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If you came of age in the United States in the late ’70s and had even a hint of an interest in the universe, you were very aware of Carl Sagan’s PBS series Cosmos. (It is still, by the way, most widely watched public television program of all time.) If you came of age in Britain pretty much any time since the ’60s up until now, you are very aware of the BBC monthly program The Sky At Night and its host, Sir Patrick Moore. (It happens to be the longest-running television show with the same host in the history of television.) Now, bridging the gap of space, time, and the Atlantic Ocean, comes physicist and University Of Manchester professor Brian Cox. His new television show, Wonders Of The Universe (a co-production of the BBC, the Discovery Channel, and the Science Channel), owes obvious stylistic and thematic debts to both Sagan and Moore. The companion book, published by Harper Design, is of the coffee-table variety and recalls Sagan’s best-selling Cosmos book in weight, dimension, content, and general heft.
With Cox—and his oft-remarked-upon “hipness” and angular Britpop haircut—physics and the wonders inherent in exploring the great beyond are not just rebooted for a new generation, but given an almost breathless exuberance. To coincide with the Stateside première of Wonders Of The Universe and the publication of its companion book of the same name, Cox spoke with The A.V. Club about the reality of global warming, the nonexistence of God, and the irrationality of the Mayan doomsday prophecy.
The A.V. Club: You and your show have been compared to Carl Sagan and Cosmos as well as Patrick Moore and The Sky At Night. What does Wonders Of The Universe have to say or show us that is new?
Brian Cox: Good question. Carl Sagan was a huge influence. Cosmos was on TV in the U.K. when I was 12, in 1980. So that would be the perfect age for a kid who is into astronomy anyway, as many are. And to have that series capture your imagination at that age, it makes an indelible impression on you. I think one of the reasons that Sagan is still relevant today, and one of the reasons he’s very relevant in television, is that his shows were partly polemic. They were not simply—as is the fashion today—these kinds of presentations of what we know and don’t know about the universe, which is exciting and spectacular, but there’s more to it than that. There’s an agenda. Not to science, but to him. He had an agenda. He thought he would build a better world if everybody understood the value of the world and behaved in a scientific manner. He really believed that. He was passionately involved in that perspective.
And that perspective is not that we’re very small or insignificant. To Sagan, the perspective was that because civilization is so rare in the universe, then our rarity could have value. Stepping away from the Earth, observing our existence on Earth, and putting our place in the universe in its proper context, for him, should make us on the planet behave in a more sensible and rational way. He recognized that we’re a village. I agree with that. The Wonders Of The Universe program has that [approach]. It has messages in it. It tries to contextualize these discoveries as well as present them. And why not? In the U.K., I am quite political. I work at university, and I am involved in the political process. I lobby really hard for funding and support for scientific and engineering programs, because I feel that those are the ways that we will progress as a civilization and as a country. That’s what I share with Sagan’s view, that you can be an activist—a scientific activist—and you should be able to do that on television and with books.
AVC: In both the book and the series, you emphasize curiosity as the force that has led mankind to its greatest discoveries, not necessarily a utilitarian quest to solve specific problems.
BC: That’s a very important point about scientific discovery in general. Most scientists are interested in just looking at the universe, looking at nature. I don’t think there are many great discoveries that you can point to that were the result of someone wanting to find the answer to a particular question. If you look back at Einstein or Newton, you find that people are fascinated often by the smallest things, actually. In terms of Einstein, cosmology—which is a real part of the way the universe evolved, the way the universe began, the Big Bang—all that stuff came from Einstein really just being interested in the speed of light. He was just interested. It was a question he’d always asked. He’d always wondered about how light travels. It’s a useful lesson, in general, not only to the theories, but that science is at its best when curious people are just trying to find things out.
AVC: The series opens with your visit to Shiva’s temple in Kathmandu. You start there with this notion from the Hindu religion that from destruction comes life. It is why they have an elaborate cremation ceremony, to feed into this notion of the cycle of life, to return the body and the soul to earth in order for it to be reborn, in a way. You then say, in passing, that this ancient belief “touches on a deeper truth about how the universe works.” This is an extremely roundabout way to get to a simple question: Do you believe in God?
BC: No. [Laughs.] But I’m not an atheist in the form of Richard Dawkins. And I know Richard and I like him a lot. But there’s kind of an antagonistic atheism, which I don’t support, although I don’t believe in God at all. Sagan wrote a very famous essay called “Religion And Science: An Alliance,” where he pointed out that really what you want in the world is a coalition of people of goodwill to move things forward. He was thinking, at the time, about nuclear disarmament, because in the ’70s that was the great threat. Now, you’ve got threats to the climate, you’ve got threats with conflicts, which are in part driven by clashes of civilizations and clashes of extremist religions. So I think you can be quite pragmatic about it and say, “Even if I thought it was a good idea, I’m not going to convince everybody in the world that they should give up religion.” It’s not going to happen.
I have a good friend who is a Dean of Guildford Cathedral—that’s kind of the highest religious position in the U.K. I don’t share his particular beliefs, but we do share a vision that sensible people could come together to make progress, to build a more tolerant world. So that’s my view.
Whilst I’m not religious at all, I do not have an issue what I will call “moderate religion.” I do have a big issue with things like Young Earth creationism, because it’s shit. I have no patience at all for people who think the world is 6,000 years old. It isn’t. The universe is 13.73 plus or minus 0.12 billion years old, given our data at the moment and our understanding of the way it evolved. And that’s it! But the thing is, in Britain anyway, most—what I will call “sensible” religious people—don’t think that their particular religion has anything to say about the age of the Earth. I’ve pointed to some writing by St. Augustine, a venerated Christian theologian from many years ago, he pointed out that once you begin to read the Bible literally then you open it to ridicule and ultimately that’s the path to the downfall of the religion. It is. Because it’s not a textbook. St. Augustine knew that. It’s not as if this is new thinking. It is a statement of the obvious.
AVC: You even seem to infer that the motivation for religion and science come from the same place, from this curiosity that you place a high value on and credit with some of our greatest achievements. A lot of people might argue that religion actually restricts science.
BC: Religion and science come from the same position, in a way. They originated in people who were interested in nature and fascinated and wanted to ask some questions about how the world works. Why are we here? How did we get here? I think it’s important to recognize that there are three types of people, and I have time for two of them. [Laughs.] There’s people who notice the world is beautiful and interesting and worth explaining. That can engender a sort of religious feeling in some people. There’s other people who notice that as well and it engenders a scientific feeling, which is to go explore it and use the scientific method to understand it better. And then the people I don’t have much time for are the people who haven’t noticed anything. [Laughs.] If you don’t notice there’s something interesting at all, to me, that’s the worst possible position.
I do understand why you’d look at the world, Earth, nature, the universe, and be so overwhelmed by it that you’re led to think it was created. I can understand that. I don’t think so. The correct answer to “How did the universe begin? What happened to the Big Bang?” is that we don’t know. That is the correct scientific answer. We do know how it evolved from about a billionth of a second after the Big Bang onwards. So we do know that it is 13.73 billion years old. That’s a model-dependent statement. Cosmologists would tell you that’s the view we have at the moment. These numbers can always change. But at the moment, we have a reasonably accurate measure of how old the universe is. Some say that it isn’t, and they’re just not right. [Laughs.]
I don’t have any issue pointing out that religions have had a positive affect on civilization. Obviously they have. The feelings they are designed to play off are the same feelings that scientists have. The world is very interesting, so you want to find out how it works. That is a common feeling. I have no problem in saying that even though I am not religious. I don’t see a necessary conflict. I am not being defensive. I don’t want to wipe out all religious thought. I don’t think that it’s all negative. I think extremism is negative.
AVC: At one point in the show, setting up the idea that we are all made of the same elements that stars are made out of, you say something like, “My creation story does not occur on earth.” You can almost hear the television sets being shut off throughout the Deep South in the United States where a large population believes the Garden of Eden is somewhere on the planet we inhabit now.
BC: I don’t make the program in order to get the biggest possible audience. That’s not why I do it. We just want to make good programs. The moment you start trying to triangulate off people and try to follow the path of least sense—especially in a science program—you’re just lost straight away. There’s nothing I can do about it. The universe is 13.73 billion years old. When you make a program that is about the beginning of the universe, you’re going to have to say that it was 13.73 billion years ago. [Laughs.] There’s not a lot you can do about that, really. There are more scientific people in the U.S. than there are in Britain because there are more people. So, there are more religious extremists in the U.S. too, but that’s just because there are five times as many people living in the country. What can I say? Those people are not going to watch my shows anyway.
AVC: There are some great clips circulating YouTube where you’re driving a car and ranting about all sorts of things. One is about the moon landing and how some folks believe we’ve never been there and that it was all done in a television studio. You get so flabbergasted and eventually just proclaim that you don’t have time for those sorts of people. Some people will just not be convinced of anything, especially if science is involved.
BC: [Laughs.] Yeah, that kind of person is not going to understand the theory of relativity. It’s kind of immediately obvious that they are just not going to get it. You’re probably not going to be able to go to the shops efficiently either. [Laughs.] In some of those outtakes, we also talk about the Mayan prophecy in 2012. We’re going to do some shows, by the way, end-of-the-world shows on December 21 in 2012. It’s going to be great. In London. We’re going to do another one on the 22nd to give a refund in case we’re wrong and the world ends. We’re gonna do a full-ticket refund on the 22nd. [Laughs.] I thought, “It’s ridiculous. The world isn’t going to end.” But then I thought, “Actually, for the people who believe that, the world is likely to end more quickly because they’ll probably just get hit by a bus.” Because they’re such idiots, they are probably unable to effectively cross a road. [Laughs.] So I think there is some kind of truth in it. If you really believe that stuff, you’re probably gonna go anyway.
AVC: Standing in the road, waiting for it.
BC: [Laughs.] Staring at the sky, waiting for the big hand to come down.
AVC: But there will be an actual end of the world, and that is when the sun dies in approximately 5 billion years. However, in the book, describing the death of the sun, you write: “…the memory of life on Earth will fade into someone’s history; or perhaps no one’s history if we have steadfastly remained at home.” Are you implying here that in due time we’ll figure out a way to live elsewhere?
BC: Yes. It’s obvious that we have to. We’ve already started. There have been humans off of Earth now, for over a decade, on the International Space Station. It’s likely there will never be a time again when all humans were confined to the surface of this planet—unless something goes wrong with our ambitions. It’s clear that all of our eggs are in one basket. We’re vulnerable on Earth. Carl Sagan always said, “If the dinosaurs had a space program, they’d still be around.” Which is true. I think it’s obvious that we have to begin to live and work in space. I think most people agree with that. It’s extremely shortsighted to think otherwise. We could have been there now. I mean, we should have had bases on the moon by now. There’s no doubt about that. We should have been, probably, on Mars by now.
The U.S. has taken all the expense, really, and they’ve done it all. The Europeans have done a bit. You look at how much it costs and you find out, for example, the entire Space Shuttle program costs about the same as the U.K. spent bailing out its banks two years ago in one year. So, in one way, you look at it and say, “Well, that’s expensive.” It’s not expensive relative to some of the other things we spend money on. A Mars mission would’ve been possible by the U.K. on its own before we got into the mess with the financial sector. That just tells you that the money is there, but it gets spent on other things. It also sounds like science fiction, or that it’s ludicrous naïveté to think that these things should be priorities. When there are so many problems on Earth, why should we explore the universe? But our point, which is how we started this interview actually, is that by exploring the universe we have delivered modern civilization. It’s that way around. Reduced childhood mortality rates, increased life expectancy—all those things—they all come from people who are curious about how the universe works and finding things out.
There’s a very famous quote from [Alexander] Fleming, when he discovered penicillin, he said something like, “On September something 1928, I didn’t expect to wake up and revolutionize medicine.” He woke up playing around with little bits of mold in his kitchen, basically. He was just interested in moldy things. [Laughs.] And he revolutionized everybody’s life. Everybody. Virtually everybody who is over the age of about 40 or 50 is alive today because of antibiotics. Virtually everybody would have died if it hadn’t been for that. And it wasn’t someone trying to discover antibiotics that did it. It was someone exploring nature. So, the argument, “Couldn’t we just spend our money making everybody’s lives better?” We are doing that. That’s what exploration actually does.
AVC: When the Hubble Telescope was launched in 1990 and ran into some very expensive problems, it was the object of much ridicule, especially about its expense versus its results. Now, of course, we have pictures from space that have led to a deeper understanding of the universe, among other things. Now, there’s this Large Hadron Collider that has had a similar reception early on, about its expense, the jokes about it sucking us all into a black hole, and what it actually does. The simple question is: We got photos from the Hubble to let us know it is doing something and the jokes went away. What will we get from the LHC that will let us know it was worth the money?
BC: That’s interesting. The first thing: It isn’t that expensive. Its budget, as of which it was built, and as of which it operates, is the same as my university. It’s the same as the budget of the University Of Manchester. But 85 countries pay for it. So it’s like one medium-sized European university—that’s how much it costs. So, first of all, it’s not very expensive. Secondly, if you want to ask “What has CERN [European Organization for Nuclear Research] done for us?” Like, “What have the Romans done for us?” [Laughs.] CERN invented the worldwide web. So, every time you time you type in “http,” that’s CERN’s code. CERN did that. It did it in order to make particle physics easier. It didn’t do it to invent Google. But, Google, Amazon, all those things, they’re there because somebody at CERN—Tim Berners-Lee, actually—decided to write hypertext transfer protocol. So that’s a glimpse of what exploration does for you. Also, medical imaging. Pretty much all of the medical imaging technology that we use today came from particle physics. It’s a spin-off of trying to understand how the world works. Again. Virtually everything is, but that’s a direct one. PET scanners, or positron-emission tomography. Positron is antimatter. You need to understand antimatter to have a PET scanner. That’s what the P stands for. It’s still called an antimatter scanner because nobody put their head in them. [Laughs.] But that is what they are.
What the LHC is doing is it’s recreating the conditions that were present a billionth of a second after the universe began. And it does it a lot—600 million times per second, actually, and we take photographs. And, why, is because the universe was very simple back then, and all of the complexity that you see today was stripped away. You just have the basic laws of nature operating with the basic building blocks of matter. So, if you want to understand how the universe works and how all of this complexity got here and what are the forces of nature that stick it all together, that’s the best place to do it, where all of the complexity is stripped away. That’s really what it’s doing. This is the mainline of physics. It’s important to realize that what physics really is, is understanding the forces of nature. It always has been. That’s what Newton was doing with the force of gravity. That’s what Maxwell was doing with the electromagnetism, which led to radio, which led to television. So, all those things come out of trying to understand how the forces of nature work, because they’re the things that make things happen in the universe. Forces make things happen. Everything. Quantum mechanics came out of that. If we’re willing to understand the force of nature, the structure of atoms, that led to an understanding of how electrons behave in materials, which led to the invention of the transistor, which led to the integrated circuit, silicon chips, computers, mobile phones, etc. [Laughs.] Everything!
So, what the LHC is doing is that. It’s doing what we’ve always done. We’re exploring the forces of nature. You also only need one in the world, fortunately. It’s either expensive or cheap, depending on which way you look at it. But what it does cost is about the same as one university. So whether or not that’s expensive is a matter of perspective, isn’t it? I think it’s pretty cheap.
AVC: Writing about the speed of light and how it is impossible for anything with mass to travel at that speed, you eliminate the possibility of time travel. You write, “It is this property of the universe that protects the past from the future and prevents time travel into the past.” But there are some actual scientists who believe it is possible. In fact, a professor at the University Of Connecticut, Ronald Mallett, has been working on it for much of his adult life.
BC: Yeah, well, he’ll be working on that for a long time. [Laughs.] Okay, the correct thing to say, the precise thing, is that in special relativity—that’s Einstein’s theory for space and time, not gravity—in that theory, time travel is prevented 100 percent. In his theory of gravity and general relativity, it’s possibly just about permitted, but most people think that will be closed off. It’s thought that it is probably a problem with our understanding of the theory. There are things called wormholes that can exist in Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which are little tunnels through space and time. They are the science-fiction wormholes, essentially. Like in Deep Space 9. [Laughs.] Those things are valid solutions to the theory, but most people think they’ll be unstable when we get a better understanding of gravity, quantum gravity, actually. There’s a tiny, tiny crack in the door where you could say, “Maybe.” But I think most sensible people doubt it.
AVC: So, as these little tiny things in the vast universe, are we really capable of destroying our Earth?
BC: Oh, yeah! Absolutely. We were more capable of it in the ’60s, if you look at the Cuban Missile Crisis. We still are. We still have enough weapons, but it’s unlikely that we’ll do that at the moment. So now, you’re looking at more subtle issues than just blowing the whole thing up. Climate change is certainly a potential problem. It’s a nasty issue in the U.K., but certainly in the U.S. because all that science does is tell you the most likely thing that will happen given the available data of our understanding of the climate. Given the data we’ve got and the understanding we’ve got, then we’re committed to a temperature rise. At the upper end of the predictions, it’s catastrophic. It’s absolute disaster. If you’re looking at a four-degree temperature rise by the end of the century, then we’re in deep shit. But if you look at the lower end, it is perhaps manageable.
The reason there’s a big range of predictions is because it is difficult. That’s the non-political thing to say. You can’t argue with that, because that’s the science. The science is the science. It’s there. Here’s the data, here’s the understanding, there it is. The policy comes in with the question of, “What do you do with that information?” You can take the view that you do nothing. You could say, “I think the markets will deal with it. Insurance premiums will go up.” Or, you could take a more active role and you increase things and put green taxes on things, so I can see where the political debate comes from. The problem with the issue is that it’s turned into an attack on science on some level. That’s ridiculous. The science is what the science is, and it is completely apolitical. It’s a problematic issue, it’s an issue that will have to have a political solution, but all that scientists can do is tell you what the current level of understanding is. Which is, obviously greenhouse gas emissions raise the temperature. That is true. I don’t think anyone dissents from that. Maybe these people who believe in the Mayan prophecy and that we didn’t land on the moon—the ones who will get hit by a bus—but it’s at that level of nonsense. If you don’t think the greenhouse effect is a problem, then you should be sent to Venus. That would be the only useful thing to do. [Laughs.] Send a spacecraft to Venus full of all the people who don’t think the greenhouse effect is a problem. That’d be fun. Get rid of ’em. They’d melt. Quickly.