Professor Brian Cox: Modern scientists are like “Doctor Who from afar”

The physicist reveals details of his BBC2 lecture The Science of Doctor Who exclusively in Radio Times magazine

Scientists are engaging in a search for alien life described by Professor Brian Cox as “Doctor Who from afar”.


Attempts by US researchers to find out whether or not we are alone in the universe have similarities to the hit BBC1 sci-fi series, Cox will claim in his forthcoming BBC2 lecture The Science of Doctor Who, the contents of which are exclusively revealed in this week’s Radio Times magazine.

“We’re on the verge of launching telescopes and detectors so sensitive that we can analyse the light not only from stars but also the light reflected and absorbed by the atmospheres of planets around the stars,” says Cox. “This will allow us to look for the fingerprints of molecules such as water, methane and even organic molecules – the fingerprints of life.

“Every machine, no matter how sophisticated or efficient, must leave a telltale heat signature behind. Researchers are attempting to exploit this fundamental universal law, using infrared cameras to search the stars… Doctor Who from afar!”

Professor Cox uses his lecture to reiterate his belief that time travel is theoretically possible – but only into the future and not the past.

In the lecture, physics Professor Jim Al-Khalili is moved back and forth on stage in a wheelchair as part of an experiment to show how time is relative.

Says Cox: “Our time is personal to us: this is what Einstein discovered – there’s no such thing as absolute time. So why don’t we notice this in everyday life? Because the amount by which time slowed down for Jim as he was moving across the stage was minuscule, because the speed he was travelling was so small compared to the speed of light. But if we’d have sent Jim off in a rocket flying out into space…

“Let’s say we catapulted Jim off at 99.4 per cent the speed of light for five years, according to his watch. Then we tell Jim to turn round and come back – it takes another five years to get back to the Earth – so for him the journey would take ten years. But for us, with our watches ticking faster than Jim’s, 29 years would have passed. Jim would return in 2042 having gauged only ten years. So he’d be a time traveller. Time travel into the future is possible. In fact, it’s an intrinsic part of the way the universe is built. We’re all time travellers in our own small way.”

Read the full interview with Professor Brian Cox in the new issue of Radio Times magazine, on sale from Tuesday

The Science of Doctor Who airs on BBC2 on Thursday 14 November