Mr bright side

Professor Brian Cox gets candid about politics, conspiracy theories and why working together is our best hope for surviving the constant chaos of everyday life

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Most of the time, Professor Brian Cox is busy looking up at the stars but when we speak to him his focus is firmly on planet Earth. It’s early July and a just few hours before our call, a string of narrowly escaped controversies and high-profile scandals seems to have finally caught up with our floppy-haired PM, and in a move that surprises everyone, the infamously defiant Boris Johnson succumbs to pressure and quits.

“You can’t run a world-leading national science programme without collaboration across international borders.”

With the future of an already-fractured nation left hanging in the balance, I’m keen to ask the politically-minded physicist what he makes of the past 24 hours. He pauses briefly, carefully contemplating his answer before replying. For this science-loving Oldhamer, the question now isn’t so much who will take Johnson’s place, but rather how can we use this deck shuffle as a chance to fix some key yet highly strained global relationships and ensure our country’s status as a leading exporter of bright minds.

“If we stick to my field, one of the major problems we have in science at the moment is with the Horizon funding, which is basically the European collaborative funding network,” he begins. “Historically, we’ve been extremely successful at attracting not only funds but expertise from that European framework because we’re really good at science.

“We have the best universities in Europe and many of the best academics – but over the past few weeks, that’s really suffered. We’ve lost over £100 million in grants and several high-profile academics have moved to European universities – with their grants.”

Before fingers can be pointed, Manchester University’s professor of particle physics rules out the most likely culprit behind this grant drought.

“It’s not a Brexit issue but a lack of trust and a breakdown between the EU and the UK. In purely practical terms, we need to be part of that European network. Science is a global effort and it always will be. The reason why there’s only one Large Hadron Collider is that the world can only afford one – and we need it,” he says, referencing his particle-smashing work at CERN in Switzerland, the research centre that aims to replicate the conditions of the Big Bang and help unpick science’s big mysteries.

“You can’t run a world-leading national science programme without collaboration across international borders so I’m hopeful that there can be a reset in relations. Whoever comes in as the next prime minister, you’d hope that the baggage that’s been accumulated since the 2016 referendum might be jettisoned.”

Despite the often black-and-white nature of his physics work, a thread of hopeful optimism seems to run through Cox’s output. Whether it’s answering questions about life lurking out there in the void or pondering what a lack thereof might mean for us sole survivors down here on Earth, this positivity when faced with the unknown is perhaps what draws his fans in. After all, as his Monty Python pal Eric Idle might say, with so many unknowns, we might as well look on the bright side of life.

“What are you going to do: go to Mars?” he deadpans. “You can’t.”

He’s got a point. Reminding audiences to remain open to new ways of thinking is another key part of Cox’s day job. Now 54, the popular TV host and former member of 1990s dance-pop band D:Ream can often be found assuring us that things can only get better, either on his BBC Radio 4 show The Infinite Monkey Cage, which he co-hosts with whip-sharp comic Robin Ince, his endlessly fascinating BBC series exploring the history and mystery of the cosmos, or his dazzling new stage show that he’s touring to venues up and down the country.

Entitled Horizons – A 21st Century Space Odyssey, this eye-popping evening with the David Attenborough of the stars promises to take viewers on a cinematic journey through space using technology and help from his Monkey Cage co-host. It’s something that couldn’t have come at a better time. After almost two years locked inside, our appetite for learning something new has skyrocketed – for better and for worse.

Professor Brian Cox giving a lecture
Photos: Dustin Rabin

“Towards the end of the show, Robin performs a poem that he wrote in lockdown. It’s his reflections on our place in the universe and it came to him because he was sitting indoors for extended periods looking at the night sky,” explains Cox. “There’s a beautiful line that says ‘the stars cannot wonder about the stars’ and I thought it summed up a lot of the deeper emotional issues we touch on in the show.

“It speaks to the value of life, consciousness, civilisation and the universe. It’s true that no matter how beautiful the universe is, if there’s nothing there to perceive it, then it’s not beautiful. It’s a really simple point but a powerful moment. People have had a lot of time indoors and it’s been a frightening time. They’ve found themselves thinking more deeply about what it means to be human.”

Of course, such intense introversion has also had its drawbacks, including a spike in the popularity of conspiracy theories. As someone whose social media feed must be full of far-out conjecture, does this abundance of fact-bashing bother Cox?

“I’ve got over three million Twitter followers so I see nonsense all day long,” he says with a laugh. “It comes with the territory and you learn to tune those things out. There are the ones that appear not to be harmful, like flat earth theories, but they can very easily become an anti-vaccine movement and if it’s a public health conspiracy, that’s far more important than the silly science fiction ones.”

Like a virus, the infectious nature and impact of these ideas can be incredibly damaging.

“There’s strong evidence to suggest that if you get into a conspiracy theory, you’re more susceptible to more conspiracy theories. Interestingly, on Monkey Cage we talked about how to solve that,” he recalls. “Some therapies are like a vaccination. There’s one intriguing idea that says you can introduce people to a harmless conspiracy theory then work to show them why it’s incorrect. That innoculates people against the more serious ones.

“It’s a big problem in society though, like with climate change. There’s an overwhelming body of evidence that tells us we need to change our behaviour. Nobody says it’s easy but the idea that a society loses all shared facts is the road to destruction.”

Speaking of misinformation, one of the most controversial figures caught in the centre of this debate was podcaster Joe Rogan. Earlier this year, he made headlines after his hugely popular show The Joe Rogan Experience was accused of spreading inaccurate information about the Covid vaccine, prompting a number of musicians to abandon Spotify, the platform that hosts his show, in protest. As someone who has appeared on Rogan’s show twice – once in 2015 and again in 2019 –  would he consider returning in the wake of these incidents?

“A lot of people involved in the promotion of science think about this a lot. There are two sides of the argument: put very simply, we want to get to the largest possible audience to talk about science, and there are audiences that are very hard to access. But it’s doing science and society a disservice if we allow this discourse to be ghettoised. Joe has a huge audience and many of those people probably won’t access the channels that you’d usually find science discussed on but, on the other side, how do you go on platforms that accidentally or deliberately promote misinformation? It’s a tremendously difficult problem.”

Still, Cox insists that the value of promoting science is worth navigating this information minefield.

“Ultimately, I think the pandemic was a unique problem because day-to-day messaging really mattered. Misinformation during a pandemic prolongs the pandemic. When that fades into the distance, I think most people would say they’d be happy to go on any platform where you can reach a wide audience and talk about science, although, there are unique moments where it’s more difficult. Every question I answer is very complicated. The world is a complicated place.”

As with politics, a certain level of difficulty feels inherently baked into the process of trying to open minds to new concepts. It’s now late August, and while the UK’s future is still unclear, perhaps we’d all do well to take a leaf out of Cox’s book and remain hopeful about life’s big problems.

“I’m old and wise enough to know that human relations are complicated,” he smiles, turning his attention to the future. “We’re talking about emotional connections to ideas and identity so it’s not easy. I have immense sympathy for politicians because most of them are doing their best. We can’t all throw our toys out of the pram and say: ‘Well, that’s it. I’m ignoring this.’ You stay and make your argument – and I will always make the case for closer co-operation across our continent because I think that’s how we might have a more prosperous country. We’re all on this planet together.”

See for details of Horizons – A 21st Century Space Odyssey dates

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