My life: Brian Cox | South China Morning Post
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My life: Brian Cox

The rock star turned particle physicist talks to Rachael Barker about life, the universe and, most importantly, 1980s pop music


SPACE: THE FIRST FRONTIER As far back as I can remember, I was interested in astronomy; always wanted a telescope and little star maps. I was interested in space flight in general, which I think can be traced back to my dad's interest. I was born just at the end of the Apollo programme, and we had pictures, I remember, on the walls, of Apollo, the landings on the moon. I always wanted to do something to do with space, even though I didn't know what the word was at the time.

When I got to senior school, aged 11, I was insistent that I didn't want to do anything other than physics and science. Then I got interested in music; but only from the perspective of wanting to be a pop star.

THE RIGHT NOTES I taught myself to play keyboards at the age of 15 because I wanted to be in a band. And I joined a band (Dare) with a guy who used to be in Thin Lizzy, just because he lived near me. The first thing that happened to us was we got offered some shows in Hong Kong. So we came to Hong Kong and went to Kowloon and to a little club, and played there for two or three weeks. That was my first real trip outside Britain. We went back and got a record deal and so we made two albums, and toured with people like Jimmy Page and Gary Moore - so it was a rock band, basically - and then with a band called Europe; the Europe of (the song) The Final Countdown. We went on for about four years and the band split up and I went straight to university to do physics, which is what I had always planned to do.

I'm still into bands like Duran Duran. I've become friendly with the band quite recently, actually. I still like (David) Bowie, The Smiths and all the Manchester bands; New Order, Joy Division. But in other respects I've got into a wider range of music including some jazz and other stuff. So I've kind of gone backwards as well in time and broadened a little bit. I still think the 80s were the best. I'd do quite well on a quiz of 80s pop music.

It's great to see Hong Kong again - this is the only time I've been out of the airport since 1986. It's changed a lot. We stayed on Lantau, which was a tourist resort in 1986, so we got a little boat out and would stay there for a few days after we played the shows. And now it turns out there's an airport there!

NOT ROCKET SCIENCE I was working at Cern (European Organisation for Nuclear Research) in Geneva, at the Large Hadron Collider, as a PhD student, and the BBC were just getting interested in the LHC. I was interviewed as just one of the people working at Cern. They saw it, liked it and then they interviewed me again for a programme about Einstein, and then they interviewed me again and finally they said, "Do you want to make a couple of programmes?" So I made a couple of programmes and it went from there. I'd been on television before but in bands, so I'd been on shows like Top of The Pops (as keyboard player for pop band D:Ream), but nothing to do with science at all. I'm always asked about (being labelled the most-sexy scientist) and I never know what to say. I usually go with, "Yeah, but there isn't a great deal of competition."

A lot of people think you've got to be some sort of genius to go and work at Cern, but that's not the case. One of the big barriers to getting into science is that people think it's difficult, when it isn't really; you just have to be interested. There is a shortage of scientists, so if you're interested, you can be a scientist. It's a fairly normal career path, actually.

IRRATIONAL BEHAVIOUR Wilful ignorance makes me angry. I don't get angry with people who genuinely don't know things, that would be ridiculous. But I get very annoyed with people who seem to be wilfully ignoring the evidence, the scientific position; people who don't appreciate the scientific method. I don't like irrationality, it really irritates me. What also irritates me is a lack of investment in research and development and exploration. I spend a lot of time in Britain trying to remind the government that our economy is based on this. They seem to need reminding.

STARS IN HIS EYES The more I'm on television, the more I meet famous people. And they're all interested. I was in Hello! magazine (last month), which was good. It was about a wedding I was at; Sam Branson's (son of Virgin Group founder Richard Branson). I'd met them in Madagascar while filming Wonders of Life, and Richard is, obviously, interested in space exploration and we became friendly. The more people I meet who are either famous or wealthy or big business people, the more optimistic I get because most of them seem to care, and certainly that's true of Richard Branson. I think Virgin Galactic is incredible because the more people get out into space and look down, the better things will be.

UNIVERSAL TRUTH I get asked a lot, "Is there any other life out there in the universe?" The answer is: we don't know. Quite possibly there are microbes around. But intelligent life? We've had a reasonable look and we can't see any. It took a long time for complex organisms to appear on Earth, even the simple stuff took around three billion years. It wasn't until about 550 million years ago that anything you would recognise as complex appeared. Three billion years is a quarter of the age of the universe, so it may be that complex life and intelligent life are extremely rare. That should tell us something; it should inform our behaviour as a species. Let's say we're the only intelligent civilisation in the Milky Way, then it's incon-ceivable that we behave in the way we do. It's ridiculous. You wouldn't be bothered with these parochial little disputes, you'd be getting on with making sure you are protected as a civilisation because there's only one of you around. The flip side, by the way, is that we're not rare and that there are civilisations all over the place. Again that would, presumably, make us behave differently because there'd be someone else to bother about, rather than just us on this little grain of sand.


Wonders of the Universe , presented by Professor Brian Cox, starts on BBC Knowledge on May 10.



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