No Cox please, we’re British…

The final episode of the BBC television series Wonders of the Universe was broadcast this weekend. Apparently it’s been incredibly popular, winning huge plaudits for its presenter Brian Cox, and perhaps inspiring the next generation of budding cosmologists the way Carl Sagan did thirty-odd years ago with his series Cosmos.

Grumpy old cosmologists (i.e. people like myself) who have watched it are a bit baffled by the peculiar choices of location – seemingly chosen simply in order to be expensive, without any relevance to the topic being discussed – the intrusive (and rather ghastly) music, and the personality cult generated by the constant focus on the dreamy-eyed presenter. But of course the series wasn’t made for people like us, so we’ve got no right to complain. If he does a great job getting the younger generation interested in science, then that’s enough for me. I can always watch Miss Marple on the other side instead.

But walking into work this morning I suddenly realised the real reason why I don’t really like Wonders of the Universe. It’s got nothing to do with the things I mentioned above. It’s because it’s just not British enough.

I’m not saying that Brian Cox isn’t British. Obviously he is. Although I do quibble with him being labelled as a “northerner”. Actually, he’s from Manchester. The North is in fact that part of England that extends southwards from the Scottish border to the Tyne. The Midlands start with Gateshead and include Yorkshire, Manchester and Liverpool and all those places whose inhabitants wish they were from the North, but aren’t really hard enough.

Anyway, I just put that bit in to inform non-British readers of this blog about the facts of UK geography. It’s not really relevant to the main point of the piece.

The problem with Wonders of the Universe is betrayed by its title. The word “wonders” suggests that the Universe is wonder-ful, or even, in a word which has cropped up in the series a few times, “awesome”. No authentic British person, and certainly not one who’s forty-something, would ever use the word “awesome” without being paid a lot of money to do so. It just doesn’t ring true.

I reckon it doesn’t do to be too impressed by anything on TV these days (especially if its accompanied by awful music), but there is a particularly good reason for not being taken in by all this talk about “Wonders”, and that is that the Universe is basically a load of rubbish.

Take this thing, for example.

It’s a galaxy (the Andromeda Nebula, M31, to be precise). We live in a similar article, in fact. Of course it looks quite pretty on the surface, but when you look at them with a physicist’s eye galaxies are really not all they’re cracked up to be.

We live in a relatively crowded part of our galaxy on a small planet orbiting a fairly insignificant star called the Sun. Now you’ve got me started on the Sun. I know it supplies the Earth with all its energy, but it does so pretty badly, all things considered. The Sun only radiates a fraction of a milliwatt per kilogram. That’s hopeless! Pound for pound, a human being radiates more than a thousand times as much. All in all, stars are drastically overrated: bloated, wasteful, inefficient and  not even slightly awesome. They’re only noticeable because they’re big. And we all know that size shouldn’t really matter.

But even in what purports to be an interesting neighbourhood of our Galaxy, the nearest star is 4.5 light years from the Sun. To get that in perspective, imagine the Sun is the size of a golfball. On the same scale, where is the nearest star?

The answer to that will probably surprise you, as it does my students when I give this example in lectures. The answer is, in fact, on the order of a thousand kilometres away. That’s the distance from Cardiff to, say, Munich. What a dull landscape our Galaxy possesses. In between one little golf ball in Wales and another one in Germany there’s nothing of any interest at all, just a featureless incomprehensible void not worthy of the most perfunctory second thought; it’s usually called France.

So galaxies aren’t dazzlingly beautiful jewels of the heavens. They’re flimsy, insubstantial things more like the cheap tat you can find on QVC. What’s worse is that they’re also full of a grubby mixture of soot and dust. Indeed, some are so filthy that you can hardly see any stars at all. Somebody needs to give the Universe a good clean. I suppose you just can’t get the help these days.

And then there’s the Big Bang. Well, I don’t need to go on about that because I’ve already posted about it. Suffice to say that the Big Bang wasn’t anywhere near as Big as you’ve been led to believe. The volume was between about 115 and 120 decibels. Quite loud, but many rock concerts are louder. Very disappointing. If I’d been in charge I would have put on something much more spectacular.

In any case the Big Bang happened a very long time ago. The Universe is now a cold and desolate place, lit by a few feeble stars and warmed only by the fading glow of the heat given off when it was all so much younger and more exciting. It’s as if we inhabit a shabby downmarket retirement home, warmed only by the feeble radiation given off by a puny electric fire as we occupy ourselves as best we can until Armageddon comes.

No, the Universe isn’t wonderful at all. In fact, it’s basically a bit crummy. It’s only superficially impressive because it’s quite large, and it doesn’t do to be impressed by things just because they are large. That would be vulgar.

Digression: I just remembered a story about a loudmouthed Texan who owned a big ranch and who was visiting the English countryside on holiday. Chatting to locals in the village pub he boasted that it took him several days to drive around his ranch. A farmer replied “Yes. I used to have a car like that.”

We British just don’t like showy things. It’s in our genes. We’re fundamentally a rather drab and dowdy race. We don’t really enjoy being astonished either. We prefer things we can find fault with over things that intimidate us with their splendour. We’re much more likely to tut disapprovingly than stare open-mouthed in amazement at something that seems pointlessly ostentatious. If pushed, we might even write a letter of complaint to the Council.

Ultimately, however, the fact is that whatever we think about it, we’re stuck with it. Just like the trains, the government and the weather. Nothing we can do about it, so we might as well just soldier on. That’s the British way.

So you can rest assured that none of this Wonders of the Universe stuff will distract us for long from getting on with the important things in life, such as watching Coronation Street.

Professor Brian Cox is 43.


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51 Responses to “No Cox please, we’re British…”

  1. Bryn Jones Says:

    “I don’t believe it!”

  2. Rob Ivison Says:

    i don’t know the guy, but i suspect he’d be as upset to be labelled a mancunian as he must have been to miss out so narrowly on being labelled a lancastrian. he’s from oldham.

    you are such a wind-up merchant, professor coles ;-)

    • I think Peter is in fact a Coin Operated Boy.

    • telescoper Says:

      Rob: Are you trying to tell me that Oldham isn’t a part of Manchester?

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Manchester and Liverpool are not the North but they are not the Midlands either. They are the North-West. That the North-West is south of the North is an amusing accident of English geography.

    • i’ve always thought that the north of england is the part where people start describing themselves as british rather than english (a concept i’ve never got used to).

      …having stumbled across the programme last night – i rapidly turned on a jim al-kahlili one instead to try to blot out the memory of dust-reddened stars in Cen A being called old.

    • telescoper Says:

      I turned off one episode when it showed a chunk of antarctic ice falling into the sea followed by a statement that there was nothing in the laws of physics that could prevent the reverse process happening. Er..gravity?

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Ian: British is what the English call Andy Murray before he gets knocked out of Wimbledon each year; after which he reverts to being Scottish for another 11 months.

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    It’s possible for the universe to be both a load of dust AND spectacularly beautiful to us. No need for either/or. This raises my favourite question: Why do we find the heavens awesome? There’s no survival value in this perception.

    • telescoper Says:

      There’s a difference between “beautiful” and “awesome”. I find many things in the natural world beautiful (not just astronomical things, but also trees, mountains and of course people..) but that’s not the same as being in awe of them.

      I reserve my supply of awe for such things as the music of Bach, or Thelonious Monk, or great works of art and literature. I guess that’s because they were made by people ostensibly similar to me, but whose achievements exceed anything I could ever aspire to.

      Of course I think the Universe is fascinating, and mysterious, and many things besides. But not awesome. It’s just some stuff.

  4. Hi,

    “No, the Universe isn’t wonderful at all. In fact, it’s basically a bit crummy.”

    This is taking a dislike of one’s workplace to a whole new level! Are you thinking of re-locating? If so, where are you looking?

    Personally I really enjoyed ‘Wonders of the Universe’, but I enjoyed reading your blog as well.

    Regards,
    Jo

  5. “a bit baffled by the peculiar choices of location – seemingly chosen simply in order to be expensive, without any relevance to the topic being discussed – the intrusive (and rather ghastly) music, and the personality cult generated by the constant focus on the dreamy-eyed presenter”

    Elvis Presley made 31 films.

  6. Being totally British I just wanted to say that I found your post fucking awesome

  7. Wonders was no Cosmos, mickey takers have dubbed it “yea galaxies”

    Several things got me. The simpering presenter, the banal script, the far too frequent shots of Cox and the excellent special effects – the series lives and dies by special effects like most tv these days. Cox is clearly trying to match the depth of Sagan but is no Sagan.

    But my main bugbear is the BBC’s promotion of Cox. It’s been nauseating. Silly radio 4 series, news items on its online pages when he says something trivial. I even noticed at last years Bafta that the camera lingered on him sitting in the audience four times – more than anyone else and obviously deliberate. and then there was stargazing live….and the invite on the front page of the bbc’s website to subscribe to his twitter feed.

    Enough already. The overkill is already backfiring. I’ve had enough.

  8. Do you really lecture? Do people appear interested? You have possibly the most uninspiring view of science I have ever had the misfortune to encounter. As someone who teaches young people I can also assure you British people do use the word awesome along with many other Americanisms. I would also suggest that distancing ones self from the culture of those they are teaching is rarely helpful. I wonder why the BBC chose Prof Brian?

    • telescoper Says:

      I do lecture, and also do research in cosmology.

      You’ll have to ask my students whether they like my lectures, but I think there are more ways of inspiring people than simple-minded gee-whizz stuff. I’ve used some of these comments in classes and they generally get a big laugh. But each to his/her own.

      What is really uninspiring, however, is to meet someone who doesn’t get a joke. Did it never occur to you that this article might be humorous? Whatever happened to the British sense of irony?

    • I can also assure you British people do use the word awesome along with many other Americanisms.

      The word awe is Old Norse in origin and the composite adjective awesome is 16th century English.

    • telescoper Says:

      That’s awfully interesting.

    • I think it’s awesome

    • “I do lecture, and also do research in cosmology.”

      I was quite surprised to hear, from someone in Manchester who does teach at university, that this Brian Cox chap does not teach at university, despite having the title “Professor”. I would have thought that the title implied at least a few token lectures. (Maybe a BBC programme counts for those these days.)

      Note that Sagan did teach regularly at Cornell, both at the undergraduate and graduate level. He was also editor of Icarus for many years and was a leading scientist in his field before he became famous on television.

    • Well said
      I’m glad I’m not in his class room i would be asleep 90% of the time. The other 10% i would probably thinking of WHAT’S FOR TEA

      “Get another job Man”

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Let’s have a look at Cox’s publications record. Then we should either stop sniping or deploy some real ammunition.

    • telescoper Says:

      In case anyone thinks I’m having a go at Brian Cox’s research credentials, let me point out that I was on the panel that awarded him the Advanced Fellowship referred to in this article:

      http://www.stfc.ac.uk/News%20and%20Events/24667.aspx

      He is, however, a particle physicist rather than an astronomer or cosmologist.

      I don’t know if he does undergraduate teaching at Manchester, but he does so many other things that reflect well on the University that I wouldn’t be surprised if he was given a pretty free hand by his employer.

    • i thought he was on a URF – but maybe that’s finished

      disappointing that the only three “noteworthy” AFs which STFC could come up with when advertising the rutherford fellowships were all PP…

    • …and of course the other interesting feature is the singling out of “space science” as one of the four areas in which these fellowships will be awarded.

    • telescoper Says:

      Ian,

      I’m not sure but I think he got a URF after his PPARC fellowship finished…

      Peter

  9. Chris Thompson Says:

    I really enjoyed the series, found the first one rather depressing though, even the universe is mortal…d’oh!…good news though for the “universe is a crummy place” brigade..it won’t go on forever. If the series did one thing for me, I finally got my mind around Entropy so thanks for that Brian. I like Brian Cox’s style, even though what he is presenting is really basic to him, he still manages to convey a sense of wonder that hopefully does inspire another generation to take our understanding even further.

  10. As a response to ‘No Cox please we’re British’ – the comment that the English are a “drab and dowdy race” I have to say that I do not agree with the writer but he sounds as if he fits the bill perfectly! Some of you who responded also sound very drab and dowdy too! Professor Brian Cox on the other hand is not drab and dowdy but very entertaining. I’m sure all you drab and dowdy people are just jealous and whether you are English, or is it British, you should stick to Coronation Street; much more to your taste whether you’re from the North, North-West or the Midlands. What miserable-sounding nit-picking lot!

  11. I was wondering where I could send all of the questions that I now have – things which were not a problem before, now cause me untold misery and restless nights……….how does one address questions to this Cox chap ??? even the location of his habitat seems to be a subject of discussion.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      I strongly expect that Brian Cox will now be inundated by questions from viewers, so contacting him directly might not be the best way to get answers, either at the University of Manchester or at CERN.

      Of course, there are many other astronomers and physicists who could answer questions instead, including some who have contributed this post and comments to it.

  12. Bryn Jones Says:

    It might be worth stating clearly for the benefit of all readers here that the post above was written tongue-in-cheek in the manner of a rant from a grumpy old man. The author, Peter Coles, is a well-respected lecturer who is capable of conveying the wonders of astronomy and physics without any dumbing down (to use another Americanism). He is known as an inspirational lecturer.

    There are some serious points behind the parody. The most obvious is that television companies and/or commissioners of programmes like to pad out science documentaries with material such as pictures of landscapes, images of the presenter, fast-moving computer graphics and background music. I’m sure that Brian Cox would prefer to be able to make programmes without so many of the less relevant additions, but media culture would make this difficult on mainstream channels.

    I found it difficult to concentrate on Wonders of the Universe at times because the less-relevant presentational aspects were so distracting. But then the intended audience does not include people like me who have research experience in astronomy.

    I note that Jim Al-Khalili, an excellent broadcaster, presented an astronomy and physics series on BBC Four television in parallel with Wonders of the Universe that had much less padding out. That, being on a more specialist channel, was able to deal more directly with the science than Sunday night programming on BBC Two television allows.

    I’m sure that Wonders of the Universe will have worked well in conveying an understanding of astronomy and physics to general audiences. However, I still hope that television culture will change in the future to assume more of audiences.

    • telescoper Says:

      Thank you, Bryn. The cheque’s in the post.

      To clarify your clarification a little, let me just say that what I was trying to do was lampoon two things simultaneously, i.e. both the stereoptypically downbeat attitudes of British folk and the high-falutin’ hyperbole of the TV programme. Obviously I wasn’t entirely successful. But you can’t please everyone.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      Peter,

      Of course, you are an inspirational lecturer. Admittedly, not as inspirational as me … :)

      Bryn.

  13. You’re M31 picture is upside-down.

  14. Your not Your’re…. Argh!

  15. telescoper Says:

    The best thing about this post is that I managed to finish the whole thing without saying “Brian Cox sucks”…

    • “The best thing about this post is that I managed to finish the whole thing without saying “Brian Cox sucks”…”

      And also without transposing the last two words above.

      In any case, I’ve always wondered why this particular phrase is considered negative. “Bites”, OK. :-)

  16. Undergrad Says:

    I whole heartedly agree with your distinction between beautiful and awesome Professor, and your lectures are widely considered a highlight of the week.

    Your little digression reminds me of an amusing story when I went to Italy sight seeing. While visiting the mausoleum of Augustus, after spending a few minutes wandering around, a voice wafted through the air that was almost indecipherable, but obviously British. I looked over to see a rather rotund man and an equally large woman, with the mans head buried inside of a tourist book reading aloud to the woman how; when the Vandals sacked Rome they looted the mausoleum, an interesting nugget of information. He follwed this with a snort and said
    “Bloody Vandals? They aint seen nothin’ till they’ve met a chav from Wigan!”, this remark wasn’t followed by a laugh or even a smirk, he was the epitome of seriousness. This led me to two conclusions:
    1) I never want to meet a chav from Wigan.
    2) Nobody in the history of the Earth has been more hard done by than a modern day “Northerner”.

  17. Rhodri Evans Says:

    Peter

    You should be expelled forthwith from Cardiff and Wales for referring to the British as a race, when in fact you live in a country who’ve been found in law to be a separate race from the “Englush” (and your guess is as good as mine as to what the race is of that bunch of Anglo Saxon Norman mongrels).

    Brian Cox’s presentation style is right on for a large fraction of the under 25s. Like you Peter, I find the style of the programme to superficial compared to Cosmos. But, last year I showed the opening 10 minutes of Cosmos to my students and I could see from their faces that many had switched off. Carl Sagan’s eloquence is too verbose for young people of today, 30 years on. I LOVED Cosmos, finding it confirmed what I already knew, that the Universe is a fascinating place that I wanted to study in more detail. My 14 year old son would also find Cosmos too ponderous, but loves Wonders….

    But, why is the BBC using a particle physicist? Surely there are astronomers equally as capable of conveying the wonders of the Universe, and some are even better looking :)

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Coz he was in a rock group. Can any prominent astrophysicists match that?

      Easily the leading bridge between those two worlds is Prof Sir Peter Knight of Imperial College London, who specialises in quantum optics but in the 1960s was in rock promotion and tells hair-raising tales of pouring Jimi Hendrix on and off buses.

  18. [...] terms were used to find this blog, at least not that I could figure out. I presume that it was my saracastic take on Wonders of the Universe that was behind it. At any rate that was the post that generated the deluge of abusive comments that [...]

  19. What’s the point in whingeing? Whether He is a particle physicist, astronomer or circus clown he made a good series that has made alot of people interested in what is out there. If you can’t look at the universe and not feel that it is beautiful or even awesome then there is something wrong. Maybe you should pray that this ‘crummy’ universe does come to an end

  20. Chris of Yorkshire (THE NORTH) Says:

    If you really think the midlands start at Gateshead then you’re opinion on anything at all is not worth recogizing. Take a look at this map of the english counties and tell me that you think only Northumberland deserves the status of “the north”. You twerp!

  21. telescoper Says:

    Shock horror! A yorkshireman with no sense of humour! And an inability to write grammatical English. It’s “your” not “you’re”…

    Do I have to spell it out? It was a JOKE…. written by someone born in Newcastle (i.e. me) to wind people like you up!

  22. telescoper Says:

    I think that’s enough comments for this item.

  23. [...] on from an earlier post in which, amongst other things, I tried to educate the residents of internetshire about the facts [...]

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