Here’s the thing about professor Brian Cox – he has the kind of mind that can grasp quantum physics and translate its complexity into something that sounds so simple you shrug and say, “Ah, OK, now I get it.” Yet that subtle scientific reasoning can go completely out of the window and he starts gabbling like an excitable child when it comes to something as simple as an eclipse of the Sun.
“I’ve seen one in 2009 in Varanasi in India and I found it a very powerful experience. I got this sense that I was on a ball of rock in space!
“You see the Moon move across the face of the Sun and it goes dark and you’re immediately flung into the night. Seeing these two celestial objects pass in front of each other makes them feel so… spherical… Seeing the celestial mechanics at work made the Earth very real for me. I wasn’t expecting it at all.”
Spreading this excitement is why the fifth series of the astronomy series Stargazing Live – co-presented with Dara O Briain – has leapt from its January orbit onto our screens this week. The reason? Well, on Friday morning, 20 March, the UK will experience its first countrywide solar eclipse since 1961 – described as a “significant partial eclipse”.
“If the skies are clear and you’ve got safe viewing glass, then you’ll be able to see something that won’t happen again in Britain – well, nothing like this level of coverage – until 2090. It’s beyond our lifetime essentially. We are going to cover that live, which has never been done before. This is such an exciting way to build a series of astronomy programmes.”
Stargazing Live’s ambition matches Cox’s enthusiasm. The prof and O Briain will be live from Jodrell Bank again, while presenter Liz Bonnin will be in a plane above cloud level in the Faroe Islands – the one part of the world guaranteed a total eclipse of the sun and a big crowd of eager eclipse chasers. Veteran astronaut Buzz Aldrin will also be a guest on the first two nights, helping build the excitement ahead of Friday morning’s eclipse special.
Perhaps slightly disappointingly, Cox doesn’t expect this eclipse, which unlike the one in 1999 can be observed to varying degrees across the whole country, to tell us anything new.
“A solar eclipse was used to prove Einstein’s theory of general relativity back in the 1920s – by looking at the bending of starlight by the sun – but we’ve got satellites up there now that can create their own artificial eclipse, so there’s not a lot to discover – as far as I know.”
It’s a shame. It would be a great start to his new role as the Royal Society’s Professor for Public Engagement in Science.
“I think that science and engineering are fundamental to the future of the world. Gathering more knowledge about the natural world and applying that to make our life better is the way that the human race is progressing – and thankfully so. But how do you encourage society to become more scientific? How do we engage more kids? How do we make sure the royal society has more of a policy impact?
One big challenge is the number of girls dropping out of science in schools. “Girls are as interested as boys if you talk about the solar system, cosmology and biology, but we lose them on the way through and that needs addressing. I want to understand why that is.”
Haven’t any of his programmes had any effect? “There are reasons to be optimistic. The long-term decline in students entering science at university has been halted, but there is a huge shortage looming so we can’t be too confident.
“We need a million more engineers and scientists in the economy by 2020 – from engineering apprenticeships to PhDs. We don’t have enough people in education at the moment to do that. The gap will be filled because industry needs it – initially by immigration from skilled workers, but we should be self-sufficient.”
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