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Pathfinders: The Speed of Enlightenment

ANYONE INTERESTED in physics yet curmudgeonly enough to hate UK TV’s newest scientific celeb Brian Cox must be having a miserable time of it at the moment. The nation’s favourite teen-throb professor is enjoying a quantum celebrity, appearing almost everywhere simultaneously on live gigs, radio and TV, as well as the Christmas hot-selling bookshelves. Mathematics has its amenable Marcus de Sautoy, archaeology its balding Baldric, but physics has wormed its way into the nation’s Higgs Bosom with a photogenic superstar who unlike most celebs actually knows what he’s talking about. The secret of Brainy Brian’s success is not that he’s especially good at explaining physics, because he isn’t, and in fact often overreaches himself.

Nor is it his disarming aura of schoolboy innocence, which he wears in the full knowledge that whenever he says ‘Big Bang’ half the adoring audience are thinking of something other than cosmology. The real reason is most likely that science, and especially physics, is downright intimidating for most people, but it’s hard to be intimidated by the man who co-authored New Labour’s diabolically cheesy election song even if he is a professor of particle physics. It’s well known that any science book with an equation in it will not sell. People take fright at anything that looks difficult. But with Cox in charge, things can only get better.

Back in olden days when it was assumed that science was interesting in itself, and when there were only 4 channels and no internet, TV presenters could afford to be eccentric. There was no image to promote, no need to look cool and sexy, and oddball characters like James Burke, Magnus the Windmill Pyke or lisping David Bellamy were anything but. The only ones left of this old school are Patrick Moore, the Churchill of astronomy, orbiting a TV black hole for fifty years, and St David Attenborough, the only man ever to be canonised by popular consent while still alive.

Today science doesn’t just have to combat the aggressive ignorance of increasingly influential religious zealots, it also has to combat the fickleness and attention-deficit disorder of a fast-food media audience which is perpetually dazzled for choice. In TV, if the target demographic doesn’t like the message, you do shoot the messenger. As this column has noted before (April 2011), studies show that people accept or reject facts depending on who is delivering them. So no wonder science is getting a shot of showbiz pizzazz.

But there’s no doubt that people are interested, when one considers the recent hoo-ha about faster-than-light neutrinos and the more recent hubbub over the Higgs quasi-result. There is a demand for understanding, if it can be made accessible enough, proof that contrary to the fears of Dawkins Doomsayers the Enlightenment is not about to perish beneath Dark Satanic Forces. Perhaps, in a world of discredited politicians, bent journalists and coppers, kiddy-fiddling priests, venal financiers and vacant know-nothing ‘reality stars’, scientists are seen as the last real deal, the only experts left with any authenticity, genuinely interesting things to say, and no squalid private agendas.

Add these credentials to youthful good looks, and it’s easy to see why Brian Cox and others are getting the star treatment. Now they are playing ‘stadium gigs’ as if they were rock stars, lecturing audiences amid music and comedy about biology, chemistry and quantum mechanics.

At a recent Uncaged Monkeys gig it was debatable if the audience grasped fifty percent of it. It wasn’t so bad when Ben Goldacre did a session denouncing drug companies for not releasing test results, since this was a purely political argument, or even when Simon Singh did a presentation on probability theory, since there wasn’t a shred of mathematics in it. But here was the problem: where the show was comedy there was no content, and where there was content it was no fun. Brian Cox soon reminded audiences why he’s a professor, with an eye-glazing exposition of proton gradients in submarine black smokers that had half the audience secretly ordering Modafinil and other alleged IQ enhancers on their iPhones. Even Tim Minchin, brought in to leaven the stodge with music and comedy, managed to look slightly fearful.

Tim Minchin, a kind of latter-day Tom Lehrer with eyeliner, explains in a recent New Scientist interview why he likes to incorporate militant pro-science and atheism into his material (16 November). The interview strikes an odd discordant note when he is quoted as saying: ‘It is entirely appropriate to appeal to authority, in life. For pragmatic reasons, you can’t know everything. If you say 90 per cent of scientists believe this, that’s an appeal to authority. [...] Your job is to figure out what a good authority is.’

Of course he’s right, up to a point, but it would be easy to take the wrong lesson from this. It’s no good replacing one set of priests with another. Science can and should be participative, and you don’t need to be an expert to think scientifically. One organisation which makes this clear in a practical way are the Sceptics in the Pub, a national network of 25 groups to date which meet in pubs to discuss topics of general interest, including the debunking of pseudoscientific claims. It’s a fast growing new pub game that anyone can play, and another healthy sign that capitalism hasn’t managed to brainwash critical thought clean out of us.

If only the same could be said of politics, which is another theatre where there is a large passive audience and a small troupe of actors. Given the way that politics is routinely conducted, it’s no surprise that people have no respect for it. But this removes the will to understand what needs to be understood about how the world works, and this is why radical opposition to capitalism is dogged with misconceptions and circularities. Socialists try to operate in the same way that scientists do, by looking dispassionately at evidence without prejudging the conclusions, by testing theories with prediction, and by challenging assumptions, including their own. It’s not always easy to do, but it’s not that hard either, and it’s a refreshing way to think, compared to the vacuous sloganeering of the Left. In socialist politics, as in science, one can always be learning, and one should always be participating. When people start approaching politics the same way they do science, it won’t take photogenic young celebs to tell them what needs doing with capitalism.

Re January Pathfinders, Brian Cox writes: “Good article. Only one fact check. I didn’t co-author Things Can Only Get Better. It was written by Peter Cunnah and Jamie Petri.” Apologies for the grievous misattribution.