Prof Brian Cox: ‘Being anti-expert – that’s the way back to the cave’

He says anyone can understand his shows, but he quite likes it when they can’t. As he moves to BBC1, TV’s favourite particle physicist talks about his deep belief in public service broadcasting – and why fame doesn’t make him less of a scientist

You can guess how Professor Brian Cox feels about our referendum result from his opinion of the current anti-expert mood. We met three days before the referendum vote, and throughout the interview his famous perma-grin faltered only when the subject of public cynicism towards professional expertise came up.

“It’s entirely wrong, and it’s the road back to the cave. The way we got out of the caves and into modern civilisation is through the process of understanding and thinking. Those things were not done by gut instinct. Being an expert does not mean that you are someone with a vested interest in something; it means you spend your life studying something. You’re not necessarily right – but you’re more likely to be right than someone who’s not spent their life studying it.”

If Michael Gove believes the country is fed up with people who know what they’re talking about, Cox’s enduringly wild popularity suggests that we haven’t entirely lost faith in them. The particle physicist, 48, enjoys a remarkable degree of global celebrity status for someone who references Plato, Newton, Descartes and an obscure patron of early 17th-century science called Johann Matthäus Wacker von Wackhenfels within the first five minutes of conversation. His previous series have attracted the sort of viewing figures Simon Cowell would envy, and his new four-part series will go out on primetime BBC1.

Forces of Nature was inspired by a 1611 book, De Nive Sexangula, written by the German astronomist Johannes Kepler, who noticed one winter’s night that although every snowflake falling around him was different, every single one was six-sided. “So he started asking himself why. And he thought that this symmetry must be telling him something about the underlying laws and constituents that make them. It’s genius for someone in 1610 to say that; it’s how a 21st-century physicist would operate. Often, with my TV series, you start with a big question – but that’s a very television way of doing things. Actually, science is about paying attention to tiny things, and that’s how you end up uncovering the fundamental laws of nature.”

Forces of Nature with Brian Cox trailer on YouTube

The series features snowflakes, rainbows, the northern lights, Himalayan honey bees, freediving South Korean grandmothers, and a human-pyramid contest in Spain. “The brief was to find stories that are entertaining in their own right – that are spectacular, interesting, beautiful things, but also illustrative of something deeper.” From these and other sumptuously telegenic vignettes, the presenter seeks to explain why icebergs float, grass is green, water is blue, planets are round, and honeycomb is built out of hexagons.

In a time of austerity, this kind of lavish, globetrotting television can raise eyebrows, but Cox says “that’s just a misunderstanding of the economics of television”. More than half the budget came from foreign broadcasters, “because we know how to film Himalayan honey bees, and they don’t. And if we said we’re going to film bees in Kent instead, they wouldn’t want it.” But more than sound economics, Cox thinks the series exemplifies the whole point of the BBC.

“One of the really refreshing things about the BBC now, with Tony Hall running it, is you’ve got someone who I know understands what a public institution is. I’ve always felt that the BBC is a public institution first and a media company second. So it exists in order to make the country better. It does not exist to make television or radio; that’s it secondary purpose. It makes the country better by making television.”

Cox used to say that he was happiest on BBC2, where he wouldn’t be expected to oversimplify and make “everything nice and clear”, and admits he had to be reassured that BBC1 wouldn’t meddle if he made this series. “Because I don’t like committees, and I don’t think anyone ever made anything decent via committee. I don’t think anyone ever made anything good if they were too worried about second-guessing their audience. Audience research does not make great things.”

He pauses for a moment. “But then again, that’s quite selfish in a way, because the thing you’ve always got to remember is that you’re not making these programmes for yourself. It’s a lot easier to talk to yourself – but if you want more people to become interested in science, then a prerequisite for that is to access as many people as possible. So you want to access the biggest possible audience. I’ve always seen public service broadcasting as part of the education system, in the sense that you want people to stumble across ideas and things that they had no idea they were interested in. That’s the whole point – it’s a gateway to something else, and BBC1 is the channel for that. So when you think of it like that, you’ve got to try to do it.”

Brian Cox at the Sphynx Observatory in Switzerland while making Forces of Nature
Brian Cox at the Sphynx Observatory in Switzerland while making Forces of Nature Photograph: unknown/BBC

As I agree with every word of this, I wish I could just nod and leave it there. The embarrassing truth, however, is that I watched his new series’ first programme three times, took notes, kept rewinding the most complicated bits, and even then still grasped at best only a quarter of what Cox was on about. I understood even less of the other episode I saw – but possibly because by then I’d given up, ditched my notes, and decided to sit back and just enjoy the view.

So when Cox tells me: “There’s nothing in any of these programmes that virtually anyone watching couldn’t understand, if they wanted to. Everyone can get it eventually, if they just think.” I have to beg to differ. Feeling rather defensive, I mention my straight As in science GCSEs, then confess that after watching his show over and over, I still couldn’t tell anyone why a snowflake has six sides.

He looks momentarily surprised. Then he chuckles. “Isn’t that great, though? Isn’t that great that on BBC 1, someone who’s got a degree might still be thinking, ‘There’s stuff here I don’t quite get’?”

“I didn’t get it at all,” I clarify.

“I’m quite pleased with that,” he beams.

Interestingly, Cox does have a theory that could explain why good science GCSE results wouldn’t necessarily make me able to understand his programme. “If it were up to me, actually, I would abolish exams,” he says cheerfully. “I say to my students [he teaches a first-year class at Manchester university]: ‘You don’t even need to do an exam really. You don’t need me to tell you whether you understand Einstein’s theory of relativity or not. You’ll know when you get it.’ Because I think that education is about taking responsibility for your own understanding, and you know when you understand something.” At 16 I knew perfectly well that I hadn’t grasped the most fundamental scientific basics; I just knew how to do well in exams.

Nonetheless, according to Cox, anyone should be able to understand Forces of Nature, and I really couldn’t. When I gave up trying and decided to watch for sheer visual pleasure, I had a nicer time, so I ask if he would count uncomprehending enjoyment as success.

“Yes. Because it is difficult, some of this stuff. I often get people coming up to me saying, ‘I love your stuff, I don’t understand any of it, but it’s great.’ And I think that’s the way in. Because science is that; no one understands things when they first look at them, and actually that realisation that you know essentially nothing is at the heart of science. Richard Feynman, the Nobel prize winner and iconic physicist, was asked to define science, and he said that it’s ‘a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance’.”

Cox would much rather overestimate than underestimate his audience’s intellect – “I’d rather treat them with respect” – but thinks the key is not to baffle viewers for too long. “Before people get so confused that they get bored, you come back with something beautiful, and I think if you can get the rhythm right, that’s the key to BBC1. You might watch and get really interested and go online to try to find out more. But if you can make the rhythm right, so that people don’t get lost or bored or angry before something comes back, that is fun. For me that’s how you do it.”

Brian Cox explains the forces of nature (from 2011)

I suspect a larger portion of the series will go over more viewers’ heads than Cox might realise – but this may be because we disagree about something else. He once said: “There is no such thing as a person who isn’t interested in science. If people aren’t interested, they’ve not understood what you mean by science.” But I think I am that person – so what, I ask, have I not understood?

“Well, so, if you list the questions now that are at the frontiers of fundamental science, there are some very immediate questions. Are we alone in the universe? That’s one of them.” Cox thinks other civilisations are a logical inevitability – “The universe is probably infinite, so they’re going to have to. Given that we evolved, and we are consistent with the laws of nature, then it becomes a game of chance, and no matter how small the chances are, if the universe is formally infinite, then there will be an infinite number of civilisations.” But I’m not, I confess, that bothered either way.

Cox peers at me, increasingly puzzled. “Maybe you are that person. But I think it’s unusual that a person doesn’t glance at the stars and wonder what they are, or glance at a rainbow and wonder what it is.” I’m delighted by it all, I say, but not curious to know more. “But there must have been those late-night discussions at university where you start to wonder about your place in the universe?” Nope.

A hundred and fifty years ago, I could imagine myself gazing at a rainbow and wanting to understand it. But in a world where I have no idea how my mobile phone or the internet work – or my car, or television or, for that matter, my fridge – everything seems so comprehensively unknowable that amateurish scientific curiosity feels futile.

“That’s interesting,” Cox says, “because it is true that the idea of a genuine polymath who was pretty much across all of human knowledge has sort of receded, in the sense that there is now so much human knowledge.” But just as I’m starting to nod, he adds, “I’m not sure that’s entirely true, though.” He thinks the fundamental frameworks through which we can understand it all are still perfectly “accessible” – but as his explanation of these plunges us swiftly into quantum physics, the theory of relativity and something called spectroscopy, I think his idea of accessible is not the same as mine.

The funny thing is that Cox has been accused in some quarters of dumbing science down. Professional jealousy in academia is not unheard of, and Cox’s early career as a 1990s pop star with D:Ream conferred on him a glamour I imagine some colleagues resent. Selected to present Horizon in 2005, Cox became a household name with his hit 2010 series Wonders of the Solar System, since when he has been the poster boy of science on television. Do some scientists struggle with his fame?

“Well, yes. But I don’t see it at the very senior levels of academia. If you get any stick, it tends to be from postdocs and people like that. But that’s entirely appropriate, because when I was a postdoc I used to think all these professors, who were going to meetings and so on, they were just ‘too much conversation’. But then, of course, as you get more senior you realise that someone’s got to interact with the public, someone’s got to build a consensus that this endeavour that we’re involved in is valuable. So, the fact that you have people who are idealistic about the purity of science is absolutely right. But doing all this stuff I do, it doesn’t make you a lesser scientist. Most people in this profession end up doing some broadening, and I’ve broadened in a very interesting direction.”

Where it will take him now, however, he isn’t sure. “I don’t know actually, it’s a good question. I don’t know. I like learning curves. I was a musician for a while, then I did physics, physics research, I love teaching, that’s a big learning curve.” Isn’t TV a huge learning curve? “Ye-es. But I’ve done that quite a long time now, 10 years really. So, I never quite know, really. I’m always on the lookout for something else to learn about, someone else to do or run.” He pauses, and laughs. “Or something.”

Forces of Nature begins on 4 July at 9pm on BBC1.


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