Brian Cox OH, SNAPs Sir David King

By Phil Plait | September 13, 2008 12:00 pm

Via the supercool Gia comes this great video of an interview with Sir David King, president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and my pal Professor Brian Cox. They are talking about the LHC, and King says we should be spending money not on things like the LHC but on more practical science.

Brian then opens a can of intellectual whoopbutt (sorry, family blog) on King. Behold the gloriousity that is Brian Cox:

Brian is completely right. All science has spinoffs, and sometimes powerful ones. Not only that, we don’t know what they will be in advance (usually) so, guided by our wisdom, it pays to let basic research go wherever the science will lead it.


Comments (87)

Links to this Post

  1. Talking of spin-offs « Peculiar Velocity | September 16, 2008
  1. Jason

    Wow, Brian Cox is quickly becoming one of my new heroes.

  2. Robert Krendik

    @ Jason aside from Phil right. :)

    Also, look how much money is spent on war! trillions of dollars!

  3. Colin J

    I’ve heard a few other bits from Brian Cox, and I’ll agree with Jason (and Phil of course!). He’s a force. We need more from him, because he can be the face of physics for the new generation. Great point about the face that fundamental physics was on the front page of news outlets all over the world. How often does that happen? We need to celebrate this fantastic achievement, not say that the money could have been better spent. The money’s already spent for cryin’ out loud. Look to the future now!

  4. Struan

    Well done Brian.

    What the hell was David King doing arguing against basic research though? Perhaps he had just came from a splendid lunch, and was railroaded into his position by the very politically savvy (but extremely limited outside his area of expertise) Paxman?

  5. Pete G

    Sadly, David King’s attitude towards basic research, like that at the LHC seems to be very common amongst some Science administrators in the UK lately, constant funding cuts to astronomy and particle physics research, to a point where we lost membership with the Gemini and other telescopes. :( (Which, fortunately, I believe has now has been fully reinstated.)

  6. Oded

    Totally agree with Brian, good example I can give for this is the PET scan… Positron knowledge obviously comes from particle physics, which you could just as well have said it has no practical benefit to humanity, and there it is.

    Knowledge is ALWAYS beneficial, is always partical.

  7. Struan

    @ Colin J:

    “We need more from him, because he can be the face of physics for the new generation”

    Agreed – Brian is well positioned for this, at least in the UK. The UK has a few options for a media friendly science/tech enthusiast – there’s obviously David Attenborough, who is getting on a bit though, Stephen Fry and Chris Morris. I wouldn’t trust Morris to front any kind of campaign though!

  8. zaardvark

    I didn’t realizing we were halting all cancer research, due to the LHC. Then again, what were physicists doing studying cancer, anyway?

    Warning: the previous two sentences contained sarcasm. In case of eye contact, or inhalation, please contact you local sarcasm control centre.

  9. And he opened that can of whoopbutt with a smile on his face! I love it!

    He has a point. We really don’t know what the benefits of this project will be: New sources of cheap energy, cures for diseases, new technologies… the potential benefits are limitless…

    Contrast that with the trillions spent on this insane war: Death and destruction of thousands.

    There really is no comparison.

  10. Overstroming

    Heh, always a perverse pleasure to be had from seeing a pompous stuffed shirt get smacked down. Science doesn’t get anywhere near enough good press, it was extraordinary to see King using his TV time to diss the LHC.

    And he’s president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science? Yeah, he deserved to be publicly taken to task by Cox.

  11. Alan

    Based on what I’ve heard from Sir David King lately, it seems he’d love to live in a society where the collective has the authority to tell bright young people what they’re allowed to work on. I wonder what sorts of “unpractical” things he worked on in his youth?

  12. Manveet

    I remember Carl Sagan saying something very similar when asked the same question. Sagan used the example of the television to explain his point. If it wasn’t for men like James Clerk Maxwell wasting their time inquiring into the nature of the universe we wouldn’t even have conceived of something like the television. In fact the television wouldn’t have even been possible had it not been for Maxwell’s work on electromagnetism.

    Here’s the link to Sagan’s discussion on the importance of scientific research:

  13. With all respect to Brian Cox, my personal point of view is that the largest reason to pursue such interests as current high-energy physics needs to be for the innate value that we humans place on understanding our universe at different levels. Call it curiosity, call it exploration, whatever, it certainly has it’s own value. But I find the degree to which Cox bases his argument on spin-offs to be rather second rate. As we push back the unknown we discover new questions, problems, and directions. Some of those have direct bearing revealing new ideas & technologies that directly benefit us. Other times they bring to light dangers we were not previously aware of (or thought we could do nothing about). However, Cox’s argument about spinoff’s is equally applicable to the more applied sciences as well. Dollar qua dollar I’d expect the spinoffs from “applied” fields to be no worse or better than spinoffs from “basic” science.

    It can be cast in a different light. A classic example being Tang and Teflon from Apollo. Truly, if we wanted such things we could have made a much cheaper investment directly without going to the moon. I am disappointed that we spent the money? No, my point is that if we’re going to spend such vast sums of money, we need to sell it to the public for what I think is the right reasons.

    I think King’s argument can often be lost on people. Understand that he’s not against science funding (he himself being a world renowned surface scientist, physicist and chemist before stepping into more of a political life) nor is he against funding “basic” science in general. It’s a question of balance and sadly the question of funding has been all too exacerbated by the erosion of monetary support. Funding hits has come across the board, it’s not just high-energy physics, it’s not just basic science, it’s impacted everything.

    Perhaps it’s important to understand where a person like King is coming from. His field has both beautiful basic science and technologically important applied aspects to it. He’s witnessed incredible accomplishments in his career (having made quite a few himself), but has also seen too frequently the numerous instances where advances in science either happened very slowly or simply did not happen due to funding woe.

    His own field is at the heart of basic energy. The problems he has seen and worked on for much of his life have had direct bearing on both energy use/consumption and climate change (along with many other things). It’s true that as Cox says, that (for instance) particle beam physics has bearing on cancer therapy. However, the proximity of that work is likely often (I suspect, though not being an expert in that field I’ll leave it at suspect) not very closely directed to such research. There is a spinoff, there is benefit, but money and effort directed explicitly towards that end would probably be a much better buy if your goal is treating cancer.

    I am very happy that high-energy physics is in the headlines and am likewise dismayed at the failure (largely) of say my own field to engage the public with our own exciting discoveries. There has to be a balance between funding for research both basic and applied.
    However, significant weight must be given to directly (and adequately) funding work that has the highest likelihood of successfully solving some of our greatest problems. That last sentence is what I believe to be the crux of King’s argument and is one not to be taken lightly.


    PS : and yes, I am elated that the LHC is about to begin operation. I am ecstatic that we will find “Mr. Higgs” or a set of particles filling that roll. And the experimentalist mindset I have is absolutely giddy at the fact that a simply countless number of competing theories produced in the past few decades may be put to rest (and maybe, some of them confirmed!).

  14. Bubbaj

    Mr. cox seems like a fella that has a zeal for knowledge, and he also appears to be the type of person that never gets tired of trying to explain what it is he does, and what he is looking for. I agree, that we need more people of his caliber (that means you to Phil!) teaching an helping people to understand the world we live in!!!

    The other two need a kick in the tits to smarten them up!

  15. Just to point out to some of the commenters here that you can’t tell what Paxman really thinks from an interview like this . It’s his job to put questions to people. No way would he have been railroading King beforehand.

  16. Ad Hominid

    Sir David seems tired, as though he has finally given up and acquiesed to the sound-bite/luddite hordes who do not understand either the history or the nature of basic research. Brian, otoh, was brilliant and had obviously anticipated some of the arguments. Paxman inadvertantly helped him, of course, by citing the cure for cancer, apparently unaware that this is an area of immediate application for particle physics.
    I did not know about the fusion cooling spin-off, btw. That by itself could potentially justify the whole cost of the LHC.

  17. Tommy

    I must say that I agree with both of them. Because the fact is we don’t know what we are going to discover with this thing or if we are going to discover something, useful or not, at all.

    But if I have to bet, I would way that they will discover nothing important at all.

  18. CanadianLeigh

    I wish Brian Cox would appear on some regular show in North America that I could watch on a regular basis. Maybe we could offer him a job. President? Darn, not American. Prime Minister? Maybe?? Unfortunatly, people of his caliber would be so wasted in politics. A TV show of his own would have to do.

  19. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Researcher, meet Administrator.

    Administrator, meet … excuse me, did your head just come off?!

    Brian, otoh, was brilliant and had obviously anticipated some of the arguments.

    2nd that.

    I dunno about the correct balance between targets important for science and targets important for society, but in all endeavors of this sort a balance serves. (Think about artists that solely cater to their customers instead of sometimes trying to advance art.)

    And science as part of basic human endeavors is still damn cheap … um, you know what I mean.

  20. Martin Wickett

    Is Sir David King really saying the LHC should have been postponed? If so how long should we have waited before building it? 10 years, 20 years, 100 years? What would have been gained by waiting (and more importantly what would have been lost)? I doubt the cost would have gone down if we waited (and we would have lost any benefits from the knowledge or spin off technologies in the mean time). The alternative to building the LHC would be to abandon particle physics until the LHC could be built and remain in ignorance of the fundamental building blocks of reality. Ignorance of something so basic is not recommended. To hear such statements from the president of the British Association for the advancement of science is both shocking and disappointing.

    Besides, it does not mean money can’t be spent on other science research like climate change and cancer (that argument doesn’t make sense anyway, money IS being spent on such things). Science funding is important, but I would argue that that is not the main force that is going to drive science forward (as David King must think if he is advocating that the LHC funds should have gone elsewhere). We haven’t got a cure for cancer or better energy sources because of a lack of funding, or because money has been spend on the LHC, but because science is hard (sorry). More funding would surely help, but what is really needed is more people working on the problem and getting more kids interested in science careers. The problem is not a lack of funds, but a lack of knowledge and understanding, exactly what the LHC is designed to rectify. Who knows how the engineering and science discoveries at the LHC will improve humanity?

    I think Stephen Hawking put it nicely in his recent interview in the telegraph:

    “Both the LHC and the Space program are vital if the human race is not to stultify and eventually die out. Together they cost less than one tenth of a per cent of world GDP. If the human race can not afford this, then it doesn’t deserve the epithet ‘human’.” – Stephen Hawking.

  21. Utakata

    The quote, I believe “Understanding the Universe is useful” should end all arguements right there.

    Also…I agree with all that has been said about Brian Cox. However, I know this observation will be uncomfortable for some…

    …but he is also cute.

  22. Penny Jackson

    “Then again, what were physicists doing studying cancer, anyway?”

    I know you were being sarcastic, but as Brian said in the interview, physicists actually do cure cancer with particle accelerators. And I can assure David King that no-one would have ever bothered to develop that technology by now for any reason other than smashing up particles for pure research.

    Micheal S Pierce – I agree with everything you say about the innate value of science and Brian Cox probably does too, but unfortunately telling that to a politician is not going to help matters at all. Showing people that their facts are wrong is a lot easier than getting them to change their values.

  23. Wow. Who would have thought that Neil Cavuto hated science. And was really an old British guy!

  24. I watched this from Gia’s blog yesterday and I loved it! He’s so well spoken and has such a passion for what he does. If I would have had a teacher like him when I was younger I probably would have studied harder and gone into a physics field.

  25. Disciple of "Bob"

    Not knowing anything about the personalities involved, what I got out out of that was that Sir David King seems to think science has gone Quite Far Enough, Thank You, and that further inquiry is folly. Surely, that can’t be correct. I’m a bit befuddled. Has my brain blown a gasket?

  26. MattGS

    First of all: kudos to Gia for marrying Brian Cox. That was a pretty good choice obviously.

    Then there’s a novel idea. How about Brian Cox for the next Doctor Who? Eh? Eh? Yeah, well. One can dream, right?

    The next one’s for President Phil Plait himself. You’re an avid reader of, if I recall correctly. Have you seen Fringe? io9 calls Fringe “anti-scientific”. I can follow their argument, to a certain extent, but I’m not sure if that’s actually what to think of it. But in a recent article (sorry, I’m not sure how to link it correctly and there is no FRAKING edit button):

    they have the creators say that science has lost its purpose. This seems to fit a lot of the criticism regarding the LHC. A lot of people don’t see the purpose. I see it, you see it, most people reading your blog probably see it, Brian Cox explained it to us. But still – what is your opinion in this matter? Has science lost its it purpose? Is that why so many people are wary of science today? Does science need to be more “open”, more “purposeful” to appeal to the ever increasing mass of anti-scientific people out there?

  27. MattGS

    Yay, the link worked. You’ll all see it when it comes out of moderation 😀

  28. madge

    Like Jewel i saw this on Gia’s blog yesterday. I missed that Newsnight episode (having spent all day glued to the excitement unfolding at the LHC I had a lot of studying to catch up on) Brian was (as always) articulate, charming, intelligent and TOTALLY RIGHT. Sir David should be ashamed of himself and immediately stripped of his position. ADVANCEMENT of SCIENCE! The clue is in the title. King comes across as a patronising, ignorant bean counter. As Brian said “on this of all days” !

  29. Elvijs

    Its funny how the president of *** != of Science=! is mentioning all this kind of research that actually isn’t as much about advancing science as developing new technology.

  30. ReneV

    I don’t get the argument that goes “those N units of currency should have been spent on problem Y instead of project S, because a solution to Y has more inherent value in my mind than the anything S might accomplish”. In this case, a group of physicists had a concrete plan “give us M units of currency, +/- an order of magnitude, and we *will* give you the LHC, along with the knowledge that *will* come from there”. Why is Sir David King saying that the more prudent way forward is to spend the money on something that does not have a concrete road map?!

  31. His_Steveness

    What amazes me about this discussion/video/thing is how civil they all are. In America, it would’ve ended with a fistfight. And there’d be a techno beat in the background throughout. Why do they do that, anyway?

    By the way, Prof. Cox is the spitting image of Cillian Murphy. Must’ve been very confusing on the set of Sunshine…

  32. To paraphrase…

    From a recent interview:

    “Both the LHC, and the space programme, are vital if the human race is not to stultify, and eventually die out. Together they cost less than one tenth of a percent of world GDP. If the human race cannot afford that, it doesn’t deserve the epithet, human.”
    — Stephen Hawking

  33. John Phillips, FCD

    Sadly, King’s view is presently the predominant one among far too many of those who control UK science’s purse strings, whether at research or academic level.

  34. Grand Lunar

    The question is asked if the money spend on the LHC would have been better spent on improving our lives by research into alternative engergies or improved medicines.

    Historically, money that isn’t spent on stupendous, ground breaking projects winds up being spent on war making, not improving society. Witness the Apollo program, and the canceld research based on the late Dr. Bussard.

  35. kuhnigget


    “…but he is also cute.”

    I called it first.

  36. It’s just as much a boondogle to say “we’re putting a billion into Cancer research to find a cure”. That’s an ambiguous goal – “to find a cure”.

    Whereas “Let’s put a billion into building this large device which will either answer the question for good or show we need to scrap our model” is much more concrete.

  37. Negatron

    Brian Cox makes me embarassed to be a human being. He got looks, brains, and star power. Triple Threat!

  38. IBY

    I am really excited about the possible discoveries of LHC. Brian Cox is right, you can’t know what kind of practical things will come out of basic research unless you stick with it. History shows that basic research has led to great useful things.

  39. Todd W.

    The funny thing about “finding a cure for cancer”, to me, is that we have found the cure for a couple types of cancer, as well as a means of preventing some versions of another type. Like Kevin F says, “to find a cure” is a rather broad, vague goal.

  40. The intro to the piece goes on about how the LHC is designed to answer some of the greatest questions of our age. It’s a wonder of the world. Then asks whether it was worth spending 10 billion dollars on.

    Is answering some of the great questions of our age worth spending about the same amount as we spend in one year on cosmetics? To me that question simply sounds ridiculous.

    Not to mention, of course, that our “age” is what it is because of particle physics research.

  41. it is ridiculous to go on about the cost, since that wasn’t covered by any one country in totality, it is a collaborative effort of countries around the world. Not only can the LHC bring answers (and hopefully more questions) but it is an example of people putting aside differences for the advancement of the human race as a whole.

    I love how Brian didn’t back down to that stodgy example of why knighthoods do not make a person great.

  42. Meeee

    Michael said:
    “With all respect to Brian Cox, my personal point of view is that the largest reason to pursue such interests as current high-energy physics needs to be for the innate value that we humans place on understanding our universe at different levels. Call it curiosity, call it exploration, whatever, it certainly has it’s own value. But I find the degree to which Cox bases his argument on spin-offs to be rather second rate.”

    I think you slightly misunderstood Brian’s point and meaning (or at least, interpreted it differently than I did).

    Cox wasn’t arguing that the best part about the LHC is that we get cool and useful spinoff technology. He was responding to the specific criticism that the LHC is “useless” in some ways (i.e. what do we, as humans, get out of it in an immediate, physical way, right here and now). He’s not saying this is the only reason to continue with the LHC project, he’s using those points to shoot down “But shouldn’t the money be spent on this because it’s more immediately useful” arguments.

    I’m sure that if asked simply why he believed that the LHC was a project worth continuing with, he would’ve brought up points about basic human curiosity etc…

  43. andyo

    From a different perspective, what drove me into science reading and literacy was the writings of cosmologists like Hawking and Brian Greene (and stuff by Sagan earlier), and the overall theme of the extremes of fundamental physics and nature. Is there really ANYTHING more extreme and intellectually exciting (when you actually get the scale of current knowledge in that area) than that? Consider how many trillions have been wasted in wars, corruption, and even pseudoscience. 10 billion is little compared to that even if it just sparks laypeople’s scientific curiosity as it did mine. Had I gotten into this stuff earlier, I might have even chosen a science career.

  44. Hey BA, I don’t know if you’ve been getting any “LHC causes earthquakes” comments or search-engine queries, but here’s a useful refutation.

  45. killyosaur

    I actually dislike the argument that there are better things to spend the money on. In fact I recall an argument against that coming from a former NASA employee who basically stated (this being in regards to spending money on NASA but can be applied equally well to the LHC) that the immediate problems (he used cancer research as an example of where people often feel money could be better spent) will always be there, and generally have a lot of different people both privately and publicly funded working on their solutions. Our understanding of the universe is equally important and the money spent on those endeavors even if they don’t yield anything other than new knowledge is just as important. Or something along those lines. He said it better than I did (and much more succinctly) but I’m lazy and decided not to locate the original quote.

  46. Brian should have also said:
    “Have you. sir, lost your intellectual curiosity?”
    But then again he probably could have lost his grants…
    Brian frakkin’ rocks!

  47. What about all the money we spend on warfare. Nuclear weapons etc that we never use. What about the money that was put down the toilet on the Iraq war.

    Btw 10 billion pounds won’t cure cancer. Cancer isn’t one thing. It has multiple causes and I think(but don’t quote me) there are about 300 different types.

    Why doesn’t the west take 1% of their arms budgets and put that into cancer research?

    Looking at this cynically I see the old guy wanting cancer research and the young guy wanted exploration and discovery. Funny how your priorities change.

  48. sittig

    Phil, I’ve been reading a book published in 1956 by a John R. Pierce of Bell Labs. Check this quote from p.81 of “Electrons and Waves”

    “Cyclotrons with diameters a great as 17 feet have been made. Such a huge beast will accelerate particles to energies of almost half a billion volts.”

    I think it’s fantastic to see the pace of technology in the sciences this past century. Pierce would freak if he knew of the LHC!

  49. Not only is Brian ‘completely right’, he’s also totally cute-a-licious~!

  50. Did anyone else notice the music from “The War of the Worlds” during the first part of the video?

    I’m interested by King’s reaction to CERN. It’s an attractive argument – spend money on something easy to understand and practical, rather than something abstract. CERN is certainly abstract to the average person. This is exactly why we need people like Brian to be out there, reminding people how crucial fundamental research is to the development of mankind.

    We wouldn’t have made it very far away form the cave if we valued endeavors because of their practicality.


  51. Here’s a really good article from the Guardian:

    Sums up everything I want to say, really.

    Spin-off technologies are really cool, but even without any technological spinoffs, these endeavors are justified.

    Speaking of technological spinoffs, how’s this: most recently, I read yesterday that the physicists who built the elaborate arrays of custom microelectronics needed to pull data out of the pixel detectors in ATLAS have turned their attention to building a chip that interfaces with living retinal tissue.

    (PS: As far as Brian Cox being cute is concerned, well, at least Lisa Randall has some competition in the world’s-hottest-physicist stakes.)

  52. gia

    Some background:

    Sir David King had, a couple days previously, made exactly the same points in a talk he was giving. It got picked up by a lot of news media and the ‘environmental movement’ got really, really excited! ‘Yea! Why should ALL THAT MONEY being going towards the LHC!!!’

    Sir David King was the UK government’s Chief Science advisor until last year. Commenter Pete G, was mentioning the recent funding crisis which hit physics and astronomy. Hmmmm. And now we hear DK’s attitudes to the LHC…Are you thinking what *I’m* thinking, Pete?

    Commenter Michael Pierce disagreed (very politely!) with Brian’s argument about spin-offs. Not many people will be aware of the discussions being had behind closed doors between scientists and politicians because of the recent funding crisis. One of the things the UK govt has been pushing is this idea of effectively forcing kids to go into areas of research which will get specific results. Because of this the funding for particle physics and astronomy was cut and HUGE numbers of scientists were at risk of losing their jobs. Wanna know how much money we’re talking here?

    £300 million per year ($500m).

    That is the total budget that goes into particle physics and astronomy in the UK. Most of that is spent on facilities – labs, telescopes and the like. The remainder is spent on people. The cost of CERN for the UK (which is funded via an International Treaty with other European states is based on GDP) is LESS than the country spends on peanuts in a year. Yes, it literally costs peanuts.

    For David King to be talking about taking puny amounts of money away from the two most INSPIRATIONAL sciences is insanity. It has been proven without a doubt here in the UK that 80% of kids who’ve got “science” PhDs were attracted into science by either physics or astronomy.

    There is NO WAY that you can tell an 18 year old, ‘Hey, don’t go to university to study the Big Bang or Dark Matter, instead we want you to go study ‘the ageing population’.’ How ridiculous.

    The funniest thing about Brian’s appearance on Newsnight was that the day after he headed to Liverpool to give a talk… at the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Heh.

  53. @Gia,

    Your husband has become one of my heroes. I appreciate how, when I have heard his speak, he has a way of explaining things and simplifying things so the layman can grasp the concepts.

    Liverpool! I was born between Liverpool and Manchester! (I’m in Canada now, though)


  54. leeobee

    Quote from TimesOnline:

    “[UK]Police forces are spending almost £40 million a year on what their critics describe as spin-doctors and news management, according to figures obtained by The Times.”

    And to think that the Newsnight discussion would have been aired a day or two after that story emerged. I reckon £40 million would equate to about one year’s contribution from this country to the building of the LHC.

    And just because Brian Cox is a ‘brilliant young man’ it gives no one the right to dictate what field he should be working in. What is this? The Soviet Union? There’s plenty of brilliant young men and women to go round. Just give them some funding and let them get on with it. If want to know where the money can come from, see above.

  55. Gazz

    I attended a talk a couple of months back by Joceyln Bell-Burnell, discoverer of the pulsar, and she had a lot to say about how the british government were making massive cutbacks in science funding, wanting to close down Jodrell Bank radio telescope and closing entire science facilities in universities across england and cancelling the funding for a unique laser-powered accelerator the month it was completed, just to save on running costs. Killing off british science with mean-minded penny-pinching exercises. Now this short-sighted, narrow-minded bigot King, who is supposed to be championing the advancement of science, derides the very curiosity that drives it. This shows just how anti-science the british government are becoming.

  56. Ginger Yellow

    As many have already pointed out, King’s position is misguided on many levels, although I do understand where he’s coming from. I too am concerned at the lack of impetus behind solving the challenge of global warming. But:

    a) Britain already spends far more on clean energy than it does on the LHC, or on basic research in total.

    b) The answer to the problem of lack of funds for big technological challenges isn’t to cut funding for basic research, it’s either to spend more money or to cut things, as people have said, like pointless wars, which dwarf science spending and nobody asks if we can afford.

    c) China alone spent more on the Olympics than the entire world spent on the LHC, and they have hundreds of millions of people living in abject poverty.

    d) The LHC is the single most inspiring piece of science in the world today. It’s our generation’s space race. The world-saving scientists of tomorrow will be drawn into science by the LHC, among other similar projects. We used to recognise that inspirational projects had benefits that couldn’t be captured by a crude cost/benefit analysis. The US overhauled its entire educational system to put Neil Armstrong on the moon, for Pete’s sake.

    e) The basic research at the LHC is crucial to our understanding of the universe. We can’t get much further in theory without the experimental confirmation or falsification it provides. Can we really be satisfied as a species, if our best explanation of the universe can’t explain why things have mass?

    f) The internet

  57. Ginger Yellow

    Oh, and g) The biggest obstacle to solving global warming in the UK at the moment isn’t lack of funds, it’s absurdly restrictive planning laws that mean despite having some of the best wind and tidal resources in the world, we have pitifully few wind farms and no commercial tidal power.

  58. Grand Lunar

    Excellent posts, Ginger Yellow!

    More knowledge like what you posted should be made public.

  59. scotth

    I’ll just say, “I <3 Brian Cox" and leave it at that. (In a totally non-gay and platonic way, just to clarify for Gia)

    Pure awesome!

    My challenge to King, name ONE major technology that was not derived from previous basic research.

    Maxwell certainly didn't have Radio, TV, cellphone, and RADAR in mind when he was working on his little set of equations.

    The transistor is directly descendant from the knowledge gained in early atom smashers (as Brian briefly mentioned). The guys running the early accelerators certainly didn't have computers, iPods, and every other thing built with transistors in mind when they built them.

  60. With regards to the cost of things like the LHC, furthermore to what has already been said, if we look at the cost of the war in Iraq – just the direct cost – then that would be enough to build three Large Hadron Colliders, in every state of the United States! And yet the US canceled their ambitious Superconducting Supercollider because it was purportedly too expensive.

    And with regards to generating energy, or clean energy, or climate change – if you go and actually ask physicists about scientific answers, you’ll find that there is a very clear consensus, scientifically, amongst physicists – tomorrow, in some decades, nuclear fusion, but right now, today, nuclear fission. Essentially every physicist understands that nuclear fission provides the potential for plenty of clean, sustainable energy, right now, and the arguments leveled against it don’t stand up to scientific scrutiny – and yet this answer is dogged by political opposition.

    Everybody, every politician, wants to enjoy the benefits of science and technology, and yet we see the funding for basic research and experimental physics strangled, and the products of science and technology, and certain fields of science, like the biological sciences, genetics, life science, and nuclear power, deemed to be somehow politically incorrect, feared and distrusted, when instead we should have governments listening to scientists, supporting their work, and listening to the actual science to answer their questions, instead of seeing questions answered with political nonsense.

    Oh, and yes – I too love Brian Cox (in a platonic, non gay fashion 😉 ).

  61. ioresult

    That David King dude is evil, man!

  62. Joe Meils

    I feel sorry for the guy. They say when a scientist starts saying that basic research should have a direct, practical outcome, that’s when he should start thinking about retiring.

  63. Oh dear, a few days after Ray Comfort questioned the cost of the LHC in a world where kids are starving, we find someone who’s supposed to be advancing science doing the same thing. Luckily, Brian Cox did here what commentators did at Comfort’s blog.

    In all seriousness, given the time-frame and the worldwide co-operation in this project, is US$10B really a lot of money?

  64. Ronny

    It’s worth mentioning here, as everyone’s busy dumping on David King, that he fought for – and secured – a doubling of the UK’s science budget. He’s a brilliant surface chemist and has likely contributed as much to ‘basic science’ as Cox ever will. At a time when President Bush was busy garnering support for his war on terror, King was prepared to step up and declare that climate change was a more pressing threat than terrorism.
    And this guy’s an enemy of science? A ‘stuffed shirt’?
    Of-course the war in Iraq was expensive and misconceived. But the idea that defence funds would ever be rechannelled into basic science is pure fantasy sadly. King understands the realities of government – that science has to fight for funding against other priorities like healthcare. And justifying extra money for basic research compared to say, funding an expensive drug that will extend the life of a cancer patient for a couple of years, is not as straightforward as people writing here seem to think.

  65. Just Al

    It occurred to me, while reading some of the comments here, that the attitude that King displayed in this brief interview might actually have been “staged,” for want of a better word.

    Let’s face it, people are booked for these seven-second sound-bite interviews in order to present conflicting ideas, and they should know they have very little time to get a point across. King has almost certainly heard of Cox, and knows how he comes across. And the funding cutbacks in the UK are fairly well-known.

    King is in a position where he has to answer to politicians, and to the questions they (the politicians) imagine the public is asking. While he might very well want to argue for more science spending, that’s a great way to get ignored and potentially lose your position. Politicians need stroking. So while King may or may not agree with Cox’s viewpoint, he’s not in a position to openly advance it (funny as that sounds in light of his title).

    But if he takes the political side in the debate, he’s both showing that he has the political interests in mind and allows someone else to provide the better arguments for more science funding. And Cox appears to be a good person to do that.

    The argument of taking a bright young person and telling them where they should direct their interests, as King pretty bluntly proposed, is a ludicrous one, and that came across in the interview. It may not have been King’s idea, however, but he was happy to demonstrate how silly it sounded.

    All this comes from someone who has never heard of King before. Alternately, he might simply be a nitwit.

    As for Cox’s arguments, I think he did pretty well for the ridiculous but too-common tactic of “answer in five words or less before I interrupt you.” I’d like to see more drive to increase interest in science, myself, and someone who can mock the constant emphasis on price tags that the media puts forth. But all in all, Dr. Who buried the Stuffy Gentry, and it was fun to watch.

  66. JM

    King is talking absolute b**locks.

    His argument is that another $10B (not this $10B) would be a waste, and that it should be directed to “more practical” purposes.

    Two observations:

    1. perhaps he’s right, but it is not his role to make that choice, we have politicians to do that. He’s supposed to be an advocate for his corner, not pre-emptively surrender right from the start.

    2. he supposes that practical applications will waste less money! ROTFLMGO. Was he asleep during the fiasco? Has he not opened a newspaper in the last year and seen the mortgage crisis in the US which is getting pretty close to a round $trillion of losses now?

    Fact is, $10B is chicken feed and “practical applications” can waste that much and more pretty fast. I’d rather spend the money on a disciplined and focussed program like the LHC than throw it at the misery generators of the last 10 years.

  67. Joe

    Per Wikipedia, Spider-Man 2 has grossed $783,766,341, and for what? to entertain people for 90 minutes, and be an insult to the comic it’s based on?

    You’ll never see some d-bag like that host sit down with the producers and directors of major movies and ask them if the money they spent in making the movie and the money people spent to see the movie would be better off feeding poor children in Africa, complete with a live satellite image of an actual African child starving to death.

    That won’t happen, despite the LHC being more beneficial to our understanding of the Universe, even if when it’s fully operational nothing happens (since “nothing happened” is still an answer).

  68. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Has science lost its it purpose? Is that why so many people are wary of science today? Does science need to be more “open”, more “purposeful” to appeal to the ever increasing mass of anti-scientific people out there?

    With due respect, those producers don’t understand science; “get to the moon” isn’t a scientific purpose. “Get to the moon to explore its geological history” is. Or – more exciting for me personally – “get to the moon to explore Earth geological history”, as the Moon likely will preserve an early geological record by way of Earth ejecta, a record that is lost here on geologically active Earth.

    More generally, science works by a market of ideas. Have you tried to discern “the purpose” of the global economical market, and if it “need to be more “open”, more “purposeful” to appeal”? It is far easier to discuss the benefits of the processes, such as satisfying needs (knowledge vs goods). And those can reasonably be characterized as their “purpose”.

    Btw, I never heard that there is an increasing mass of anti-scientific people globally, naively I would respect the reverse as education reaches proportionally ever more, but if there is I would be interested in those statistics.

    Btw 10 billion pounds won’t cure cancer. Cancer isn’t one thing. It has multiple causes and I think(but don’t quote me) there are about 300 different types.

    And as HIV many of them evolves in our bodies in response to treatments, making simplistic cures impossible. Funny that, basic biology research such as evolution describes the trajectories of the most persistent of modern diseases. Who knew, fundamental science is important?!

  69. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    “I would respect the reverse” – I would expect the reverse. [Reaches for the coffee.]

  70. RobG

    I don’t want to dump on David King any more than necessary, he’s a distinguished and excellent scientist in a very difficult and politically charged post. In this interview however, it’s plain that the political necessity of parcelling out UK funding has left little room for the spirit of scientific exploration that surely motivated him originally. Sitting next to Brian Cox, saying “This young man sitting next to me,” (didn’t he even bother to take in the name of his fellow interviewee?) the generational shift is plain.
    I’m afraid Clarke’s 1st Law is applying here in spades.

  71. Electro


    it makes me proud to be a Brit

  72. MachineElf

    Joe said:

    “Per Wikipedia, Spider-Man 2 has grossed $783,766,341, and for what? to entertain people for 90 minutes, and be an insult to the comic it’s based on?

    You’ll never see some d-bag like that host sit down with the producers and directors of major movies and ask them if the money they spent in making the movie and the money people spent to see the movie would be better off feeding poor children in Africa”

    I don’t see a worthwhile comparison there, when you’re bringing up a movie that made a truckload of profit. Maybe when the LHC brings in 14 billion pounds at the box office, then the comparison can be made…

  73. Electro

    And, Dr Cox

    When you are nominated for the Nobel…

    I will pay my own ticket to see you recieve it.

  74. MachineElf

    I would also say that it’s a little perturbing the ‘herd’ reaction here to King. He conceded it was exciting, he called Brian Cox “brilliant”, he just tried to make a point about the allocation of research money – something he’s very familiar with. He wasn’t obnoxious, he remained quietly spoken even when Cox kept talking over the top of him. So why is everyone spitting on him here?

  75. Electro


    Weird name BTW,

    People jumping all over King is , I think, a response to how dismissive he seemed to the value of the potential discoveries of the LHC.

  76. kebsis

    I am wondering, has funding to things such as cancer research and whatnot decreased since the LHC started taking shape? Has the LHC syphoned off funding from other projects? If not, this discussion would seem to be a mute point.

  77. Steve

    How many other people are filled with rage upon viewing?

    I am.

  78. gia

    @MachineElf I’m not sure if you’re British or not, but Newsnight is a programme where ‘debate’ is a sport. Earlier on this episode two members of Parliament were on arguing about something or other and Brian told me afterwards they were chummy and friendly with one another… It’s debate pure and simple, it’s not to be taken personally.

    Brian is a HUGE fan of this programme and an even HUGER fan of the host Jeremy Paxman (whose job it is to get his guests ‘debating’, hence the sometimes ridiculous questions. He’s not an idiot.). Brian went onto the programme fully understanding what the programme is about (he watches the programme every single night)- it’s winning the debate in the short amount of time allotted to the topic. David King didn’t seem to get it at all. He seemed to sit there expecting that he and his opinions would be respected purely because of his ‘seniority’… and was irked afterwards when Brian tried congratulating him on a good debate.

  79. Alex

    Brian Cox: “Anyone who thinks the LHC will destroy the world is a twat.” Awesome!!

  80. Unspeakably Violent Jack

    Gotta love Paxman…
    Did you threaten to overrule him?

  81. richard

    TV, gotta love it. People are too stupid and too ignorant to comprehend scientific arguments, asset allocation arguments, oh jesus, any arguments, so frame it as old fogy vs. cool dude. That’s all there is here. Go cool dude!

  82. Gary Ansorge

    Basic research like the LHC has been the orphan child in this country for generations and the argument against it has ALWAYS been that money could better be spent on “practical” science. “Practical” science, ie, applied technology, depends absolutely upon the results of impractical, basic research. Without the basic, I don’t know what we’ll find, kind of research, there would not be computers, MRIs, television, or indeed ANY of what we so take for granted in our civilization. W/O basic research, we’d still be using oxen to pull our plows,,,

    ,,,and they’re such stinky beasts,,,

    GAry 7

  83. Brian Cox looks just like Justin Long

  84. Norma

    I’m tending to side with Mr. Pierce, Richard, and the Elf: What we have here is Nixon versus Kennedy. Mr. Nixon, who is older and less photogenic, is pointing out the practical-applications side of science; Mr. Kennedy, whom the camera adores, is flashing his dimples in favor of pure science. Apples and oranges, people– or at least Braeburns and Granny Smiths. I don’t sense a smackdown here at all: they’re both putting their respective sides across politely, and Cox just happens to be easier on the eyes, so King comes off as the “loser.” Yay, indeed, mob mentality. Like a slightly more intelligent take on the hyper-mania surrounding the latest Batman film.

  85. I unfortunately only found this fascinating thread earlier this evening – a great shame as the discussion/debate now appears to have run its course. Nevertheless, I’d like to take issue with a point made by Michael S Pierce above re. David King’s research career. (I’d actually like to take issue with many of the points above – particularly the patronising “cool, young dude” vs “old fogey” nonsense – but I’ve unfortunately not got the time. Start of a new academic year and all that…).

    I work in broadly the same field of research as David King, namely surface science. Pierce suggests the following in his post above:

    “[King’s] own field is at the heart of basic energy. The problems he has seen and worked on for much of his life have had direct bearing on both energy use/consumption and climate change (along with many other things).”

    Errmm, no. Sorry, but no. A slightly edited version of the following letter will be published in the Times Higher Education (THE) (Supplement) later this week and gives my particular take on the question of the direct societal/economic relevance of King’s research. (The first line of the letter refers to a wonderful opinion piece by Kevin Fong entitled “Don’t Knock Knowledge” in the 18 Sept. issue of the THE. Subscription required, unfortunately).


    Thank you Kevin Fong for your cogent and inspiring riposte to David King’s comments on blue skies research (“Don’t knock knowledge”, THE Sept. 18). In addition to the important arguments outlined in the opinion piece (which should be repeated often and loudly to Research Councils UK and the Department for Innovation, Universities, and Skills), it is perhaps also worth highlighting that Prof. King’s recommendation for scientists to focus on research problems which have direct and immediate application appears rather at odds with his extensive publication record over the past few decades.

    A quick Web of Science search reveals that King has published many heavily cited papers in ultrahigh vacuum (UHV) surface science, focussing, for example, on the minutiae of particular surface phases or the detail of reaction kinetics under UHV conditions. While this body of research has been immensely influential in the surface science community of which I’m a member – and, indeed, in the wider academic community – I think that Prof. King would be the first to agree that much of the work could not be said to directly address immediate societal or environmental problems. Moreover, a large fraction of the funding for Prof. King’s research has been awarded through the EPSRC’s responsive mode programme, whose raison d’etre is to support investigator-driven, blue skies research.

    As Fong points out, it is immensely dispiriting to hear an erstwhile chief scientific advisor and the current president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science argue that basic research is a waste of taxpayers’ money. It is doubly disappointing for surface scientists such as me who have been inspired by King’s elegant and world-leading approach to fundamental science.

    Philip Moriarty,
    School of Physics & Astronomy,
    University of Nottingham

    Let’s not forget, of course, that King recently accepted the role of Director of a new institute in Oxford focussed on climate change and environmental issues….

  86. Apologies for not replying sooner, I only noticed your response a day ago. Please permit me to be a bit verbose if only for the benefit of others reading this. Much of my response is a more general statement and despite its length (and discussion of facts well known to you), it is not intended to be condescending.

    I disagree with your statement regarding much of King’s research. Many of the parts of his research I am aware of tend to be rather important for basic energy. While much of it is highly academic, much of it also has significant relevance the “applied” side of science. There is of course a spectrum between academic and applied, but it seems to me that much of his work is quite closely related to basic energy research with at least some relevance to industrial and applied scientists. I think that is especially true if you compare his work to other fields that clearly are further towards the “basic” side of the spectrum. I’ll pick the two best examples that come to my mind at the moment: Alternative power sources such as fuel cells (yes, I’m well aware that they’re not the panacea they’re often made out to be) and cleaner conventional engines.

    I think that basic science in support of fuel cells (particular the understanding of Pt surfaces and the ‘model’ fuel CO) and oxidation of gases such as NO and CO into less harmful products would qualify quite well for science with a rather direct connection to energy and the environment. Platinum crystal facets, Pt alloys, and Pt micro/nano particles have been some of the more promising and interesting surfaces with regards to catalysts for fuel cells. It is also true that catalytic converters providing a means for oxidation reactions such as CO to CO2 and NO to N & O, (among others) make for cleaner burning engines. Again, that interesting metal platinum makes an appearance. Glancing through a few searches it looks like he’s got at least around 60-70 papers that deal with the activity of gases such as CO and NO on surfaces. That number could easily be well below that actual mark. I’m certain he was often guided by curiosity and academic interest, but I imagine a reasonable amount of his motivation had to do with the potential payoff of understanding these things better.

    Perhaps my original wording is misleading towards implying something to the effect of “King makes Fuel Cells or King’s research makes your car produce no CO.” If that is the impression my words give, then they should be restated. Nonetheless, I do think there’s a quick and ready connection between much of his work (over 3 decades of it) and what can be applied towards cleaner power and engines. I find it hard to imagine that the potential payoff of understanding those systems and reactions played little role in his motivation. Remove the work by people such as King or Ertl and the industrial scientists trying to develop fuel cells and catalytic converters would be at a genuine loss. Compare that to the contributions of many a successful scientist rooted in high-energy physics (such as Brian Cox or even a more senior researcher). They often do fascinating work, but the connection towards real world problems is very often (not always, but very often) much further removed. They rely much more heavily on innate human curiosity/answering big questions (truly often a valid reason) and potential spin-offs (I find that less compelling as I see both “basic” and “applied” science generating unexpected benefits). It seems to me that the work of King, while often very academic, still has significant importance to the “real world.” I think you’ll find true applied industrial scientists working in basic energy that do cite some of King’s work. Perhaps I’m lacking imagination but I’m not seeing that direct of a connection for someone like Cox (and I shouldn’t have to say this again, but here goes : that’s not a knock against his research based on a curiosity or wonder metric).

    There’s perhaps a bit of confusion for some people upon our use of the terms “basic” and “applied.” They’re often stated as if there’s a clear and distinct difference upon which we all agree. Often that’s the case. However, very often that line is rather blurry, especially depending upon your point of view. The terms “basic” and “applied” science often have different meanings depending upon who is using them. Typically “applied” is used when there is a specific end in mind other than answering inherently interesting questions and satisfying curiosity. Typically the term “basic” is used to describe work that is principally undertaken to sate our curiosity. However, the “line” between the two is drawn in very different places. I consider my own work on the basic side. I’ve given talks before industry crowds and often had the response, “that’s interesting, but really too academic to be useful to what we’re concerned with.” At the same time, many of my friends in high-energy physics or astronomy look at my work as deep in “applied” territory.

    In fact while I think my own work does fall on the “basic” side, it’s near enough to occasionally be of interest to those on the “applied” side. I take a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction in that respect. I think it’s a fascinating, interesting place to do science. I’m also happy that my work does contribute (in my case in only a small way so far) towards things that I think might make the world a better place. King’s work that I’m familiar with often falls in this middle ground (though with much greater impact than my own).

    My defense of King is not based on any personal knowledge of the man nor am I very informed about his politics. Living in the states, I’m well aware that there’s probably a great deal I do not know or understand about the state of science funding in the UK. Rather, it’s based on the (admittedly) limited amount that I have seen such as the above video and my knowledge as a scientist (which compared to quite a few people is also limited, I am only a post-doc). However, from that I see a great deal of people bashing King with arguments that seem very ad hominem and without recognizing that you should give very serious consideration to the following situation.

    Regrettably we only have a certain amount of money each year with which to fund science. It is far, far too low an amount to fund everything and everyone. As such, while we may work in the long term towards hopefully getting better science funding (and education), in the short term we’re faced with a very serious issue. We’re going to have to decide that some things don’t get funding or get much less money than they need. Perhaps it is in our genuine interest to weight some of our decision about which projects receive money (and how much) based upon those programs that are working more directly towards problems with a broad societal or potentially global impact?

    I think that’s a tough and fair question to ask.

    Best wishes,



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