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

Share
Related Topics

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'

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Thousands of Russian troops marched on Red Square in the annual Victory Day parade in a proud display of the nation's military might amid escalating tensions over Ukraine  

Once again, the West fails to understand Russia

Mary Dejevsky
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before