I Spoke to Professor Brian Cox About the Meaning of Life
That, and aliens, conspiracy theories and how he seems kind of high on his TV shows.
Professor Brian Cox
Human civilisation has caught up with a good chunk of science fiction. We drive around in electric cars, send spaceships beyond our solar system and use silicon and electricity to help us get laid. Things that seemed like some distant fantasy less than 20 years ago (like, say, reading this article on your phone like some kind of wizard) are now accepted – and often overlooked – parts of our everyday reality.
Professor Brian Cox – who you’ll probably recognise from the past decade of British popular culture – is one of a few doing a good job of pointing all this out to us. For instance, his new BBC series, Human Universe, sets out to make us understand our place in the universe – why we’re here, what we’ve achieved and how we can use those achievements to better ourselves.
That’s one of the things I wanted to speak to him about, so I got in touch and did exactly that.
VICE: Hi Brian. One of the episodes of your new show is called "Why Are We Here?" What’s the quick answer to that?
Professor Brian Cox: There's a theory called "eternal inflation", which is now being taught in universities. It says that we might live in just one universe in an infinite collection of other universes, called a multiverse, in which every possible combination of the laws of nature occurs somewhere in its own separate universe. So everything that can happen, happens. It is then inevitable that our universe exists as well. Why are we here? Because we have to be.
That still feels mostly an explanation of how we got here – I was hoping more for your opinion on why it is that we're here.
The point is: there almost certainly is no purpose. There is no final cause. That’s called Teleology and it’s outside the realm of scientific research.
Then I’m left with the question: "What do we do now?"
Well, that’s exactly the philosophical spine of this series. There are 350 billion galaxies in our observable universe, which is possibly part of an infinite number of universes. Our place in it is insignificant. BUT, there’s also the other thread – that, from a biological perspective, life might be rare and intelligent life might be very rare. And these two things are pulling at each other.
So there might be an answer in the quote by Carl Sagan I bring up in the series: "For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love."
It’s a beautiful answer. I think it means we have to value our own existence more. Our life is finite and might not actually mean anything in the big scheme of things. And that’s what cosmology is beginning to tell us: The meaning of life is to enjoy it while you can, and value it more.
That's a nice message. It sounds like a John Lennon lyric.
It does sound like Lennon, yes. But it’s actually a reasonable point to make! You can use reason to get to the idea that we are special, that we should enjoy it and should try and take good care of ourselves.
You suggest in the series that we're alone in our galaxy – that we're the only intelligent, space-faring civilisation alive right now.
When I was young I always wanted to meet aliens. But now, if you ask, "Where does the evidence point at the moment?" Then it seems like civilisations may be extremely rare, and that we are the only one alive right now in our galaxy. I find that thought terrifying.
I find it slightly depressing as well. So what does that mean for us as a society?
If we begin to suspect that we are very, very rare indeed, then we are very, very lucky. So we should start behaving differently. We should look after ourselves better than we do, because right now, we as a species don’t have a particularly universal perspective on our own existence. I think we’re rather myopic usually.
What if we do find simple life, like ancient microbes, in our own solar system?
It would be a wonderful discovery if life had developed independently on two different worlds within the same solar system. That gives you some hope, perhaps, that there would be more life out there. And indeed, the latest measurements are that there might be as much as 20 billion Earth-like planets in our galaxy – 20 billion of them! But if you look at the history of life on Earth, it mostly sat around not doing much. There are European and Russian missions trying to find an answer to that question in the next few years.
"Wonders of the Stoner System"
Something else. A lot of people seem to think you’re high while hosting your shows. There's even a re-cut of one of your earlier series called “Wonders of the Stoner System”.
[Laughs] Well, I did have a more lethargic way of presenting things back then. "Wonders of the Solar System" is from almost six years ago. We wanted to do it differently this time.
Have you ever taken psychedelics and watched your own show?
The answer is no. It’s hard to do science when you’re not absolutely in possession of all your faculties. There’s a famous saying about having an open mind: Sometimes it’s so open that everything falls out.
What are your thoughts on conspiracy theories – that the moon landing was faked, for example?
If you’re idiotic enough to think that we didn’t land on the moon, then you’re idiotic enough to mess up crossing the road. So there’s a Darwinian element there. But it does become a problem if these conspiracy theories then start distrusting science in general – vaccination policy, nutrition or climate change. These are serious issues that deserve serious treatment.
How do you feel about anti-vaxxers?
Well, take Ebola. There won’t be many anti-vaxxers around if there's an outbreak of Ebola in London and there’s a vaccine available. Not many people are then going to say: "Oh no, we’re going to stay organic." If you're going to wipe out a viral disease, then it's vaccination that does it. The best example is smallpox. In the 20th century it killed as many as 500 million people, until 1979, when a vaccination programme ended it – and now smallpox doesn’t exist any more. It’s done, gone. So it’s about education. Don’t sit there in your house saying, "Oh, little Johnny doesn’t need vaccinations." Just look at smallpox.
Brian in "Symphony of Science", a compilation of autotuned scientists. “It’s brilliant,” says Cox. ”It makes me happy whenever anyone takes the piss out of me. I get happier and happier every time, because if that’s a way to get people involved, it’s fantastic.”
There are still sceptics who regard scientists as condescending. Arrogant, at worst; "just another view", at best.
Science is not a priesthood passing down wisdom. It is the only human pursuit that succeeds because it is uncertain. It is uncertain of itself. It challenges itself. There are no universal truths in science. That’s the key to its success. It's a framework of how we currently think the world works. It is a way – as best as we can – of interrogating nature to try and understand it. And just look at what it has discovered so far.
David Attenborough anointed you as his natural successor, and you're often compared to Carl Sagan. What's your personal purpose?
It’s wonderful to make people enjoy science, and maybe encourage them to support scientific research a little bit more. I think it’s terrific, but I’m very lucky. Carl Sagan got a terrible time from his fellow scientists when he tried to get his message out there, but it seems to be easier and easier to be in the the public realm for us now. Science is now part of popular culture, and it has to be. Because otherwise, what are you left with? Football and The X-Factor? We don’t want popular culture to be dominated by that. We want it to be dominated by ideas. And that’s what I’m trying to do.
I like science documentaries that make a point, like Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and James Burke’s Connections – they created discussion. We should have more shows that have balls, you know? You have to make clear that your interpretation of the facts is up for debate, but mostly, documentaries are obsessed with being delicate.
Does your show have balls?
It says: this is what I think. What do you think?
Human Universe airs every Tuesday on BBC Two at 9PM. Professor Cox also still works and lectures at the University of Manchester. His latest publication was "Manifest causality and quantum field theory with sources and detectors", which is probably only for the more diehard fans.
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