Masters of the Universe – meet Wonders of the Universe.
Hard-nosed bankers sat in respectful silence as Brian Cox, scientist, television presenter and former pop star, explained the Big Bang, the importance of research and why it’s not a bad thing for scientists to play around.
In a wide-ranging talk to the Credit Suisse Asian Investment Conference on Friday, Cox, a particle physicist, launched his lecture with a picture from the European Space Agency’s Planck space observatory. The image showed the oldest light – dating back to a mere 380,000 years after the birth of the universe.
“What you’re looking at here is a snapshot of, essentially, fluctuations in the density of the early universe. These are the seeds of the galaxy,” Cox told an audience of financiers, who, for once, looked more excited by life, the universe and everything than by mergers and acquisitions.
Cox, who has presented a series of BBC flagship science programmes, including Wonders of the Universe, Wonders of the Solar System and Wonders of Life, is a professor at Manchester University. In Britain he has become a household name and, due to his legion of adoring female fans, is the man credited with making science sexy.
He also works on the ATLAS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, near Geneva, which was useful when he explained how the Big Bang had helped shape life.
The picture also helped to pinpoint the origin of the universe.
“The universe is 13.81 - plus or minus 0.05 - billion years old,” he said, in a talk which ranged from cosmology to practical outcomes of science, including such “serendipitous side-effects” like the invention of the Internet.
“The great side-effect from CERN, without a doubt, which many of you know of, was the Worldwide Web, which was absolutely invented at CERN to face the challenges of problems that we had at CERN back in the 1980s and 1990s,” said Cox, who raised a laugh when he noted that the line manager of Tim Berners-Lee, generally seen as the father of the Internet, dismissively described Berners-Lee’s proposal as “vague but exciting”.
“Within a few years – within a decade certainly – this proposal transformed the global economy. There’s no doubt about that. Could it have been invented elsewhere? Possibly,” said Cox, emphasising that CERN’s open culture facilitated the flow of ideas that helped lead to the Internet in March 1989.
Cox, who was probably better known for music than for maths back in the 1990s when he was on keyboards for D Ream, which had several hits, including the UK number one, Things Can Only Get Better, lamented signs of faltering spending on research and development
“This is the node, this link between curiosity-led exploration of nature and economic growth – the generation of new knowledge and the generation of new money essentially, Cox said.
Cox said the pursuit of knowledge tended to produce economic benefits.
“Although it’s difficult to show in any specific case that this is true, it seems to be generally true – it almost seems to be self-evidently true – that the generation of new knowledge is the way that economies grow. Without the generation of knowledge, economies stagnate,” Cox said.
He cited the Nobel Prize winning discovery of graphene “a one atom thick layer of carbon rings bonded together – it’s one of the strongest materials known”.
“You can take a pin, and balance an elephant on the pin on a one-atom thick sheet layer of graphene and the elephant wouldn’t go through the graphene,” said Cox, predicting that graphene had huge potential in composites. It was also one of the best conductors of electricity, and an efficient transmitter of heat.
It was discovered by Konstantin Novoselov and Andre Geim at Manchester University with a piece of sellotape and a pencil.
“They were playing around, and Andre Geim, in particular, is a great advocate for the fact that new knowledge is generated when scientists are free to play,” said Cox.