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“Go to Mars? Only if there were restaurants on the way”

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With a degree in physics under his belt, Brian Cox certainly didn’t need to worry about whether things could only get better when his band D:Ream split in 1997. He just transferred his keyboard-tinkering skills to the Hadron Collider at Cern in Geneva, and became Britain’s most notable physicist. As his show Wonders Of The Universe lands on DVD, we spoke to the 45-year-old about missions to Mars, Star Wars and, erm, Danny Dyer…

Actor Luke Treadaway told us he cried watching Wonders Of The Universe. Have you heard of any other tearful reactions?

With the Wonders series, we try to connect science to people. These are powerful ideas. Watching [notable physicist] Carl Sagan’s Cosmos was a big influence on me; I still well up.

How do you feel about shows with questionable science, such as Danny Dyer’s I Believe In UFOs?

The BBC has it right – it gets active academics to make its programmes. I don’t think you can dig deep into the power and wonder of science if you’ve not done it.

Ant and Dec asked for a tour of Cern, and you showed Chris Morris round, too. Have you had other requests?

Loads. Almost everyone I meet is interested, everyone knows about Cern. Even Kate Hudson said she enjoyed the show. It’s great that Hollywood stars watch it.

You met your wife at the Large Hadron Collider – is it a romantic place?

No, it just says that I met her there on Wikipedia. I can’t change it, as everyone gets upset if I do. I just sit with my head in my hands, thinking someone will change it at some point. Exploring the origins of the universe is a romantic idea.

What’s working life like there? Can you stick your iPod on the dock?

Absolutely. One misconception of science is that it’s the domain of old men. It’s actually full of young people doing a job they love and are fascinated by. These big research labs are incredibly vibrant, brilliant places to work.

What are you listening to at Cern at the moment?

I’d love to say it’s all Pink Floyd and Muse. Well, actually, it is [laughs]. But it’s everything you’d expect from a group of young people, too. There are people from 85 countries at Cern, it’s a tremendous place.

You have the coolest haircut of any modern scientist. Who has the second coolest?

My haircut’s not that different to Carl Sagan’s in the Eighties, and Paul McCartney’s haircut on the front of Sgt Pepper. And it’s not very dissimilar to Liam Gallagher’s in the Nineties. I’m hanging on to the Sixties or the Nineties by my fingernails.

Who does the best impression of you?

John Culshaw’s getting better. We go out, but I think he just watches me.

You got a D in your maths A-level and yet studied physics at the University Of Manchester… How?

That’s true. I went to university late. When I was 18, Dare [Cox’s first band] were on the verge of getting a record deal. So after my A-levels we went to Hong Kong to do some gigs. I was allowed on the physics course when I was 23, so they were flexible. Maths isn’t something that comes naturally to me. You don’t have to be a genius to be an engineer or a scientist.

Are you rubbish at anything?

Foreign languages. Awful. I failed French. I did my PhD in Germany [in an international lab]. I couldn’t have a conversation with anyone.

Any scientific phenomena you don’t understand?

Most of it [laughs]. The point of being a scientist is to operate on the edge of the understanding, so you’re constantly confused about nature. If you’re not, then you’re not in the right place.

What’s the silliest science question you’ve been asked?

I get asked about the Higgs particle, if I believe in aliens… Sometimes in the pub I might just want to have a pint and talk about football, but I think it’s wonderful that people want to ask about physics.

Do you apply science to football?

I don’t think so, no. You can see you don’t have to be good at science to be good at football by just looking at footballers.

But music and physics seem to have a crossover – Einstein fancied himself as a musician, and Brian May is famously into science…

Coleridge said of one of my heroes – 19th-century scientist, Humphry Davy – that if he wasn’t a chemist, he would have been a poet. Scientists are interested in the world – that applies equally to musicians and poets.

So you don’t think your scientific and musical prowess is in your hair, like Einstein and May?

It is interesting that they had distinctive hair. I grew up in the Seventies and everyone had long hair. I’m just frozen in time [laughs].

You’re married to a scientist – is your house science-y?

It’s got pictures of the moon landings in it. Is that science-y?

Would you and your wife be the Mars expedition couple?

No. There are no restaurants on the way [laughs].

Sticking with galaxies far, far away – is JJ Abrams the right man for the Star Wars job?

I think he has a good chance. I loved Star Trek. And Cloverfield. I think he’s a great director. I’m excited about it.

How was it consulting on Sunshine? Did director Danny Boyle’s science add up?

He’s brilliant and meticulous. He wanted to know everything about the science in his film. But he always said the film isn’t a documentary – the clue is in science-fiction. The director makes the decisions, maybe artistic considerations overrule the science. That’s the way it should be.

Finally, in the event of Armageddon, would you be head of a taskforce charged with saving the world?

I’d probably send someone else. Sounds a bit dangerous, to be honest. I wouldn’t be Bruce Willis in that scenario.

Wonders Of Life is out now on Blu-ray and DVD

Image: Rex

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