Professor Brian Cox introduces Human Universe

Posted on 15th May 2015 by Rob Chilver
Professor Brian Cox attempts to understand the greatest wonder of them all – humankind.

In Human Universe, Professor Brian Cox and Andrew Cohen try to answer the fundamental questions we all face in life: "where are we?", "are we alone?", "who are we?", "why are we here?" and finally  "what is our future?" Sadly for us, none of these answers are 42.

In the extract below, Professor Cox explains the beginnings of his own adventure following the spark of human curiosity; from its ignition in the distant past to a journey into the future. He does not use the phrase 'things can only get better'.


For me it was an early 60s brick built bungalow on Oakbank Avenue. If the wind was blowing from the east you could smell vinegar from Sarsons Brewery, although these were rare days in Oldham, a town usually subjected to westerlies dumping Atlantic moisture onto the textile mills, dampening their red brick in a permanent sheen against the sodden sky. On a good day though, you’d take the vinegar in return for sunlight on the moors. Oldham looks like Joy Division sounds, and I like Joy Division. There was a newsagent on the corner of Kenilworth Avenue and Middleton Road. On Fridays, my granddad would take me there and we’d buy a toy, usually a little car or truck. I’ve still got most of them. When I was older, I’d play tennis on the red cinder courts in Chadderton Hall Park, and drink Woodpecker Cider on the bench in the grounds of St Matthews Church. One autumn evening, after a few sips and the start of the school year, I had my first kiss there, all cold nose and sniffles. I suppose that’s frowned upon these days. The bloke in the off-licence would have been prosecuted by Oldham Council’s underage cider tsar and I’d be on a list. But I survived and, eventually, left for the University of Manchester.

Quote Chapter 1

Everyone has an Oakbank Avenue; a place in space at the beginning of our time, central to an expanding personal Universe. For our distant ancestors in the East African Rift, the expansion was one of physical experience alone, but for a human being fortunate to be born in the latter half of the 20th century in a country like mine, education powers the mind beyond direct experience, onwards and outwards and, in the case of this little boy, towards the stars. As England stomped its way through the 1970s, I learned my place amongst the continents and oceans of our blue planet. I could tell you about polar bears on arctic ice floes at the top of the world or gazelle grazing on plains around the middle, long before I left the shores of the UK. I discovered that our Earth is one planet amongst nine, now redefined as eight, tracing out an elliptical orbit around an average star with Mercury and Venus on the inside and Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune further out. The Sun is one star amongst 400 billion in the Milky Way galaxy, itself one galaxy amongst 350 billion in the observable universe. And when I got to university, I discovered that physical reality extends way beyond the 90-billion light year visible sphere into, if I had to take a guess based on my 46-year immersion in the combined knowledge of human civilisation, infinity.

This is my ascent into insignificance, a road travelled by many and yet intensely personal. The routes each of us follow through the ever-growing landscape of human knowledge are chaotic; the delayed turn of a page in a stumbled-upon book can lead to a lifetime of exploration. But there are common themes amongst our disparate intellectual journeys, and the relentless relegation from centre stage that inevitably followed the development of modern astronomy has had a powerful effect on our shared experience. I am certain that the voyage from the centre of creation to an infinitesimally tiny speck should be termed an ascent, the most glorious intellectual climb, but I, of course, recognise that there are many who have struggled and continue to struggle with such a dizzying physical relegation. John Updike once wrote that ‘Astronomy is what we have now instead of theology. The terrors are less, but the comforts are nil’. For me, the choice between fear and elation is a matter of perspective, and it is a central aim of Human Universe to make the case for elation.


Sign In To Respond

There are currently no comments.