Professor Brian Cox reveals why he supports the UCU strikes and believes science is the antidote to authoritarianism
“Are you on strike right now?” I asked Professor Brian Cox in the midst of conversation on a couch, in a VitaStudent penthouse overlooking views of the Canal Street skyline.
“Sorry,” I mumbled, worried that I had overstepped.
“Yes,” Brian Cox said with an incredulous laugh, “with everybody else.”
He was going to give a talk in VitaStudent’s event hall in half an hour. He wore a loose blue jersey and jeans, and leaned sideways without concern for the FuseTV camera setup in front of us.
Upon mention of the UCU strikes, the professor animated: “It’s a very complex problem. You know, if you want a really good overview of it…”
Brian explained, with wide hand gestures, that pension cuts for academic staff were just one dangerous component of wider societal problems, which he believed are being stored up for the future.
“Financial insecurity in general, obviously, is not only a problem for the individual, it’s a problem for society. We’ve seen that. If you have widespread loss of opportunity and financial insecurity, then in democracy you can make bad decisions as a country, so I think it’s a much wider problem, and a complicated problem.”
As well as being a professor of particle physics at the University of Manchester’s School of Physics and Astronomy, Brian Cox has received many awards for his educational science programming and accessible books. He told me to read what he called “a brilliant blog post” by his friend, UCL professor and TV chemist Andrea Sella. It detailed, he said, precisely his fears and concerns for the future of pensions.
The blog post is nearly 3,000 words long. It breaks down the history of pensions, and censures the transformation of universities into businesses.
Sella wrote against privatisation policies which grant “the freedom to make bad decisions, decisions that can cost decades of poverty.”
When Brian Cox spoke about politics, he sat up straighter on the couch and gesticulated more. The author, TV presenter, and professor both started the interview and closed his talk by expounding the role of scientific principles in resisting authoritarian rule.
He began with Richard Feynman, a great hero of his. “A Nobel Prize-winning physicist,” Brian pointed at me with raised eyebrows, “who wrote a brilliant essay — it was actually a speech that he gave that he turned into an article called The Value of Science, contemplating: what is the most valuable thing about science?
“He said the most valuable thing is the way of thinking. He defined science as a ‘satisfactory philosophy of ignorance’, which is the idea that you are usually wrong.”
Brian laughed, “Almost always, you’re wrong in science. If whatever you said disagrees with nature then you are wrong. And being wrong, and changing your mind, and being open to new evidence, and changing your position constantly — which is absolutely critical to science — is the most valuable gift that science can give to society.
“So it’s the way of thinking,” Brian leaned in, smiling as he spoke, gesturing with his left hand as he clutched the microphone in his right. “He even goes as far, actually, to say that science is the foundation of democracy.”
His smile broke into a laugh again, “Now you know, many historians would argue about that, but what he means is that democracy is the recognition that you don’t know how to run a country. Therefore, you change every five years or so.”
I mused, and with another chuckle, he continued: “It’s the opposite of saying, ‘I know how to do it, and so I will do it, for as long as I live I will run this country.’ It’s the opposite of that, and in that sense it’s the more scientific way of running the country.”
At the end of his talk, later in the evening, the professor and presenter of Stargazing Live told the same story. Then he added “Donald Trump, who’s so sure, can never change.”
During that talk, in front of an audience of students from the private VitaStudent Circle Square accommodation hall, Brian said that he had been politically galvanised when he worked on the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, as a post-doctorate.
Funding had been cut for post-doctorates on the project, and from then on Brian worked to “make science politically important by making it popular.”
Brian Cox is now well-known across Britain for his BBC scientific documentaries, such as Wonders of the Solar System, Wonders of Life, and Stargazing Live.
He had been invited to VitaStudent, he told me, to talk about his career. It didn’t really end up like that.
He told me beforehand “I’m going to be talking a lot about cosmology and physics, of course, because that’s what I’m interested in and what I do.”
Diverging from discussing himself, he went on to discuss the Hubble Deep Fields, gauge bosons, and neutron star collisions.
He became on stage the Brian Cox I recognised from Wonders of the Solar System — an assured speaker, a scientific educator, telling stories about the universe.
Astronomy was where his heart was, and he couldn’t discuss himself without talking about space. When I asked him at the end of the interview what he thought the next big thing in science was going to be, he didn’t hesitate. It was not, he said, artificial intelligence or blockchain. It was space travel.
“Just in the next ten years, we’re going to see that revolution,” he envisioned, “We are seeing the beginnings of industrialisation and accommodation of the earth’s orbit. It’s already industrialised a bit, we’ve got a lot of communication satellites up there and all that stuff. There’s already billions of dollars worth of stuff that we use every day, but the actual living and working there is going to be transformed by reusable rockets.
“I think reusable rockets are the enabler, to enable us to start working in earth’s orbit.”
I knew reusable rockets were a particular interest of the Mancunion photographer present, so I let him jump in at this point, to conclude the conversation.
Professor Brian Cox lit up at the photographer’s enthusiasm, and stood up to hold a zealous discussion about the SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch while FuseTV packed away the cameras.
The cost of space exploration, Brian said, had been cut by 90 per cent.
“So you know,” he finished enthusiastically, “the future — it’s now!”