Rockstar physicist is TV presenter

Prof Brian Cox, who makes science beautiful, once toured with Led Zeppelin founder Jimmy Page

"I was in a band before I went to university to do science. It's only recently, since I've been making television programmes, that anybody's noticed." PROFESSOR BRIAN COX (above) on his rockstar reputation
"I was in a band before I went to university to do science. It's only recently, since I've been making television programmes, that anybody's noticed." PROFESSOR BRIAN COX (above) on his rockstar reputationPHOTO: BBC


Professor Brian Cox is a rockstar in more ways than one.

Not only is the physicist, author and highly acclaimed television presenter a fixture on science shows in the United Kingdom, but he also used to play keyboards in two bands before his academic and broadcast careers.

In the late 1980s, he was part of Dare, touring with Led Zeppelin founder Jimmy Page and Swedish rock band Europe.

After they disbanded, he went on to play keyboards with the band D:ream, the band behind the British No. 1 song, Things Can Only Get Better, all while getting a first-class honours degree in physics from the University of Manchester. He is now a professor at the university.

The 48-year-old, who looks youthful in a T-shirt and mop-top haircut, laughs when his rockstar reputation is brought up.

"I was in a band before I went to university to do science, so it made no difference at all - I just progressed through and became a professor," Cox says, slightly embarrassed.

"It's only recently, since I've been making television programmes, that anybody's noticed," he quips.

These days, he is more likely to be explaining big science to the public than banging out a tune on the keyboards.

The professor, who was in Singapore earlier this month, is taking his science documentaries mainstream with a new BBC One series, Forces Of Nature, which sets out to illustrate the underlying laws of nature.

Questions raised in the show include "why is water blue?" and "why do bees make hexagonal honeycombs?".

The series also marks Cox's move from BBC Two - which caters to a more adult audience with specialist programming - to BBC One, which is for a decidedly mainstream audience.

Cox, who has presented shows for the BBC since 2005, including 2014's Human Universe and 2013's Wonders Of Life, explains that the brief from the BBC this time was to make a science documentary "for the widest possible audience".

The beautifully filmed series traverses the globe, from honey- hunting on the lower slopes of Annapurna in Nepal to cave-diving in the Dominican Republic.

The stunning visuals are a deliberate device to connect with viewers.

"We didn't want it to look like a documentary about physics," he says. "By the time people realised what was happening, we wanted them to be fascinated. So it's structured in a specific way, so as to not close off or erect barriers to audiences."

1. When you are trying to explain complicated science to the masses, are you conscious that you may be dumbing down stuff?

I don't think the phrase "dumbing down" is useful or necessary. If you can find a simple way of saying something that allows people to understand it, it's better.

People often confuse this. If they understand something, they think that somehow it's too simple. It's almost as if they want to not understand. It's the wrong way of thinking about it.

2. So how do you know you have hit that sweet spot between explaining the science and winning over your audience?

You don't. If it was easy - it's the same as making music or a film - you'd get it right every time. Sometimes, you mess it up.

A friend of mine, an actor, said you have to be afraid to fail, but you have to be allowed to fail as well.

That is part of the responsibility of broadcasters or record labels. You've got to allow people to make things that fail - occasionally - otherwise, you'll never make anything brilliant.

3. Presenting for BBC One means moving into territory famously occupied by David Atten- borough. What has been the main difference from presenting for BBC Two?

Episode 3, The Moth And The Flame, which is about the origin of life, features the book Frankenstein in the show.

Earth formed 41/2 billion years ago and there was no life on it. Life emerged, which means that geochemistry becomes biochemistry - so there's a sense of Frankenstein about it.

You have that artistic licence and can wrap it in that sort of gothic imagery on BBC One, something you probably wouldn't do on BBC Two, which is probably a bit more straight in storytelling.

4. What was one of the biggest challenges of working on Forces Of Nature?

The challenge was how to make it drive the science in, but also make it visually stunning and interesting. It was difficult to write, but you shouldn't see that it gets intellectually difficult.

For instance, in Episode 1, the snowflake became the metaphor for the structure of nature as we see it. The structure of the world is telling you about the underlying laws that form that world, if you look carefully.

5. There are the haters and nay- sayers, who question the science in your shows. What is your response to them?

When you're making documentaries, writing books or popularising science, there'll always be people who think you could have had more detail.

But (as broadcasters), we're in the business of trying to introduce scientific ideas to as many people as possible. So there's a balance you need to strike. There are people who know some science who disagree with the balance, but that's fine.

6. Has the rockstar reputation helped or hindered your academic reputation?

There is a serious issue, that is less problematic now, about the potential damage to your reputation as an academic if you spend time popularising and talking about science.

But there's an acceptance somewhat now to be scientifically literate.

It's a good thing to inspire children or to try and get politicians and decision-makers to take account of science when they're asked questions about climate change and public health issues.

It seems legitimate now that professional scientists engage the society that funded them and educated them and in which they live - it feels irresponsible not to.

7. Do you still find time to teach? How do the students treat you?

I teach relativity and quantum mechanics to first-year students in the University of Manchester and I return next month.

Manchester has the biggest physics department in Britain with 280 in the first year, so it's a big class.

Maybe for the first half hour, they think: "It's that guy from TV".

But then they start complaining about your handwriting and then they treat you no differently from anybody else because they know they have to pass their examinations.

8. How would you like to be remembered?

I wouldn't aspire to this, but Carl Sagan is one of my great heroes. The legacy of his work is that there were more scientists in the world.

If I can generate more scientists, even at a small level in the world, then I'd be happy.

  • Forces Of Nature premieres on BBC Earth Asia (StarHub TV Channel 407) on Thursday at 10.45pm.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 15, 2016, with the headline 'Rockstar physicist is TV presenter'. Print Edition | Subscribe