Archive for Brian Cox

TV Star and Physicist Look-alike?

Posted in Astronomy Lookalikes with tags , on February 6, 2013 by telescoper

My attention was drawn yesterday to this remarkable photograph of a very young Professor Brian Cox, the famous particle physicist turned astronomer biologist and media star. I believe it was taken while he was a member of a popular beat combo of some sort. Before seeing this picture I hadn’t realized what people meant when they referred to him as a TV celebrity ….

cox

…geddit? Anyway, I have to say I think the look rather suits him!

I haven’t got time today to trawl the interwebs looking for a lookey-likey, so it’s time for a bit of crowd-sourcing. Anyone care to suggest a celebrity likeness?

P.S. I have done a look-alike for Prof. Cox already.

The Cox-Ince affair rumbles on..

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , on January 1, 2013 by telescoper

telescoper:

The Cox-Ince controversy rumbles on, apparently…

Originally posted on Open Parachute:

Popular science presenters like Brian Cox are sometimes criticised by colleagues suffering from a bit of professional jealousy – although it’s a lot better than in the old days. I think most scientists today recognise the need for good science communication with the public – who, after all, are financing our science through the taxation system.

Robin-Ince-and-Brian-Cox-007

Robin Ince , comedian, actor and writer, and Brian Cox, particle physicist and Professor at the University of Manchester.

Brian Cox and his mate Robin Ince wrote a recent New Statesman editorial promoting a better understanding of the nature of science and its role in public decision-making (see Politicians must not elevate mere opinion over science). It made some good points – but upset some people. The jealousy this time seems to come from a few historians and sociologists – and not scientists themselves.

I think their criticism reveals an unfortunate attitude towards…

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Science and Politics

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , on December 22, 2012 by telescoper

It’s a dark dreary December day with a downright deluge descending outside to add to the alliteration.  Fortunately, it being almost Christmas, this weekend is offering a glut of crosswords with which I’ve been occupying myself while waiting for a break in the rain.

Among the puzzles I’ve done was a moderately challenging one in the New Statesman.  I have a subscription to the New Statesman, which means that I get it delivered in the post approximately two days after everyone else has had a chance to read it. After finishing the crossword, which contain a number of hidden (unclued) famous pseudonyms, I had a look at the rest of the magazine and discovered that this issue, the Christmas one, was edited by Brian Cox (who needs no introduction) and Robin Ince (who I believe is a comedian of some sort). It’s nice to see science featured so strongly in a political magazine, of course, but I did raise an eyebrow when I read this (about the LHC) in a piece written by Professor Cox:

The machine itself is 27 kilometres in circumference and is constructed from 9,300 superconducting electromagnets operating at -271.3°C. There is no known place in the universe that cold outside laboratories on earth…

Not so. The cryogenic systems on ESA’s Planck mission achieved a stable operating temperature at the 0.1 K level. This experiment has now reached the end of its lifetime and is warming up, but  the Herschel Space Observatory with a temperature of 1.4 K is still cooler than the Large Hadron Collider. Moreover, there are natural phenomena involving very low temperatures. The Boomerang Nebula has a measured temperature of −272.15°C, also lower than the LHC.  How does this system manage to cool itself down below the temperature of the cosmic microwave background, I hear you asking.  A detailed model is presented here; it’s “supercooled” because it is expanding so quickly compared to the rate at which it is absorbing CMB photons.

Anyway, if this all seems a bit pedantic then I suppose it is, but if prominent science advocates can’t be bothered to check their facts on things they claim to be authorities about, one wonders why the public show pay them any attention in the broader sphere. Fame and influence bring with them difficult responsibilities.

That brings me to another piece in the same issue, this one co-authored by Cox and Ince, about Science and Society entitled Politicians must not elevate mere opinion over science. I’d realised that there was a bit of a Twitter storm brewing about this item, but had to wait until the horse and cart arrived with my snail mail copy before I could try figure out what it was about. I still haven’t because although it’s not a particularly focussed piece it doesn’t seem to say anything all that controversial. In fact it just struck me that it seems to be a bit self-contradictory, on the one hand arguing that politicians should understand science better and on the other calling for a separation of science and politics.   There are two more detailed rejoinders here and here.

For my part I’ll just say that I think it is neither possible nor desirable to separate science from politics.  That’s because, whether we like it or not, we need them both. Science may help us understand the world around us, and (to a greater or lesser degree of reliability) predict its behaviour, but it does not make decisions for us. Cox and Ince argue that

Science is the framework within which we reach conclusions about the natural world. These conclusions are always preliminary, always open to revision, but they are the best we can do.

I’d put it differently, in terms of probabilities and evidence rather than “conclusions”, but I basically agree. The problem is that at some point we have to make decision which may not depend solely on the interpretation of evidence but on a host of other factors that science can say nothing about. Definite choices have to be made, even when the evidence is ambiguous. In other words we have to bring closure, much as we do when a jury delivers a verdict in a court of law, which is something that science on its own can rarely do. Mere opinion certainly counts in that context, and so it should. The point is that science is done by people, not machines. People decide what questions to ask, and what assumptions to proceed from. Choices of starting point are political (in the widest sense of the word) and sometimes what you get out of a scientific investigation  is little more than what you put in.

It’s always going to a problem in a democratic society that scientific knowledge is confined to a relatively small number of experts. We can do our best to educate as many as possible about what we do, but we’re always going to struggle to explain ourselves adequately. There will always be conspiracy theories and crackpots of various kinds. The way to proceed is not to retreat into a bunker and say “Trust me, I’m a scientist” but to be more open about the doubts and uncertainties and to present a more realistic picture of the strengths and limitations of science. That means to engage with public debate, not by preaching the gospel of science as if it held all the answers, but by acknowledging that science is a people thing and that as such it belongs in politics as much as politics belongs in it.

Brian Cox up the Exclusion Principle

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on February 22, 2012 by telescoper

I know a few students of Quantum Mechanics read this blog so here’s a little challenge. View the following video segment featuring Sir Brian of Cox and see if you can spot the deliberate (?) mistake contained therein on the subject of the Pauli Exclusion Principle.

When you’ve made up your mind, you can take a peek at the objection that’s been exercising armchair physicists around the twittersphere, and also a more technical argument supporting Prof. Cox’s interpretation from a university in the Midlands.

UPDATE: 23/2/2012 Meanwhile, over the pond, Sean Carroll is on the case.

Polished Cox

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on November 17, 2011 by telescoper

It looks like impressionist Jon Culshaw has been working hard on Cox in his spare time judging by the following, rather polished, article recently unveiled on TV:

 

 

No Cox please, we’re British…

Posted in Television, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on March 29, 2011 by telescoper

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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What time is it?

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , on March 21, 2011 by telescoper


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Wonders of the Solar System…

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on March 30, 2010 by telescoper

Apologies to Professor Brian Cox, but I couldn’t resist this! I think it’s hilarious…

A word of warning: it contains colourful language, so please be sure to watch it after the watershed. And if you can’t find water, lava will do just as well.

(Physics and) Astronomy Look-alikes, No. 4

Posted in Astronomy Lookalikes with tags , , on December 31, 2009 by telescoper

Oh go on then, it’s raining outside so here’s one more.

Has anyone ever noticed the resemblance between former musician, now particle physicist and media star Professor Brian Cox , and the Cat in the Hat from the Dr Seuss Books? Apart from the hat, that is…

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