London is unseasonably warm today and ShortList is on the brink of a major scientific breakthrough. Over a crackling telephone line, Professor Brian Cox is getting ready to formulate his very first law. Many of history’s great men have a law associated with their name — Einstein, Newton, Jude — and Cox is poised to become the latest addition to the line-up.
“Cox’s Law,” he proudly proclaims, “states that the size of your audience is directly proportional to the amount of sh*t people talk about you.”
There is a slight pause, and then the phone line is flooded with hearty Lancashire laughs. This unorthodox, off-the-cuff formula was prompted not by a Eureka! moment, but rather by our goading suggestion that “you’re not a real scientist until you’ve got your own law”.
However, that’s not to say that Cox’s Law doesn’t contain an element of truth. Thanks to the recent success of the British physicist’s acclaimed BBC series Wonders Of The Universe, the 43-year-old’s audience has soared dramatically over the past few weeks. And so have the various untruths associated with his name.
“There was one knob from The Daily Telegraph who wrote the most catastrophically stupid piece claiming that I thought humanity was insignificant,” says an indignant Cox. “I posted a polite response [online] underneath the article, explaining that the basis of Wonders is that humanity is extremely significant. The paper loved it, and they thanked me for driving so much traffic to the site.”
Thankfully, now a certain period of time has elapsed, people appear to regard his pop history as the former keyboardplayer in Nineties band D:Ream with affection and not derision. Add that to his passionate, engaging opinions, and Cox is proving a hit on and off the screen. Injecting a dose of rock’n’roll into science isn’t easy, but it seems Cox is the physics teacher that we all wanted but never had. Wonders Of The Universe attracted between six and eight million viewers each week, putting it, in his own words, “up on the EastEnders level”, and he — and it — won three Royal Television Society Awards last month. Consequently, he’s now become properly famous.
“It’s really nice when fans come up and want to have their photo taken with you,” he says, “but it’s not
just one or two people any more: it’s 20, 30 or 40. It makes it virtually impossible for me to go shopping. At the moment I’m just eating takeaways because I can’t go out to Sainsbury’s.”
In a country that is constantly mourning dumbed-down standards of education and plummeting intelligence levels, Cox’s achievement cannot be underestimated. “It’s always been my view that science should be part of popular culture, so if I can inspire people to take more of an interest in it, then great. I want the government to feel that science and engineering are the most important things that we do as a country.”
Cox’s appeal is as much about his band member image as his brainpower. The sweeping helicopter shots of him in Wonders, as he stands alone on a glacier, hair blowing in the wind, are closer to an MTV video than a BBC science documentary. Is image integral to his success? “There have always been scientists on TV, such as Patrick Moore, David Attenborough and Stephen Hawking,” he says.
“But I suppose that this is the first time a scientist or documentary-maker may get his picture in The Sun. It’s just a difference of image, really. It’s nothing to do with youth, because I’m not actually that young.”
Decades before carving out a niche as Britain’s hippest academic, Cox was just a regular Oldham kid dreaming of pop superstardom. In the early Eighties, aged 15, he saw Duran Duran play live and decided that he wanted to join a band. Although, as he admits, he wasn’t exactly a musical prodigy.
“I was never taught an instrument, so I had to teach myself,” he says. “I was good at programming the keyboards, but I never saw myself as a musician.”
Despite his self-confessed lack of ability, Cox’s first band, Dare, managed to secure a record contract soon after their formation. As you’d expect, the celebrations were immense.
“We were just a bunch of lads from Oldham who suddenly got a deal. If you’re 20 years old and you get plonked in the middle of LA with an expenses account, you’re going to have a drink, aren’t you?”
Was his time with Dare one long, booze-soaked party? “No, it was all quite innocent, really,” he says. “I never crashed my Rolls-Royce into a swimming pool or anything. I had a rusty FordFiesta. And no pool to drive it into. At the start we paid ourselves £75 each a week and that went up to about £120 a week by the end. We thought, ‘My God — we’ve made it!’”
However, Dare were at least traditional enough to split up in true rock’n’roll style. “We had a bar fight in Berlin,” says Cox. “We’d been touring for four years and we were sick of each other. We all threw a few punches in a half-hearted way. Nobody’s nose got broken; it was slapping, mainly — like those fights that footballers have. But it was enough to split up the band.”
By the time Cox had joined his next band, the synthpop outfit D:Ream, in 1993, he was already studying physics at the University of Manchester and leaning towards a career in science. The pressure of dissertation deadlines quickly took precedence and he quit the group to concentrate on his PhD. However, when New Labour co-opted the band’s glass-half-full hit Things Can Only Get Better as their theme for the 1997 election, Cox jumped at the chance to rejoin the band for the party’s victory bash at the Royal Albert Hall.
“The New Labour appearance is all we’re really remembered for,” laughs Cox. “Pete [Cunnah, D:Ream vocalist] rang me up and said, ‘Do you want to pop back on stage? It’ll be a laugh.’ And it was.”
So much of a laugh, in fact, that he’s planning to return to the stage for the first time in a decade and a half this year for another one-off performance. “BBC 6 Music DJ Shaun Keaveny has convinced me to play a song with British Sea Power on their tour,” he says. “Keaveny’s promised to be our mascot; he’s going to dress up as Tony Blair and dance about in the crowd.”
Is Cox expecting to see a new breed of fan at the gig: the previously unknown ‘science groupie’? “Maybe,” he laughs. “I’ll reserve my judgement about ‘science groupies’ until after the Uncaged Monkeys tour [a national roadshow, starring Cox and other high-profile science experts, such as Dr Ben Goldacre, author of Bad Science]. If we all end up being treated like Take That or The Beatles, then I’ll know that something’s up. I’d be surprised, though — we don’t exactly look like The Beatles.”
For Cox, music was “just one of those things that I got swept into, really” and as soon as he began his physics degree he knew that his future lay in the world of science. The physicist’s move into television, however, was far from inevitable. Aside from sporadiccameos on TV and radio, he first came to the general public’s attention three years ago for his work on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at Cern, the European Organisation For Nuclear Research, in Switzerland.
THE END OF THE WORLD?
The apocalyptic fears and paranoia about black hole-creation that surrounded the LHC are still fresh in Cox’s mind. What was the most crackpot theory that he heard about the Collider?
“That it could destroy the universe,” he says. “At first, [the protesters] thought that it could just destroy Switzerland, but none of them cared about that because they were all from the US and weren’t quite sure where Switzerland was. But then it was upgraded to being able to destroy the planet and people went crazy. You don’t get exposed to that kind of nonsense until you’re in the public eye, and it’s genuinely quite shocking. You think to yourself, ‘Do people actually believe this?’”
Cox, who found himself projected more and more into the limelight, wasn’t one to pussyfoot round the scaremongers’ shrieking hyperbole. He was once quoted as saying: “Anyone who thinks the LHC can destroy the world is a tw*t.”
“I said that in an interview and it became a sort of catchphrase,” he laughs. “I once even opened a lecture with it. It’s a nice soundbite, but it’s not totally correct. Actually, as some people had just read the rubbish being written and assumed it was true, I should really have said: ‘If you’re concerned about what the LHC can do, read what the experts say. If you’re still worried, do a bit more research. If, after all that, you’re still panicking about it, then you are indeed a tw*t.’”
Don’t get him started on climate sceptics, either.
“It’s ridiculous! There’s this whole group of people who seem to believe that climate science is a conspiracy concocted by Bill Clinton and the BBC or some Thunderbirds-style shady underground organisation. Who are these people?!”
However, most people are just straightforward, genuine science fans — even famous ones. “I was at the Royal Television Society Awards recently and Ant & Dec came up and told me that they were big physics fans and wanted to come to Cern and see the LHC,” he reveals. “I’m going to try to arrange that.”
Cox has also opened Cern’s laboratory doors to Chris Morris, the notoriously limelight-shy satirist of Brass Eye fame, who visited the LHC for a podcast episode in 2008.
“Chris is an old friend, actually,” explains Cox. “He doesn’t usually do things like that, but he was really fascinated by what we were doing there, so I said, ‘You should come out and see it for yourself.’ He’s fanatically interested in everything.”
MASTERING THE UNIVERSE
Ant & Dec aren’t the only science junkies in the country right now — there’s also the millions of Brits who were hooked on Cox’s TV series. Having first explored the solar system in 2010’s appropriately-titled Wonders Of The Solar System, Cox most recently examined the gigantic yet invisible subjects that govern our everyday lives — such as gravity, time and light — in Wonders Of The Universe. Beautifully shot, Universe looks spectacular, but it was far from an easy ride for its creators.
“We had a catastrophic time filming in Bolivia,” Cox says. “So catastrophic, in fact, that the particular section didn’t even make it into the series. We all got altitude sickness; it’s very unpleasant trying to shoot at 5,500 metres. Truthfully, Universe was much more of a challenge to make than Solar System.”
There’s a third Wonders series on the way — Wonders Of Life, which Cox confirmed in a Q&A session with Guardian readers to be “a physicist’s take on life [and] natural history”. We ask him if he’s become more image-conscious since appearing on TV.
“Less, actually,” he claims. “You start out on these programmes thinking that your appearance is very important. If you’re filming in a jungle or something, you’re still thinking, ‘Oh, God, I’d better find somewhere to have a shower today.’ But as time goes by you become more blasé about it. I’ve got progressively more scruffy and unshaven as the series has continued.”
Cox’s disintegrating grooming regime aside, one thing strikes you above all else when watching Wonders: the sheer knowledge of the man is staggering. Does he find that he’s being invited to more pub quizzes than usual?
“Yes, definitely,” he laughs. “Everyone thinks I know everything now. There’s even a hashtag on Twitter called ‘#briancoxknowseverything’, where people suggest the most ludicrous, unknowable things that I may have the answer to.”
It was ShortList, we proudly tell him, who started that hashtag.
“Did you? I loved it. My favourite response was ‘Brian Cox knows what Willis is talkin’ ’bout’.”
While we’re pleased that he appreciates our humorous hashtaggery, there’s a more serious issue at the root of the joke. Cox’s omniscience is making the rest of us look like a rabble of wide-eyed simpletons. Does he ever do anything stupid that may make him seem more… mortal?
“Yeah, of course,” he says. “To tell you the truth, I’m as useless as I ever was. [American physicist] Richard Feynman once said, ‘A scientist looking at non-scientific problems is just as dumb as the next guy.’ When it comes to cooking and directions and DIY, I’m definitely as dumb as the next guy.”
So he can still get lost with a satnav on board?
Mentally, we pocket that response for comforting reassurance during our next road trip.
But by now Cox has nearly reached the end of his own drive. While we’re talking, he is being whisked to Leicester Square to present the Prince’s Trust science awards alongside Prince Charles, so there’s only time for a few final questions. He had a consulting role on Danny Boyle’s 2007 sci-fi adventure Sunshine: is film work something that he’d like to do more of?
“Sunshine was brilliant because it was such an intense process,” he says. “There was plenty of interesting discussion with interesting people. I’d love to do something like that again, if I could find the time. Danny said that he’d bring me back on board if he ever made another science-fiction film. But he’s since told me that he never will, so there you go.”
Finally, we ask him, what does he make of his burgeoning status as a sex symbol?
“I don’t really have an opinion on all that,” he says, evasively. “It’s not something that crosses my mind. In my view, all I’ve done is get scruffier and less well-kept as time’s gone on, so it seems inversely proportional to the amount of attention I’ve received.”
Now we’re getting somewhere. Forget Cox’s First Law: Cox’s Second Law clearly states that the less you worry about your appearance, the more women will fancy you. Who said science was a waste of time?
Wonders Of The Universe is available to buy now from BBC DVD and iTunes