Cool enough for school

7th September 2012 at 01:00
Pop star turned physics professor Brian Cox epitomises the rise of the nerd in popular culture. He tells Helen Ward why he is passionate about inspiring the next generation of scientists

The summer school is due to start in two hours' time and Professor Brian Cox OBE, one of the keynote speakers, is huddled in an office going through the last-minute details with the organisers.

The attending teenagers are mostly from the local area, many the sons and daughters of Asian immigrant families. They are filling up St Paul's Way Trust School in East London, eager to hear the country's coolest scientist, a privately educated white man, explain how anyone - really, anyone - can do science. And how he is going to help them.

Brian Cox failed his maths A-level. He got a D. If you think that getting a D is not failing, it may be because you attended school at a time when a D in A-level maths was seen as an early stumble rather than a slammed door. Cox got a D, but 20 years later, after a successful career as a pop star, he is a professor of particle physics at the University of Manchester.

If this was not enough, he presents BBC documentaries on space and time, which attract 6 million viewers. Cox can do this because he is extremely good at clear thinking.

He points out that, in 2012, getting a D in A-level maths is likely to preclude university entry (a typical offer to those wanting to study physics at Manchester is A*AA), as may the thought of a pound;27,000 debt or students' concerns about job prospects on graduation. Cox is at the conference because he thinks the current education system can overcome some of these factors, and he is outspoken about the need to change the system - and put in more cash - where it cannot.

"Do you manage to push open the political doors these days, given that you're such a well-known face, and say to them, `Come on, cough up'?" Kirsty Young asked him on Desert Island Discs last year.

"A little bit, actually," he replied in his soft Lancashire accent. "And it does work like that, unfortunately. If you're on television, you get access, and I do try to use it. For me it's almost, because the intellectual argument's won, a case of saying to them, `Y'know, this will also be politically popular .' That's the bit they need convincing about - that it's a popular thing to do."

We need scientists

Back in the present day, the huddle has ended. The participants disperse and Cox is ready for a chat with TES. He does chatting very well. A few hours earlier he had been tweeted by @BBC6Breakfast just before his usual slot on the Shaun Keaveny radio show. "Wake up @profbriancox, with you in about 10 mins," they teased. His reply: "OK, OK. Let me finish me toast." He did his stint tweeting and chatting about the Higgs boson and bagels before leaving for today's conference.

He does a lot of radio, although he famously has a face for television. Tall, youthful and smooth-skinned, he has dark hair with the few flecks of grey you would expect at 44. He smiles easily, so easily his grin sometimes seems almost bashful. Today he is in stereotypical academic clothing: jeans, T-shirt and blue cord jacket with brown buttons. But he is hardly typical. He is the nerdy bus-spotter who became a number-one pop star; the professor who is half of a comedy duo on Radio 4's The Infinite Monkey Cage.

Most of all, however, he is a scientist.

"Britain's success is built on science and engineering," he begins. "Science and engineering are done by people, so you need the raw material; you need students who want to be scientists and engineers."

That bit is not too hard. He claims he has never met anybody, child or otherwise, who is uninterested in science if it is presented in the right way (a claim backed up by his viewing figures).

"Science is the way we answer questions," he continues. "Questions such as: are we alone in the universe? How did the universe begin? We need to get across to students the idea that if you are interested in space, that is a legitimate thing to be interested in and it's not too difficult to have a career working in the space industry. There are thousands of people employed in the space sector in Britain. It's not crazy."

The next part - making sure everyone hears the message - is harder.

"We know that the majority of students who come through university had parents who went to university, but what we need to do as a country is spread our net as widely as possible," he says. "Having a small net that you cast to catch the scientists of the future seems to be ridiculous - we have to actively go to schools that don't send as many people to university, whose students don't have the information about the routes open to them.

"We have to realise that it is more difficult if you go to St Paul's Way Trust School to become a scientist than if you go to a successful private school in Chelsea - just statistically. But it shouldn't be."

Claims to fame

In an episode of his 2011 show Wonders of the Universe, we see Cox kneeling on a snowy mountain. He lays out photographs of his history: a gurgling baby in a pram; a boy aged about 7 sitting on a toy tractor, incongruously wearing a shirt and tie; a slightly startled-looking teenager sporting a mullet and dark glasses, during his days playing in a band in Los Angeles; and a man in a red university gown after receiving his PhD in 1998.

He was born in March 1968 to parents who both worked in banks. His grandfather, who began his working life on the factory floor of a textile mill, became a chemist and came up with a process for dyeing nylon black. He ended up running a dyeing factory.

Cox attended Hulme Grammar in Oldham, a fee-paying school that his grandparents helped to pay for. After A levels, Cox had the choice of university or going to Los Angeles with the band Dare. He went to LA. But when the band split he returned to northwest England and physics.

At the age of 24, while studying at Manchester, he began playing with another band, D:Ream - best known for Things Can Only Get Better, which became the soundtrack to the 1997 New Labour landslide. The band hit the big time, but when they were offered a tour of Australia, Cox had to choose again. This time he chose physics. And it turned out all right.

Jeff Forshaw, also a physics professor at Manchester, has known Cox since he lectured him on a graduate course. They have now jointly authored two books: Why Does E=mc2? and The Quantum Universe: everything that can happen does happen. Whereas Wonders of the Universe was a TV show for an audience vaguely interested in science, the books are aimed at those who are definitely interested in the subject. They contain maths, and sentences such as: "As a first step on the road to understanding white dwarves and neutron stars, we will need to address the more prosaic question: if the floor is largely empty space, why do we not fall through it?"

The two professors are also writing a course on quantum mechanics for first-year undergraduates. "We get on really well," says Forshaw. "We have quite similar characteristics: we're both quite bullish, we're both quite heated.

"He's got focus but he's not afraid to sound stupid or go off in a completely crazy direction. When you're collaborating you have to keep saying `I don't understand things' all the time. That helps you to break ideas down in a way so that they can be understood.

"How do we collaborate? We collaborate through drinking beer and eating. We talk about physics, go for a run on the Saddleworth hills, drink beer, eat Indian food and keep talking."

Cox is married to American TV producer Gia Milinovich. They have a three- year-old son and Milinovich has a 15-year-old son from a previous relationship. Husband and wife both worked on Danny Boyle's science fiction film Sunshine, Cox as a scientific consultant and Milinovich producing the "behind the scenes" website.

She has written about the effects of his public image changing from cult figure to full-blown celebrity, saying that she does not know how to react when people joke that they wish she was dead so they could marry her husband. She is unsure whether they realise Cox is still a massive nerd, and that is what attracted her to him.

But what is also true is that he is a brilliant communicator. For example, after Sunshine was released Boyle told the Guardian that Cox somehow makes science accessible and puts it in human terms. "He is the nicest guy, but he's so arrogant. I used to tell the actors to watch the way he'll just go `no'," Boyle said.

In the very funny out-takes of Wonders of the Universe available on YouTube, Cox does not come across as arrogant so much as occasionally impatient that people blame him when they prefer to watch the pictures rather than listen to the science. He is, after all, a real scientist with a real research record, and he lives very much in the real world. "I'm not a great fan of opinions," he told Kirsty Young.

Front page news

Alongside his media and academic careers, Cox has been heavily involved in turning the popularity of science into a case for more scientific funding and more opportunities for current and future researchers.

The two-day science summer school at St Paul's Way Trust School also involves Asian and women scientists presenting to the teenagers, including experts on DNA analysis, the early evolution of life, sense of smell, childhood cancer and the impact of climate change. Cox reckons that it could be replicated at any school. In every city, he says, there are universities stuffed with academics who can enthuse students about their subject.

He talks about making Britain a more scientific place, a better place to do science; he believes it is genuinely the future of the UK. Is that an inspiring vision if you are 15? Or slightly intimidating? A country where we are all as familiar with Schrodinger as Shakespeare.

"I'm not Einstein," Cox says. "It's important to know that if you want to be a scientist. You don't have to be a genius. Professional scientists are people, like anyone, with average levels of ability."

Its sounds like the first half of a joke ("You don't have to be clever and good-looking to be a scientist, but ."). However, it shows how far he has taken us already. A generation ago, scientists were thought to be too geeky to be cool; now they are rapidly becoming too cool to be geeky.

Our time is almost up, but there is one more question. What is a Higgs boson and how many times has he been asked to explain it?

"There is this thing called the Higgs field, which fills empty space. By interacting with it, other particles get mass," he replies. "I've been asked thousands of times and that's great, because the last time a discovery was made in the 1980s of the W and Z bosons nobody heard about it. Nobody was interested at all outside physics.

"Now, 30 years later, the Higgs boson is front page news. That shows the shift in the public image of science. That is what is inspiring students to do science."

He is right. We, teenagers included, are all a little bit more interested in science. Cox can take at least part of the credit for the rise in entries to A-level physics - up 19.6 per cent over five years. The students spending their summer holidays listening to him talk about science may have very different backgrounds from his, but he is making it that little bit easier for them to believe that anyone can become a professor of particle physics.

Even someone who used to have a mullet.


1968: Born.

1986: Joined rock band Dare and recorded two albums.

1992: Started degree in physics at University of Manchester.

1993: Joined pop band D:Ream as keyboard player.

1994: D:Ream single Things Can Only Get Better reached number one. The song was later revived as Labour's election anthem in 1997.

1998: Awarded a PhD.

2005: Granted a Royal Society University Research Fellowship. Put in charge of an international project to upgrade the giant ATLAS and CMS detectors at the Large Hadron Collider.

2006: Received the British Science Association's Lord Kelvin Award for his work promoting science to the public.

2007: Danny Boyle's film Sunshine released. Cox was scientific adviser.

2009: Made professor of particle physics at the University of Manchester.

2010: Wonders of the Solar System aired on BBC Two. Appointed OBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours for services to science.

2011: BBC Two show Wonders of the Universe attracted six million viewers.

2012: Awarded the Royal Society's Michael Faraday Prize for his work on science communication. Made an honorary doctor of the University of Huddersfield.

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