Brian Cox on the Life Scientific

9 mins read

After three years and, incredibly, 78 episodes, with guests including five Nobel Prize winners and some of the most famous and illustrious names in science, as well as picking up a VLV award earlier this year for the best radio programme, the Life Scientific returns for a new run. And I kick off with some Mancunian ex-pop star type bloke who likes gazing up at the sky.

On arrival at the reception at the BBC s New Broadcasting House in London a few weeks ago to record the interview, Brian Cox was due to be collected by our production coordinator, Maria, and taken up to the radio studio on the 6th floor. But before the front desk could call her to announce his arrival, Brian called me on my mobile to ask for someone to come and collect him quickly. Now, Brian knows his way around NBH very well, but he wasn’t sure which studio we were recording in. And the reality of life for an A-list celebrity is that he can t stand still for very long, not because of his well-publicised yet genuine energetic enthusiasm for the workings of nature, but for the simple reason that wherever he is unless he keeps on the move, crowds gather around him demanding autographs, selfies, and answers to questions about the nature of reality. So anyway, Maria went down to quickly rescue him from the crowd quickly gathering around him.

This is the world that this professor of physics and science communicator and enthuser now inhabits. Some might find it strange that I have not had Brian as a guest on the Life Scientific before now, given his prominence as one of the highest-profile scientists in the UK today. Well, it was partly for that very reason: that he was just too big, that we’ve waited so long. And that doesn’t mean that by finally inviting him onto the programme, we now think that his light is waning, but rather that The Life Scientific is, after three incredibly successful years, now mature, relaxed and self-confident enough in its format that it does not have to be straight-jacketed into only inviting on the more traditional academic scientist.

Anyway, I was keen for the real Brian Cox to come across in the interview. I mean, yes, his misspent youth as a member of a rock band (I tease him in the interview by calling his group, Dare, a boy band ) ticks the celebrity box more readily than your common-or-garden high profile academic professor, but the fact is that Coxy is a highly competent physicist and a remarkably inspirational and passionate advocate for science in general in fact, he s the perfect guest for the programme.

So, as a taster, I have collected here a few snippets from the programme which airs on 23 September on BBC Radio 4. I hope you enjoy them and then go on to listen to the programme, either when it airs or as a download, where it will be permanently available.

Clip 1: Apparently, Brian left the band Dare to pursue his love of physics after he got into a fight with the rest of the band, and they split up.

Clip 2: Quantum mechanics in under a minute

Clip 3: Why many universes idea is simpler than just one.

Clip 4: Why science matters

Note that this blog also appears on the BBC website, where it has a few video clips (yes, we filmed the radio recording!)

They can also be viewed on the IOP website.

I love name dropping about some of the science superstars I’ve interviewed on The Life Scientific. Richard Dawkins was quite charming on the programme, you know, or James Lovelock is as sharp as ever, and so on. So imagine my excitement when I heard we had secured the ultimate science celebrity, Peter Higgs.

One of the things I love about making The Life Scientific on Radio 4 is when guests admonish me afterwards for having put them at such ease that they opened up to me in a way they may not have done had they just taken a moment to consider that they d be bearing their soul to two million listeners. I have to admit that, as far as I am aware, I don t feel I have any insidious talents of persuasion as an interviewer, natural or learned, for extracting fascinating insights or juicy stories from reluctant guests, but merely that I am genuinely interested in chatting to fellow scientists about their lives and work. If I ask them the right questions, it’s because I have, together with my producers, thought carefully about it in advance, and if I don t interrupt my guests when they are in full flow, it’s simply that I don t want to appear rude.

With Peter Higgs, I knew I had to get something more out of him than to simply regurgitate the popular account of the man as shy and unassuming, and still awkward about having a fundamental particle named after him; or how the Nobel committee were unable to get hold of him on the day of the announcement because he had obliviously wandered off to have lunch with friends. Now, I had met Peter before and indeed had spent a nice few days chatting to him last summer at the Cheltenham Science Festival, so I knew he was a genuinely nice bloke who certainly didn’t enjoy being in the limelight very much.

The Life Scientific interview was an opportunity for two theoretical physicists OK, one who has a Nobel Prize to his name and one who doesn’t, but let s not split hairs here to chat about the thrill of discovery and to peek into the workings of nature, whilst the outside world listened in.

The programme will be aired on 18 February, but I share here a few extracts to whet your appetite. Some are audio, others video (as we managed to convince the BBC that it would be great to film the radio recording in the Broadcasting House studio too).

Can you explain the Higgs mechanism in 30 seconds

At some point in the programme, inevitably, I had to ask him to explain the Higgs mechanism and Higgs field(both more fundamental concepts than the Higgs boson). I leave it to you to judge how that went:

[Clip from the Life Scientific in which Peter talks about what Higgs means]

On fame

When the 2013 Nobel Prize winners were announced, Peter was famously elusive (much to the frustration of the world s media). Most people romanticised that he was blissfully unaware of all the fuss or just not that interested. In fact, he left the house that morning quite deliberately to avoid the media circus and fully expecting the Nobel Committee to call.

These days, he s constantly being stopped in the street and asked for autographs, so I asked him whether he enjoyed being famous :

The Boson that Bears my Name

Working alone in Edinburgh in the sixties, Peter Higgs was considered a bit of a crank. In 1964, he predicted the possible existence of a new elementary particle, but at the time there was little interest in this now much-celebrated insight. And in the years that followed, Peter himself failed to realise the full significance of the theory that would later transform particle physics.

In July 2012, scientists at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN confirmed that the Higgs boson had indeed been found, and Peter Higgs shot to fame. This ephemeral speck of elusive energy is now the subject of car adverts, countless jokes and even a song by Nick Cave called the Higgs Boson Blues. But Higgs has always called it the scalar boson or, jokingly, the boson that bears my name and remains genuinely embarrassed that it is named after him alone. In fact, three different research groups, working independently, published very similar papers in 1964 describing what s now known as the Higgs mechanism.

And Higgs told me he’s surprised that another British physicist, Tom Kibble from Imperial College, London, didn’t share the 2013 Nobel Prize for Physics and Belgian physicist, Francois Englert.

Physics post-Higgs

The LHC is currently undergoing its scheduled upgrade and will be switched on again in 2015 for the next phase of its adventure. But many a research student around the world is still keenly sifting through and analysing the petabytes of data recorded from its most recent run in the hope of finding clues to the existence of yet more new particles or at least having enough to write up for a thesis. Anyway, there s certainly plenty of life left in the big machine and lots more interesting physics to discover.

With the discovery of the Higgs finally ticked off our to-do list, attention is turning to the next challenge: to find a new family of particles predicted by our current front-runner theory, called supersymmetry. Higgs would like this theory to be right because it is the only way theorists have at the moment of incorporating the force of gravity into the grand scheme of things.

But what if the LHC doesn t reveal any new particles Will we have to build an even bigger machine that smashes subatomic particles together with ever-greater energy In fact, Peter Higgs believes that the next big breakthrough may well come from a different direction altogether, for example by studying the behaviour of neutrino, the elusive particles believed the be the most common in the Universe, which, as Higgs admits, is not the sort of thing the LHC is good for .

When it started up in 2008, physicists would not have dreamt of asking for anything bigger than the LHC. But today one hears serious talk of designing a machine that might one day succeed it. One candidate is the somewhat unimaginatively named Very Large Hadron Collider. Such a machine would dwarf the LHC. It would collide protons at seven times higher energy than the maximum the LHC is able to reach. And it would require a tunnel 100 km in circumference. Of course, this is not the only proposal on the table, and there are plenty of other ideas floating about, none of which come cheap, naturally.

There are certainly plenty more deep mysteries to solve, from the nature of dark matter and dark energy to where all the antimatter has gone, and we will undoubtedly find the answers (oh, the delicious arrogance of science). Let s just hope we don t have to wait as long as Peter Higgs did.

Oh, and what about the famously shy Peter Higgs Well