It's easy to get downtrodden these days, what with climate change deniers, the apparent anti-science movement, and even somehow flat-Earthers.
But is there a silver lining to it all? Why yes, says Professor Brian Cox in an exclusive interview with IFLScience. There might just be a light at the end of the tunnel.
Cox was talking to IFLScience ahead of the publication of his book "Universal: A Guide To The Cosmos" in North America today, co-authored with Professor Jeff Forshaw. Among other things, the book discusses how to apply the scientific method to the world around you. Perhaps now, more than ever, it's something we all should learn.
So, the US release of your book "Universal: A Guide To The Cosmos" is today. What do you hope people get from it?
Basically its foundation is a cosmology book, but it has an underlying message that’s not particularly well buried about how we know things.
Obviously in today’s climate, where you have people talking nonsense on a daily basis, it’s important to understand how we can come to such remarkably high-precision conclusions about nature. And so the book is really about that."
If you were to write this book again in 50 years, what would you include?
I’d be interested to know whether inflation, which is a very big part of the book, is correct. If so, I’d be interested to know whether we’d made any progress as to whether eternal inflation is correct, which would essentially tell us that there are an infinite number of universes like our own. I’d [also] like to know whether there’s life beyond Earth. I’m pretty sure that we will advance on that in the affirmative in my lifetime.
What do you think is the biggest unanswered question in astronomy at the moment?
I think it’s the nature of dark energy. So, why the universe is accelerating in its expansion. Now of course it’s possible that those results, although I think it unlikely, are incorrect. That would be a wonderful thing to know as well. But I don’t think that’s true. I think there’s very good evidence that the universe is accelerating. And that then raises the question, what is it that is causing that accelerated expansion? That’s a huge, huge question.
Image in text credit: Michael Miller, Stocktrek Images/Getty Images, Alex Camlin
Do you think Einstein would be happy with the progress we’ve made since his death?
Yeah, I think so. You know, everybody wants everything to run faster, but he died long before the age of precision cosmology. He died before the cosmic microwave background was discovered. When he died in 1955, you could legitimately argue that there may not have been a hot Big Bang. Now you can see we’ve made great progress, so I think he would have loved to see that, he would have loved to see the space age. He died not seeing us launch anything into space.
Where is the best bet for life beyond Earth?
Probably Mars. There’s a lot of subsurface water on Mars. And that looks like the conditions were right [for life] to emerge, and it may still be ripe for life to persist. Europa I think, again, it looks like the conditions are there.
It looks like the origin of life on Earth was around 4 billion years ago, possibly even earlier than that, which means that life began pretty much as soon as it could on Earth, which perhaps gives you a sense of inevitability. I think that points to the fact that anywhere you get those conditions, you may well get life. But we don’t know.
Who is going to be the first to Mars, SpaceX or NASA?
I think it will probably be a collaboration. SpaceX are not really in a race with NASA, they’re a contractor of NASA at the moment. What there is is an interesting philosophical position, which people like Elon Musk have, which is that in order to make things better here on Earth, we have to go out into space. And I believe that’s correct. There are an infinite amount of resources out there waiting for us, and so the idea that countries have to compete for a limited amount of resources on the planet and build barriers, that becomes utterly redundant once you have a space-faring civilization. That’s a key part of what people like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson are doing.
Would you go to Mars?
I think I’d go on the suborbital flights. I don’t think I’d go to Mars, because I think that’s for a younger generation of pioneers as it were. I’m probably too old and not prepared to go and stand on a frontier and be like one of the people who first went to America over 100 years ago. It’s hard work, I’m not that kind of person [laughs]. But I’d like to see the Earth from space.
Life on Mars? Maybe. NASA
Last week, Stephen Hawking said he wouldn’t feel welcome in the US as a scientist. What do we need to do to change the modern anti-science agenda?
As Richard Feynman very famously once said, it doesn’t matter who you are or what your name is or how august your position may be. If what you say disagrees with nature, you are wrong.
This perhaps goes to the heart of the problem that scientists can have when talking to people in the wider public. Because science is most definitely not a priesthood where people stand on a mountain and pass truths down to the waiting minions below. It’s very simply a method by which we try and understand nature.
In science, you’re never absolutely sure that you’re right. That’s extremely important. There’s humility there. You can show things to be wrong, but you can never show things to be absolutely right. There’s no absolute truths in science. If your experiment tells you Earth is 4.54 billion years old, then you stop saying that it might be 6,000.
In August, you brought graphs to refute climate denier Malcolm Roberts on ABC. Why did you opt for that tactic?
On television chat shows, and particularly current affairs chat shows like that, they’re almost reduced to the level of pantomime these days. That’s regrettable, but it’s the way the world is. You don’t ultimately convince individuals about the wrongness of their position by showing them graphs and speaking to them about the facts, that’s well documented, it doesn’t work. But what you can do is give the audience a sense that this person is really not to be taken seriously.
We’ve also seen a bizarre spate of people coming out in favor of the Earth being flat recently. How are you supposed to deal with people like that?
Again I don’t think you can change the opinion of people who are just ridiculous. And that is the most ridiculous example of not thinking that you can possibly imagine. I think what you can do is just turn them into laughing stocks, which is I think my general approach to people. It’s very difficult to argue with an idiot. Particularly in a forum such as a chat show where you’ve got a limited amount of time. So my view is you have to sort of essentially show them up to be fools as quickly as possible. I think that’s the only way you can proceed.
Article 50 is set to be triggered tomorrow, taking the UK out of the EU. Are you worried about the UK’s contribution to science after Brexit?
Yes. Because science is an international endeavor. We have said many times that we would like to make Britain the best place in the world to do science, it’s become kind of a slogan. And it requires that your country appears to be a welcoming cosmopolitan place. And so anything that you do as a country that even begins to give a sense that you’re retreating, that you’re inward looking, that you’re not as welcome as you were to people from outside your country, is bad for science and bad for the education industry in general.
If you had five minutes to give Donald Trump a lecture on anything, what would you pick?
I would have him read the essay by Richard Feynman called The Value of Science, in which Feynman points out that the beginning of the road to understanding is humility. It’s the very simple idea that we just spoke about, that your opinion is irrelevant in the face of nature. And you start from there.
Do you think he would understand that essay?
Well I don’t know. I don’t know if anybody’s ever sat down and told him that the beginning of the road to wisdom is humility. Maybe no one’s ever told him.
Time to brush up on your Feynman, Trump. Evan El-Amin/Shutterstock
What’s the best way for a non-scientist to get involved in science?
It think it’s actually astronomy, the science you can do with your eyes. You don’t need anything else to start observing the motions of planets.
The other thing, the big citizen science projects now, really enable you to do real science from your home. There’s this website, Zooniverse, which is a superb place you can go do science, not only astronomy actually, but where we need people to look at big data sets. So I think there’s plenty of scope these days. But I’d start with astronomy because you can do it from your back garden.
Are we in an age of anti-science?
I’m not sure we are in the age of anti-science. We’re in the age of a few essentially ignorant people who have deflected us a little bit, but I think I’m an optimist. I think this is going to be temporary. We’re going to see pretty soon that you can’t stick your head in the sand and ignore reality. It will hit you. Nature is there. There is a real world.
There might be a silver lining to the upheaval of 2016, where we’re gonna see pretty quickly that that kind of ignorance leads to a dead end. I hope the dead end isn’t too serious, so that we can reverse out of it again.
Such as seeing the effects of climate change?
Climate change is going to be what it is. It doesn’t matter who doesn’t like it, the measurements are now telling us that the world is warming extremely quickly, and a major contribution is human action. Every climate scientist I know says "I wish we were wrong", they would be delighted if there was a flaw in their models and this was all nonsense. But I’m afraid that doesn’t appear to be the case.
Last week, you tweeted that we must “find a way of uniting in the interests of our civilization.” Does that tie into this as well, the challenges we face?
Yes. Ultimately, if we are to survive and become a multi-planet civilization, then we have to work together to run this planet. International collaboration and cooperation is also a prerequisite for a successful future. There is no doubt about that, and nobody argues with us. What I think people do have a problem with is understanding that this has to start now.
My view is that if I see any political developments in the world that are running contrary to this trajectory, of understanding that we live on a single fragile planet and then learning to manage it together, I recoil from it.
I think that the current political situation is concerning, and that’s not just in Europe but obviously in America as well, because there’s an increase in protectionist instinct, and that is not the way that we are going to have to manage our planet if we are going to survive and prosper.
And finally, what is your favorite illion – million, billion, trillion, or other?
[Laughs] I don’t know. It depends what context you’re talking about. I suppose. I don’t know. I haven’t got one!
Thanks for your time Brian