Dr. Brian Cox

Dr. Brian Cox is a Royal Society University Research Fellow who is currently working on the giant 27km Large Hadron Collider at the CERN laboratory in Geneva. He's not always been a physicist, however. At 18 years of age he joined the rock band Dare, recorded two albums for A&M records and toured the world supporting the likes of Jimmy Page and Europe. After leaving Dare and beginning his University career in 1993 he had a UK number 1 single with the band D:Ream, Things Can Only Get Better, which was used by Tony Blair as his election anthem in 1997. He makes regular appearances on TV and radio in the UK, including BBC's Horizon. Director Danny Boyle asked him to act as science consultant on his movie Sunshine. Darren Rea spoke with Cox as Sunshine was released on DVD...

Darren Rea: How did you originally get involved with Sunshine?

Brian Cox: Danny [Boyle, director of Sunshine] saw me on Horizon - you know the BBC 2 documentary about Einstein - about two and a half years ago now. At the time they'd just got the script together, so he and Alex [Garland, writer for Sunshine] were working on the script. They knew they had this really young cast, in particular they knew they had this young physicist who was kind of the star of the film. And they were worried that all physicists were old and decrepit [laughs] and then they saw me on telly and thought: "At least he doesn't look old and decrepit". [Laugh] So they rang me up and just said: "Do you want to work on it?"

I think they wanted someone who would be able to connect and just hang out with Cillain [Murphy, who plays Robert Capa], so that Cillain could base a character, or at least learn from. But also, for the rest of the cast, they wanted advisers that would talk to them on their level, instead of old men.

DR: What percentage of physicists that you come into contact with would you say do fit the stereotype of an old man with crazy, out of control, grey hair?

BC: Well, the thing is, not many of the ones who are actually at the cutting edge of research are. It's always been a young persons game really - when it comes to making big advances. Even Einstein.

The great stuff that Einstein did was when he was in his twenties. By the time he was in his mid to late thirties, he'd pretty much stopped. All the stuff you know about, E=MC2 and all that, was when he was young. What usually happens is that you tend to start off and do the really great research, and really know what you're doing - because you've got time and your brain's working - and then you kinda move off into teaching or admin or whatever. So less and less older people are actually at the cutting edge.

In that sense, it's one of the things that I liked about Sunshine initially, and one of the things that I think has caused a lot of scientists to enjoy the film. Because that image, of old people doing science, is one of the reasons young people don't go into science. So, just for once, there's a film where the physicist looks like Cillian Murphy, rather than some old man. That's a good thing.

Working at CERN [The world's largest particle physics laboratory based in Geneva], the European Space Agency, NASA or something like that... it's an exciting thing to do. I was at a conference recently at Google where we were talking about this problem. There were a lot of guys from NASA there. If you're now in your 30's and 40's then you remember when we were going to the Moon. Things like that inspire kids to go into science and you equate science and engineering with exploration, and reaching out - it's an exciting thing to do.

I think there is a problem there, where we are not getting the message across that there are places like CERN, where we recreate the conditions that were present less than a billionth of a second after the Big Bang, or that there are interesting things going on in NASA and the European Space Agency. That's another reason why I think that Sunshine might perform a useful task, as well as being a good film, because it does show what might be necessary. It shows that we live in a dangerous universe, which I think is really important.

Carl Sagan [American astronomer and astrobiologist] once said, if the dinosaurs had had a space program they'd still be around [laughs]. Which is true.

DR: How much of the character Capa was actually based on you?

BC: You know, it's difficult for me to say. Cillian said a few times that he took some mannerisms and bits of attitude, and Danny mentioned it too a few times.

DR: On the DVD audio commentary you mentioned that Cillian observed your hand gestures and used that. Isn't it a bit scary thinking that your every movement was being scrutinised?

BC: It's fun, because even when you see it on screen you don't really make the association. It's when you sit with someone who knows you really well. They'll say: "Ah, look at that. You do that." It's kinda... "Scary" is not the right word - it's quite interesting.

I found it really interesting working with Cillian, actually - just the way he approached building a character. He's an actor and so he's not really like that - and you know that from his other roles. He plays quite a diverse, cross section of people in his films. And that's how he does it. He pays attention to people and takes little bits and then builds the characters on them. I'm sure a lot of actors do that. That was one of the most interesting things, I think, for me. He's a real perfectionist. He's not someone who just turns up and acts, he really thinks.

DR: How much time did you spend on the set?

BC: Not a huge amount. Mainly my involvement was up until principal photography started. That was when they were working on the character development and working on the script. When I did go on set... Danny kind of focusses on what he's doing that day and it becomes a very high pressure, professional, environment where everyone's doing a job. So it's a boring place to be if you're not working.

DR: Because it was a sci-fi movie and not a documentary, to push the story along I assume that some of the science was twisted a little to make for a more interesting story. As the movie's science consultant were you eager to see that as much of the science as possible was represented accurately?

Director Danny Boyle and Rose Byrne on the set of Sunshine

BC: I had quite a lot of meetings with Danny and Alex long before the filming started, and they said: "The best thing to do is for you to point out everything that you want. So that everything that you find that we're gonna do, just tell us what it is".

At the end of the day, and even Alex would find this, it's the director that makes the decisions. You're not going to make Danny Boyle do something he doesn't want to do in a film [laughs] and you shouldn't be able to. So all you do is flag up everything that you think, and I suppose at the end of the day Danny makes the decision on whether it would add to the film, in his mind. So if you say something that he thinks will make the film better he'll do it, and if he thinks it will make the film worse then he won't. But he's certainly aware of everything that's in there.

I've discovered this whole new set of people - science fan boys - that I didn't know existed, really. They're interesting. Their almost fundamentalists, in a way. They are much more pedantic than professional scientists. I just interact with professional scientists most of the time and I must say, I've said this a couple of times now, but I've found the scientists that I like to work with particularly - there's a particular type of person I enjoy working with in science - all those went to see Sunshine and loved it. They thought that the portrayal of the physicist was wonderful and the emotional impact that science can have on you - the real reason you want to be a scientist - they found that really vivid in the film and enjoyed it a lot.

But then I see scientists that I think are dull - w*nkers you could call them [laughs] - who have seen it and didn't like it. I can almost use it as a way of working out who I want to work with. I'd say: "Watch this, and tell me what you think of it". If they don't like it, then I don't want to work with them [laughs].

It's very interesting. These guys that get really pedantic are really, I think, missing the point about what science is all about. It's about precision, when you're doing it. So when you're doing research it's all about precision and attention to detail and that's the difficult bit, and that's what you learn how to do. But deciding what research field you want to do, and having really good ideas about what to go and measure, and what to try and find out, that's a creative process. I think a lot of the pedants kinda miss that.

Like you say, Sunshine is not a documentary. It's trying to just, in an hour and forty minutes, get across a feeling of what it's like - not only to be a scientist, because obviously there's much more in it than that. So, I found it interesting to watch the kind of people that get upset because the gravity is wrong.

Director Danny Boyle, Michelle Yeoh and Hiroyuki Sanada on the set of Sunshine

DR: Science fiction fans do tend to make the best pedants.

BC: It's interesting to think why that is. I've been thinking about it. I think, for a lot of people, it's the same motivation for being religious. A lot of people like certainty and they'll chose a belief system that gives them certainty so that they can live within it and feel comfortable.

I think that science can do that, if you're not careful. And it shouldn't do that.

Science is all about going to the places where you are uncertain - that's the point. But there's this subset of people who don't behave like that. It is Quasi-religious, I think. But it's interesting - it's a new thing to think about.

DR: As I mention in my review of the DVD of Sunshine, you provide one of the best, if not the best and informative audio commentaries I've ever heard on a DVD - and, because of my job I've listened to a lot. Did you do much preparation for it, or did you just go in cold?

BC: That's very nice of you to say so. I went in fairly cold. I checked a few facts that I thought I might want to mention, but really when you've been working on something for that length of time there's a lot you want to say.

Danny also said to me, when we were doing interviews for the film: "You're view of it - as you watch it, see reviews and you get the general feeling of what people are talking about - you're view of the film will change and the things you want to say will change. Probably the best thing to do is just to say whatever comes into your head".

We overlapped a little bit when we were recording the commentary in the studio. I did mine first, and then Danny was in for the last few minutes and then he did his. He said: "Don't get self conscious. Self conscious is the enemy of creativity. Just sit there and say what you want and say everything that comes into your head that you've thought about the film". So that's what I did really. I didn't censor myself, I just talked [laughs].

There was a guy sat there in LA, the producer of the DVD release, listening. If I'd said something that they really wasn't appropriate I'm sure they would have said. But they didn't. As far as I remember, everything I said is on there. I've got quite friendly with Andy Macdonald, who was the producer of the film, and that's the way they are. They're a very British sort of company - they like people being free and easy. They're not very sensitive to the press. They're great people to work with.

DR: On your audio commentary you make a bet with the audience about a future scientific discovery. Has anyone e-mailed you yet to take you up on the bet?

View of the tunnel LHC machine

BC: I said by 2010 that we'd have discovered these particles, and I still stand by that.

It's one of the big goals of the LHC [Large Hadron Collider - a particle accelerator which is designed to probe deeper into matter than ever before when it is switched on in 2008] at CERN.

The only slight caveat is that since I first said that, the start up has been delayed until June 2008. Even though the start up of the machine has been delayed for six months, it's still very likely.

DR: You mention in your commentary that eventually, due to the universe expanding at an exponential rate, all life will cease to exist. That's a pretty sobering thought. As a scientist, where do you stand on the theory of God?

BC: I have no religious beliefs at all, just because I don't see any need at the moment. There may be an emotional need, which again is what Sunshine is about in some sense.

Just from purely looking at the way the universe is, it's clear what we know and it's clear what we don't know. I think postulating a God is guessing. The first thing you learn, as a scientist, is not to guess. So you should just say: "I don't know what happened less than a billionth of a second after the Big Bang, because we've not built an experiment to go there yet. So therefore I don't know what happened". To go on and say: "I think that some entity created it," to me is a guess. So basically I have nothing to say on the matter.

DR: As we only experience the world through our eyes, once we are dead the Universe might as well not exist, to each of us.

BC: Bertrand Russell [Welsh philosopher] said something similar. He was a very famous atheist. Someone said to him: "Doesn't it make you miserable that in your belief system, where there is no God, that when you die that's it?"

He said: "I was dead for 13 billion years before I was born and it hasn't affected me in the slightest" [laughs]. Which is essentially your point.

DR: In a previous life you were the keyboard player for D:Ream. How did you go from that career to being a physicist?

BC: I wanted to be a physicist, or an astronomer, or something to do with space, for as far back as I can remember. I wanted to be that all the way through school and then when I was about 15 I started playing keyboards - just really because I wanted to be in a band, not because I was particularly interested in music. I just wanted to be a pop star.

When I was 18, just before I was going to go to university, the guy from Thin Lizzy [Darren Wharton] moved in down the road. When Thin Lizzy split up he decided to form another band called Dare and he asked me if I wanted to join as keyboard player. So instead of going to university I took a year out. The band was signed and made some albums with A&M Records, so that's how I got into music.

Then that band split up, because we had a fight in a bar in Berlin [laughs] - Spinal Tap kind of thing. I came back, and that was four years later, and just decided that I would carry on doing physics. I went to Manchester university, and at that point I joined D:Ream by accident. I just needed a summer job to bridge me over until I went to university. A mate of mine had just been sound engineering for them and said that they were sh*t and he didn't want to do it any more [laughs]. So I said I'd do it because I needed a bit of cash.

It was before D:Ream had a deal. It was just when Peter Cunnah was essentially on his own. It was just driving him around the country in my car with a DAT [Digital Audio Tape] player. We'd drive to some club in Middlesborough, or somewhere, and then he'd get his mic and sing, and I'd player the DAT player. Then that band started getting successful, so I did that while I was at university really.

My memory of music is not D:Ream, it's more this band Dare that I was in. We toured with Jimmy Page, Gary Moore and people like that.

I still play, but the last time I was on stage was '97 for the election night at the Royal Festival Hall. We did Top of the Pops that day - the song had gone back in the charts again - and then we went to the Royal Festival Hall and played "Things Can Only Get Better". There's that famous scene when John Prescott, Robin Cook, Neil Kinnock and everyone dancing. So [laughs] that was my fault. I haven't been on stage since.

DR: You mentioned earlier that it's difficult to get the younger generation interested in the sciences. Is there something that the government could be doing about this?

BC: Yes, and physicists can help too. Things like Sunshine, and doing things like that are the key to it. Basically kids have loads of choice now and that's a good thing. You can't force kids into a profession. I think what you have to do is point out that physics and engineering - science - is interesting and vital to our survival.

One of the things I like about Sunshine is that it points out that we live in a dangerous universe, which is true. But the way to deal with that, in my opinion, is to find out how it works. So, put in those terms, I think that you inspire people to do it.

I think that we need to do something bigger as a species to really start inspiring people again, like going to Mars. I'm a very big supporter of manned space missions, for this reason really. Not because I think it's scientifically the best way to spend the money necessarily. I'm on some funding committees in the UK, and you'll always send a robot because it's cheaper, and you get more science for the pound. The point about manned space flight is that it's inspiring. It's what we should do as a species. There's no point otherwise, in my opinion. Exploration is what you do.

I'm pushing with a few people now to try and expand scientific and engineering research in those areas. It's not necessarily because they'll see a return immediately, but it will solve the problem. When you are a kid you'll do whatever inspires you and captures your imagination. If that's Pop Idol on TV, then you'll do that. And that's not your fault - it's not because you're an idiot - it's because that's what you're immersed in. In the '60s people were immersed in the Apollo programme. NASA did a survey that showed that Apollo paid for itself seven times over in economic benefits - primarily by inspiring people to go into science and engineering. So I think that's what needs to be done.

I grew up with a house full of Apollo. My dad was into that, and I was born in '68. While I don't remember it, I watched them all, and it was always around - there were pictures of it on the wall and newspaper cuttings. That, to this day, I think is the greatest achievement of our civilisation. Landing on the Moon in the '60s was pretty much beyond our technical capability at the time, incredible effort. So you couldn't do anything else, if you grew up in that environment, but want to be involved in that kind of stuff.

The modern version of that is CERN, really. We're going as close back to the Big Bang as we can. We're in real unexplored territory. It's a massive multinational effort, billions of dollars, huge machines... It's surprising how few people have heard of it, given that it's such an ambitious leap.

DR: There's been a lot of media coverage lately given to the scientists who claim that they've achieved faster than light travel - thus disproving Einstein's Theory of Relativity. If this is true, what will this now mean for the future of science.

BC: What it would mean, if you could travel faster than light, is that you can build a time machine. So in Special Relativity - which is E=MC2 and all that stuff - then you can't. There's absolutely no chance.

No one has been able to show in General Relativity, which is Einstein's theory of gravity, that you can't do that by building these wormholes that you often see in science fiction. But, it's also true to say that Einstein's theory of gravity is not a complete theory - it doesn't work in the world of the very small, in the world of quantum mechanics. So, some people, like Hawking, have tried to elevate this to a principle that when we have a complete theory of quantum gravity - a better theory than Einstein's of gravity - then it will prevent you from building these wormholes and travelling back in time.

Travelling back in time is terrible for the Universe. It means that causality, this idea of something happening that causes something else to happen, is out of the window. It's hard to see how a universe can be built that way. But it's true to say that nobody's yet understood how that's enforced in General Relativity.

I would say that it's highly unlikely. Someone else told me about these experiments and they're notoriously difficult to do. So, I would err on the side of it's not right. You've got to bear in mind that there's no apt proof that you can't do that in General Relativity.

I'm actually in the process of making an Horizon program called What on Earth is Wrong With Gravity? We went on a road trip across America to tell the story of gravity and what the next step might be - and why we think there might be a next step.

DR: When we look up into the night sky and see the stars, everyone knows that what we are witnessing is light that left that star possibly millions of years ago. If we could develop a super powerful telescope and focus it on these distant galaxies, and see life forms walking about on their planets, would those beings still be alive in that sunlight in much the same way as that sunlight is still alive?

BC: Brilliant question... Well, no in some sense. But there's a great book, which is really good fun, by a guy called Frank Tipler, called Physics of Immortality.

Frank Tipler's a bit mad, but not totally mad. He's a reasonable cosmologist. He extends that a bit and asks what happens if you collect that light from something that's five billion light years away - that's long since gone - and you just gather all the information you can. In principle you can collect all the information about that society by just looking at it and simulating it in a computer - a very big one.

Essentially it's the Matrix [laughs]. And he's right, in a way. So he develops this cosmology called the Omega Point Cosmology where that's what happens. So way, way, way in the future a really advanced civilisation - let's say it's us in a 100 billion years in the future, where we can build huge computers and massive telescopes and we start collecting information about all these civilisations that have long since gone, including our own, and resimulate it in a huge computer. It's almost like resurrection at the end of time, because you're simulating everybody.

It's a really interesting, if wacky, idea. The initial stuff was in an even greater book called The Anthropic Cosmological Principle by John Barrow and Frank Tipler. Barrow's a very well known cosmologist and author. But I think Tipler went a bit wacky.

I love those arguments that are, in principal possible. Steven Weinberg, who was awarded a Nobel prize a while ago [1979] and is a very famous theoretical physicist, said that the problem with physics is often that not that you take your theory too seriously, but that you don't take them seriously enough.

These things are in principle arguments. Like you said, if you get a big enough telescope, pointed at that planet, could you see them all in existence? The answer is yes. There's no reason why not - you just need a big enough telescope. And then you look at what we may achieve as a species if we continue on this line of development for another... let's say 10 million years. We've only been going for, let's say 2 million years - or about 5 million since we split from apes. We've only been building civilisations for about 5,000 years, at most. So it's really interesting. I enjoy that stuff.

DR: If you weren't working in this profession what do you think you'd be doing?

BC: If I wasn't a physicist?

DR: Yes... actually you've done just about everything already - musician, TV presenter...

BC: [laughs] I could see me moving around that general sphere.

I'm writing a book at the moment on relativity. Which is why I made this Horizon episode as well. I can see that writing books would be quite nice. Although, you know, if someone asks you what you do, your first answer is, I think, the thing you are most comfortable with - your self image is set with that answer. I always say physicist because I like the attitude that it gives you. I like the sort of cutting edge that being a research physicist gives you. You're constantly under attack and try to work out how to do very difficult things and defend them against other people who are also clever but are also trying to find out whether you've done it right.

I could see myself spending a bit more time writing books.

I enjoyed working on this film hugely. Not necessarily because of the obvious: "It's really cool working on a film", but the people that you meet who work in films are very talented. I think they're a step up from anything that you meet in television. It just seems to be a level higher.

I like meeting people who are good at things. So I enjoyed that. Something along those lines.

DR: If a movie were to be made about your life, who would play you?

BC: I'd have to say Cillian - because he did a good job last time [laughs]

DR: Excluding him obviously.

BC: I tell you what, the only other person that anyone said looked a bit like me, on camera, was Johnny Depp - but not in any film apart from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Apparently his Willy Wonka impression, my wife says, is quite close to me.

Saying Johnny Depp in any other context would be incredibly conceited, but apparently I'm Willy Wonka [laughs]

DR: Thank you for your time.

With thanks to Gia Milinovich

Sunshine is available to buy and rent on DVD from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment from 27 August 2007.

Click here to buy Sunshine on DVD for £12.98 (RRP: £19.99)

This interview was conducted on 27 August 2007

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