Were humans ever to end up going to Mars, Professor Brian Cox OBE won’t be making the journey. While filming Human Universe, a new five-part BBC2 science series, he spent three hours in a spacesuit and describes it as “one of the most knackering things I’ve ever done. You’d think it would be brilliant being an astronaut but I knackered my ribs and they took five months to recover.”
Today, television’s favourite scientist looks back in shape: tall and lean, dressed in his usual uniform of jeans and T-shirt, topped with a floppy salt-and-pepper fringe. Just in case anyone’s forgot- ten, the T-shirt proclaims “Made in Manchester”. While he lives in London, this Lancashire-born lad still teaches physics at the University of Manchester. So, is he not made of the right stuff?
“Twenty years ago, maybe, but I’m getting on a bit,” the 46-year- old laughs, over a cup of tea and a bacon sandwich in a north London photographic studio. “I had dinner with Chris Lintott and Jon Culshaw [from The Sky at Night] last night and we were discussing habitable zones around stars [where life might exist]. Then we got to wondering whether there were ‘civilised zones’, where you could grow Margaux grapes. If the conditions aren’t right to grow wine on Mars, I might not want to go there.”
Then, the serious postscript: “Actually, the simplest answer is that I like civilisation and I don’t want to be out of it.” Especially, he adds, when Earth could be the only speck in the universe harbouring intelligent life.
That is the sentiment behind the new series, which he calls a “love letter to humanity”. It addresses fundamental questions about the existence of our species and our place in the grand old scheme of things. Why are we here? What made humans the dominant ape? Are we alone in the universe?
He cites as inspiration The Ascent of Man, the 1973 BBC series on human evolution presented by Jacob Bronowski, and Carl Sagan’s series Cosmos, which broke US viewing records when it was aired by PBS in 1980. Both are hailed as early, iconic examples of popular science programming, which made media celeb- rities of their academic presenters. Cox’s offering is meant to be similarly inspiring rather than instructive, although viewers will be introduced to fresh science ideas along the way, such as eternal inflation (in which the universe expands for ever) and exoplanets with habitable zones (Earth-like planets orbiting other stars). These concepts are juxtaposed with portraits of ordinary people living in different cultures, to illustrate the humanity that Cox so values.
“I loved Cosmos because it was a polemic, not just a cosmology programme,” he says, earnestly. “I think very strongly that science sets the framework for these sorts of discussions, especially when we talk about our place in the universe. Human Universe is basically a cosmology series but it asks questions like ‘What happened before the Big Bang?’ Ultimately it’s about why we’re here, how are we here – these questions lend a perspective to our lives.”
The series has been in development since January last year: “We didn’t sit down with a grand plan; the series emerged very organically with the same team I’ve worked with before. I really didn’t want to call it ‘Wonders’…That had run its course and you make your own clichés in television.
I’ve made three series of that and I wanted to do something else. I like the films we’ve made- they don’t offer simple answers and they’re not patronising. One of the baffling ideas on offer is eternal inflation: it contends that we actually live in a “multiverse”, in which an infinite number of universes exist and time has no beginning or end.
The theory sounds incredible, Cox admits, but is gaining traction: “It challenges the standard popular view of the Big Bang as a creation event. You could argue that the multiverse could have been around for ever – what does that mean?”
It could mean that humans are nothing special. Instead, due to the eternal universe-generating laws of nature, our particular universe was always bound to materialise at some point. “What do I think of the idea that we are inevitable, that we are not special in any way? I don’t know, society hasn’t discussed it. I’m not going to stand there as a telly presenter and say, ‘You should think this.’ I don’t know what to think because it’s too big a question.”
He would rather offer a profound quote, borrowed from his hero Carl Sagan, than a trite answer: “For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.”
Some use religion to make the vastness bearable. Not Cox, who says he is neither atheist nor agnostic and “only thinks about religion when people ask him about it.” He reject Richard Dawkins’s view that science and religion are fundamentally incompatible – except for fundamentalists. “Obviously you can’t be a young earth creationist and a scientist. It’s not possible because the earth isn’t 6,000 years old.
“But Biblical literalism isn’t what I take to be religion. Religion’s a more complex response than that. In the spirit of Gottfried Leibniz [a 17th-century German mathematician who philosophised about the existence of God], you can say, ‘Well, I don’t accept that something can come into existence without a cause.’ You’re allowed to say that; it’s not illogical. So if you want to think there’s an eternal presence that causes things to happen; that’s not illogical. I don’t happen to think that – I almost don’t have an opinion on it.”
Cox is most animated when discussing our future: he warns that “the biggest threat to civilisation is human stupidity”, in terms of fighting wars, plundering the planet and not protecting ourselves properly from asteroid impacts. “The problem with these points is that if you make them carelessly you end up sound- ing like Morrissey in his teenage years,” he sighs. “They’re so obvious that they become clichéd positions to take, but actually they’re not clichéd positions. The more we consider our position in the wider universe, the more pressing these questions become.”
With filming about to finish, what comes next? “I’ll go back to Manchester, teach first-years and do research at Cern. Television’s really important but I don’t see myself as a TV presenter. I want to carry on encouraging governments to do the correct thing, which is to invest in education and research, and if something comes up that’s a great piece of telly and excites me, then I’ll do it.”
Human Universe is on tonight at 9.00pm BBC2