Early in his epic new five-part BBC series Universe, Professor Brian Cox makes a thought-provoking observation. ‘From one perspective we are just grains of sand adrift in an infinite and indifferent world,’ he says.
‘From another we are one of the universe’s most wondrous creations, collections of atoms that can wonder about the universe and try to explore it.’ Or to boil it down – it’s mind-blowing that we exist at all.
‘The more I learn, the more astonished I am by the fact we’re here,’ Professor Cox says.
How that happened, and the backdrop against which it did, is one of the narratives underpinning the series, which via the probes and telescopes exploring the outer reaches of the universe – and some amazing CGI – takes us on a journey revealing how the universe was formed and how it will be destroyed.
Professor Brian Cox (pictured) is returning to screens to explore the universe in a new five-part BBC series
From the dawn of the Milky Way and the chaos created when two galaxies collide to the possibility of alien life and black holes, it’s a mesmerising look at a territory so vast that even contemplating it is overwhelming, as Professor Cox is the first to acknowledge.
‘I’m doing live shows at the moment, and I start by saying, half-jokingly, ‘What does it mean to live a finite, fragile life in an infinite, eternal universe?’ he says.
‘This series is a very long answer to that short question.’
Of course, Brian is the perfect person to address it. Long established as the televisual face of physics, his down-to-earth but lyrical approach to this complex subject – alongside the boyish looks he still retains at 53 – have made him one of the BBC’s most bankable stars.
And it shows in the viewing figures: his last epic series, The Planets, drew in more than three million viewers per episode.
No doubt many of them will be tuning in to this one too, for in the same way that Sir David Attenborough opens up the wonders of the world to us, Brian is the one who encourages us to look beyond it.
And what a beyond. The first episode of Universe takes us back a mind-boggling 13.8 billion years to something called the cosmic web, whose interlocking filaments of dark matter laid the path for the creation of the first star.
‘It’s a journey from the first star to the last star,’ says Professor Cox. ‘Remarkably we know that timescale, and it’s 10 trillion years.’ The notion that at some point the lights will go out is startling.
Professor Brian has been interested in astronomy since reading Cosmos at age 12, followed by studying physics at Manchester. Pictured: The milky way over Stonehenge
‘The first episode is quite brutal in that sense, because it doesn’t shy away from that,’ he says.
His ability to boil complex issues down to something we can all grab onto comes with an enthusiasm that hasn’t left him since, aged 12, he read Cosmos, a popular science book by astronomer Carl Sagan. ‘Carl used to say that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience because it gives us a perspective,’ he says now.
A self-confessed geeky teen, Brian was famously waylaid on his path to academia by a brief foray into pop when he played keyboards with D:Ream, whose hit Things Can Only Get Better was used to soundtrack Tony Blair’s rise to power. Aged 23 however, he enrolled to study physics at Manchester, and the university has been his base ever since.
As a postgraduate, he crunched data on particle accelerators that were the forerunners of the Large Hadron Collider at the CERN research centre in Geneva. It was while there that he caught the attention of TV executives after being deployed as a talking head.
Brian revealed the series was filmed in the UK, with the entire black hole episode (pictured) shot in Yorkshire
‘They thought, ‘He’s been on Top Of The Pops, he’ll be all right with the camera,’ he recalls. He also met his wife, TV producer and fellow science enthusiast Gia Milinovich, at CERN. The couple, who have a 12-year-old son, married 18 years ago.
Brian didn’t have to travel too far from home to make his new series, as it was filmed in the UK. ‘The galaxies episode was done on Skye, which brought an idea of galaxies as islands,’ says Brian.
‘And this is not a comment at all on the location, but we filmed the entire black hole episode in Yorkshire.’
Let’s face it, though, what most people really want to know when it comes to outer space is whether there is anybody else out there. It’s a question addressed in one of the episodes, and sadly the answer, according to Professor Cox, is no – or not intelligent life at least.
‘I would not be surprised to find liquid beneath the surface on Mars or on the moons of Jupiter or Saturn, but almost every biologist I speak to says, ‘Yes there may be life, but all it will be is slime.’
Brian said the series celebrates our civilisation, as we face the fact that ‘we might be a remarkably valuable naturally occurring phenomenon’. Pictured: Hubble Space Telescope
He concedes he could be wrong though. ‘We could detect evidence of a civilisation tomorrow,’ he smiles.
‘I’d love it. No one would be less surprised than me if a flying saucer came, because it would solve a big problem called the Fermi Paradox, which asks why there aren’t any aliens.
‘It’s a huge paradox that the Milky Way is so large, and so much time has passed, that you would guess there would be other civilisations around.’
In the meantime it looks like life on Earth really is it. ‘I think that forces us to face the fact that we might be a remarkably valuable naturally occurring phenomenon,’ he says.
‘If our civilisation doesn’t persist for whatever reason, and it might be an external event but it might be from a nuclear war, it’s possible that whoever presses that button eliminates meaning in a galaxy forever. But being forced to confront reality leads to a celebration to me. Ultimately, this series celebrates our civilisation.’
Universe, Wednesday, 9pm, BBC2.