The man who made science sexy: Pop star turned TV professor Brian Cox on how his new career’s gone cosmic world!Brian Cox has more groupies now he’s a TV physicist than he did when he was in a pop band. But he says he’s not interested in being a star, just studying them.
Professor Brian Cox can’t so much as pop into the supermarket these days without someone stopping him to ask about life on Mars or the Big Bang.
‘Someone said to me once that it depends what channel you’re on as to what shop you can’t go into without people coming up to you,’ he says. ‘If you’re on BBC2, you can’t go into Waitrose. If you’re on BBC4, it’s Selfridges.’
Prof Cox, or Prof Cox The Fox to his legions of female fans, is, of course, the floppy-haired piece of intellectual crumpet who, after a brief spell with the band D:Ream, turned his talents to making science sexy with his lively presentation of BBC2’s Wonders Of The Solar System and Wonders Of The Universe.
This month, Brian Cox – who not only has a PhD in physics but was also number 70 in People Magazine's 100 Sexy Men of the Year – returns to BBC2 with Stargazing LIVE
This month, Brian – who not only has a PhD in physics and holds a professorship at the University of Manchester but was also number 70 in People Magazine’s 100 Sexy Men of the Year – returns to BBC2 with Stargazing LIVE. Described as a ‘whistle-stop tour of the galaxy’, the three-part series features Cox giving celebrities including Simon Pegg and Jonathan Ross a crash course in astronomy, and follows the huge success of the original programme last January, which was watched by almost four million people.
Filmed at the Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire, it’s co-presented by comedian Dara O Briain – who is himself a frustrated astronomer. ‘I was always fascinated by the night sky,’ says Brian. ‘I got my first telescope when I was seven and was captivated. I was born in 1968, a year before the first man landed on the Moon, and growing up there was a sense of excitement about the space programme.’
Brian is obviously a man with a very rational mind. So what does he make of all this hunk-in-a-lab-coat stuff ‘I’ve got two arms, two legs and a head, same as everyone else,’ he says in his no-nonsense Northern accent. What, then, does his wife Gia, a former TV presenter who now works behind the scenes, think ‘She has an amused detachment to it all,’ he says.
In the spotlight: D:Ream on stage in the mid-nineties with Brian on the keyboards
‘The only thing she doesn’t like is people staring. She’s not the kind of woman who wants to put make-up on and straighten her hair when she goes out, but she’s decided she can’t look like she’s just got up.’
Brian and Gia, an American, met 11 years ago doing ‘an internet TV thing’ in Chiswick. ‘She thought I was another dumb TV presenter until she saw CERN [the European Organization for Nuclear Research, and home of the Large Hadron Collider] on my email address. She’s a real geek so she knew about CERN and thought, “This is interesting.”’ Four years later, they got married in Minnesota without telling a soul.
‘We felt quite strongly that it was about us and not anybody else,’ he says. Weren’t his parents a bit put out His mother and father had, after all, worked their backsides off in banks near his childhood home in Chadderton, Lancashire, to send him to private school. ‘It does seem quite eccentric in hindsight, doesn’t it’ Yes, Brian. Selfish too.
The other day, a woman came to the door
and said, “You’re on the telly, aren’t you” I said, “No I’m not.
Goodbye.” And shut the door.
‘Am I selfish’ He thinks for a moment. ‘That’s probably fair. I’m self-contained. I can amuse myself – sit and play the piano, read, write. But Gia is as well. She’s learning Egyptian at the moment.’
She also looks after her 15-year-old son from an earlier relationship and their two-year-old, George. ‘I could easily not have had children, but I’m very glad I did,’ Brian says. ‘You think before you have them, “Oh, I’m going to lose all my spare time,” but then you have them and it’s brilliant.’
George was born when Brian was partway through filming Wonders Of The Solar System, which was, as Brian says, ‘the real transition’ in his career. ‘It was then that everyone started to know who I was. But I genuinely don’t notice it and I’ve got evidence.’ Brian, I learn, likes to have evidence for everything.
‘The other day, a woman came to the door and said, “You’re on the telly, aren’t you” I said, “No I’m not. Goodbye.” And shut the door. Afterwards, I thought, “I probably didn’t get away with that.” I seem to be quite wellknown, which is a surprise for someone who makes science programmes.’ Judging by the size of his smile, I’m guessing it’s a nice surprise. Making space sexy has its perks. There’s the OBE he received in 2010.
Brian at the Hadron Collider (left) and with wife Gia, who he married in Minnesota without telling a soul (right)
‘My mum and dad loved that,’ he says. ‘They got to go to Buckingham Palace and see the Queen. People from Oldham of that generation don’t think they’re going to do that.’ Secondly, it allows him to spread the word of science. ‘I was never top of the class,’ he says. ‘I was around the top. I think the idea you have to be a genius to be a professional scientist is destructive. We need more children to become scientists.’
Which is where this particular Prof has such appeal. When we meet, he looks as if he’s just come off the stage at Glastonbury in his trendy tweed jacket. He has, as he acknowledges, been blessed with youthful looks and could easily pass for ten years younger than his 43 years.
Although Brian probably wouldn’t use the word ‘bless’, as he doesn’t believe in God. ‘It seems odd to me that you try to aggrandise existence by wanting to be eternal,’ he says. ‘Why does that make it more valuable We are the product of 13.7 billion years of cosmic evolution. If I have an ambition, it would be to spread the idea that evidence-based decisions are the way to proceed rather than
just making things up.’
Brian’s childhood home was a ‘standard
semidetachedhouse – everything struck me as being average’. So he set
his sights on being extraordinary, encouraged in part by his
grandparents. ‘My grandparents, who’d both started out in cotton mills,
chipped in for mine and my sister’s education. The idea of education
being the path to a world they didn’t have access to was valued. I was
one of those kids who’d be very upset if I got a detention. I didn’t
want to disappoint.’
My sister tells me I was quite a
handful. I used to go to a lot of alternative clubs in Manchester and
was going out late playing music…
When he was 14, his beloved grandparents died, which was when he began to rebel, dyeing his hair purple, becoming a Goth and, at 16, joining the alternative rock band Dare, formed by the Thin Lizzy keyboard player Darren Wharton.
‘I wonder now whether I’d have considered being in a band or gone through the Goth stage if they’d not died. My sister tells me I was quite a handful. I used to go to a lot of alternative clubs in Manchester and was going out late playing music.’
I’m sure his parents were distraught, particularly when, the night before his maths A-level, he didn’t come home. He ended up with a D. ‘I was at a gig in Manchester the night before and went straight from there. But I got an A in physics, so I was just being lazy really. I was thinking, “It doesn’t matter what I get in my A-levels because I’m going to be a musician.”’ Brian toured with Dare for four years.
‘Being in a band like that when you’re playing 9,000-seater gigs is a tremendous feeling. We were together for about four years and made two albums. Then, when we were in Germany on tour, we had a big fight. That day I picked up the phone to Manchester University and said, “I want to come and do physics.”’
And so Brian began his career as a physicist, continuing with his music in the band D:Ream. He appeared on Top Of The Pops in a tartan suit, toured with Take That and had a No 1 hit with Things Can Only Get Better in 1994, which later became the anthem of New Labour. Brian played the keyboards at the election victory party on London’s South Bank.
‘I had to make a decision between music or physics during my second year at uni when the band were going on tour to Australia. I decided to stay at uni. You do have that, “Is this right” thing, but self-evidently it was.’ Self-evidently. New Labour is no longer in power, D:Ream’s 2011 album didn’t chart and, as for Prof Brian Cox, well, things just keep getting better.
Stargazing LIVE is on BBC2 on Monday at 8.30pm, and on Tuesday and Wednesday at 8pm.