Brian Cox and his Quantum Universe at the Royal Institution

Quantum UniverseI’ve just got home from the Royal Institution where the BBC were filming a lecture by Brian Cox on the quantum universe. Apart from the BBC cameras, the most obvious difference from a usual lecture were the members of the audience, some of whom had paid a lot for a meal and were allowed to sit in the main auditorium, some had taken advantage of a free ticket just to the talk, and some were there because they were famous. Now, some were scientists, like Jim Al-Khalili (who would, I imagine know enough about quantum theory already), and I think I saw Mark Miodownik in the audience; but most were just there as they were famous. I’m not very good on celebrities, or even most people who are famous because they are talented, and of this celebrated audience I could recognise David Baddiel, Marcus Brigstocke, Charlie Brooker, Andy Hamilton, Charlie Higson, Philip Schofield (I know him from his time with Gordon the Gopher), and someone told me Al Murray was there too.

Us plebs were in the gallery (apart from those who were used to fill the seats downstairs), so there was quite an area of audience I couldn’t see, in which there were undoubtedly many more famous people I either would, or would probably would not, have recognised.

Why Does e=mc2Brian Cox is a very good communicator, indeed his Why does e=mc2?, written with Jeff Forshaw, is the only thing I’ve read or seen that actually explained to me that very thing, and he’s as personable and pleasant in real life as he appears to be on television. I found this talk very enjoyable, even although it didn’t present anything that was novel to me.

On occasions he would invite someone (famous) from the audience to help, not always very successfully: Sarah Millican appeared rather obtuse, I don’t know whether being slow-witted is part of her persona, but her time on stage was a bit of a waste of time. Jonathan Ross’s blundering equally added little to the imparting of information about Planck’s Constant or Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. The trick of the questioning layman (e.g. Tony Robinson in Time Team) is that the layman needs to know enough to be able to ask intelligent questions and respond in an intelligent way.

What worked well was a practical demonstration of the standing wave atomic model which involved joining Jim Al-Khalili and Simon Pegg (an actor, a well-known search engine informs me) together with a very long spring; setting fire to James May was quite fun, too.

Not many people could keep an audience entertained with explanation of the Pauli Exclusion Principle, but Brian Cox did tonight. It’s part of the promotion for the new book he’s written with Jeff Forshaw, The Quantum Universe: everything that can happen does happen, and I would like to see the pair of them give a more traditional talk at the RI, as they did for the previous book – Jeff is also a very interesting speaker. One thing about the books, they’re not as light and fluffy as the television programmes; they are very much as accessible, but do require a bit more mental effort.

I’ve today (2 December) been informed that the programme, tastefully entitled A Night With the Stars, will be broadcast on 18 December 2011 on BBC2 and BBC HD at 2100. And today (18 December) a clip of Simon Pegg and Jim Al-Khalili demonstrating standing waves appeared. The whole programme will be available on the BBC iPlayer for a week after the initial broadcast.

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6 Responses to Brian Cox and his Quantum Universe at the Royal Institution

  1. Tina says:

    I regularly attend science lectures at the RI and last night’s event was indeed very different to most. Members of the RI were seated at the back while celebrities were strategically placed at the front.
    I suspect that questions posed by these celebrities were also planted, as were the selected celebrity volunteers. Brian gave an engaging lecture in his refreshing, charismatic BBC style. Not the usual format of the RI, of course, but perfectly understandable for good TV. We live in a celebrity-obsessed culture and we if can use the media darlings as a vehicle to promote science communication, that is a good thing. It is imperative for the general public to be able to access science education and since most won’t be frequenting the prestigious RI, at least they can get an entertaining insight on the telly which will, hopefully, arouse further interest in science. Science is not alchemy nor a clandestine pursuit of a few boffins. It affects our everyday lives, is progressive, evidence-based and the provides the most elegant way of understanding our world.

    • bagotbooks says:

      I agree – I said to my daughter this morning that I presumed at least some of the questions were pre-arranged (it was strange how they were all ‘very good’ or better!).
      The last lecture he gave with Jeff Forshaw was quite interesting, I don’t know if you went to it. Brian would give a little bit of chat then hand over to Jeff for the more scientific bits.

  2. I thought the Pauli Exclusion principle applies at the level of the atom, Brian says it applies at the level of the cosmos – if he changes the energy levels of electrons in a diamond every atom in the cosmos has to react so as not to overlap. But the point of atoms is they all have neucleii in different places – and this point in space is part of their configuration. No???

    • Mark says:

      Yes, that part about the exclusion principle meaning no two electrons in the cosmos could have the same energy level puzzled me too. I have never heard that before and it seems to contradict quantum physics. I’d like a better explanation. If true it means the universe should be finite, with a finite number of particles (otherwise there’d be infinite repetition of the same energy levels).

  3. Steve Hodson says:

    My understanding of the Pauli Exclusion Principle is the same; that is that no two electrons can have the same state IN THE SAME ATOM. Does anyone know of any newer theories that has extended this idea from the atom to the whole universe?

  4. bagotbooks says:

    This is explained in a fair bit of depth in the book by Cox & Forshaw upon which the lecture was based. Everything he talked about is, if you found the talk interesting it’s worth reading.

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