Science offers alternatives to advance of ‘comedians and clowns’: Brian Cox


Brian Cox, the prominent UK physicist and science presenter, says the emergence of the likes of US president Donald Trump and even One Nation’s ex-senator Malcolm Roberts has made him ponder entering politics to help counter the rise of “comedians and clowns”.

Professor Cox, who clashed with Mr Roberts on ABC’s Q&A program last year over climate change, said the appeal of insularity, nationalism and populism was being driven by unaddressed political issues, such economic dislocation leading to worsening inequality.

Professor Brian Cox, particle physicist and science presenter, is in Australia for his fourth and largest tour.
Professor Brian Cox, particle physicist and science presenter, is in Australia for his fourth and largest tour. Photo: Nick Moir

“There’s lots of reasons for Brexit and Trump, and Malcolm Roberts, but one of them might be in the face of these challenges, people retreat and try to build walls around themselves,” Professor Cox said. “That’s the route, if not to the destruction of civilisation, then at least its stasis or decline.”

Describing himself as a “pragmatic centralist”, Professor Cox said his calls for more scientists to engage in debate beyond their laboratories logically extended to his own potential role.

“I get so tempted” to run as a politician, he said. “I’ve always been a political animal.”

Indeed, it was campaigning as a post-doctoral student against “an accidental funding cut” for scientific research by the UK government in 2007 that helped land Professor Cox’s first series for BBC TV.

A BBC producer used footage of Professor Cox “shouting at some politician or other” on a news program to make the case: “They thought that would make a good presenter, someone who was prepared to do that.”

A political theme along with “a veneer” of cosmology will also feature Professor Cox’s fourth tour of science performances in Australia, beginning in Melbourne on Thursday. 

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The performances include large, high-resolution LED screens to display remarkable images being taken by the Hubble space telescope and other space-based sources. While previous tours have discussed the Big Bang and other phenomena, this one will explain what we know about how the universe will end.

Australia’s contribution to the knowledge, such as research into dark matter by Australian National University’s Nobel Prize winner Brian Schmidt, also plays a prominent role. 

“The universe will double in size in the future, every 20 billion years, and will continue to do that forever, unless there’s some physics we don’t understand,” Professor Cox said. 

The link between the biggest picture of all to a planet-sized problem such as climate change is part of his story.

“The most extreme model probably we can build is the model of the future of the universe, but it’s the same techniques, the same careful cross-checking and modification of models” that informs how scientists predict global warming and its implications, he says.

Promisingly, the scientific community routinely demonstrates its ability to work across national boundaries to advance knowledge and resolve global issues, as shown by the recent detection of clashing neutron stars.

“We used all our tools,” ranging from the recent gains in understanding gravitational, to the entire range of astronomical wavelength observation, with some 15 per cent of all astronomers pointing “everything we’ve got” to capture the kilonova event, he said.

History, meanwhile, offered other reasons to be optimistic.

For instance, the recent BBC revival of lectures in 1953 by Robert Oppenheimer, the technical director of the Manhatten Project that created the atomic bomb, showed how science could find a way through challenges some of which it spawned.

Oppenheimer and other leading physicists of the era “were extremely surprised that we survived”, Professor Cox said.

“They clearly felt that the power that scientists and engineers had given to politicians in the form of the atom bomb was more than politicians and the political system could manage,” he said. “They were wrong.”

Professor Brian Cox Live 2017 will begin its Australia/New Zealand tour in Melbourne on Thursday. Among the other locations are Brisbane (Nov. 4), Sydney (Nov. 5,6) and Canberra (Nov. 11).

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