How We Met: Professor Brian Cox & Professor Jeff Forshaw - 'We argue all the time'


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The Independent Online

Professor Brian Cox OBE, 46

A lecturer in quantum physics and relativity at the University of Manchester, Professor Cox (right in picture) presents science-based TV series including the BBC's 'Wonders of Life. He lives in London with his wife, the TV presenter Gia Milinovich, and their son

I met Jeff at the University of Manchester – it must have been 1994 or 1995. He was my lecturer there, but we are actually the same age. I was getting to university late on account of taking five years out to become a musician. He was the youngest lecturer there. He took the Advanced Quantum Field Theory course, which was great, but it was at the summer school – which every PhD physics student has to attend – where we bonded. The fact we were the same age helped, but it turned out we also thought about physics in much the same way.

We love to find things out, and discuss fundamental physics issues. I'll give you an example. If you got a stick, a big long one that could reach the Moon, and then give it a push… OK, the question is this: given Einstein's theory of special relativity, you can't really know it's connected for around three seconds, as that's how long it takes the light to travel up and back again. So what's the physics here? If it doesn't weigh anything – in physics, we call it a light inextensible rod – then why can't you tell if it's connected to the Moon? Turns out you're not allowed to have a light inextensible rod; special relativity prevents it. See?

So, yes, we like talking about stupid things like that. Not stupid, actually: fun. And that's what bonded us: we both think that physics is tremendous fun. We've written three popular-science books together now – and many very complicated research papers – in which we set ourselves problems and try to work them out. There is so much to learn, and we argue all the time. Physicists do. There's no politeness in the understanding of how the universe works, because the universe doesn't give a shit, frankly. Nature is nature. There are no right answers, but there are plenty of wrong ones.

As a result of my public profile, and my TV programmes, I don't get to do as much research as I otherwise would, and that's why Jeff wouldn't want to swap places with me. Fundamentally, he is a research physicist, and perfectly happy to sit in a room on his own for days on end doing just physics.

We do socialise together, but we only ever really talk about one thing. All physicists are the same. I remember being at a conference a few years ago in Rio. I took my wife with me. We were on Copacabana Beach, and there I was, talking to another physicist, drawing with a stick in the sand, discussing physics. We couldn't help it.

Everything we do – in our lectures, in our books – has the same aim in mind: to help explain science and get people interested. The more scientific our country is, the better.

Professor Jeff Forshaw, 46

A professor at Manchester's School of Physics and Astronomy, Forshaw has written more than 100 scientific papers, with much of his work now focused around the Large Hadron Collider. He is also the author of two popular science books with Professor Brian Cox: 'Why Does E=mc2?' and 'The Quantum Universe'. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Manchester

When I met Brian, he'd just started his PhD and I was his teacher. We were the same age, but while he was an undergraduate he'd gone off to be a pop star for a few years [as the keyboard player in D:Ream]. I remember seeing him perform on Top of the Pops with really long hair, but when he returned to Manchester for his PhD [with short hair], I didn't recognise him at first, and he certainly didn't draw attention to what he'd done.

But as he was older than the rest of the students, he stood apart, and he wasn't quiet: he was up for talking about particle physics. His thesis was on the stuff I was really interested in: what happens when you smash electrons into protons, and his PhD took him to Hamburg as there was a [particle] collider operating there, which I was working on, too. We got to know one another over a number of memorable all-night sessions out in Hamburg.

When he got back to the UK after his PhD, Brian got a place to live in Saddleworth, up in the hills [in Greater Manchester], and that's when our collaborations really took off. We used to go on 10-mile runs in the hills and drink beer, eat Indian food and talk about physics until early in the morning.

More than once, after both of us had had too much to drink, it got very raucous, descending into rude arguments at 3am. One occasion I remember shouting at Brian about the philosophical interpretation of quantum mechanics and him shouting back, "You are a bloody idiot, you don't understand."

I think he's so engaging on TV because he genuinely loves physics and he's motivated to help people understand it in the same fashion he does his – though there's this constant battle [with the producers] to not dumb down.

He's got a few rock'n'roll friends, and I've been out with them – I don't want to say who, but it's a lot of fun. He's still a brilliant keyboard player, of course, but he never shows off: I have to rope him into doing it. I was just round his place yesterday – he's now got an electric piano in his kitchen – and I got him to play some Elton John tracks for me.

I have no desire to have the celebrity Brian has: I'm happy to hide and let him do it, as I can see how he's had to compromise on the research he is doing. But Brian loves doing the hairy things for his TV programmes [which Forshaw consults on], such as getting sent up in a rocket or descending into the Amazon, as he's much more adventurous than I am.

The exhibition Collider: Step Inside the World's Greatest Experiment is at the Museum of Science and Industry, in Manchester, from Friday (