A claim isn’t ‘exaggerated’ it’s ‘hyperbolic’; trying to understand the entire scope of the Universe is an ‘hubristic’ undertaking. If this sort of thing wasn’t delivered in Brian Cox’s soft Mancunian accent it might seem studied or forced. But with Cox that simply isn’t the case; he’s not picking his words with care, he’s rattling them out to try and share his obvious sense of wonder with the audience. Watching Cox talk of science at his Evening of Scientific Phenomena show put me in mind of my son when he got his beloved Thomas the Tank Engine train set for his fourth Birthday – there is a transcendent, innocent sense of joy, amazement and wonder that just shines out. Cox loves science and wants you to share.
Cox’s show has parallel themes. At one level there’s an insight into the man himself, in which he was ably and amusing assisted by local hero Adam Spencer. Cox’s history as a child bus-spotter, adolescent electrician and young rock-star were explored. In many ways you have to view Cox through the lens of the fact he made the deliberate decision to become a rock star after seeing all the girls screaming at a Duran Duran gig, succeeded, and then gave it up to return to University. The great thing about this part of the show is that you get a true sense of Brian Cox as a real person and the clearly unscripted flashes of wit between Cox and Spencer just leave you wishing you were joining them for a beer afterwards.
But the core of the show is science. Cox does a lovely job of explaining the particle physics and cosmology that are so close to his heart. In some senses, though, it really doesn’t matter what he’s saying. It’s a joy to have an overtly intelligent person explaining something he’s passionate about in an entertaining fashion. And if you see his show with kids in tow, as many did, that enthusiasm and wonder is the thing you want them to walk away with, because that wont fade in the way that the detail of the Large Hadron Collider might.
I really came away believing this was the real Brian Cox we were seeing. For me there was something of a defining moment for the show during the question time. There were four questions from the audience. The first was whether a 37-year-old could start studying physics to which Cox answered ‘yes’ and made some suggestions about approaches. The second was a complex physics question to which Cox gave a deep, and presumably correct, answer over five minutes without drawing breath. But to the third and fourth questions he simply said “I don’t know.” No waffle, no rhetoric, no need to pretend to knowledge: he simply said “I don’t know.” This was less about showmanship and more about a true belief in science. (In both cases he threw to the audience and, with the last question, got a precise answer from someone actually working on the issue.)
Cox’s show finishes with his central point: That the World is a fragile, beautiful thing and that understanding how it works only adds to its beauty. Cox not only adds to sum total of understanding but does so with deft brushstrokes that leave you wanting to go out an learn more.