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Celebrity physicist Professor Brian Cox might just be the quietly spoken, super-smart scientist with a natural gift for communication the world needs right now.
We’re talking about the rise of anti-science and conspiracy theories facilitated by social media and cynical enablers such as Donald Trump.
“Nature and politics and our civilisation are all complex systems,” says Cox. “Oversimplification is a danger because oversimplifying a problem when it’s a big problem is not going to get you to a solution.
Professor Brian Cox ahead of his show with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.Credit: Louise Kennerley
“When you have very loud, simplistic characters proclaiming they understand how to run a society or how to deal with a global pandemic or climate change or whatever, our responsibility is to give people the tools to understand that they’re talking shit.”
Cox has become a household name through appearances on a huge number of BBC science programs and beyond, as well as from co-presenting the hit podcast and radio show The Infinite Monkey Cage. He sees part of his mission as demystifying the scientific process and helping restore faith in scientists.
“The more people know how we’ve acquired this knowledge about the world, the more well-equipped they are to identify the charlatans,” he says.
‘What does it mean to live a finite, fragile life in an infinite, eternal universe?’
We’re talking in a small rehearsal room at the Sydney Opera House ahead of the first in a series of performances entitled Symphonic Horizons with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra under Benjamin Northey.
The series combines music, including Richard Strauss’ Thus Spoke Zarathustra – best known from its use in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey – with words from Cox and stunning back-projected visuals.
Music has always been an important part of Cox’s life. Famously he played keyboards in 1990s pop band D:Ream, best known for their hit Things Can Only Get Better.
“Symphonic Horizons is a thing I wanted to do for a long time,” says Cox. “It’s an experiment in a way. If I’d said that at the start, the Opera House would probably have said, ‘You’re not doing that on our stage!’
“As Ben and I have been developing the graphics and images that go behind the music and the things that I’ll say, different thoughts have emerged in both of our minds that were not present when we started.
“We’ll find out on the first night what it’s actually saying. I started by saying there’s only one interesting question in philosophy and it’s kind of a joke. I’m not having a go at philosophy. There are actually loads of interesting questions but I say there’s only one. And that is: what does it mean to live a finite, fragile life in an infinite, eternal universe?”
Not that Cox, as befits a serious scientist, would ever claim to have the definitive answer to such a fundamental question.
Conductor Ben Northey.Credit: Simon Schluter
“Sometimes I say to audiences, ‘If I knew the answer to that, I’d charge more for tickets.’ Anyone who thinks they know the answer to that should not be on a stage or in public life. This experiment is an attempt to shed some light on that question.
“Science shines a light, but music shines a light and philosophy shines a light and art shines a light and they all cast different shadows,” he says. “The idea is to piece a lot of those shadows together and see if we can gain more insight into the thing that has cast the shadow.”
Professor Brian Cox: Symphonic Horizons, Opera House Concert Hall, November 30 to December 2.
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