The Life of Brian

I can’t leave the writing of all our departmental blogs to my colleagues, particularly Dr Sear, so I thought I would chip in with a brief report on my recent event with Professor Brian Cox.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of my duel role at the University of Surrey as both a professor of physics and a professor of the public engagement in science is that I get to host a regular (well, a couple of times a year) event called “Jim meets…”, which is an ‘in conversation’ evening with a prominent person in public life. Now, while this is not a departmentally organised event, and so not restricted to physicists (or even scientists), it is nevertheless inevitable that I am more likely to invite and secure those in the scientific community whom I already know. I had already interviewed Lord Winston, the Archbishop of Canterbury (OK, I hadn’t met him before) and Sir David Attenborough. All had been huge successes and attended by well over 400 people: a mix of university staff, students, school parties and members of the public.
Next up was particle physicist, Brian Cox. Now, having known Brian for many ¬†year, and indeed had him at the University four years ago for another public event: a panel debate on science and religion, he was more than happy to accept my invitation. But I guess I had underestimated just what an A-list celebrity he has become on the back of his hugely successful ‘Wonders’ series on TV. Indeed, it was something of an achievement just to get him the couple of hundred yards from his car to the event venue. Brian took the adulation, autograph and photograph requests in his stride and with his usual laid back and friendly manner.
The interview itself has hugely enjoyable. We covered a lot of ground, from his early life in a pop band, on tour and supporting the likes of Take That and his appearance of Top of the Pops, to his research career at CERN in Geneva. Brian spoke eloquently and at length about the importance of science, and hence the funding of science, as well as giving his views on the need for more communication of science to inspire as wide a cross section of society as possible, particularly the young.
I was keen to find out how he has been coping with his newly acquired celebrity status. He admitted it could sometimes be a little difficult, not being able to go to the supermarket without having everyone stare or want to talk to him. On the whole however, he seems to be enjoying life. He is currently writing a book on quantum mechanics with his long-term collaborator, Jeff Forshaw (another professor of particle physics at the University of Manchester. In September, Brian begins the third and last of his Wonders trilogy: Wonders of Life, in which he plans to cover the physical principles that underpin the diversity of life on our planet.
After I had finished the formal part of the interview, we opened it up to the audience, along with a large following watching the event live online and via Twitter. I fielded as many questions as I could fit in to half an hour, ranging from whether Brian believed time travel would one day be possible to whether he liked Marmite.
The event was filmed and can be viewed (along with my other “Jim meets…” events on the University of Surrey YouTube Channel. Next up for me to meet is yet another physicist, but this one has made a name for himself in a different career entirely. It is the comedian Dara O’Briain. I will chatting to him about his physics background, about life as a stand-up comic and television personality on 5 October of this year.