Brian Cox digested: A summary of Thursday's live Q&A session

On Thursday, the physicist and presenter of Wonders of the Universe fielded questions and comments from readers. There were more than 700, so here's a roundup of all Brian's answers


Hello. Finally arrived, with a slight hangover :)


Mr Cox,

an observation and a question:

I really like the grandiose nature of the series. I think it helps get the point across that, you know, the universe is fucking massive.

Q: Do you think this is the first incarnation of the universe? Could it, potentially, have been expanding, then falling back in on itself, then blowing up again, ad infinitum? If so, could there have been another me, asking another you a slightly different question, not a parallel universe but a pre-and-post universes. To infinity.

Ps. Do you agree that the first 2 series of Red Dwarf were the best, as they were more about the nature of the universe rather than aliens and ting?


Chin up, ignore the haters. What you do is important.


@LaDude There are certainly theories that deviate from the Big Bang model - for example, some extra dimension theories allow for the universe to have existed forever; what we see as the Big Bang was an event in this larger universe that happened 13.7 billion years ago. Theories that require our universe to recollapse are currently disfavoured. One reason for this is the discovery that the universe is accelerating in its expansion. A universe that continues to expand forever gives rise to the so-called heat death scenario, which was the model we presented in the first episode of the show.

If I'm allowed to criticse my own show, I would say that it could have been clearer that this is only one model, although it is certainly the most likely given what we currently know



I'm intrigued by the hint in that interview about your next series 'Wonders of Life', can you tell us more? Is it just going to be about the mechanics of how the conditions for life were created and the physics/chemistry of how life began, or is it going to be more about what life actually is?


@pseudosp1n "Wonders of Life" will be a physicst's take on life / natural history. One idea is to explore how the laws of nature shape and restrict living organisms. For example, is there a limit to how good an eye can be, given the wavelength of visible light. The answer is obviously yes, but it's interesting to explore whether this limit has been reached, in birds of prey for example.

We'll also be looking at the underlying biochemcial processes that power life in detail. Photosynthesis, respiration .... and ask questions such as "Why do living things have to die?"

There will be lots of loud music, grand helicopter shots and me stood legs apart on mountains :-)


Question for Brian:

Do you ever feel frustrated with Science? That many of the cosmic mysteries and question can never be categorically answered? That the universe is simply too big for us to ever understand? That no matter how much you learn you'll never be able to know everything?


@Mansellto Its certainly be no means clear that we'll ever be able to understand everything! Martin Rees, the former president of the Royal Society, has talked about this possibility in some detail. I don't think that this possibility should trouble scientists at all. For me, science is ultimately a modest pursuit. It's about understanding the things we can see, and making theoretical models that can be tested by experiment. There need not be a grand agenda to build a theory of everything.


Question -

By the end of our lifetime (the next 50 years, say) what current scientific conundrum do you hope will have been answered?


@mrbuble Within the next 10 years, we will certainly understand the origin of mass in the universe. The LHC will see to that. Whether its a Higgs particle, multiple Higgs particles, or something else, we don't know. I would also guess that we'll discover the nature of dark matter.

Within the next 50 - I would love to believe that we'll have an answer to the question "Why is gravity so weak?" This may be a part of a quantum theory of gravity.

I would also love to know why the universe began in such a highly ordered state - a very very low entropy state. This is in many peoples view the most difficult question in cosmology.


As a thought to general science and reason vs. nonsense, do you think people will ever fully accept that proof is paramount?

Do you believe that people will ever see the end of pseudo-scientific nonsense such as astrology or holistic medicine?

Or even see it marginalised to an extent that it won't colour peoples views of real science?


@BRHolmes I think we can sometimes overstate our descent back into the dark ages. In general, we live in quite a rational society, certainly in historical terms. Whether or not we can completely banish drivel and have conversations based solely on reason is anybodies guess. Probably not, regrettably, but it shouldn't stop us from trying


Hi Brian

Manchester United or Oldham Athletic?


@AndrewTurner I was a season ticket holder at Oldham in the glory years. Andy Richie, Ricky Holden, Neil Adams. Don't get to Boundary Park much any more sadly


Isn't the assertion 'things can only get better' a flagrant breach of the second law of thermodynamics? I feel you should apologise...


@29FR It is, and I've already apologised for the scientific inaccuracy inherent in this and other D:ream songs.


Not beeing particularly piccy but may I question the good professor on a subject of fact? I think he said in the first set of trailers to his programmes which were broadcast on Radio 4 that (or words to the effect that) every atom in our body had been created 14 billion years ago in the Big Bang. Surely some of the atoms in our bodies were created by us sometime in the last 100 years ago in one of the many nuclear expolsions or nuclear reactors? Do not atomic weapons get their power from the transfer of mass to energy, the byproducts of which are "new" atoms. e.g. the sun is creating new helium all the time?
Statistically, surely there are Chrismas Island cracker or Bikini atol atoms in my body as I type this message to you? These were not around at the start of it all.
Your thoughts, Professor?
Kit Hubback. Peterborough


@hubbackk You may be correct - it could be that a few atoms of plutonium have made it into our bodies from atomic bomb tests - I have never thought about that before!


Dear Professor Cox

Hello from down-under. I loved Carl Sagan too & you are a brilliant successor to him. We are up to Ep 4. of your show on the ABC-- until I read today's Guardian I had no idea people were slagging off your show in the UK- ignore them !

My question: I'm more of a historian than a physicist but I love what I can understand of physics - which is limited- I THINK I understand string theory but I'm not sure.

1. What's the best easy book to read on physics?

And 2. Is it true that the Hadron Collider can be used for time travel?

Thanks , JMS.


@narniagirl Nobody of consequence is slagging off the show :) There will always be one or two nobbers, as I like to say.

1. I do think that the best easy to read intro. to cosmology and astronomy is still Cosmos by Carl Sagan, although it's obviously slightly dated now. Of the current books, I'm enjoying Brian Greene's new one a lot.

2. The Large Hadron Collider cannot be used for time travel, no!


@ Brian Cox

What are your views on the increasing pressures on basic scicence research to show potential for commercialisation when applying for funding?

Does this mean we fail to pursue knowledge for its own sake that may well have potential applications in future?


@justanotherthought I am very concerned about the pressure we are putting on basic, curiosity driven science by the ever-increasing need to fill in boxes about the potential 'impact' of the research. This argument is of course that serendipity has often played a key role in the most transformative and useful discoveries - from penicillin to the transistor. There is a balance to be struck, however. Taxpayer funded researchers must always be aware that they don't simply have a license to play around - its valuable to be asked to consider the potential impacts of your research; the problems arise when impact is over-weighted.


Question to Dr Brian Cox
If element 93 was discovered how would affect scientists views calculations and assumptions?


@shaunadog Element 93 has been discovered - it's called Neptunium. I believe it does occur in very small amounts naturally, although not completely sure. It gets made primarily in nuclear reactors.


Dear Professor Cox
Does it matter to you that, despite impressive ratings and many positive comments on sites like this, a few people critiscise your appearances in intensely personal ways?


@markgreenwood It doesn't matter that people criticse at all. I've argued for years that science is too important not to be part of popular culture. Now it seems that it is becoming so, then you have to expect a bit of a backlash!


If space and time are a continuum, why do we experience them as distinct?


@digit That's an excellent question. The technical answer, which isn't really an answer, is that the time component of the distance measure in spacetime, ds^2 = dx^2 - c^2 dt^2, has a different sign to the space components! But of course, this is because time and space clearly behave differently to each other. We don't have freedom of movement in time, for example, but we do in space.

So - I suppose the correct answer is that we don't know why time and space are different. It's of course worth pointing out that Einstein's spacetime may not correspond to reality at all. It is, after all, just a model that works.


Professor Cox,

What would you say was your greatest achievement as a physicist? and what would you say the most detrimental thing the LHC has found out?

I am a huge fan of your work and your appearances on television, and I look forward to seeing your upcoming work/film/inspiration for audiences like me

thanks, Ian


@iandallimore I think the piece of my research that has had the biggest impact is a paper I wrote with Guardian blogger Jon Butterworth and my frined Jeff Forshaw a few years ago now. If you're interested, it's here:

In the future, I hope that the FP420 project, which I ran for many years, will be realised at CERN. I do think it has the potential to make a significant contribution of we can get the money to build it!


Hi Brian,
Great to see you trying to inspire the public to see how wonderous and amazing Space and the Universe is, having been brought up watching Horizon and programmes about String theory I've always been absorbed by this area.
However the one overridding thing that I think about when I think about space is the missed opportunities, especially after the Apollo missions the gate was open for things like a base on the Moon, and there were even possibilities of that resurfacing under the Constellation program, but instead we've spent over 60 years glued to earth, which I think is a big problem. Human space exploration has stalled, and I would think part of the reason is because the public doesn't seem to care anymore, and why when I talk to my friends about it they say that it just doesn't seem important.
I would like to know what you think about the current and future direction of human space exploration, and if you ever dream of being up in space yourself?


@FelineFrontier I too regret our lack of ambition in manned space exploration. Apollo was one of the great achievements in the history of civilisation, and it would have been wonderful to have continued on to Mars, as NASA wanted to do. I think that the impact of Apollo is often misunderstood and underestimated. A Chase study from 1975 showed that there was a 14 to 1 return on the investment in Apollo. This took into account the inspirational value. This isn't some kind of intangible, ethereal thing. We accept that big sporting events such as the olympics can boost GDP by simply raising the national mood. A mission to Mars would do this! And the world, working together, could very easily afford the investment - investment being the correct word, by the way, because the Apollo experience is that you quickly get your money back!


Moaning about making science accessible - well, do it better yourselves then. Oh.

I hope Prof Cox doesn't get disheartened by all this irrelevant rubbish about "He's too pretty", "Who is paying for all this?" and "The music is too loud" (is that it? The Music Is Too Loud?). The chap is doing important stuff considering the reduced access to the formal teaching of any of the sciences and, indeed, maths.

Er, my question would be: Has the International Space Station been more about the process than the outcome?

Good luck and keep the info coming.


@carloscontrole "too pretty" - surely no such thing as too pretty :) "Who's paying for this?" It'll make money in the long run from international sales, DVD etc etc. I am sure. "The music is too loud" - balls :)

The international space station was in my view about both process and outcome. It's clear that we needed to learn how to construct complex things in near Earth orbit, and we've done that. As for outcome, we do now have a functioning laboratory that can be used for a wide range of applications.

If we do go onwards to Mars and beyond, I think the knowledge gained during the construction of the ISS will have been invaluable.


I think what Brian Cox is achieving is fantastic. Its hard enough to get people to pay attention to anything factual on TV. That he has been able to break through on achieving a mass audience while discussing some pretty complex physics is a real achievement. The shows may be very stylized, but so what? It looks beautiful as a show and for a non-scientific audience its never going to be enough to just dryly reiterate complex facts about physics.

These shows are about popularizing physics and cosmology, inspiring another young generation to take interest in these subjects (as opposed to the usual nonsense thrown at them by the mass media) and bring older people up to date with current theories and evidence, while also achieving large audiences; and he has done all four things things excellently well, just as Carl Sagan (a true intellectual hero) did in the 1970s.

People have been complaining for years about the difficulties of popularizing science, and Professor Cox has show that it can be done for TV without having to dumb anything down. I wasn't sure about that landscape metaphor he used when trying to explain about Einsteinian gravity and the paths of massive objects through space-time, but other than that the shows are generally excellent, as have several BBC shows on popular science in recent times.

Well done Brian, ignore the naysayers and keep up the good work.


Oh, and my question is.

Given the very unexpected findings in recent years in relation to dark energy, the amount of visible matter in the universe and its eventual fate, the rotational problem in terms of galaxies and the inference that much of the evidence found in recent years in this new golden age of Cosmology seems to contradict some basic axioms we rely on.

It seems to me that a lot of the posited solutions we are coming up with seem to involve introducing arbitrary new concepts such as the re-introduction of the cosmological constant, several novel fundamental particles and of course dark matter and energy. That usually implies there is something fundamentally flawed in our understanding, could this be the case once more?

This is becoming reminiscent of the period in the late 19th century when Maxwell's work on black body radiation and the Michelson Morley experiment was showing up some fairly basic problems with our understanding of physics. Eventually leading to the overthrow of classical Newtonian mechanics and the rise of quantum mechanics.

Could it be that we are facing a similar failure of understanding at the moment, if so, what are the possible successor theories and and do you think that this (admittedly) rather large issue of whether we are on the right track could be resolved by the LHC within the next ten years? Not in terms of coming up with a grand theory, but at least of proving that our current understanding is wrong?

I know that's a pretty big question to have to try to answer.

It is certainly a very interesting time in physics and science at the moment.


@shimrod I agree with you to some extent. My cosmology colleagues point out that, although dark energy and dark matter seem like epicycles, the model does stand up to quite rigorous scrutiny, particularly with regard to the WMAP data. It is also worth pointing out that the cosmological content is well motivated mathematically in GR - in some sense, one would have to explain why it was zero if indeed it were zero!


Brian, would you agree that your series has been ludicrously overhyped?

Of course its got loud portentous music ridiculously expensive locations and a boyish prof that many women and not a few blokes would like to fuck, thus unspurprising that TV critics loved it: but as an effort to convey knowledge, its painful.

Dont you think people that the kind of people likely to watch this already know that gravity is stronger on some planets than others - oh no you had to spend thousands hoiking a TV crew to film you going round a centrifuge to tell us that. I listed what I actually learned from that programme, you could have said it all in 3 minutes. As for looking down from a mountain into a valley and saying thats what general relativity is like, well I just hope that isnt how you actually teach. Bollocks old chap.

Its not all your fault Brian, though a period of silence/invisbility on your part would be most welcome, since TV is fatally handicapped when it comes to knowledge by its need to show pretty pictures and talk really S_L_O_W_L_Y so the thickos at the back of the class dont switch off.

Bring back AJP Taylor talking straight to camera.

BTW would botox help with that nasty fixed rictus grin of yours which must scare the shit out of people on the Tube?


@andrewwiseman It's a legitimate criticism to say that the series was overhyped. I suppose this will inevitably happen when something is a success - we tend to get carried away very quickly in our culture.

Regarding content / style. I would always instinctively push for more content - as an example I had hoped that we could make our explanation of the equivalence principle in the gravity show more detailed, but we essentially ran out of time.

I'm looking into whether I can do a program specifically on relativity, perhaps in the form of a lecture, in which I will indeed talk straight to camera with a blackboard behind me, in the way I give undergraduate lectures. We shall see!

And you'll be suprised to hear that I agree with you regarding my TV appearances. I'm off to be an academic for a while!

I do think that your comment about 'the kind of people likely to watch this' doesn't stand up to scrutiny. The audience was very large, very broad in age / sex, and mainly satisfied with the content / style. We do gather large amounts of data about the audience reaction, believe it or not!

I suggest that you read some books rather than watch TV if the content level is falling below your level. Might I recommend my own "Why Does E=mc^2" ;-)



That's all I've got time for now, but I might pop back later today / tomorrow to answer some more.

Thanks for your questions / comments!



Brian Cox

The GuardianTramp

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