Now he has written a book, Black holes: the key to understanding the universewith his University of Manchester colleague Professor Jeff Forshaw, which serves as a companion piece to the live show, exploring what has seduced physicists – and science fiction fans – for decades.
“These ideas, ‘event horizon,’ ‘singularity,’ have become part of popular culture since the 1980s, with movies like Interstellar taking it further. So the fact [black holes] they’re collapsing stars is astrophysically interesting, but they also give you access to the fabric of space, just because of what they are. Once you start down that path, you end up questioning the nature of space and time.”
It’s safe to say that Cox isn’t living a particularly rocking life on the road. A glass of white wine is her only vice; running and circuit training keep you fit. On weekends, his schedule leaves time to see his wife, former American television host turned artist Gia Milinovich, 52, and his 13-year-old son, George, at their home. him in South London. The Asia/Pacific leg is split into parts to allow you to come back for weeks.
“I see them as much as possible. It’s the nice thing about touring in Britain, really, you’re never far from anywhere,” she says. George was homeschooled by his father in lockdown, but he’s not overtly scientific: “Just a normal kid who’s interested in everything, I’d say.” So there’s no pressure in the school lab? “No, no, I try very hard to separate those things, I don’t think there is any pressure.”
There are few better than Cox at turning complicated and potentially dense subject matter into captivating “educational entertainment” for the masses, whether in BBC documentaries, live shows or books. Not surprisingly, Sir David Attenborough once proclaimed: “If I had a torch I’d give it to Brian Cox.” (“I’m sure he’s got a lot more shows he’s going to do. But it’s an honor,” Cox replied.) And he likes nothing more than connecting with people.
In the past, he has spoken of going a step further than leading the scientific output of the national broadcaster, taking an active role in politics.
“I was on a TV show with Michael Portillo, I said something to him and he said, ‘Well, why don’t you do something about it, then?’ And I think we can level that with a lot of people. Commenting is one thing, but if you really care about the country you live in, instead of saying what we should do, why don’t you do it? he says. “I never had political ambitions, but I wonder if there is anything I can do to help.”
What he feels is needed is not a bunch of doctorates in government, but “more humility” on the part of ministers, which is a skill that requires scientific work to get anywhere.
“What I know is enough to pay attention to experts in an old-fashioned way, and that’s what it takes in a politician. So what you need is the brainpower to listen to people who know what they’re talking about, then compare it, and then make rational decisions.”
Cox relates this to the mini-budget Truss-Kwartengwhich was instantly condemned by (almost) all pundits, stubbornly defended, and then, increasingly, made a U-turn.
“One of the useful transferable skills you learn as a research scientist is understanding that a reality exists, and it will assert itself, no matter what you think. And you’re probably better off learning that by swinging a pendulum in an experiment when you’re 16 in school, rather than trying some weird experiments with economic policy and sinking the coin.” He laughs. “Reality will set in eventually…”
Cox is busy, aside from TV, writing and live work, he lectures freshmen in Manchester, but that’s now. In a couple of years, Prime Minister Starmer may want to recruit new thinkers.
“There have been some very good science ministers. Lord Sainsbury was good in the Blair government. And Lord Drayson was good in the government that followed. So there have been good guys on both sides,” he says.
I didn’t mention that job; Are you saying that he would be willing to do it? “Let’s say no, for the moment, because I’m busy.”
It will also keep busy, given the renewed public appetite for all things intergalactic, from the explorations of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos to NASA’s Artemis missions.
“Everything is capturing the imagination,” he says. “And what SpaceX has done with reusable rockets has changed things. I think we’re going to see big jumps. [there’s] robotic missions to search for life on Mars, put man back on the moon…” He is certainly not of the opinion that the “billion dollar space race,” or even government-funded space programs, are crazy.
“These companies are important parts of our economy. We have already industrialized space, we already use near-Earth orbit every day [relying on satellites], and it is extremely competitive. It is a pragmatic and sensible decision that is economically sensible, it is not a joke. […] The way to look at it is high-tech-led infrastructure investment.”
He has met both Bezos and Musk, and respects them, even when the latter does and says strange things, like insisting that we all live in a computer simulation.
“He’s a character, right? Provocative statements make people pay attention, and the study of black holes suggests that there is an information theory underpinning reality. But that doesn’t mean there’s a great mathematician in heaven, or that we live in a simulation,” says Cox.
It is not his way of communicating science, but it is a way. “I guess the point is that when someone high-profile comes up with an idea like that, it’s probably going to be helpful. It captures the interests of the people.”
He smiles. “Generally speaking, I like anything that encourages people to think and takes them out of the everyday.”
Black Holes: The Key To Understanding The Universe by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw (William Collins, £25) is out October 6. You can book it at telegraph books