He’s the physicist that fills arenas with people desperate to learn more about the universe, and our place in it. Ahead of his one-night Singapore show as part of his Universal World Tour, we caught Professor Brian Cox for a chat about the meaning of life…
Unless you’ve been hanging out in a black hole, you’ll know of Professor Brian Cox: you’ll have watched one of his TED talks, read one of his books, binge-watched one of his BBC TV series, or even caught one of his live shows around the world. He’s the British physicist hailed for his ability to distill complex ideas about space, big science and natural wonders here on Earth, and make you feel more in awe of your existence than you ever expected.
Sure he’s a professor in physics at the University of Manchester, and was a researcher for the ambitious ATLAS experiment with the Large Hadron Collider (otherwise known as the world’s largest atom smasher). But he’ll just as happily use his knowledge to weigh in on the possibility of time travel in the world of Dr Who, and make time to share his wisdom with the young and the curious. We witnessed him answering “superb questions” from a young crowd – kids, if you want to know what happens if you do hang out in a black hole, Cox doesn’t shy from the truth: “You get stretched a lot and utterly come to bits.”
After experiencing just the tip of the iceberg of his upcoming show in Singapore, know this: your mind will get a workout, but this isn’t about bringing you further out of your depth than you can handle. You’ll delve into out-of-this world imagery, ponder the most beautiful things about our planet and the potential for life outside Earth – and you’ll be challenged to think about just how rare we are. Deep stuff to take in, but you aren’t going just to look at pretty pictures from the Hubble Telescope – although they are spectacular.
In the surreal scene of Singapore Science Centre’s empty Omni-Theatre, we dove into conversation, starting with the rather angsty and forthright topic of ‘what is the meaning of it all’?
As a scientist, where do you find the sublime?
That’s the foundation of this show, actually. It may be an exaggeration, but I think the only interesting question is, ‘What does it mean to live a small, fragile and finite life in an infinite universe?’ What the show does is give an insight into the size and scale of the universe – and how physically insignificant we are in that universe. But also, I argue that as an intelligent civilisation, we may be quite rare in the universe – and therefore valuable.
There are two ideas there that intersect at right angles and jar with one another if you’re going to be intellectual about it, and they seem to be irreconcilable. But I think it’s in the consideration of irreconcilable ideas you find the sublime. At the start of the show, we share a quote from physicist Richard Feynman – which is one of my favourites:
“What, then, is the meaning of it all? What can we say to dispel the mystery of existence? If we take everything into account, not only what the ancients knew, but all of what we know today that they didn’t know, then I think that we must frankly admit that we do not know. But, in admitting this, we have probably found the open channel.”
What is the meaning of it all? Part of what the show does is to consider this: if our lives are finite, on a universal scale, they don’t make any impact at all. But I argue that meaning exists because we exist. I don’t think there’s any such thing as ‘global meaning’ – I think that meaning is local and emergent and temporary. But, let’s say that in the Milky Way Galaxy, Earth is the only planet with a civilisation on it – which is quite possible. I’d argue that from a biological perspective, that means that this planet is the only place where meaning exists in the Milky Way. And that, for me, is sublime.
Your shows leave people with the feeling that we are at once so minute, and yet glorious for just existing…
I think that we are extremely valuable. And I think that in coming to terms with the fact that our lives are small and finite in both space and time, that’s where you find the sublime. If there’s any such thing as the meaning of life, it’s coming to accept that. In my view, the laws of nature force us to accept that we cannot be immortal.
What do you think of free will? If we’re all just particles – albeit exquisite particles – interacting, are we all just at the mercy of these interactions?
There is no room for it in physics as we understand it. It’s deterministic, which means that given the state of the universe, at any point in time, you can in principle predict what a system is going to do in the past and what it’s going to do in the future. That’s just the way it is. Actually, there’s quite a lot of general relativity in the show and discussions of space-time and Einstein’s theory of relativity that all events that have happened and will happen are just there. We’re just a sequence of events that make up our lives.
How much time have we got left to enjoy the spoils of Earth? Are we heading towards Total Recall, where we’re mining Mars?
If you look at the exploration of space at the moment, I do think we’re going to be on Mars in my lifetime. We’re not going to relocate there. I was talking to Jeff Bezos and he has a lovely series of soundbites about why he’s got a rocket company, and one of them was that one of the things we’ve discovered in our exploration of space is that this planet is the best one. It’s very true: we’ve evolved on it, it fits us very well and there is nowhere as nice as this. In order to take care of it, if you’re pragmatic about it, you need to access resources elsewhere because we don’t want to keep digging this one up. Bezos says he would love to see the Earth as zoned residential.
We’ll probably be mining asteroids first, but yes I think we are heading in that direction of mining Mars. I went to some space mining companies in the West Coast of the US and they’re really serious – all they need is the infrastructure to get there. Bezos is quite eloquent and expressive about it. He said that in order to build Amazon he needed the internet and the postal service, which were two pre-existing pieces of infrastructure. He wants the entrepreneurs of this century to be able to operate in space – and is going to give them the infrastructure. I wouldn’t bet against him, because he’s got the means!
How much do sci-fi television shows and movies play a role in bringing the concepts of big science to life and keeping people curious?
It played a big role for me when I was growing up: I couldn’t tell the difference really between science fiction and science fact when I was six or seven years old, watching Star Wars. The thing I like about science fiction is that it allows your mind to wander in a way that no other form does. Christopher Nolan’s film Interstellar is a brilliant example because Kip Thorne, who received the Nobel Prize and I believe is one of the greatest living physicists, had a lot to do with that film. It’s a beautiful demonstration of relativity. Everything in it is calculated and right – until the end, where it gets very speculative. That’s why I approached the graphics company that worked on Interstellar to use the code that was developed to visualise the black hole that’s a centrepiece of this show. It’s not an artist’s impression; it’s a simulation.
Is there one question you want science to answer in your lifetime?
I would love to know about life in the universe. How common is life? We don’t know. But most of the biologists I talk to (and I talk to them a lot because I find them interesting) have the general sense that there’s an inevitability about the origin of life, given the right conditions. Life on Earth emerged as soon as it could, 3.8 or four billion years ago as soon as the ocean formed. If that inevitability is true, then Mars should have life – or should have had life – because Mars is pretty much identical to the Earth four billion years ago. We know Mars had oceans. We know it was geologically active. So I would like to find evidence that life existed, or perhaps still exists on Mars. And that’s something that could happen in the next 10 or 20 years.
How do you want people to come away from your show feeling? What do you want to challenge them to think about?
The show starts with that great Richard Feynman quote that asks, ‘what is the meaning of it all’? It’s not a question that’s often considered within the domain of science – it’s a personal question. But what science can do is provide a framework in which you can better approach that question for yourself. Science does tell you where you are in the universe, when we are in the universe and how we came to be here – which are prerequisites if you’re going to explore such deeper questions. In my view, we’ve discovered that this place – Earth – is extremely rare. If, as I think, that meaning is an emergent prophecy, the universe means nothing without life. And there might be very few places where there’s complex life, and therefore very few places where meaning exists. This is one of them.
I want people to come away thinking what a valuable place Earth is.
Professor Brian Cox will be at Star Performing Arts Centre on 8 June 2019. Tickets start from $90. Pssst: book your tickets before 1 April for 10% off the ticket price!
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