooning his impassioned delivery and flat northern vowels.
‘There’s no such thing as personal space once you’ve been on telly. You can’t be anonymous,’ he says. ‘And it actually weighs on your mind more than you’d think. But if you’re a well-balanced individual and getting on a bit - as I am - it would be ridiculous to say that it’s not more enjoyable than negative.’
That fame has allowed him to do his bit to make the nation value science more.
‘I think it’s beginning to be put back where it was, for instance, at the beginnings of the industrial revolution here in Manchester, when people knew that science and engineering were the way forward.
‘We are seeing it again here in Manchester. The university is getting a much bigger role. You see the Nobel prize for graphene, which has elevated the status of the university. You have Jodrell Bank there, Manchester’s involvement in the LHC. ‘What’s great about Manchester, more than any other city, is that you can see how it was made rich by science and technology and engineering, and you see how it’s been made rich again by science and technology and engineering in a different sense in the 21st century.
‘You come to this museum and see not only the industrial heritage, but the LHC, bits of which were built in Manchester.’
As well as singing the praises of Manchester, Brian says he loves the hills of Saddleworth and has a ‘soft spot’ for his home town of Oldham. He has only ever accepted two of the honorary degrees offered him, and one was from the University Campus Oldham, part of the University of Huddersfield.
A more prosaic accolade has been awarded to him at the stadium of Oldham Athletic, where Brian was once a season ticket holder.
‘There’s a step there with my name written on it, an honorary step,’ he says, with much the same boyish enthusiasm he generates when talking about the origins of the universe.
The exhibition Collider runs at the Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester, until September 28, admission £7, concessions £5. MOSI is open 10am to 5pm every day except December 24-26 and January 1, and entry to the main museum is free, though a voluntary donation of £3 is requested. For more, see www.mosi.org.uk
The life of Brian
Born March 3 1968, brought up in Chadderton, Oldham, Brian attended Hulme Grammar School for Boys, Oldham, where physics teacher Peter Galloway was an inspiration.
Brian’s first scientific passion was the Apollo-Soyuz project, the first joint US-Soviet space flight,in 1975, when he was aged seven.
In the 1980s, Brian was a member of the band D:Ream, whose hits included Things Can Only Get Better, adopted as the New Labour anthem. He’s still a keen pianist.
Fame has given Brian a few rock ‘n’ roll friends, such as broadcaster Chris Evans.