Dr Brian Cox, doctor, may be recognisable to a great many of you who picture things in their minds when they hear noises and who were listening to Radio 4 in the UK in the evenings in January as the man who presented the three-part series titled "In Einstein’s Shadow" which may or may not have been about a time-travelling dog in a DeLorean. For the remaining 103% of you who didn’t catch those programmes Dr Brian Cox is a physicist who likes it high energy-style, works anywhere there’s a particle accelerator handy, and has appeared on television when complicated science is required and traditional bald, bearded, tweedy men might be considered a tad off-putting.
I collided with Dr Brian Cox recently (that’s a particle physics joke there, feel free to use it) and got to ask him a few questions about his work, his aspirations, his thoughts on the creation of the universe, his greatest achievement in the field of physics, and the meaning of life itself. Sadly, most or all of those questions didn’t make the cut.
ME: Dr Brian Cox – or may I call you Brian? – I see from your early life that you were in a band and toured with the likes of Jimmy Page, Gary Moore, Europe, and others. Tell me: can you describe the best bathroom in a hotel you stayed in?
BRIAN: Please do call me Brian, Mark, but, if you don’t mind, could we perhaps keep the questioning related to my work in the field of physics?
ME: Of course. Let me try again: I see from your early life that you were in a band and toured with the likes of Jimmy Page, Gary Moore, Europe, and others. Tell me: can you describe the best bathroom in a hotel you stayed in? Neutrino?
BRIAN: Well, we were supporting Jimmy at the time and I believe we were in Newcastle. Late 1988 I think. I can’t remember the name of the hotel but let me tell you this: mirrors on both sides of the bathroom! Luxury! You could look in one and see a reflection and a reflection of a reflection and so on. In fact I tried an experiment there by waving and seeing how long it would be before the most distant reflection waved back – it was a test of the speed of light and how drunk I was – but some of the reflections didn’t wave at all and I got scared. That’s when I knew I’d never watch Poltergeist 3 again. And the towels were really fluffy. Stole two.
ME: You’re from Oldham. Now, a lot of my readers in the UK will know that’s somewhere up north in the dark lands between the South Downs and Glasgow but for any overseas visitors and foreign scientist stalkers it’s probably easier to say it’s near the area where Daphne Moon from Frasier is supposed to be from. Can you do a Daphne impression? Higgs boson?
BRIAN: Eddie! You come down off that priceless antique before Doctor Crane comes home! Oh! Hello Doctor Crane!
ME: Haha! That’s brilliant! Do you do any others?
ME: Sorry. Do you do any others? Lepton?
ME: Great. I’ve heard a number of times that you have a rather remarkable resemblance to Willy Wonka. Can you elaborate on that at all? Anti-tachyon?
BRIAN: Yes, certainly. Basically it all started when I realised that kids simply weren’t getting to see inside CERN in Geneva owing to the general Swiss fear of small people. Well, I like kids – I used to be one – and so I devised a competition where we would place special tickets inside special bars of special chocolate and allow the winners to tour. It was a great success. All the children died in horrific ways – high doses of x-rays, falling in the particle streams, accelerating to near the speed of light, that sort of thing – but the smallprint covered us. The Swiss were quietly pleased. They don’t like small people. It’s those clocks where the small people come out, you see. There’s a collective terror in Switzerland.
ME: Sounds a scream. Physicists are often portrayed as dour loners but I’m sure that’s not true. What’s your favourite physics joke?
BRIAN: Haha! Okay. No. No you’ll like this. Okay … what noise do subatomic cows make?
ME: I don’t know.
BRIAN: Muon. Haha! Muon! It’s like moo but it’s actually a negatively charged particle! Muon!
ME: Right. Now, if we can get back to something a little more serious; you are the BBC’s "go-to guy", their "face of science", their "Philippa Forrester isn’t available or is having an uber-mumsy day dude". In urban warfare who would win: a leopard or a zebra with a chainsaw? Excited graviton?
BRIAN: Hmmm. My first reaction – I hope it doesn’t lead to a chain! – is to say leopard. It’s got teeth and claws and can climb trees. Of course, there aren’t many trees in urban scenarios. Now, the zebra has a fearsome weapon in the chainsaw but is it capable of hiding or stalking a born-predator? Sure, it could try to pretend it was some form of pedestrian crossing if black-and-white markings were the norm in this arena. But there’s not enough information. Urban, yes, but where? Does the chainsaw have any fuel in it? Too many unknowns so I’ll stick with my original thought: leopard. Occam’s safety razor with new vibrating option. Simplest answer.
ME: Wrong! The leopard was a pacifist thrown out of his tribe or herd or whatever the hell sort of group leopards hang around in. Meanwhile, the zebra was trained in hoof-to-hoof combat by 22 SAS Regiment and was out for revenge on the cat world after seeing its mother mauled to death by a lion. Now, as well as your TV appearances in programmes such as BBC’s Horizon and Richard & Judy you’ve also given talks around the world from South America to South Asia and some northern places too. If you were stuck on a desert island with a working gramophone what one album would you bring with you as an aid to escape the loneliness of life without a tevatron? Magneto-ionised photon?
BRIAN: I think most people would opt for something by Kate Bush as a means to entice in whales and dolphins and, from a member of the general public’s viewpoint, that’s an admirable choice. The problem is that, as part of the DZero experiment in Chicago’s Fermilab, we discovered that, once on land, whales and dolphins are extremely hard to move before dying. I’m not one of those old-fashioned doctors who likes the smell of rotting mammal-fishes so that’s out of the question. I think I would have to choose "Epitaph" by Front Line Assembly. Many crustaceans are drawn by industrial music and I could construct giant stilts from crabs tied one on top of another and then walk across the ocean bed to freedom.
ME: I like the way you think out of the box. I think when television bosses want a science presenter they should always come to you. Oh! Muon! That’s truly a king among physics jokes! I’ve just got it. Dr Brian Cox, it’s been a pleasure.