Portrait

A physicist in the star system

As a student, Brian Cox played keyboard in a rock band. Nowadays his place is firmly centre stage, this time to share his passion and knowledge about the way the Universe is organised. His charismatic personality and scientific precision have led him to become involved in science programmes for radio and television, where he presents to the public fascinating advances in nature research and the interactions of elementary matter.

Brian Cox – “Disseminating science helps to remind me why I became a scientist in the first place.” © CERN Brian Cox – “Disseminating science helps to remind me why I became a scientist in the first place.” © CERN
Brian Cox, Kevin Eldon and Simon Munnery during the Atlas experiment conducted in connection with the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) project. Planned for 2008, the LHC should enable scientists to delve deeper than ever before into the structure of matter and to recreate the conditions that existed in the Universe less than a millionth of a millionth of a second after the Big Bang (10-12 seconds). © CERN Brian Cox, Kevin Eldon and Simon Munnery during the Atlas experiment conducted in connection with the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) project. Planned for 2008, the LHC should enable scientists to delve deeper than ever before into the structure of matter and to recreate the conditions that existed in the Universe less than a millionth of a millionth of a second after the Big Bang (10-12 seconds). © CERN

When Brian Cox was nine years old, the world of science fiction, in particular the film Star Wars, inspired his vocation as a physicist. Ten years later, when he was a student at the University of Manchester, he combined the laws of matter with rock rhythms, playing keyboard with the rock band D:REAM. “Many students work in shops or restaurants to fund their studies. I did it by playing rock.” His band was a success. In 1997, the hit song Things Can Only Get Better became the anthem for Tony Blair’s electoral campaign. Election night at the Royal Festival Hall was also Brian’s final concert, as that was when he received his doctorate.

The researcher’s base camp is still at Manchester University campus on Oxford Road, an interesting blend of Victorian architecture and modern glass, where he is a member of the Higher Energy Physics Group. A University Research Fellow of the UK’s Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge (known simply as the Royal Society), he lives his dream by participating in “the most important scientific experiment since Apollo” – namely research at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).

In pursuit of Higgs

The LHC is the world’s most powerful particle accelerator. CERN (1) is building this magnetised ring of 27 km in diameter, frozen to minus 271 °C, on a site straddling the French and Swiss borders. It will provide energy of 7 TeV (1 TeV = 1 tera-electronvolt = 1012 eV = 1.6x10-7 joules) for each of the two counter rotating beams of particles. The particles will therefore collide with a combined energy of 14 TeV. As soon as the LHC comes into operation (planned in May 2008), Brian Cox and his colleagues will analyse the disintegration of the collided particles in search of Higgs particle, also known as “the God particle”.

This discovery should prove the origin of the mass of particles in the Standard Model (the current theory describing the elementary constituents of matter and their interactions). In spite of this advance, however, many other questions remain open – such as the lack of gravity in the model. And the theories that attempt to explain this issue are not all compatible with the existence of the Higgs particle…

Most important of all, the LHC is a leap into the unknown, into a hitherto unexplored realm. It inaugurates the search for experimental clues to guide the direction of future research. For Brian, this spirit of exploration is the most significant element. While he believes that it is important to prove the existence of the Higgs particle to validate the theory, he is most interested in getting his hands on elements that will raise new questions, “like the reason for the supremacy of matter over antimatter in the Universe, or the discovery of extra dimensions.”

“The supersymmetric model of the Universe will also be an interesting avenue of enquiry”, says Brian, “because it allows for the existence of the Higgs particle. But instead of a single particle, there would be five (in the simplest version of the model). If I had to take a bet on it, this would be my chosen direction.

Basic science has no agenda”, he adds with a smile. “Nobody knows what we are going to find beyond the frontiers, but we have to push forward in order to discover other sources of energy, to ensure our security and to travel to other planets to protect and expand the human civilisation. The great discoveries are always unexpected. For example, research conducted at the LHC has unexpectedly produced results that will be used in the ITER (2) nuclear fusion programme. Our only way forward is to explore.”

So it’s a non-stop race for knowledge. Hanging on Brian’s office wall are the plans for the FP 420 R&D project module (to be completed in 2010) to assess the feasibility of installing forward proton tagging detectors 420 metres away from the interaction points of the CMS and ATLAS experiments at the LHC. And as if this weren’t enough, this explorer of reality has extended his adventures into another universe – that of the media and art.

A scientist in the media spotlight

Even though his musical career is over, Brian still loves to be in the spotlight, where he transmits his insatiable scientific curiosity to a wider audience. On route between Manchester and Geneva, he stops over in London to appear on a radio programme and film a few episodes of Horizon, a BBC science documentary with its latest feature being What on Earth is Wrong With Gravity?

His very special blend of talents also finds other forms of expression. The physicist has recently finished working with Danny Boyle, director of such films as Trainspotting, where he acted as science expert on Boyle’s latest science-fiction film, Sunshine, to help make it more realistic.

The researcher is a keen fan of cinema. “I have learned a lot from working with people who are passionate and perfectionist. Putting together a film takes time, but it allows you to go into greater depth than in television.” However, Brian considers direct exchanges to be the best method for disseminating science.

He finds it invaluable to keep in contact with the public, claiming that it improves his work. “It reminds me why I chose to become a scientist in the first place. The public helps me to go beyond a narrow research focus and gain more of an overview.” And it fuels his conviction that science is a vital issue.

Science at any price

“Basic research is a necessity and not a luxury for our civilisation. Progress is compulsory, not optional, if we want to survive – and survive we must!” says Cox. Our radio telescopes have scanned considerable expanses of the Universe and have never revealed evidence of life on other planets, still less intelligent life. “In my view, the human brain is nature’s most complex and precious creation. We must safeguard this good fortune.”

At present, it would take only one comet to annihilate the Earth. The physicist maintains that, to ensure the survival of the human race, we need to take a longer-term view. “The Universe is teeming with resources and dangers. We must learn to use the resources and avoid the dangers. To explore – then exploit – space will require great energy resources. This is why I think that energy savings are immoral. We must open up our minds beyond the narrow confines of our planet.”

For these reasons, science is in great need of creativity, even if the scientific professions do not exactly convey this image. Creativity was at the origin of all the major scientific advances. “Unlike with the theory of special relativity E = mc2 (someone apparently discovered it before he did), Einstein had no particular reason for developing the theory of general relativity. All he wanted was a beautiful Universe that functioned in the way he saw fit.

And his theory was a great solution because it is still valid today.”

Delphine d’Hoop

  1. CERN: European Organisation for Nuclear Research, with its headquarters in Geneva.
  2. ITER: International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, an experimental nuclear fusion reactor project.

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To find out more

  • LHC
    lhc.web.cern.ch/lhc/
    See also the special issue of RDT info, entitled A Matter of Life…, February 2007
    To be published
    Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw,
    Why does E = mc2 ?