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In my experience... Brian Cox

Danny Scott / 02 August 2022

Taking time out from his tour, the physicist Brian Cox, 54, tells us about his life as a rock star, being a science sex symbol and his secret to looking young.

Brian Cox
Brian Cox. Sophia Spring/News Licensing/Times

Given you’re an expert on the solar system, if you had the chance to go into space, would you?

I think so. I’ve been lucky enough to speak to a lot of astronauts and they’ve all said what a profoundly moving experience it is to see the Earth looking so small. In the past, I’ve suggested that all world leaders should be sent into space for a few hours so they can contemplate the heavy responsibility they have to our fragile planet. Loads of people got in touch and said we should leave them up there!

Do you think we are alone in the universe?

Well, it depends on what you mean by ‘alone’. The Perseverance rover [a robotic explorer], which is on Mars at the moment, will be collecting samples from an ancient river delta and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we find signs of microbial life. But if you’re talking about complex life – UFOs and alien civilisations – most of the biologists I speak to think it’s highly unlikely.

Does it bother you that the tech billionaires such as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are muscling in on all the space action?

Not at all. We need them and we need their investment. Thanks to that investment, we’ve had massive improvements in satellite technology. Private money makes space more accessible and significantly cheaper. We tend to think of space as a luxury, but it’s not. It’s a key part of our infrastructure – sat nav, weather, climate, international communications. We’d struggle without it.

Were you into science at school?

I was interested in science, definitely. Unfortunately, I was also rubbish at maths.

Your wife, TV presenter Gia Milinovich, has described herself as a geek. Would you agree?

Well, we both appeared in a [2011] Geek Calendar…

Does she mind you being a science sex symbol?

She finds it very amusing.

What was the best experience of your life?

Getting my PhD [in Experimental Particle Physics] in 1998. Or working on the Large Hadron Collider. That would be my best ‘professional’ experience. My teenage son, George, being born would be the best ‘personal’ experience. And getting married to Gia. There have been many ‘best experiences’.

Is there anything you’d say to your younger self?

That’s cheating, isn’t it? Warning your younger self. There’s a very famous episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called Tapestry where Captain Jean-Luc Picard goes back and changes something in his past. When he arrives back in the present day, he’s no longer captain of the Enterprise. The whole idea is that you live and learn from your mistakes. That’s how you gain life experience.

If you were Minister for the Saga Generation, what’s the first thing you would change?

I’d try to persuade people to go back to college and study the sciences. I went back as a mature student after my music career and there was a real exhilaration I felt when I got my brain working again. Like being fully energised. Subjects such as physics, biology and maths make serious demands on the brain. They’re hard work and you have to do a lot of practice if you want to get good, but the rewards from that sort of intellectual challenge are immense.

You’re 54, but you look 24. What’s your secret?

Time travel.

You’re currently in the middle of a massive tour, Horizons, in which you’re giving physics lectures in sold-out arenas. Are there really that many people interested in the Big Bang and the Large Hadron Collider?

I’m as surprised as anyone! When somebody first suggested the idea of delivering a lecture in a concert hall, I assumed nobody would turn up and I’d be laughed out of the building. It was completely sold out. Every time we start a new tour, I get scared that I’ll be lecturing to an empty hall, but it’s never happened. Yet! [Brian broke his own world record for the most tickets sold for a science tour (158,589) during his last live tour, Universal.]

So, is going to a Professor Brian Cox show like going to a really big school lesson?

Ha ha! Sort of. We utilise a lot of state-of-the-art technology, taking the audience to other planets, into black holes… journeying back to before the Big Bang. When I was in America recently, I asked if I could have an old-fashioned school blackboard up on stage, but you could only see it from the first couple of rows, so I’ve now got an iPad linked to a giant screen for my equation solo.

Equation solo?

If you go and see a rock band, you get a guitar solo, but I do an equation solo on the iPad. Solving equations really fast, dropping to my knees at the front of the stage and waving to the crowd.

Before your science career, you were actually in rock bands Dare and D:Ream, playing keyboards. Is touring with science anything like touring with a number one single?

Yep, there are a lot of similarities. Taxi, hotel, aeroplane… looking out the tour bus window and seeing a sign for Indianapolis or Salt Lake City. It’s an interesting way to see the world because you end up going to places that you’d never think of going on holiday.

Do you miss being at home with your family?

Of course. Any chance I get to come home, I grab it with both hands. But life has been like that for several years now. Even if you’re filming a documentary, you’re away from home. It’s part of the job.

Are you a musician who dabbles in science or a scientist who dabbles in music?

I love music and listening to my favourite band, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, always puts me in a good mood. But there is nothing to match the joy of watching fresh data come in from a particle accelerator – being the first person to witness a new aspect of nature.

Horizons: A 21st Century Space Odyssey is touring the UK from 1 August-2 October. For details, see briancoxlive.co.uk

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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