2 May 2011

Prof Brian Cox: How to be a scientist

The renowned physicist explains why science shouldn’t be scary. And how to build a rocket.

1: Science is about asking interesting questions...

The key point is to make sure that people understand that science is something they can do. You definitely don't have to be some kind of genius. I think it's a complete misconception that you need to do that. What you need to do primarily is be interested. I was always interested in astronomy, and loads of kids are, it's just interesting.

You just have to notice these things: the aurora borealis, what's that? How old is the universe? Is there alien life out there somewhere? Those things are obviously interesting questions. No kid would think that "are there aliens?" is not an interesting question.
Brian Cox

2: ...and finding out how to answer them.

What's vital to know is that you can have that as a job, if you want. So you can be one of the many people around the world who are building spacecraft and designing spacecraft to go to Mars or the moons of Jupiter to look for life. I always knew this as a kid, that you had to do physics, and I enjoyed it because I knew where it was going, as well as the process of doing it.

So I think it's making that connection between the questions that everybody finds interesting, and a job. What do you do if you want to do that all the time? And the answer is, you do science and engineering and maths.

3: Science is all around you.

Because of the kind of science I do - astronomy, particle physics, cosmology and those things - I tend to come at it from the big questions. But the other approach is to say that your iPod works because of quantum mechanics. It's also worth saying "how does my phone work?", because in order to do that you need to know about the structure of atoms. That came from research into the way that atoms glow.

When you heat up sodium, you get yellow light, and those are the questions that got asked at the turn of the 20th Century, that lead to the understanding of quantum mechanics that lead to silicon which lead to silicon chips and transistors and so on. So it's another way of approaching it, and that might appeal.

4: We are all particle physicists.

The internet was invented at CERN (the European organisation for nuclear research) in order to do particle physics. If you ask what is the major contribution of particle physics to the world, it's probably the web, and therefore Facebook, Google, Amazon. All that money, all those things, came from Tim Berners Lee messing around at CERN.

One of the key things about doing big science is that, because it's difficult, and it's really challenging engineering, you end up inventing things to do it, which then become useful. The medical imaging technology, those scanners that have revolutionised medicine, came from particle physics. They were driven by the need to build these detectors that can see particles and collisions and explore the sub-atomic world. Suddenly you find out it's good for medical diagnosis. You can list a million different examples of that.

5: The solar system is full of amazing things.

The sheer scale of the Sun, the fact that you could put a million Earths inside it, and it burns 600 million tons of hydrogen every second. Six hundred million TONS of fuel a second! The SCALE of it!

And also, the diversity of worlds out there. There are hundreds of them, all these little moons, and none of them are boring. They're all different, and interesting. So you've really got hundreds of places to go and explore and find things.

Europa is an astonishing place. The ocean of water that's bigger than all the oceans of the Earth put together. The things we've discovered in terms of potential places where life can exist are incredible. Most people think water is essential for life, because it's quite unique. Its quite an odd solvent that can function in really interesting ways. The amazing thing is there is water all over the place. Saturns rings are made of ice, and there's Enceladus, a moon around the planet which is only little, but it has fountains of ice coming up from the surface. Which means that there is probably water in liquid form underneath.

6: Dr Who is not a documentary, but it's not dumb either.

I am completely un-pedantic about science fiction. I like science fiction, and that's what it is. I think it's about ideas, and I have no issue at all with it. It's not a documentary. Dr Who is NOT a documentary and it never will be a documentary. And it shouldn't be. You watch Horizon for that, or Wonders of the Solar System. It drives me mad, actually, when people go "huh! That can't happen! That dalek just flew!"

Science fiction comes from the same source as scientific thought, which is the desire to explore, think and dream about the universe and what's out there. Obviously it's the same, and when I was growing up I couldn't really tell the difference. It feels like part of the same quest to me.

7: You don't have to understand everything.

What I thought was good about Wonders... was there was enough stuff in there for most people to say "well I didn't quite get all of that, but I enjoyed it." And that's actually what you should aim for in a science documentary. I'm certainly massively opposed to the school of thought that thinks that viewers should be able to understand everything. A lot of people said to me that they watched it a few times, thinking "oh that's interesting, I didn't get that, I'll watch the repeat."

Wonders is paced so that you can do something difficult if you do something nice afterwards. But you've got to have those challenging sequences in there.

8: Engineers are scientists too.

It's all about exploration, and you need wonderful machines - whether that's CERN or spacecraft or aircraft - you need them in order to explore. It's part of the thing.

There's no difference between engineering and science, which is part of this STEM stuff; Science, technology, engineering, mathematics. All the same quest, all of it is vital. It doesn't matter which one you wanna do.

9: In ten years' time, you could probably get married in space.

You'll be able to fly on commercial flights, weightless flights into space. Possibly not into orbit, but certainly these weightless hops that people like Virgin are gonna do.

In ten years you'll be able to do that, and I suspect people will be able to get married on them. Around the Earth, not on the moon or anything like that, but in space.

10: We can do anything we set our minds to.

The planets are within our grasp. We've been to them all already. We could certainly go to Mars. From a scientific perspective, we want to go to them. We want to send something there to look at them. And I don't mind if I sit on Earth. In many ways it's better. It takes you a long time to fly to Mars, but someone should go. The Solar System isn't that far away. Even for humans, it's only far away because we can't be bothered going. It's not a technical issue. And even the nearest star, I think if we felt like it, we could start thinking about how to get there.

We've only been at it for a few years. My grandfather was born before the Wright Brothers and he saw us land on the moon. So we went from not-being-able-to-fly to landing on the moon in sixty years. So if we feel like it, we can do it.

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