In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy there’s a moment when, just before the Earth is blown up, one human being finally understands everything. The meaning of life, the universe and, you know, everything. In the books, it’s a schoolgirl. In real life, it’s Professor Brian Cox. The bonus with Cox is that he can pretty much explain everything, too. Which is a good thing – because in his new series the BBC has asked him to do just that.
The four-part Forces of Nature sees the eternally youthful Cox – who wears his 48 years so lightly you wonder if there’s actually a picture in his attic – cover the length and breadth of the planet to explain the causes of everything about our world. He ticks off the shapes of snowflakes and manatees, the power of volcanos, the call of the humpback, colour, gravity, sunshine, moonlight, good times and even boogie. It’s an ambitious BBC1 debut for the physicist, who so far has been sheltering on Radio 4 and BBC2.
“The brief was: ‘Do you want to make a series for BBC1 with the potential to reach a wider audience?’” he says earnestly, over a cup of tea in a cosy room at the back of Broadcasting House. “I was, I will admit, nervous about that. My BBC2 stuff is quite polemical, very authored. This has to reach a very broad audience but not underestimate them.”
Is this a bit of a risk for him? Two million on BBC2 is considered respectable – but two million in prime time on BBC1 would be a disaster. “I’ve found it much more challenging, yeah,” he nods cheerfully, “and therefore interesting. They say, ‘Do you think you can illustrate gravity with human towers?’ Or there’s a sequence about the Maasai tribes people, where we talk about how important the redness of the earth has to their culture, then link it to the redness of blood and finally get into a discussion of haemoglobin.”
It’s all astonishingly ambitious – ideas and themes weave in and out of each other like tunes in a baroque concerto, and although he’s hugely enthusiastic about the first programme, The Universe in a Snowflake, Cox seems slightly unconvinced by a few other elements of the series.
“I’m comfortable with all the things that I’ve made, but I don’t really like a lot of them,” he says, surprisingly. “I think it’s very rare that you make something in any area where you think, ‘Yes, I really do think that works.’ I dislike some more than others and like some more than others, but there’s not many that I really like. But The Universe in a Snowflake is one of the ones I really like – I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever made.”
There’s a cynical argument that commissioning such a far-reaching series for BBC1 primetime might have something to do with the BBC proving its worth as the Government considers its charter. Certainly Cox is a passionate defender of Auntie Beeb and all her works – but he goes further. One of his heroes is the Polish physicist Johannes Kepler. Kepler’s arguments, made in 1611, were fundamental in creating the Age of Enlightenment, lifting Europe out of the superstition of the Dark Ages. Cox can see looming threats to Enlightenment thinking.
“If you look at a country, its success is about the interaction between its citizens and its institutions – and the BBC is a unique broadcaster because it’s an institution first and a media company second,” he explains. “I’m a Professor for Public Engagement in Science at the Royal Society. We want to tell the public what we’re doing with their money and why science is important. The BBC is charged with doing that. No other media organisation is – by definition, their job is to make money for shareholders. It’s easier in this country to have a national conversation as a result. I think Sir David Attenborough’s immense impact on the course of the country, for instance, relies heavily on the BBC.”
Cox is now, arguably, the highest-profile teaching scientist in the UK. Evidence of his popularity is the 60-date arena tour he’s doing throughout the UK this summer and autumn. But he’s engaged in the practice of science rather than simply making TV shows about it – which gives him a series of refreshing views on education at a time when parents are boycotting schools over exams and universities struggle with free-speech issues.
For a start, he understands parental concern about Sats testing at primary schools – although he didn’t take his son, George, out of school during the May boycott. Indeed, he believes we should phase out exams completely, as he feels they damage children’s education.
“One of the things that annoys me most, and I think is an unfortunate reflection on the way that schools are conditioning students to obsess about exams, is that I will be teaching my first years about relativity and they’ll keep asking, ‘Is this in the end-of-year exams?’” he seethes. “I say, ‘I’m not telling you. I’m teaching you to be a physicist, not pass exams.’ They are supposed to be learning about nature. If they go to work for BAE Systems on the ejector seat of a Eurofighter, at some point someone’s going to say, ‘Is that safe, that ejector seat?’ They can’t ask anyone to mark their work. The measure of success is understanding and taking charge.”
He explains that, as an Advanced Fellow of particle physics in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Manchester, lecturing is the job he treasures most – and he’s a huge advocate of free thinking and freedom of speech. The current polarisation of political debate alarms him. “Changing your mind in the face of evidence is absolutely central to a civilised democratic society,” he argues. “I think there is something wrong, because polarisation tells you that people aren’t thinking.”
On campus, he’s worried about “no platforming” speaking bans and restrictions on debate inside and outside the classroom. “I teach first years and I don’t see it in physics,” he explains. “There’s not much room for personal opinion there. But because I’m a professor at Manchester, I do watch the way that this intolerance is growing. Which is a word that they would object to…
“I suppose they’re trying to build a less aggressive space, which I understand – modern discourse is polarised. But university is supposed to be a place where civilised debate takes place. If not in the university, then where do you debate the most difficult questions? So, I disagree very profoundly with the idea that there’s such a thing as a safe space intellectually at a university. It’s nonsensical to me. The point of university is to build an intellectual armoury. You should expect that you’re not going to be abused by a shouting loudmouth – you wouldn’t want modern political discourse to be brought off Twitter and into the student union. I understand why they don’t want that and they’re right not to want that. But it’s not difficult to build a debate. That’s the basis of liberal democracy. We understand that. That’s why there are lines in the House of Commons greater than two swords’ length apart, right? We’ve worked that out.”
Linking this back to his show, he quotes his hero Richard Feynman. “He defines science as a ‘satisfactory philosophy of ignorance’, which is brilliant. First of all, it’s merely satisfactory and, secondly, we don’t know anything. Science is a collection of things, some of which are more likely, some of which are almost certainly right, some of which are less likely and some of which are wrong – the central point is that you change your mind all the time. If you look at the Brexit debate, it’s interesting to note that I can’t see one politician or columnist who’s actually changed their mind [this interview took place last month]. The amount of new evidence that’s come forward – new positions and new data – is huge, but not one of them has changed their mind. That tells you there’s something deeply flawed about the national conversation.”
What needs to change? “I think if you accept that you’re probably wrong, that’s probably the most valuable thing that a curiosity about nature or society can give you.” He gives a lopsided grin. “Maybe that’s the goal, really, isn’t it? Then a more civilised, less certain debate will ensue. Although I could be wrong…”
Forces of Nature with Brian Cox begins on Monday 4th July at 9pm on BBC1