Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Professor Brian Cox: An Evening of Scientific Phenomena

You may have seen Professor Brian Cox on your television in many new BBC documentaries about life and space and awesomeness. You may know him from the days of the building of the Large Hadron Collider, when the media started reporting that it was going to create a massive black hole and we were “all going to die”. Perhaps you’ve seen him commenting on the new Doctor Who (or in Doctor Who itself!) or on QI restraining himself from answering ALL OF THE QUESTIONS.

Regardless of how you know him (and if you don’t you really need to get on this train) you’ll know he loves science and talking so the BBC have sent him on an impressively sold out tour of Australia giving lectures about the wonders of the universe, science and everything.

I was lucky enough to get to go to the opening show of the tour in Perth so if you didn’t get to go, don’t worry; I’ve got your back. Follow me below the cut for a review of Brian Cox and his Evening of Scientific Phenomena.


The show was hosted by non other than Adam Spencer (an Australian mathematician, comedian, radio presenter and media personality) who kept the night on track, asked engaging questions and generally made everything a touch funnier. It opened with Adam narrating a clip show of Professor Cox in his bands Dare & D:Ream, as a kid, at CERN and getting annoyed at dogs humping behind him while he’s trying to film his documentaries.

The first part of the night was a lecture, followed by some Q&A with Adam and then after an interval another lecture and short crowd Q&A. This wasn’t what I was expecting but I don’t really think I know what I was expecting. It was great even though at times my head hurt from concentrating so hard both on the physics and keeping up with Professor Cox’s desire to get as many words out per minute as possible.

Professor Cox talked about CERN and the Large Hadron Collider as well as their work finding the Higgs Boson. He explained supersymmetry and its relevance to the work being done with the Higgs particle. He told stories about his time as a ‘rockstar’ including how “Things Can Only Get Better” was written on the paper wrapping of a pasty in his car and the time he was studying quantum physics while on Top of the Pops and ripped out the first page of the syllabus so that he and Robbie Williams could get it signed by the Bee Gees!

As much as I loved all of the science talk and learning about the building blocks of the universe, the thing I loved most were all the images and explanations about space and astronomy.

Did you know that when Betelgeuse, the second brightest star in the Orion constellation, supernovas it could shine as brightly as the sun for up to a week? Professor Cox hopes that it will happen in our lifetime; thankfully he also assures us that it’s just far enough away and spins on its axis favourably to avoid wiping us out with radiation.

These are the Pillars of Creation from the Eagle Nebula, as photographed by the Hubble Telescope. They are made of interstellar gas and dust, believed to be making stars. Some have theorised that a nearby supernova has actually destroyed the pillars which Professor Cox noted, and said that it’s possible in the future when the telescope is sent back to look at that part of space again they will be gone. Due to the way that light travels though, we will not necessarily see this for a long time (about 1000 years).

This is a portion of space photographed because astronomers couldn’t see anything in this area with their equipment.

There is so much we don’t yet know about ourselves and about our universe and this is part of the reason why space exploration is so valuable. To demonstrate this to his audience Professor Cox showed us two final photos.

This picture of Earth was taken on the 19th of July 2013 by the Cassini spacecraft sent to Saturn. It’s called The Day the Earth Smiled. It’s beautiful, staggering and humbling.

And the talk closed with this; the Pale Blue Dot. This is a photograph of Earth taken in 1990 by the Voyager 1 spacecraft at a record 6 billion kilometres away. One of Professor Cox’s heroes Carl Sagan wrote about it in his book Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. Professor Cox sat on the ground near the stairs leading into the crowd and read the following passage from it to finish the night, followed by a clip show of the amazing things that he has seen on his travels as part of making documentaries about Earth and the universe. It was a wonderful and inspiring night highly recommended to anyone who has the chance to see the man in person.

"From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it's different. Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilisation, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbour life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known."

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