Professor Brian Cox on why flat-earthers are funny (and frightening)

Superstar scientist Brian Cox talks to Alice Webb-Liddall about aliens, wormholes, and whether he’d punch Albert Einstein if he had the chance.

He worked on the Hadron Collider, played keyboard for mid-nineties Irish pop band D:Ream, was in People’s sexiest man alive issue in 2009, and has starred on Doctor Who as himself. Professor Brian Cox is the human embodiment of the last brain on that brain meme. The man really can do anything.

Brian Cox made a name for himself as a celebrity scientist, appearing on television shows worldwide to explain physics and the universe to millions of hoi polloi who clocked off in year 11.

In order to really make the most of Professor Brian Cox’s precious time, The Spinoff let me, a lowly production intern, sit in the shower/interview room and speak to him via phone.

Professor Brian Cox playing himself on BBC’s Doctor Who

I don’t have heaps of time with you this morning so I’ll jump straight into it. If you could pick one famous scientist from history to square up with in a boxing ring, Fight for Life styles, who would it be?

If it could be anyone in history then I’d choose someone that I would like to talk to and then I’d dodge around the boxing arena and ask them things about their science instead of punching them. I would probably want to choose Einstein so I could have a conversation with him as I ran around trying to dodge his punches.

Ah, see that’s a good answer. I’d probably just choose the weakest looking person so I could win. I could take Einstein.

Science is not about winning, it’s about gaining a deeper understanding. That’s why science is valuable. I don’t think Einstein would want to fight either. I think he’d want to have a chat. He’d want to know about the fact that we’ve just observed black holes colliding together. He’d want to know more about what we’ve found out since he died in 1955.

Explain aliens. Do they exist?

I’m sure they exist somewhere in the universe, because there are two trillion galaxies in the bits of the universe we can see and each one of those is about the size of the milky way with 200 billion stars in each one. I’m sure aliens exist in the universe.

There may even be alien life in our solar system, but it’ll be little microbes, single-cell things. They might exist sub-surface on Mars, they might exist in the oceans that we know exist under the surface of some of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, but if you’re asking about aliens like big things that fly flying saucers around then it’s possible that there are very few civilisations per galaxy. It is possible, it’s conceivable that we’re the only one at the moment in our galaxy.

I’m sure there are other civilisations out there in the other galaxies of the universe but in our galaxy, which is the only thing we can ever hope to visit, it could be that we are a very rare thing indeed.

How about time travel? Is that gonna happen?

Einstein tells us, rightly, that we can travel into the future. You can essentially slow your time down relative to everybody else who’s sitting on the earth by travelling away from the earth very fast and then turning around and coming back again very fast. Any of us with a sufficiently powerful rocket could travel 1000 years, 10,000 years, 1,000,000 years into the future by just flying around.

We are pretty sure, but not totally sure that you can’t get into the past. Famously at Stephen Hawking’s memorial service he said because we’re not entirely certain yet that you can’t build a time machine to go into the past, any time travellers from the future were welcome to come to the memorial. The invitation was there.

Einstein’s theory of relativity which is our best theory of gravity, seems to allow wormholes, which are shortcuts through space and time, to be constructed. It’s an open questions whether those things can exist or not. A lot of physicists think not but no one’s been able to prove it yet.

How dangerous is it that theories such as ‘flat earth’ that were debunked so long ago are now seemingly gaining traction again?

It’s actually very dangerous. In that specific case you might say well who cares. If a bunch of people think the earth is flat it doesn’t matter. In the wider context it does matter. You can extend that to people who don’t believe anything about, for example, the way we model the climate or the way that we model disease outbreak or the way we give health advice.

Once you get into that position where society starts to lose contact with reality then you’re in a dangerous place because you limit, perhaps even close off our ability to make progress and to make decisions that are based on evidence.

I think it is problematic and whilst we laugh at these people, particularly with the flat earth thing, we laugh at them rightly so, it’s just funny. I’m guilty of that as well, I sit there and poke fun at them on twitter, but what’s going on in these people’s minds is a rejection of the enlightenment project. It’s a rejection of the mode of thinking that has allowed us to make progress since the middle ages. Back when we were barbaric and burning witches to now a place where people live to 70, 80, 90 years old, childhood mortality rates are extremely low and we have a future of civilisation on this planet and beyond.

That mode of thinking is rejected by these people. So as long as it’s only 1% of the population then you might say ‘who cares?’. If it starts becoming 10% or 20% to 50% then what do you get? Well in a democracy you get an absolutely bizarre government, a government that believes in bizarre things.

It doesn’t matter what you think, what you believe about nature, nature just gets on with it. Nature doesn’t respect, nature doesn’t care if 99% of people think it will be a great idea to burn so many fossil fuels that you saturate the atmosphere with carbon dioxide. If loads of people think that’s not a problem then it doesn’t matter because it’s still a problem.

Increasingly with movements like anti-vaccination we’re seeing that.

The tragedy about that is if some adult decides they don’t want to be vaccinated by diseases then I suppose you might say well, Darwin will step in and it’ll be fine. What we’re talking about is adults making decisions for their children who are not equipped to make decisions. That is a serious problem. It’s serious for a two, three, four year old if they’re not vaccinated against measles and those diseases. It’s a serious problem.

The underlying question we have to ask is why are people rejecting knowledge and I don’t think we have an answer yet. We need to research to know why increasing numbers of people in the English speaking world, primarily at the moment I think, are rejecting knowledge.

Have things gotten better since the release of 1993 smash hit single ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ [on which Professor Brian Cox played the keyboard]?

Statistically, worldwide things are getting better. Things we can measure like the health of people worldwide, the economic development worldwide, that is all getting better.

It is true, as you said earlier, that countries like the UK, America, there does seem to be a slightly backwards step at the moment in terms of international co-operation, in terms of people thinking about evidence.

I hope that progress continues. As I said, worldwide, when you look at the statistics, progress is being made.

How much time do I have left? (I was asking this in terms of the interview, I had already gone a minute over and was pushing my luck).

About a billion years, before the sun gets too hot.

*

…And then I was cut off by the publicist. My ten (11) minutes with Brian were over. Ten (11) minutes in which I achieved a laugh, a full belly laugh from Brian Cox, Professor of everything.

Professor Brian Cox is touring New Zealand next year, with shows at Wellington’s TSB Arena, Christchurch’s Horncastle Arena and the Auckland’s Trusts Arena on June 11, 13 and 15 respectively. You can register for pre-sale tickets now at www.lateralevents.com


The Spinoff’s science content is made possible thanks to the support of The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a national institute devoted to scientific research.

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