ISTS ASKS: Brian Cox, Professor of the Universe

13 min read
Photo by BBC

The ISTS Team has had the absolute pleasure of speaking with Professor Brian Cox, physicist and professor of particle physics in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Manchester. He is famous for presenting many science programs, and is set to release his latest series, The Universe on BBC Earth, on 5th Dec 2021. You can also catch it on StarHub Channel 407 and SingTel Channel 203 this Sunday. Here, we ask him more about the series, as well as insights to our universe. 

1. What do you hope to inspire in the viewers of your documentary series of The Planets and The Universe

The Universe is a cosmology series on larger scales that we have divided up into stars, galaxies, blackholes, and the universe itself – its evolution from the big bang or perhaps even a period before the big bang that we call ‘the inflation’, all the way to the end of the universe and exoplanets (planets outside the solar system). In contrast to The Planets, that was confined to the solar system, The Universe covers the rest of the universe. The reason why I think cosmology is important is that it poses some of the biggest questions that have been asked since the dawn of human civilisation: How did we come to be here? What is our future? What is our place in nature? What is our place in the Universe? These questions appear naturally when we contemplate the universe on larger scales. For example, we discovered that there are 2 trillion galaxies in the piece of the universe that we can see. What can we make of that? How should that inform the way the way we think of ourselves? These are also components of the series. 

2. You’ve presented in many shows previously regarding the Universe (2011 Wonders of the Universe & 2014 Human Universe), what makes this series different? 

It’s very much focused on what I think are the ‘cutting-edge’ questions in theoretical physics now. A good example is the black holes program. My personal research is now into black holes. They are interesting because they are astrophysical objects that exist. We now have a photograph of one in the galaxy called M87 which is, by the way, 6 billion times the mass of the sun. It is a so called ‘super massive black hole’. They are posing fundamental challenges to our understanding of nature. In the study of black holes, it strongly suggests that space and time or ‘space time’ (in Einstein’s language), is now a fundamental property of the Universe. Space and time may be built out of smaller components – we don’t know what they are – but we can almost refer to them as the atoms of space time. The difference between this series and the previous is that there is a very strong element of not only 21st century physics but physics that is being done now. In the Black Hole program, I go right to the edge, using papers published in 2019-2020 to talk about black holes, and, in particular, the partial resolution (or maybe the resolution) to the information paradox, which is the question that Stephen Hawking first raised — What happens to the things that fall into a Black Hole? Is the information thrown into a black hole lost forever from the universe, or does it somehow return to the universe encoded in hawking radiation that causes the black hole to evaporate away over long time scales? We think that the information comes out. But in getting to that answer, we’ve had to really focus onto quantum gravity, which is cutting edge. That’s the difference — in many ways, this is a cutting-edge series.

3. In the show, you’ve made references to Gods; you mix thoughts of religion and the spiritual plane with science. Is it possible to have faith and be a scientist in your field? 

Yes, I know some excellent scientists who have faith. Actually, in the series, I use the word ‘God’ is similar to how Einstein and many physicists use the word, which is really to refer to Nature. Stars, they are, in a very real sense, the creators of life in the universe. Without them, there would be no heavy elements beyond hydrogen, helium, a bit of lithium, as well as carbon or oxygen. But also, in the thermodynamic sense, they are the engines that allow complexity to develop in the universe. They are hotspots in a cold sky – steam engines of the industrial revolution. They are necessary for complexity to evolve and emerge in the universe. The way we use that idea in the first film of The Universe is to point out that, in many ways, the stars behave as mythological Gods. It’s a way of understanding the function that they serve in the Universe. What’s interesting, is that they are mortal Gods. There will come a time where the stars are all gone, and the universe will return to darkness. So, there is a kind of religious resonance in the language that, really, the stars demand us to use if we are trying to tell a story. 

4. There can possibly be an element of fear as we discover more about the universe, as there is much out there that remains unknown. How should we balance, or overcome this fear with the need of understanding our universe? 

One of my great heroes, Richard Feynman, wrote a beautiful essay back in the 1950s called The Value of Science. He defines science as a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance, which is a beautiful definition. He says that the most important thing you learn as a scientist – actually the most important message you can give to people who are not scientists – is that fear is doubt. Doubt and uncertainty are not to be feared but welcomed. Because once we can accept the fact that we don’t know anything, then we take the first step along the road to research – to find out about things, to face the unknown with an open mind. It follows from that because we are constantly searching for a deeper knowledge, and that you can change your mind or be wrong about things because you don’t have absolute knowledge – you don’t know. Richard Feynman said, and I agree with him profoundly, that that is the most valuable lesson science teaches us. The intellectual confidence to, first of all, understand that you don’t know anything. Secondly, to be curious and not afraid of the unknown, and vitally important, for the third thing, is to have the ability to change your mind as new facts are discovered and new observations are made.

Photo by BBC

5. In your screener you mentioned that eventually the universe will turn dark. What possible significance can the understanding/ knowledge of this period of time give to mankind? 

Well, you’re right. This is the central question that we ask in the first episode, Stars. What does it mean to live a finite life in this eternal universe, where if the universe continues to behave as we observe it to behave now, which is to say it continues to expand and accelerate its expansion, that there will come a time where there are no living things in the universe, so all knowledge would be gone? I answer that in the film. That question, going back to the first thing I said about cosmology, is equivalent to saying that we don’t live forever as human beings, so what’s the point? Of course, we understand what the point is. The point is that we are so tremendously fortunate to have these short lives in this rather violent and uncertain universe – that we should enjoy them. The same goes for civilization. Naturally, from a cosmological perspective, for all life in the universe, we live in what I like to call the Age of Stars now, and it’s finite. When they’re gone, then everything’s gone. That, to me, makes our lives and existence in the universe all the more valuable. I say in the film – why does meaning (what life brings to the universe) has to be eternal to be valuable? Is it not the case, surely, that the fact that it is not eternal and that it is finite and fragile, that makes it more valuable? That’s the argument that I make in the film.

6. Is it still relevant to focus funds and time on outer space research versus focusing on immediate issues at home on Earth, such as climate change? Why? 

It is vitally important. If you look at climate change, for example, the reason that we have accurate climate models comes from satellite observations of the Earth. Without those satellites, we might not even know about climate change. I am certain the models that we have would be less successful and less precise without these funds. Also, you talk about space – the industrialization of let’s say Near-Earth space — that’s central to our life. We are speaking now across great distance. It’s likely that a part of that may be satellite transmission, or if not, then the way that we know where we are with global positioning systems with satellite navigations and so on – are all space based. Near-Earth space is a part of our economy and it’s a very important component of our knowledge economy – the way we understand how our Earth and Climate works. The money that we spend on science in space is a tiny tiny fraction of what we spend on everything else. I once made a statement in Human Universe (2014) that we spend less on nuclear fusion research, for example, than on pet grooming. So, first of all, we have to note the scale of the expenditure. Second of all, it is also important to note that economies are not enclosed systems (what we call in physics, a unitary system). They grow through economic activity. The money that we spend building something like the Hubble Space telescope, for example, is not launched on the rocket. We don’t put dollar bills on a rocket, launch them into space and set them on fire. They are spent on Earth. Actually, if we take the most expensive piece of space exploration that has ever been attempted, the Apollo program, the economic survey of the impacts of Apollo showed a return on investments through the 1960s of something about 10 to 1 or more by the 1980s. So, the answer to your question is very simple in one sense, which is the industrialization of near-Earth space is preceding. It’s important and valuable both for knowledge and for the expansion of our economy and will continue to be so or more important in the future. We invest a very small amount of that in scientific research anyway – a tiny amount to gain new knowledge of the universe. But that investment generates more money that grows the economy. So, I think on every level, whichever way you want to look at it, and whichever way that you value economic growth or the acquisition of knowledge, space flight is actually good investment.

7. Which would you rank in order of most important to least important about space research, and why? 

a. Colonization of Mars/ Moon 
b. Discovery of other planets capable of supporting life 
c. Discovery of the origins of the universe/ understanding the universe more 

It’s a really good question. They are all profoundly important, actually. From a scientific perspective, you’re right, we are trying to understand the origin of the universe. Really, it’s very clear what missions we have to launch. For example, we want a big gravitational wave detector in space – LISA, is the next mission – we need that. The future after that, is to build a gravitational wave detector in space that can see the gravitational waves from the big bang, which will be profoundly important, and probably what we need to begin to make progress on the understanding of the universe and the origins of the universe. Those are important. In terms of exoplanets, again the question of ‘are we alone in the universe’, or ‘how common is life in the universe’, is a profound one. It is fundamentally important for us to know if we are alone in our neighborhood, whether we are alone in the milky way galaxy, for example. These are important questions. So, the idea that we spend a very very small fraction of our GDP on trying to answer the most profound questions, seems to me a very good idea. Next, you talk about colonization. I do think that colonization of Mars is a long way in the future. I think human landing on Mars might not be so far in the future, but I still think, actually, that it would still be 20 years away. I do not share the optimism of Elon Musk that it might be the next decade or so. However, the important thing, is that Space X is a company explicitly motivated by that goal. Elon musk says he wants to go to Mars. That company, in striving to achieve that goal, has completely revolutionized the economics of space launch. We’ve just discussed that it’s tremendously important that we can have cheap and reliable access to Earth’s orbit, then to the Moon and beyond. So, regarding the big romantic goals of putting human settlements on Mars – which will come by the way — most importantly, is to know that Mars is the only place, I think, in the solar system, in the conceivable future, that we can establish a permanent human presence. We could also do it on the Moon, but in terms of planets we could ONLY do it on Mars. If we don’t go there, then where will we go? We can’t go anywhere else. So, I see [colonization] as a necessary stepping stone, that is however in the future. Hence, I think that’s the least important in terms of being something that we can achieve in the near future. However, it is tremendously important because in striving to do it, and developing the technologies to do it, we are opening up cheap and reliable access to space and that’s a prerequisite to all the others.

Photo by BBC

Written by Lydia Yasmin
Illustrations by Lim Daphne

Photos by BBC


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