Brian Cox interview: Stars in his Eyes
Brian Cox made a quantum leap from playing pop with D:Ream to putting the fizz into physics on TV. He talks to Bryony Gordon about his new series, Wonders of Life.
In one episode of Brian Cox’s new television series, Wonders of Life, we learn that a physics professor generates 82.4 joules of energy a second, while a kitten gives off a measly 3.33.
He is attempting to talk us through the second law of thermodynamics and explain why the universe is terribly disordered although life is not. In a nutshell – though Prof Cox doesn’t really do things in nutshells – we borrow all our order from the universe, and by way of thanks we pump disorder back out to it, adding to its decay. Special thermo-cameras show us just how crazily hot our host is.
In person, Cox is initially about as thermodynamic as an ice cube. We meet on a cold winter morning at the Royal Institution of Great Britain in London, the weather perhaps accounting for his frostiness.
Michael Faraday stares sternly down from the walls. As we make our way to a room to do the interview, an excitable woman approaches Cox to tell him just how much she loves him. He smiles politely but seems embarrassed by it all. Diffidence seems to come off him in electromagnetic waves.
Cox doesn’t have much time today – just enough to order sausage and mash with a side order of chips from the canteen. ‘And lots of mustard, please,’ he asks politely. He has to catch a flight to Switzerland, where he works some of the time at Cern, the European nuclear research institute. The day before, he had been lecturing undergraduates at the University of Manchester (where he got a degree in physics) on quantum mechanics and relativity.
Science fans may not believe in God, but if they did he would probably look a little like Cox – tall and long with hair that falls around his face like a helix. He insists that his students are not impressed by their teacher, a one-time pop star who played keyboards for D:Ream (their biggest hit, Things Can Only Get Better, was co-opted by New Labour in 1997) and who is close friends with Gary Barlow (just before Christmas, Cox joined the Take That frontman on stage where they dueted on Back for Good, Cox on guitar). ‘The students give you just as much stick as anyone else if you write on the board too small,’ he observes.
When you factor in the Radio 4 show The Infinite Monkey Cage (which Cox presents with the comedian Robin Ince) and television’s Stargazing Live with Dara O Briain you can see why it is so easy to forget that at heart Cox is a particle physicist, not a celebrity. Perhaps it goes some way to explaining his meekness this afternoon. He is naturally quiet, speaking in a whisper, occasionally breaking into laughter that at times sounds as if it belongs to a seven-year-old boy.
I am not sure that Cox, 44, is terribly enamoured with this celebrity lark. He loves the fact that he is lecturing again because, as he says, it is nice to do ‘a less media-based activity. If you are teaching first years then you’ve got to write example sheets and think about exams. I really wanted to anchor myself back in university.’ Being on television has been ‘quite a difficult process,’ he says, ‘because suddenly everybody knows who you are because you may have been on a few chat shows as well. So then people recognise you, and you do go through a time of saying, “These people are staring at me.” You get paranoid for a bit.’
Recently – appearances with Barlow excluded – Cox has felt himself stepping away from the limelight. He has been doing some ‘obscure, esoteric stuff on quantum field theories’, putting it into ‘computer programs, and things like that. I just wanted to do something that was technical and tricky for a while.’ He spent Christmas in London with his family, who have always had to fit in between him filming and doing physics. All he will say about his work-life balance is that he is ‘getting much better at it’.
And it is unusual that he describes the series as natural history, rather than science. It started very much as a physics programme, inspired by Erwin Schrödinger’s seminal book of 1944 What Is Life?. In it, Schrödinger asked how the laws of physics and chemistry explain what takes place inside an organism.