Page last updated at 16:31 GMT, Wednesday, 30 March 2011 17:31 UK

Brian Cox Q&A

Brian Cox is interviewed by School Reporters
Professor Brian Cox speaks to School Reporters from Stockley Academy during the Big Bang Festival

School Reporters from Stockley Academy in London went to The Big Bang Fair and managed to bag an interview with famous TV scientist Professor Brian Cox.

The 43-year-old, who fronts Wonders of the Universe for the BBC, explained how he set off on his career in science and his opinions on climate change and the future of scientific research in the UK.

Q: What inspired your interest in science?

I was born just at the end of the moon landings. I don't really remember them, but I watched them. My dad said I sat on his knee and watched it. I was one-year-old and watched them!

The point of science is to let your mind wondere
Brian Cox

I was always fascinated by space exploration. I think it was really that that triggered my interest in science and I found that I always thought of myself as a scientist.

I wanted to do something. I didn't necessarily want to be an astronaut but I wanted to be involved - so I just latched on to everything else. My interest in science just grew but I think that was the beginning.

Q: What do you prefer within the study of physics?

I've actually studied loads of things in physics. I started with astronomy, my degree was in astrophysics and then I moved at the end of my degree into theoretical physics.

I found out quite late in life that I could do maths. I didn't like maths at all in school, but I did it because I liked physics and I thought I had to do it.

But at university I found I was quite interested so I did some of that. On my PhD I started studying supernovas, when stars at the end of their life explode and a colossal amount of energy comes out, so I worked on how to detect them on earth - and then I went into particle physics.

I started working on the structure of the proton and now I've gone back in a way to astronomy, certainly with the television programmes so that's the wonderful thing about science as a whole.

One of the things it teaches you to do is to wonder - the point of science is to let your mind wonder.

Q: How would you inspire children to get a job or career in science?

Stockley Academy students at The Big Bang Fair
Cox is a fan of events like The Big Bang Fair

Events like The Big Bang Fair are just so inspiring. I was just walking around and you realise that science is the basis for so many jobs.

The computer graphics industry, special effects in film, Formula 1 cars and aerospace and plane engines and medical science...

I just think that the sheer breadth of things you can do as a scientist, that for me is the way to inspire. I also think the government has a role to play because we have to do these things like looking for life on Mars.

And for me, going and trying to find life on Mars... well you can't sell it, and it won't make you money, but it will actually make a better society and it will inspire people to be interested in these massive questions.

Q: Is science cool for kids, and why?

I think science has got to be cool for kids because if you want to be a professional scientist, you have to make the right choices at school and then in a few years' time you could be building a Mars rover, an F1 car or designing special effects for Lord of the Rings.

We have to be world leaders in science and engineering because we have nothing else to do
Brian Cox

I think the key thing is to realise that science lies at the heart of all these careers. Virtually anything I can think of that is interesting, you need a science education to do - so I think that for me it should be cool.

Surely exploring the universe is a cool thing to do - I can't think of anything more interesting personally.

Questions from a BBC reporter

Q: What is your opinion of climate change and how it is taught in schools?

It's a very good way of teaching science actually. Science is a process and climate modelling is very difficult, although climate models are good now.

What you do now is take data and get as much as you can. Even if it is imperfect, you try to understand the errors. You build a model and test it.

That's essentially the irrefutable basis of the science of climate change: you cannot argue with it.

Some people think the scientists are telling them they can't have a big car. Well the scientists aren't saying they can't have a big car, they are saying if you put carbon dioxide in the atmosphere it warms the planet up by this much.

The thing about science is it's not got any agenda at all. It's just the best you can do given the available data and the understanding you have, full stop.

Q: Do you think this government is going the right way to promote science and science education?

What was cut was the teaching budget, which was replaced by fees. If you're a university you don't see a cut, because its been changed around.

Brian Cox
Professor Brian Cox is a particle physicist working at CERN

It is a very dangerous game because I don't think it is understood what effect it will have on the behaviour of young people.

The government say with some justification that you don't have to pay up front, so its not like the US system. Actually American students would love it if someone said, 'you can go to university for free, and if you earn sufficient in your life you can pay it back as a tax'.

So in a sense they're right, but it is about behaviour. What government is about is building the foundation to the future of the country and it's a prerequisite for the future success of Britain that we are a scientific country.

We have to be world leaders in science and engineering because we have nothing else to do.

I also think that universities are a vital part of culture. The very act of taking a kid from their home town, moving them into a city, making them mix with kids from all over the country and the world and subjecting them to new ideas - that is a benefit to society, an incalculable benefit actually.

Q: Are universities becoming businesses? Should it be that way, especially in regards to research?

In an ideal world, there would be academic institutions that would provide the foundation of society. But you're right; they become businesslike because they are forced to be businesslike.

One reason is because we exist in a global marketplace as a university - the University of Manchester sees itself as an institution that tries to attract money and students and the best academics from everywhere in the world and we're competing with Yale, Stanford and Harvard.

So there is a tension between the university as an international business and the basis of a healthy society and that's been forced upon them by the way the funding structure works.

Because I think they are so valuable for society, I don't think they should have to function that way. The thing is the amount we spend on them is miniscule.

They look expensive in some respects, but they're in the single billions. You're talking £6bn, the whole research council is £3.2bn to £3.3bn - it's a drop in the ocean when you consider that approaching 50% of our GDP is what the government defines as knowledge-intensive services industries, which essentially rests on the foundations of our universities.

People who 'do' knowledge come from universities. It's a hell of a gamble to mess with them. There is no game.

I said this to David Willetts, the minister for Universities and Science, actually, and I think he agreed to some extent. Let's say the research budget is £3.3bn: if he cuts it by a billion than the best that can happen is you save a billion - the worst that can happen is you demolish half the economy.

If you add a billion onto it - the worst that can happen is you waste a billion, the best thing that can happen is you make Britain the best place in the world to do science and engineering and grow the economy by percentage points above what it would have otherwise grown.


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