The Brian Cox Effect

Blog post #2 from my J-School blog: From Atoms to the Universe: Adventures in Physics.

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In my native UK, physics has a celebrity. His popularity is so extreme he has a phenomenon named after him: “The Brian Cox Effect”.

Professor Brian Cox, who had a short career in pop music before getting his PhD in particle physics, gained notoriety for presenting popular science programs on the BBC. Now, his TV appearances are so beloved that they’re spurring an uptake in everything from telescopes to math and science studies.

Can one person really be responsible for all that? Cox is often praised for his remarkable ability to make complex theories understandable, in his adorable tool-shed style (watch the video below and this will become clear – from BBC Worldwide You Tube channel). He’s also committed to taking his infectious love for physics to new places, such as radio comedy shows, musical festivals, and the London theatre scene.

All these things make Cox a great personality as well as a great educator, and because of this, he’s stepped into a role that hasn’t been filled since Carl Sagan presented Cosmos in 1980. He’s a shining example in a set of rising stars in the field of scientists as communicators.

However, the question of whether all scientists should be communicators is one that comes up repeatedly. Those that study increasingly controversial topics like climate change (although it’s not really all that controversial, but that’s another story), stem cells and neuroscience are often called on to explain their investigations. This can often lead to blunders from those that aren’t comfortable or savvy in dealing with the media. It’s not that scientists are necessarily bad communicators; they’re certainly not all the stereotypical socially awkward nerds who prefer cell cultures to dinner parties. They also frequently articulate and argue at scientific conferences, but making science accessible is another matter.

Forcing all scientists to become communicators is, I believe, not a good strategy. While it’s definitely a good thing that many universities are teaching more outreach skills to their budding scientists (especially as I’m a teaching assistant for UBC’s effort), I think we can’t rely on them to be personalities as well as everything else they do. Hey, it’s not easy being a scientist, that data doesn’t collect, analyse and publish itself.

But, while we do have celebrity scientists like Brian Cox, I think we should make the most of the momentum and encourage everyone we can to appreciate previously maligned subjects like maths and physics. As Cox himself says:

“I do have an agenda. I believe that Britain needs to be a more scientific nation. I’m happy to be one of the most high-profile scientists in the country, and I feel a responsibility to use that appropriately.”

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