It might seem incredulous but physicist Brian Cox, who also happens to be the host for the BBC Earth documentary Human Universe, scored a terrible D grade for mathematics in his A-levels examination. But Cox is a curious case study of conflicting stereotypes. He’s a roguishly handsome man of science, who is at home discussing quantum physics as he is on the stage playing on a keyboard alongside some of the world’s most famous rock bands.
Cox takes a moment out of his busy schedule to share his thoughts on music, the future of human civilisation and why he’ll win Neil deGrasse Tyson in a fight (breaking it down scientifically, of course).
What made you decide to drop your musical aspirations for a career in science?
I got bored with doing the same thing over and over again. I enjoy learning things and I enjoy doing things that are different. I’ve done music professionally for five years. I felt that was enough and I wanted to do something else. I have always been interested in astronomy and physics and I always intended to go to university to do physics. So I had a little sort of holiday and went back to doing the things I always wanted to do.
Do you rock out in a studio when you’re not busy with your job?
I do better than that! I do it on stage. We do a science show for charity in London and we always have a band at the end of the show and I always play with a band. Last year was with New Order and in 2014, I performed with The Cure. So I always get the keyboard out and play with the bands I grew up listening to.
What are your thoughts about the Great Filter? Do you think that we’ve already passed the Great Filter or that there’s still one in front of us?
This is a very good question. From a biological stand point, we could well have passed the Great Filter. I think that the fact that we are intelligent and have built civilisations; it’s such a rare thing in the universe. It took 4 billion years for the origin of life on Earth to get a species capable of building a civilisation and I think there would be very few places where that happened. So that’s one of the possible explanation for why we don’t see any other civilisations in the galaxy.
However, I also think that we’re not anywhere near capable, politically, at running the planet yet. It worries me that our behaviour as a species when it comes to running a planet is far from ideal. We could easily wipe ourselves out because of really silly political behaviour. I think that the greatest challenge actually at moment is not scientific or technological but political. How do we learn to get on and not be silly beings that are destructive? I don’t see any hint of us being able to deal with that at the moment. So that makes me pessimistic.
If we have passed it, what do you think the Great Filter was?
If we passed it, it would probably be the emergence of the eukaryotic cell. That’s the prerequisite to multicellular life. I would guess that there would be simple single cell life in the solar system – beyond Earth.
I wouldn’t be surprised if we found it on Mars or the moons of Jupiter or Saturn or even beyond. But if you look at the history of life on Earth, that transition from simple, single cell life like bacteria and archaea, to multicellular life which you see in the Cambrian Explosion about 550 million years ago, that transition took a long time on Earth so I would say the Great Filter would be that transition to multi cellular life.
Do you think aliens exist?
There’s an episode about this in Human Universe. I don’t know, we don’t know. I guess that civilisations are rare. You can make the argument that there may only be one in the Milky Way galaxy at the moment. I think that civilisations are very rare. We also have a little bit of evidence that it took 4 billion years from the origin of life to get a civilisation on Earth. That’s a long time, that’s a third of the age of the universe.
If Heaven existed, what would you like God to say to you when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
(Laughs) I would like him to apologise for not making it clearer that he existed. Why so ambiguous?
Who would win in a fist fight: you or Neil deGrasse Tyson?
I would probably win because one of my hobbies is boxing. I box three times a week. Unless he has a boxing hobby too, I reckon just because of practice I will probably win.
Human Universe will be premiering in Singapore on BBC Earth (StarHub Channel 407), Sunday, 14 February 2016, at 5.00pm. All images courtesy of BBC.