In a recent event organised by UoM’s physics society, ‘PhysSoc’, Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw presented the ideas in their latest book, Black Holes: The Key to Understanding the Universe. The seminar, held in aid of the mental health charity CALM, explored the physics behind these fascinating objects, including elements of thermodynamics, quantum mechanics and relativity.
Speaking to Cox and Forshaw before their talk began, it became clear that they are firm friends as well as long-time collaborators, enjoying themselves as they argued with each other about how best to start the interview. They met when Forshaw was Cox’s lecturer in the mid-nineties – they were the same age despite being teacher and student.
Since then, they have published a number of popular science books together, including Why Does E=mc^2?, The Quantum Universe and Universal. Their latest work is arguably their greatest challenge to date, aiming to bring the physics of black holes, still hotly debated by researchers, to a non-specialist audience.
The importance of black holes
A black hole is a point in space where gravity is so strong, not even light can escape it. It is thought that supermassive black holes could lie at the centre of all galaxies, including our own.
Both Cox and Forshaw believe that the ground-breaking nature of black hole research means it’s essential for the general public to understand, with Cox arguing, “We’ve got a glimpse of a new theory of space and time from studying these objects – it’s important to anyone who wants to understand the origin of the universe. Was there even a moment of creation? We’re not going to know that before we know what we mean by time.”
Forshaw agreed, asking, “Why should anyone be interested in going to see the Mona Lisa? Physics is often thought of in terms of its utility, but it’s more its cultural value that interests me”.
However, they’re also keen to note that the philosophical implications of the research do not exclude it from having practical and technological relevance, citing the crossover between the study of black holes and quantum computing. This new field of research could revolutionise data encryption and computer processing power and is benefiting from extensive financial backing.
Academics in the media
As Professors of Particle Physics, Cox and Forshaw combine academic life with science communication, albeit with slightly different emphases. Alongside his work in the public arena, Cox continues to teach a first-year module with Forshaw and supervises some postgraduate students.
He made it clear that this is an aspect of his role he values deeply, telling me that the media side of things was “almost an accident”.
“If you ask me what am I, what do I do, I say a physicist. I’ve been here since 1993 at Manchester, so I cannot imagine a life or a job or a career without being at this university”.
“Even though I don’t have a great deal of time at the moment because I’m making television programmes and doing other things…. the thing I enjoy doing most is being an academic”.
This was illustrated by seeing him at the bar after the talk, as he and Forshaw chatted with physics students. Pints were on Cox, fulfilling his promise in 2020 that he would buy all his students a drink post-pandemic, due to the difficulty of their university experience in lockdown.
Despite his love of university life, Cox also recognises the importance of his media role, stressing that “if we’re to maintain and increase funding and interest in physics and all academic subjects actually, then you need to have a bridge to the wider public.”
He brought up one of his heroes, Carl Sagan, and the analogy in his book Cosmos of the Great Library at Alexandria, to illustrate the dangers of “academic institutions that are essentially ivory towers, closed off from the rest of society.”
“Sagan said that there’s no evidence that any of the knowledge that was stored in that library was ever transferred out of the academy…. when the barbarians came to break down the gates there was no one to defend it.”
Cox would like to see an expansion of mass communication across academia, saying, “the ideal world is where as many academics as possible are allowed and enabled and encouraged to spread their knowledge and expertise.”
In contrast, Forshaw spends most of his time as a lecturer and researcher, with a particular focus on quantum chromodynamics. A (more than) full-time role in itself, he still finds time for science communication, including working as a science consultant for the media, giving talks to the general public, as well as his books with Cox. He explained, “I come from a working-class background and I was lucky that I managed to get into a situation where I can do the work that I do….a part of it is wanting to make these ideas accessible.”
“There is a selfish aspect as well which is that I get to think about bits of physics that I enjoy. To explain things clearly to people who are not experts, you need to understand what you’re talking about really well, so it gives me an excuse to really get to grips with some of these things in a way that I might not do if I was just working within a research context.”
This passion for the science involved appears to be the key to the success of Cox and Forshaw’s books. They both agreed they don’t really plan to start new projects. Instead, they get interested in an area of physics, and decide they better write a book to learn more about it, with Cox adding “I have no idea what the next bit of physics is gonna be – this is the fun of it!”
As the interview drew to a close, I was keen to hear Cox’s perspective on the recent strikes of university staff, which have highlighted systemic issues in British academia. He stated that “I think, along with many professions, if you look at the wages of academics, they’ve declined rapidly in real terms over time,” but emphasised that it was part of a broader issue, rather than being restricted to a university setting.
“At a wider level what we’re talking about is building a prosperous country and a prosperous ecosystem which involves education and research at the highest level and that’s a prerequisite for funding the [ecosystem]… there’s a virtuous circle somewhere, and I don’t think we have it at the moment.”
Cox also suggested that he would like to see a wider overhaul of the British university system. When asked how non-science students could get more involved in STEM, he noted that there were opportunities for such students to take science courses, but that he would like to see this extended. He said that he admired this aspect of the US education system, stating that his “utopian vision for universities would be that students have the time and the opportunity to study a wider range of subjects.”
In the meantime, reading popular science books, particularly Cox and Forshaw’s, is a great place to start. Black Holes: The Key to Understanding the Universe is available now.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.