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Brian Cox: ‘Human stupidity’ is the biggest threat to our future

The physicist on whether there’s life in other galaxies—and pushing back on pseudo science
July 10, 2024

With two trillion galaxies in the observable universe, the probability that humans are not alone is high. Could other civilisations among the stars have reached an advanced level of knowledge like us? And, like humans, are they also behaving as if those facts don’t exist? As one of our world’s most recognisable advocates for reason, it’s Professor Brian Cox’s blessing and curse not only to explain complex processes and ideas to an often-bewildered public, but also to butt heads with pseudo scientists and zealots. 

Cox has the patience of a saint. But occasionally he cracks—he called new age guru Deepak Chopra a “whining teenager” in a row over quantum physics and responded irritably to US politician Ben Carson’s suggestion that the Big Bang is a fairy tale “pushed by highfalutin scientists”. (Cox: “You can fucking see it.”)

“My natural disposition when someone says something stupid is to just take the piss,” he tells me, speaking from a hotel room in Louth, Ireland, where he’s touring his latest show. “But while we may laugh at people who think the Earth is flat or whatever, the darker side is that, if we become unmoored from fact, we have a very serious problem when we attempt to solve big challenges, such as AI regulation, climate or avoiding global war. These are things that require contact with reality.” 

Originally from Oldham, Cox started out playing keyboard for the rock band Dare and dance act D:Ream. Now a professor of particle physics at the University of Manchester, his TV shows (Universe, The Planets…) are watched around the world, while his live science show tours have broken Guinness World Records for ticket sales.

For his new show, Symphonic Horizons, Cox has teamed up with conductor Daniel Harding and the Britten Sinfonia. In late July through to early August, the 90-strong orchestra will perform works by Strauss, Sibelius and Mahler at the Royal Opera House. Between the music, Cox will explore big ideas about the cosmos. “It’s a crazy ambition,” he tells me. “It had always been in my wildest dreams to do shows with a symphony orchestra.” 

Thanks to new technology, our understanding of the universe is leaping ahead. “The search for possible habitable worlds in our solar system is very exciting,” says Cox. “We have two missions, Juice and Europa Clipper, going into the Jovian system to look at Europa as a potential habitat.” 

In our own galaxy, Cox believes that it’s unlikely we’ll find other complex lifeforms. “If I was forced to put my money on it, I’d say we’re the only civilisation currently in our galaxy,” he says.  

Has Brexit made life for Britain’s scientific institutions more difficult? “Yes,” he answers immediately. “Europe had, arguably, the strongest foundations in terms of research institutions, heritage and so on. We had less spending power than the United States or China, so the response was to band together with projects like Horizon, and to encourage the easy transfer of students and academics across our continent. We have to rebuild our collaborative structure, which was undermined by Brexit.” 

As he sees it, “human stupidity” poses the most serious threat to our future. “There’s a lack of perspective. Carl Sagan said, ‘Astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience.’ ‘Humbling’ is easy—we’re just tiny, physically insignificant. But the ‘character-building’ bit is where we struggle. If we are the only civilisation currently in this galaxy, then there’s a responsibility to not destroy ourselves.”