‘Politicians need the intellectual ability to listen to the experts’

‘Politicians need the intellectual ability to listen to the experts’

He has now written a book, Black Holes: The Key To Understanding The Universewith his Manchester University colleague, Professor Jeff Forshaw, who serves as something of a companion piece to the live show, exploring the thing that has beguiled physicists – and science fiction fans – for decades.

“These ideas, ‘event horizon’, ‘singularity’, have become a part of popular culture since the 1980s, with films like Interstellar taking it further. So the fact [black holes] are collapsed stars is astrophysically interesting, but they also give you access to the structure of space, just because of what they are. Once you start down that road, you end up interrogating the nature of space and time.”

It’s safe to say Cox isn’t living a particularly rock n’ roll life on the road. A glass of white wine is his sole vice; running and circuit training keeps him fit. On weekends, his schedule makes time for him to see his wife, the US-born former TV presenter-turned-artist Gia Milinovich, 52, and their 13-year-old son, George, at home in South London. The Asia/Pacific leg is split into chunks to allow him to return for weeks at a time.

“I see them as much as possible. It’s the nice thing about touring in Britain, really, you’re never far away from anywhere,” he says. George was home-schooled by his father in lockdown, but isn’t overtly sciencey: “Just a normal child who’s interested in everything, I’d say.” There’s no pressure in the school lab, then? “No, no, I try very hard to separate those things, I don’t think there’s any pressure.”

There are few better than Cox at turning tricksy, potentially dense subjects into captivating “edutainment” for the masses – be it in BBC documentaries, live shows or books. Not for nothing did Sir David Attenborough once proclaim: “If I had a torch I would hand it to Brian Cox.” (“I’m sure he’s got many more series he’s going to make. But it’s an honor,” Cox responded.) And he loves nothing more than connecting with people.

In the past, he’s talked about going a step further than leading the national broadcaster’s science output, by taking an active role in politics.

“I was on a TV show with Michael Portillo, and I’d said something and he went, ‘Well why don’t you do something about it, then?’ And I think we can level that at many people. Commenting is one thing, but if you really care about the country in which you live, instead of saying what we should do, why don’t you just do it?” he says. “I never had political ambitions, but I wonder if there’s anything I can do to help.”

What he feels is needed isn’t a load of PhDs in government, but “more humility” from ministers, which is a skill that scientific work requires in order to ever get anywhere.

“What I know is enough to unfashionably pay attention to experts, and that’s what’s needed in a politician. So what you need is the intellectual ability to listen to people who know what they’re talking about, then compare it, then make rational decisions.”

Cox relates this to the Truss-Kwarteng mini-budget, which was instantly condemned by (almost) all the experts, defended obstinately, and then, increasingly, U-turned upon.

“One of the useful transferable skills you learn as a research scientist is understanding that there is a reality, and it will assert itself, no matter what you think. And it’s probably best that you learn that by swinging a pendulum around in an experiment when you’re 16 years old in school, rather than trying out some strange experiments with economic policy and tanking the currency.” He giggles. “Reality will assert itself eventually…”

Cox is busy – as well as the TV, writing and live work, he lectures first years at Manchester – but that’s now. In a couple of years, Prime Minister Starmer may want to recruit some new thinkers.

“There’ve been some very good science ministers. Lord Sainsbury was good in Blair’s government. And Lord Drayson was good in the government that followed. So there have been good ones on both sides,” he says.

I didn’t mention that job; is he saying he’d be up for it? “Let’s say no, for the moment, because I’m busy.”

He will stay busy, too, given the renewed public appetite for all things intergalactic – from Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos’s explorations to Nasa’s Artemis missions.

“It’s all capturing the imagination,” he says. “And what SpaceX has done with reusable rockets has transformed things. I think we’re going to see big leaps – [there’s] robotic missions to search for life on Mars, putting man back on the moon…” He is certainly not of the view that the “billionaire space race” – or even government-funded space programs – are a folly.

“These companies are all important parts of our economy. We’ve industrialized space already, we use near-earth orbit everyday already [relying on satellites], and it’s extremely competitive. It’s a pragmatic, hard-headed decision that’s economically sensitive, not a laugh […] The way to look at it is high-tech-led investment in infrastructure.”

He has met both Bezos and Musk, and respects them – even when the latter does and says bizarre things, like insisting we’re all living in a computer simulation.

“He’s a character, isn’t he? Provocative statements do make people pay attention, and the study of black holes suggests there is an information theoretic underpinning reality. But it doesn’t mean there’s a great mathematician in the sky, nor does it mean we live in a simulation,” Cox says.

It isn’t his way of communicating science, but it’s one way. “I suppose the point is that when someone high-profile introduces such an idea, it’s probably useful. It captures people’s interests.”

He grins. “Broadly speaking, I like anything that encourages people to think, and jars them out of the everyday.”

Black Holes: The Key To Understanding The Universe by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw (William Collins, £25) is published on October 6. You can preorder it from Telegraph Books


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