I want to be Brian Cox

Watching Professor Brian Cox on BBC2’s Horizon the other night, two things struck me. One was the fact that physics appears to have come quite a long way since I did my GCSE (and got an A in it, for the record). The other was a reminder that being a good communicator is actually a skill in itself.
I’ve been given a guided tour of the CERN nuclear laboratory, on the French/Swiss border: I’ve actually seen all the kit, up close. But its sheer significance didn’t hit me until I saw this video of Brian Cox, professor at the University of Manchester and CERN researcher, speaking at the TED Conference last year. If you haven’t watched it, make a cuppa and enjoy the next 15 minutes.
How can that possibly be? How can it be more affecting to watch a YouTube video of some floppy-haired bloke giving a lecture, than to actually walk the corridors where the history of the universe is being rewritten (present tense)? It’s the most tangible evidence I can think of, that communicating well about what you’re doing is just as important as what you’re doing… with lessons for all of us in this business.
Sometimes I wonder if he’s just a bit too good-looking for his own good: the ‘indie kid’ clothes, the model hair, the dazzling teeth. But there’s no getting away from his sheer talent – and his passion for the subject. You listen to him, and you come away caring about something you know is w-a-y beyond your comprehension. The Horizon programme – ‘Can We Make A Star On Earth?’, about nuclear fusion – is available on iPlayer until mid-April, and it’s well worth an hour of your time.

5 thoughts on “I want to be Brian Cox”

  1. I watched this last night and enjoyed it a lot. Most of the maths and physics was familiar to me (but that was my subject at Uni so it should be, really!) but you’re spot on being about how it’s presented and communicated that makes all the different. We’re lucky that we’re finally getting scientists like Prof Cox and also Marcus Du Sautoy who can do this and bring maths and physics alive on screen after so many years of having only historians seemingly able to pull off this feat.
    Prof Cox has come along in leaps and bounds since he started the Horizon shows. Initially he didn’t seem comfortable talking direct to camera and they give him an off-screen person to dialogue with – which was cute but would have worn very quickly. What last night’s show proved is that he’s now mastered the piece to camera and if very effective doing it now.
    Just overall, though, the show’s message was uncomfortable for mankind: that we spend more on mobile ring tones than fusion research in the UK, and yet without fusion in 30-50 years time we are quite seriously screwed, energy consumption-wise. Scary stuff.

  2. It was good programme, but I’d like to have heard more about why it’s going to take 30 or so more years to develop commercial fusion. I remember when the JET was being built at Culham (construction started in 1978) that people were saying that a reactor capable of generating power wouldn’t be feasible for at least 30 years. I thought at the time ‘How can they know that?’.
    The LHC is an astonishing machine, but my guess is that pushing the boundaries of particle physics is seen as much sexier (by career physicists) than the applied stuff. I wonder if commercial fusion would be closer if the LHC hadn’t been built. Whether that’s true or not, as someone said in the prog. this now needs to be put on a war footing.
    I guess the excellent Prof Cox is doing his job if he gets us to ask questions like that.

  3. Simon, you are dead right. I read Carl Sagan’s the Demon-haunted World over a decade ago, and it’s really only now clear to me what a difference having a young communicator like Brian Cox makes and how much we’ve missed Sagan. Not only does Cox inject his subject with infectious enthusiasm, style, humour and coal-face knowledge, he also imparts certainty into science. So much science reporting is about what we don’t know that it has made scientific explanations seem weak, in my view; that all science is contingent and unproven despite the huge amount of corroboration.
    Well done that man!

  4. What drives me mad about this stuff (and I don’t mean to sound negative because it’s brilliant work) is that it leaves my so utterly gagging for more (breadth and depth) but there is nowhere to go. The folks producing and publishing this stuff should realize that their efforts to educate the lay audience in popular science is really, really, working and produce follow ups and web based drill downs into the depths of what these people are doing. Of course we can all go hit wikipedia (and I do frequently) but finding, consuming and disgesting stuff at the right level of comprehension proves to be an effort in itself, then real life ends up getting in the way :-(. More please Mr Cox

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