Since the dawn of time, people have gazed upon the stars and asked the same questions. The age-old questions that have been waiting to be answered for a very long time. ‘Where did we come from?’, and ’Is there a God?’. Some people have already accepted an answer, believing there is a god and he/she created life. For others the question has been answered differently – there is no god. And for others the answer is still waiting to be revealed. For particle physicist and science communicator, Professor Brian Cox, he prefers to not ask the big grand questions. His questions are much simpler, he looks to understand nature and takes delight in the small questions.
There are big fundamental questions that we are beginning to find an answer for … so it’s an exciting time to be involved in science. I’m just completing filming a new series that will be on your ABC very soon. It’s called The Human Universe. One of the episodes is essentially about what happened before the Big Bang, in the sense of what we call inflationary cosmology.
There is a very good theory called inflationary cosmology … that suggests that something did happen before the hot dense state (the Big Bang), which was an incredibly fast exponential expansion – driven by some physics that we have some reasonable understudying of. And then the exponential expansion stops. And in the stopping of that expansion, the energy that was driving that expansion gets essentially dumped into a bit of space/time, and it heats it up and forms the matter particles of which we are made and the radiation we see in the universe.
The cool thing is that the other class of these theories … which many scientists believe are natural extensions, are theories called eternal inflation. These theories would have it that the inflation never stops globally, so it stops in patches. The way it stops is you get a big bang and then you get a universe. So this means there is an infinite amount of universes with an exponentially large amount of universes being created all the time and this is why it’s called eternal inflation. It never stops. So this means you get a multiverse of universes growing unimaginably fast all the time with new universes being created all the time. In eternal model universes, these universes are so far away from ours that we cannot ever get to them. You have no chance of ever contacting or observing them.
If the theory of eternal inflation does turn out to be right … then you know these extra universes are there. You know that the theory is correct. I think it is fascinating and very compelling. Virtually everyone accepts inflation theory
– not everybody – but nearly everybody. With eternal inflation theory, nearly everyone accepts it but we really need
to find gravitational waves in the cosmic microwave background radiation. The exciting thing is it looks as if these have, almost, been discovered.
There is nothing more exciting than seeing new results that no one has seen before … and then going through those results to see if you see anything new in the data. It very rarely happens but it is what drives most scientists – to see something new that no one else has seen before.
I began my career as an experimentalist … but I did a lot of work in an area called phenomenology, which really is the bridge between the theorists and the experimentalists. The latest paper that I published recently is about cause and effect in quantum field theory. Completely theoretical and essentially a lot of maths.
I always loved physics … When I left school to go to university, I ended up joining a rock band called Dare and we
got a record deal. I thought I would pursue the band and I ended up doing it for five years, but then I went back to uni to study physics. While I was at university I was in a band called D:ream. I completed my Doctor of Philosophy in high-energy particle physics at the University of Manchester.
My parents both worked in banks near Manchester … They were not scientists at all. I don’t really know where I got my interest from – probably astronomy. I was always interested in the stars from an early age.
One of the great things about teaching … and communicating science is that it reminds you of why you became interested in your topic in the first place. As a researcher you have to focus on doing the job and this sometimes makes you drift away from why you got interested. When I make the shows it reminds of the very things that got me interested in the first place. It gives back.
As a kid I wanted to be an astronomer … because I liked looking at the stars. When I was 11 or 12 years old, I remember seeing Carl Sagan’s Cosmos (which I still think is the best documentary series ever made) and that reinforced my love for science. It then led me to physics and to my role now as a particle physicist.
I am inspired by all aspects of life … and at the moment and in particular evolutionary biology and how we evolved. I am interested in the politics of science. Areas such as trying to solve how we convince governments to back scientific research and education. They already know they should but it is about how we get them to do it.
I find peace in life in my boxing training … I like exercise. I enjoy a glass of wine. I read a lot. I don’t really think about religion. I really don’t find it an interesting question. What I find interesting is a question such as, ‘Is there a cause for our Big Bang, and if so what is it?’
Science is not about asking grand questions … You get mislead if you ask grand questions. It’s about taking small steps and sometimes those steps lead you to grand conclusions. A good example is noticing the light from distant galaxies is always stretched. It’s always red shifted. So you might ask the question ‘Why is that?’. Then you will find out that is because the universe is always expanding. And that is interesting. And then you can make a measurement and work out how old the universe is and date it. You look at small things in nature and sometimes you’re lead to grand conclusions. We ask little questions and that is the way it should be.
I’m looking forward to when CERN comes back online next year … to further explore the Higgs boson. We found this particle that fits with the standard model but we don’t know the detail. And in the detail, again, small steps and there will be new questions. What’s dark matter?
I hope that people find the exploration of the universe interesting … I have always had an agenda and that is I want our world, our countries and our governments to invest more in scientific research because I think it is a vitally important thing to do. That’s my agenda to why I became a science communicator in the first place.
Understanding nature is taking delight in small things … Asking the question ‘What’s the meaning of life?’ won’t get you anywhere. Just say ‘Why are all these leaves green?’ and explore the details. And sometimes, just sometimes a grand picture will emerge.
From November 6–9, Brian will grace the QPAC stage with Queensland Symphony Orchestra for the world premiere of his new show Journey Through the Cosmos – a four-day celebration of music, science and the wonders of the cosmos, exclusive to Brisbane.