Brian Cox: Science for the Masses

bcAmongst the remains of Kolmanskop, an old mining town in the Namib Desert, a scrawny metrosexual soliloquizes about the nature of the universe in a Lancastrian accent. After another minute of establishing shots, the presenter sits down on a dune and builds a sand castle. He then goes on to give an explanation of the second law of thermodynamics and why the wind tends to build dunes rather than castles. Behold a five minute segment of the 2011 BBC series Wonders of the Universe, and its presenter Brian Cox.

Brian Cox, OBE, professor of physics at Manchester University and research fellow at the Royal Society, is the boyish face of science in Britain. Starting in the mid-2000s with a few spots as guest presenter on the popular science programme Horizon, Brian Cox has become the BBC resident physicist, presenting several documentary series and appearing in several talk shows.

His documentary series Wonders of the Solar System (2010), Wonders of the Universe (2011), and Wonders of Life (2013), among others, have an epic cinematic feel to them. The BBC has a tradition of setting aside a generous portion of its resources for such lavishly produced series.

“Sagan had his apple pie, Richard Feyman his elastic band, and Brian Cox a sandcastle.”

Mr Cox’ shows are full of dramatic aerial shots of its protagonist walking about vast and dramatic landscapes, stopping occasionally to stare contemplatively into the distance. A first-time viewer might be forgiven for thinking that the film crew was forced to take such a wide girth just to fit the presenter’s ego on the small screen. That impression would thoroughly miss the point: Professor Cox seems just as much in awe of his surroundings as the viewer and his excitement is quite contagious.

Mr Cox’ explanations of the various subjects brought up are just simple enough to be grasped by most and enigmatic enough to be thoroughly thrilling. No TV show could possibly hope to deliver anything beyond a very basic understanding of scientific theories. However, Mr Cox succeeds wonderfully well in instilling an appreciation of scientific methods and in creating a compulsion to learn more.

His radio show The Infinite Monkey Cage is slightly more brazen in championing of scientific method and disdain for its detractors.

In 2013, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the BBC science fiction series Doctor Who – the longest running sci-fi series in the history of television – Professor Cox gave a lecture in The Faraday Theatre of the Royal Institution entitled the Science of Doctor Who. During the event, he gave an explanation of Time Dilation and the nature of black holes to an audience of school children and TV personalities.

The word innovative is often used to descriebe a hero, and rightly so. Heroes are, more often than not, those who tackle major problems and offer innovative approaches to any given problem. There is little innovative about Brian Cox. That is not at all a slight on him rather he’s the poster child for tradition. Not only of the scientific method in general – which arguably constitutes humanities’ greatest tradition – but also that of the science populariser.

The Faraday Theatre in which Brian Cox gave his 2013 lecture was named after Michael Faraday who established the Christmas Day Lecture at the Royal Institution in 1825 – an annual event in which a leading scientist delivers a lecture to an audience of children. The event has been an annual fixture only interrupted briefly by the Second World War. It has been televised since 1966.

The Royal Institution was established in 1799. Its mission is to promote public engagement in the sciences. Brian Cox’ documentaries follow the well-beaten path previously navigated by the likes of David Attenborough’s Life and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.

Sagan had his apple pie, Richard Feyman his elastic band, and Brian Cox a sandcastle. These men are born storytellers. They are the giants that climb down the ever-growing tower of understanding in order to show the yet uninitiated the heights already attained and the challenges remaining. Brian Cox cites Carl Sagan as one of his major inspirations; just imagine who’ll say the same of Brian Cox.


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