Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Would Prof. Brian Cox rather be Neil Armstrong or Yuri Gagarin?

Prof. Cox at the Education Show
Both apparently, if his interview at this year’s Education Show was anything to go by. 

We were lucky enough to nab a great spot (though unfortunately, not a seat – the theatre was rammed) for the famous physicist’s discussion on making science accessible and exciting. Maisie Gould reports on the highlights of his half-hour interview.

An unexpectedly charismatic man, Brian Cox chatted with chairperson, Charles Clarke, about his own experiences in school, his fleeting career as a pop star, and how he tries to get his five-year-old son to talk with him about anything he’s interested in – whether that be astrophysics or conkers! 

Cox also spoke about his upcoming TV series which he has only just finished filming – in fact, only the day before his interview here in Birmingham, he’d been astronaut training at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre in Star City, Russia. At the training centre, they use full sized mock ups of all major spacecraft developed since the Soviet era submerged in the centre’s massive pool (Brian said it was about the size of the NEC’s exhibition hall where the Education Show was held) to train cosmonauts. Apparently, they’d got Brian in an astronaut’s suit and had him training underwater with a mock up of the International Space Station.

Brian in his space suit. 
(Photo: apolloschildren.com)
“I thought I was really good… really calm and relaxed,” Brian said. “But when I got out, the doctor monitoring me came over and said ‘You really shouldn't be doing that at your age – your ECG was all over the place’, so apparently, I was really stressed and nervous!”

Brian also had the huge privilege of witnessing the Soyuz landing while in Kazakhstan. He and his film crew were actually the first on scene: “It was crazy – the capsule’s really tiny. We just stood there, thinking there’s three guys in there, and what if no one turns up to get them out? Luckily, a few minutes later, a helicopter turned up.”

“They got out a stepladder and literally dragged them out of the capsule and put them in deck chairs!” Brian said with a laugh. “These guys had been on the space station for six months so they couldn't move at all. You've been in space for months, and then when you come home, you’re just dumped on deckchairs in the snow!” 

The Soyuz crew in their deck chairs! 
(Photo: space.com)
The Soyuz landing and Brian’s astronaut training will all be shown in his upcoming series, ‘The Human Universe’, which focuses on our value as humans. A long time ago, people thought we were the centre of the universe – over time, as our scientific knowledge advanced and we discovered just how large the universe is, we realised actually, we’re quite irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. Or are we?

“We believe there are billions of planets in the universe which can sustain life, but advanced civilisations are actually very rare,” Brian explained. Maybe we're a lot more significant than we thought!

Aside from entertaining us with anecdotes, the famous physicist also found time to talk about science in schools. Speaking about the students he teaches, Brian Cox said it's their responsibility to ensure they understand what they're learning. “They come to me saying ‘I'm sorry, I haven’t finished this paper’, and I'm like I don’t care whether you've done it or not. Actually, I'm glad you haven’t done it because then I don’t have to mark it!” 

In all seriousness though, when asked via Twitter about the current content-driven agenda for schools, Brian explained that he wants his students to develop as researchers – and it’s easier for them to do that if they are able to take responsibility for their own learning and have learned how to do this at school. 

He added:“The process of understanding something is where the excitement lies and you will never forget it when you go through that – it’s taking delight and responsibility for your own understanding.”

During the question-and-answer session that followed his interview, the professor reflected on how to get more students interested in science – especially girls. "We are leaving a whole cohort of talent out of this part of the economy by not having enough of them," he said, before adding: “There is a lot of research on this – one bit says we should teach [girls] on their own without boys,” he said. “Whether it is politically palatable I don’t know, but girls do better in all girl classes, not necessarily in all girls schools.”

Brian also proposed an interesting idea – he said he would like more universities to bring teachers in to use their facilities and share academic findings to take back to the classroom. “I’d like to do that myself,” he added. He also said he thinks academics should help teachers have the knowledge to talk about new scientific discoveries in schools, as saying ‘we just discovered this last Monday’ is a great way to get kids excited about science – “It’s new and it’s happening right now,” Brian stressed.

Brian also suggested linking science to things students already find exciting, like the television series, Doctor Who: "You can teach time dilation and the fact moving clocks run slowly. In fact, I did it in my BBC Lecture, ‘The Science of Doctor Who’ – so the fact you can do it on television, which is significantly dumbed down, means you can do it at A-Level physics."

To finish, a local primary school teacher whose Year 2 class is currently studying Neil Armstrong and the moon landing, asked whether the professor would rather have been the first man on the moon, or Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. 

After much deliberation, Cox decided both would have been equally exciting. He did, however, add that he didn’t think he could have done what Yuri Gagarin did – cram himself into a tiny metal capsule and head off into the great unknown, with no idea what would happen. “I have utmost respect for the man,” Brian said.

And we, you, Professor. In fact, we'd have very much liked to tell him in person (and perhaps get a sneaky pic), if it hadn't have been for the burly security guards steering the famous physicist through his sea of fan girls.

Honestly... you'd have thought Professor Brian Cox was a pop star!

If you missed Brian's interview at the Education Show, you can read an edited version here.

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