The stuff of stars

January 5, 2007

Brian Cox had success in a band, but he stuck with his first love, science, and is now a team leader on the Large Hadron Collider. Mandy Garner meets the 'cool' face of physics

Not many physics students can say that they have downed tools at the lab, walked along the road and jumped on stage with the boy band Take That. But Brian Cox is not your average physicist. And for that very reason, he could be just the person to help make the subject cool.

Cox, a particle physicist at Manchester University, managed to combine study for his physics degree with being in the band D:Ream. The group split up in 1994 but reunited in 1997 for a one-off tour with new Labour, swapping Take That for Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson and John Prescott. The band's hit song Things Can Only Get Better became the theme tune for the new dawn that Blair promised.

"Prescott and company came for chats on the tour bus," Cox recalls. "I had come back for the tour from Germany, where I was doing my PhD. I was pleased to be involved with it. You couldn't want more for a song."

Cox has always been a bit of a performer. He started at 18 and burnished his music credentials by joining the rock band Dare, which featured the keyboard player from Thin Lizzy. They recorded an album in Joni Mitchell's house in the US and toured Europe before, like all good rock bands, splitting up after a row in Germany between the guitarist and the lead singer. Cox returned home and signed up to do a physics degree at Manchester University the day after. But music would not leave him alone.

D:Ream needed a sound engineer. He helped them out on a few gigs, and they discovered that he could play keyboard. Within months, he was signed to D:Ream and touring with Take That. "It was all by accident," he says.

On one memorable occasion, physics and pop came together in the most unlikely of venues, the BBC studio where Top of the Pops was recorded. The Bee Gees were set to perform, and both Cox and Robbie Williams wanted their autographs. The only paper Cox had on him was his physics syllabus because he had been revising for exams. He ripped it down the middle and gave one half to Williams.

Cox, who was born in 1968, speaks of himself as being "of the generation of the moon landings". His father was into science, and Cox caught the science bug early. He wanted to be an astronomer and, fittingly, has ended up working on the Large Hadron Collider, which is being built at Cern, the European particle physics centre near Geneva. The project, which aims to recreate the conditions of the universe a fraction of a second after the big bang, will be up and running in the autumn.

Cox believes firmly in communicating the excitement he feels about science. "You have to make the subject interesting by doing things that inspire people," he says, citing the moon landings. What might be needed is a science equivalent of the TV programme Spooks . "It could be called Geeks ,"

he quips. He is certainly no geek. After an appearance on the breakfast TV show This Morning , some fans of pop band Busted approached him and told him science was "really cool".

The Royal Society university research fellow is ambivalent about the problems facing physics departments. On the one hand, he understands the Government's desire to create centres of excellence; but, on the other, he recognises the need to have local physics departments that can do outreach work in schools and bolster the image of the subject. Although he leans towards the centres of excellence approach, he thinks there should be open discussion about closure plans.

He also supports the new GCSE course in 21st-century science - this aims to raise scientific literacy and entice more pupils into science, but some have criticised it for dumbing down. Cox says: "The problem is bringing people to science before the age of 16."

It is his passion for science combined with his music background and his intellectual credentials as a researcher on the Large Hadron Collider - the biggest thing to happen to physics since the Apollo space programme - that has made Cox a sought-after TV scientist. He has had a regular science spot on This Morning , he appears in a spin-off health programme with Fern Britton, and he has presented the BBC's flagship science programme Horizon .

To communicate science to the masses successfully, a scientist must park his or her intellectual ego at the door, he says. "You should not think about doing it to make yourself look good and impress colleagues.

Scientists are often too worried about what their fellow scientists think of them, (which can make them) very dull. Doing television and radio is about inspiring people, not giving great insight." But he admits to having made a few mistakes - like doing a programme on the male menopause. "I thought I should be able to read a paper on any science discipline and be able to talk about it. You forget that millions of people are watching. There's something to be said about staying roughly within your remit."

As if combining research and a burgeoning media career were not enough, Cox is also writing a popular science book and acting as scientific adviser on a feature film that is coming out in spring. Sunshine , which was written by Alex Garland, the author of The Beach , is about a young physicist who saves the world. Garland apparently had in mind a non-Einstein type and asked if such a figure existed. Cox was put forward. "He saw me and thought that I at least looked as if I could run," Cox says. As well as being a role model for the film's hero, Cox looked over the script. He says Garland is a careful writer who is very interested in science - so interested, in fact, that the two plan to work together on another project.

In the meantime, Cox is travelling the world, working on the Large Hadron Collider, along with about 10,000 other researchers. He is leading a project that focuses on building detectors that can pick up new particles such as the Higgs boson, the so-called God particle that could help explain why matter has mass. His team works with researchers from 11 countries. They meet regularly in various locations around the globe, including a monthly gathering at Cern. Cox himself logged more than 100,000 miles last year and stayed in more than 60 hotel rooms - much like a rock tour. "Particle physics is an international pursuit," he says.

It is also an expensive one. The UK spent half a million pounds on his project this year. With the public paying large sums to support their work, scientists have a duty to explain what it is they do, Cox says. "We have a responsibility to talk to people in their language so they can understand what we are doing."

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