Sarah Sands: The first wonder of my universe is Brian Cox

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The Independent Online

The most bea-yootiful star on television is Brian Cox, who is winning every award going and every parental heart. He is a wonder of the television universe: for years, the medium has been run by highly educated people infatuated by popular culture. Cox is the reverse, a pop star who reveres education.

His Petit Prince style sweetness and radiance and his Manchester accent irritate some people. The actor Brian Cox might have a copyright issue. But these are tiny specks of dust on the physicist's reputation.

There is one argument gaining ground against him, which we must address. It is well expressed in an entertaining blog by Brendan O'Neill, who accuses Cox of revelling in the insignificance of mankind, "the fashionable prejudice that humanity isn't all that special, we are just a cosmological accident which will exist only fleetingly before being wiped out by the explosion of our Sun or some other cataclysmic event".

The particular evidence cited for Cox's anti-humanity bias is his gloating photograph of the Earth seen from space. A tiny blue dot. It is not clear if O'Neill, like the early Catholic church, holds a geocentric view of the Earth as the centre of the universe. If so, Copernicus and Galileo should take a far greater share of the blame than a television physicist.

Cox is an atheist who is lyrical about other planets and has a mission to educate the young. Have we all fallen for a cute version of Philip Pullman? Is Cox the secret weapon of the Humanists, currently running a poster campaign to knock religion out of us once and for all? Could he be in cloak and dagger league with A C Grayling, who is about to publish a version of the Bible without the religion, just as Pullman cut down Christ to historical size in his book The Good Man Jesus?

Far from it, as it turns out. What distances Cox from the Humanists is his understanding of two concepts: humility and wonder. He does not come to threaten organised religion, indeed he has been paying home visits to the Archbishop of Canterbury, whom he praises as a thoughtful man.

According to Cox, we may be tiny in the scheme of things, but that does not make us insignificant. On the contrary, he says: "Our civilisation is a tiny, flickering flame, but rarity confers value." He may embrace reason, but Cox does not believe that human beings will ever have complete understanding of their universe. He says, enchantingly: "For me, science is ultimately a modest pursuit."

A true scientist has a notion of mystery, which is the limit of his understanding. Cox says, for instance, that he would love to know why "the universe began in such a highly ordered state". This allows for the possibility of a divine scheme.

The twin gifts of curiosity and humility were also known to G K Chesterton. The aggressive atheists who have cultural power at the moment would like a clear divide between primitive creationists and elevated rational beings. Yet Cox manages to hold a simultaneous position of scepticism and wonder, taught to him by his parents.

Being English, I love the idea of small land masses punching above their weight. Being a human being, it strikes me as utterly delightful that we have created a glorious civilisation on a little blue dot. Humanists are the descendants of geocentrics. It is all me, me, me. Where is the wonder, where the perspective?

Sarah Sands is deputy editor of the 'London Evening Standard'