At the European Science Open Forum, Professor Brian Cox was one of the central figures – and for good reason. Turned from pop star to astrophysics researcher, he’s built a remarkable career, and over the years has become one of the most recognizable figures in science, thanks to science programmes such as the Wonders of… series.
But his service to science is two-fold – not only is he actively engaged in research, but he’s doing a great job at promoting science, so much that applications for the Manchester University, where he teaches, have grown by over 50% in a few years. This is called the Brian Cox effect.
Physics is a mind-bending subject. When most of us got our first taste of this subject in primary school, we love it. In itself, physics is a way to make sense of the surrounding world, and we all want that. However, as we grow up through the education system, the math and complexity become daunting and many people reject physics altogether.
If we want to truly make physics (and science) attractive, this is the message we have to send: science is a way of understanding our world, and it can be very fun and interactive. If we do that, people will come back for more.
It’s all a matter of presentation
We’re all wired to understand physical principles. We’re curious about its laws and principles but tend to be put off by the stuffy mathematical formulas our teachers throw at us when they teach, and the bland text books that have all the hard facts and none of the awe of physics.
Few people understand this like Professor Brian Edward Cox, an English physicist, PPARC Advanced Fellow and a Royal Society University Research Fellow at the University of Manchester. With a background in quantum and particle physics, his work laid the theoretical basis for a whole new field of studies now taking place at the Large Hadron Collider. He also led the FP420 project that lead to the installing of low-angle proton detectors at CERN.
However, he is best known for being a promoter of physics in popular culture. The “Wonders of…” series, which he hosts for BBC2, is one of the channel’s most watched series ever, with millions of viewers the world over; his popular science books have sold over 1.3 million copies. Overall, his engaging presentation of physics to the UK public has changed the country’s attitude to this field of science, and “The Brian Cox” effect has increased university physics applications by 52%.
His work has captivated the minds of audiences the world over, and he’s starred in TV, radio, Internet and is a prolific author. He’s had such a huge influence on the how the people of Britain feel about physics that some attribute the growing academic interest in physics on him and “the Brian Cox” effect. If nothing else, he is proof that if you present physics in a simple and accessible way, if you make them understand it, people will be glued to the screen — and they’ll want to learn more of it afterwards.
So how did he do it?
After an interview for a BBC Horizon programme, the channel asked Professor Cox to host “The Big Bang Machine” on BBC4, which has since been re-aired three times for a total audience of 1.23 million. The success of the show led to three more Horizon programmes and a new mini-series, “Wonders of the Solar System.” This series was a huge success: it became one of BBC2’s most popular programmes, regularly attracting 3 to 4 million viewers, and would sell 165,000 copies on DVD. The show received a Peabody award and was named best documentary series at the Broadcasting Press Guild Awards.
Because of the success these programmes enjoyed, Cox was invited to appear on a host of other shows, including the Jonathan Ross Show, The One Show, The Sky at Night, Qi, Blue Peter and The Today Programme. The Professor also co-hosts the “Stargazing Live” broadcast, an annual programme that aims to inspire public to stargaze at home and showcases the latest astronomy research from institutions such as the University of Manchester and the Jodrell Bank Observatory. He makes regular guest appearances on radio and co-hosts BBC Radio 4’s “The Infinite Monkey Cage” programme, which won a Gold Sony Radio Award in 2011.
Cox also enjoys great success as a writer. So far, he’s published three books on the “Wonders of..” series, which were very well liked by the public, selling over 600,000 book copies and 303,000 e-book copies. His two best-selling works, co-authored with Professor Jeff Forshaw, have been translated into several languages and have sold over 430,000 copies.
The thing is, this is not about his personal success – this is about his contribution to science. His work can be a stepping stone for kids and people of all ages to come closer to science. Professor Cox has become a household name and has pushed physics from a seemingly scary and strange science to something that captures people’s imagination.
He also plays the keyboards and had a top hit in the UK. He also got a D in A-level Math, because of “a lack of interest” and “band commitments,” which only makes it better.
The Brian Cox effect sends us a clear message: each one of us can make science attractive and it can work with great success – we just need the right perspective.