Brian Cox: “From space it’s obvious that the world is one”

Brian Cox is scoping out the entire universe for his new tour but for the moment it’s Brexit that has brought him back down to earth

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National treasures aren’t known for weighing in too heavily on political matters. So when someone like TV presenter and reformed pop star Professor Brian Cox dips his toe into the major issue of the day, it’s probably a sign that we’re in deep trouble. The Oldham-born particle physicist has been hailed as a potential successor to David Attenborough as the popular face of the natural world (the man himself said: “if I had a torch, I’d pass it on to Brian Cox”), and now he’s stuck his neck firmly on the line by denouncing the B-word.

The the thought of Brexit makes his stomach turn.

“I’m still worried and concerned about it,” he says ahead of his new blockbuster UK touring show, Universal: Adventures In Space And Time. “Collaboration between countries is obviously essential. Absolutely no one can disagree with that statement. I have a lot of quotes from astronauts in the new show because it becomes immediately obvious when you lift yourself about 200 miles above the centre of the earth that you see a planet that requires managing as one.

“This is not some hippy-dippy nonsense – it’s simply true. I philosophically think that anything that decreases rather than increases collaboration between nations has to
be a bad thing in principle.”

For Cox, this principle has been further muddied by politicians unable to move the result of 2016’s European Union referendum forward in any coherent manner. “It’s really unfortunate that we’ve managed to mix a lot of issues together that are not actually related. I understand why people voted against the status quo, as it wasn’t working for many of them. However, the job of politicians is to discern what people want and then work out how best to deliver that.

“People who voted for Brexit might disagree with this, but I don’t really think that they voted for a change in trade policy, which is essentially what it is. At the heart of Brexit is the question of how we trade with our neighbours. The failure was of politicians and their inability to analyse why that vote happened and then to act in the best interest of their voters.”

“You don’t want unhappy and angry people dealing with complex international problems.”

Cox feels that another trip to the polling booth is just over the horizon for British voters, whether in the form of a new vote about EU membership or a general election. “A second referendum is a good idea. It seems logical when you’re changing the way that you interact with your largest market. No one disagrees with the statement that you do your most trade with your nearest geographical neighbours, so Europe will always be our biggest trading block. At this point, I don’t think that there’s a majority in the House of Commons for any path forward, and so logic dictates that you either have an election or a referendum or both.”

Running in tandem with Brexit has been a surge of populist leaders including Donald Trump in the US, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. It would be fair to say that none of these individuals share Cox’s dream of a planet built on
co-operation and empathy.

Science rarely fares well in such environments. Trump denies climate change and doesn’t know the difference between HIV and HPV, yet claims he has a “natural instinct for science”.

“Science can be challenging,” admits Cox. “We’re changing our atmosphere so that average global temperatures are rising and that requires policy reactions, some of which we might not like, certainly in the short term. So when people attack the science, they
are actually attacking nature.

“The answer ultimately, to run your society in such a way that people aren’t angry, is to make sure that there’s as level a playing field as possible and as good education as possible. That’s how you defuse problems and you stop electing angry people. Trump is an angry man – he’s not a happy person. You don’t want people who are unhappy and angry dealing with complex international problems.”

Cox in no stranger to having his own world clash with politics. In the 1990s, he was keyboard player of D:Ream, whose tune Things Can Only Get Better became the rabble-rousing anthem of New Labour as Tony Blair prepared to oust the Tories and take office in 1997. Cox is fine with that part of his life being a distant memory.

“We’re changing our atmosphere so average temperatures are rising… when people attack the science, they are actually attacking nature,” says Co

“At the age of 17 and 18, I just wanted to be a pop star so there wasn’t really a great deal of art involved in my pursuit of that. I don’t think I had it in me to create great things. I couldn’t write an Abbey Road and that’s what I would have wanted to do. I wasn’t top of the tree and never would have been. I’m definitely better at science than I am at music.”

Nowadays, Cox has come out from behind his piano to become the frontman for popular science and is once again taking to the road for a UK tour of live shows.

“All my shows up to this point have been organic, growing from previous things I’ve said and they’ve been built up like that. This is the first time I’ve just tried to craft something from scratch.

“I’ve been lucky because the first people I asked to do graphics were Double Negative, the movie graphics company who worked on Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. And they said ‘yeah’ because they thought it would be a really fascinating and different thing for them to try and do. The resolution that we’re using on these screens is bigger than IMAX.”

Bigger might be better for Cox and his live extravaganzas, but he’s happy to dial it down a little with the assistance of his bookish, mild-mannered comedy sidekick Robin Ince. The pair have worked together on Radio 4’s The Infinite Monkey Cage and, on this tour, Ince will help conduct the audience Q&A sessions.

“He’ll inject some light into things,” says Cox. “What’s great about Robin is that if I say I’m going to talk about the heat depth of the universe, he can make that funny. He can make oblivion funny, which is good.”

Despite his fears for Britain’s future place in a new Europe, Cox remains upbeat about the safety of the country in the hands of a new generation of scientists. “I am optimistic. I teach first year in relativity at University of Manchester and most of my colleagues do agree that there’s an improvement in the level of students coming through onto these courses.

“We have nothing to worry about in terms of the ability and commitment of young people. If anything, they’re maybe a bit too serious. I understand why that is; we have to remember that they’re paying for a lot of their education from their own money, so it certainly does seem to focus them. But I remind them that it is about having fun as well. Being 18 to 21 or 22 is a really important part of your life.”

But what about earlier in life? Do kids gain the right amount of grounding in science during their formative years in primary school?

“Studying science is not really about learning facts. I don’t really care if people don’t know that the universe is 13.8 billion years old or whatever. What it is about is how you think about problems. As Carl Sagan often pointed out, science teaches you about humility because when you’re dealing with nature, nature just doesn’t care about your opinions, and it doesn’t care about who you are, whether you’re a president, prime minister or professor.

“The reason that you’re taught to do experiments is that you’re interrogating nature and it will be absolutely honest with you. The more practical science and experimentation you can do, the more you’re actually learning how to think.”

The Universal: Adventures In Space And Time tour includes: Manchester Arena, 9 February 2019; Flydsa Arena, Sheffield, 10 Feb; First Direct Arena, 14 Feb; and Echo Arena, Liverpool, 21 Feb (briancoxlive.co.uk)

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