Grant Thornton’s inaugural Inspiring Business speaker was pop star turned particle physicist, Brian Cox. We interviewed him about finding inspiration, ideas and the meaning of life

Powerful, funny, at times painfully mind-bending, particle physicist and television presenter Professor Brian Cox was the first guest speaker at Grant Thornton’s inaugural Inspiring Business event. The ‘audience with’-style presentations are designed to offer an invited group of business leaders different perspectives from inspiring speakers from the worlds of arts, science, sport and innovation. Cox was speaking in late April at London’s Charlotte Street Hotel and I cornered him when he arrived to get some insight into what motivates him.

From pop star to Britain’s favourite physicist

Cox, now 47, was born in Oldham and went to Hulme Grammar School. He excelled in physics but was sidetracked by music. He was subsequently keyboardist in the giant-selling D:Ream, whose No 1 single Things Can Only Get Better became New Labour’s 1997 election anthem.

But pop stardom wasn’t quite enough. In between bands, Cox had begun studying physics – late, at 23 – at Manchester university. Though he was reading science textbooks on the tour bus, he finally decided that combining his two careers wouldn’t work and returned full-time to Manchester, where he completed his degree (gaining first-class honours) and stayed on to pursue a PhD. Around 2008, as a nattily-dressed postgrad with his own team of researchers working on particle accelerators at Geneva’s Cern Research Centre, he caught the eye of a TV producer.

Affable, good-looking and comfortable in front of a camera, Cox was able to explain complex science so that even a science duffer could begin to comprehend it. Immensely telegenic, he has since presented series including Wonders of the Solar System, Stargazing Live and Human Universe. He is still deeply involved in work on Cern’s Large Hadron Collider, whose aim is a simple matter of revealing the secrets of creation.

Is it ever too late to change to something that inspires you?

Cox became passionate about physics after seeing the Carl Sagan series Cosmos when he was about 12; he says it put astronomy into context with the meaning of existence.

Whatever mankind might be here for, on a simpler level we all, as Cox has done, have to find something that gives our lives meaning. To be productive and inspired, you must be wholly engaged by what you do. Is it ever too late to make a change if what you’re doing doesn’t inspire you sufficiently?

‘One thing I particularly enjoy is the learning curve’

“No. In fact, one thing I particularly enjoy is the learning curve. Even in a wide field like physics you do, as you said, have to become focused on one discipline in order to master it. But within that area I flit around. I started at university doing astrophysics, then my PhD was looking at supernova explosions – stars at the end of their life – but then I switched to particle physics, which in a sense is the other end of the spectrum. These are all learning curves, new knowledge.”

How do you find inspiration?

So when does inspiration come? Is it when he’s relaxing (he runs half-marathons and plays football), or when he’s taken in all the research and lets his mind freewheel?

“The latter. I’m one of those people who’s not very good at multitasking, actually.” Cheerful shrug. “I like to have an uncluttered atmosphere when I want to understand or create something.”

Like method acting – you immerse yourself?

“Well, yes. Recently, I’ve been working with a colleague on a new book. There’s a lot of cosmology in it. And cosmology… is difficult. It’s Einstein’s theory of general relativity and some of the very early universe stuff that I’ll talk about tonight that we’re looking at and thinking about. And I’ve had to actually step back from everything and just read some books.

“I find that if you need to grasp something tricky, the best way is to think about it yourself, and read a lot of different views. And, eventually, you internalise it. But internalising something requires mental space. It can’t be done part-time.”

Coming up with blue-sky concepts and ideas

This leads me, recklessly, to mention something Cox once said about originality – that often you can simply be interrogating information but find that you put things together in a way no one else has, or you come at the information from an unexpected angle, leading to an entirely new concept.

Cox nods, starting to talk with vigour about the way Einstein came upon his theory. It seems the scientist was sitting in his office, watching a man working on a roof opposite. Einstein suddenly understood, with all the years of knowledge he’d accumulated shifting in his head, that if the man were to fall, he would be at rest in the air. No force working on him, he wouldn’t be accelerating. The ground would be moving to meet him.

I’m nodding. Do I understand? No. Or do I? Exhilaratingly, a tiny particle of my mind is almost…

“It was a radical idea,” laughs Cox, “simple and shocking, because before, people had insisted the ground was static.” I so nearly follow the explanation, as he continues, that I think I might cry. “It’s the opposite of what was thought; turns out to be correct, though.” Entire vistas of ways to think stretch toward the horizon, some almost graspable.

There are no short cuts – unless you’re a genius

What, Brian, makes you good at what you do? A natural propensity? Or hard work?

“Hard work,” he shrugs. “There are no short cuts, unless you’re some kind of genius. I often think doing maths or physics is the same as playing an instrument, where you just have to learn it. It’s just practice… hours of it.”

‘There are no short cuts, unless you’re some kind of genius’

And, lastly, does he ever get stressed?

“Nope.” A laugh. “Not really. I just stop doing things if there’s too much pressure, stop taking on anything more. I’ve learned to do that. There’s only a finite amount of time.”

In this world, anyway. We shake hands and Cox goes off to ready himself for the talk. But you feel he really does want to open things up to anyone willing to give it a try – whether that’s opening the secrets of the universe, or our minds.

And when your brain does stretch, even for a minute, it’s a pretty bracing place to be.

Image: Matt James

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