Cox on TED

By Phil Plait | June 18, 2010 7:20 am

In April 2010, physicist and outspoken lover of science Brian Cox spoke at a TED meeting about the state of science funding in the UK and the world, and why we do science. Trust me, you need to find the 17 minutes today to watch this.

Man, he’s good. Someone should give him a TV show.

Tip o’ the LHC to Goran Prunk.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Piece of mind, Science

Comments (34)

  1. Jan

    I found his talk to disappoint a little, though. When I think back on what points he gave for continuing research, all I come up with is “It’s purdy”. In my opinion, he should’ve hammered more on the point that curiosity-driven research is essential for our modern technological economy, for a really small cost. “A penny for your thoughts”, really. And it seems to me that halfway through, he kind of gets lost in “look how wonderful this all is” without stressing that the knowledge we have gained wouldn’t have been within our grasp without decent funding.

    But nontheless, his enthousiasm is infectuous, as it always is. And of course, science is beautiful.

  2. Ryan The Biologist

    I agree Jan. This should have been more hard-hitting. As it was, this was preaching to the choir. Anyone who already loves science and exploration will think this is beautiful, but if you aren’t already on-board, this won’t convince you.

    He should have brought in more points like the quantum-physics to silicon chips connection, showed why profit-motivated research firms are not going to fund basic research and why this requires public funding, and made resource-based arguments for space exploration rather than discussing the remote possibility that we will find life “out there”.

    Still, it was poetic and pleasant. Brian Cox is always a crowd pleaser.

  3. Steven

    @JAN, ok I’m only 9 mins in and I’ve heard multiple things that positively affect the economy already. He talks about the inspiration that the photo’s on people and how they became engineers and such. He also talks about how discovering quantum theory gave us transistors and silicon chips. He does talk a lot about how beautiful it is, but he gives good points from an economical stand point. Try watching it again…

  4. Anthony

    So, I did a quick search on google and failed, but does anyone know where I could get a transript of this talk? There are just so many points I’d like to go back to.

  5. “Someone should give him a TV show. ”

    They did – Wonders of the Solar System.

  6. Ryan The Biologist

    @Steven- You really need to try to put yourself in the mindset of a conservative politician to understand why this was not enough. There was too much discussion of beauty and inspiration, and not enough hard numbers and fact. The public spending chart was a good start, so was the quantum-physics to silicon chips connection, but he should have gone further.

  7. John Paradox

    on the Saturn photo:”That’s the Earth”
    From that distance wouldn’t it be the Earth and Moon?

    “the further you get away from it, the more beautiful it seems”

    Reminds me of a former girlfriend. 😉

    “Someone should give him a TV show”
    I think you mean TV SERIES. I have his “What Time Is It?” and “The Six Billion Dollar Experiment”. Of course, they aren’t the only shows he’s done.


  8. The show, Wonders of Our Solar System apparently made astrologers in Britain quite angry. In one episode he correctly dismisses astrology by calling it “a load of rubbish.” I hope a network in the U.S. picks up the series for broadcast.


  9. Gus Snarp

    Good stuff. No, not enough to convince any conservative politician, but hopefully enough to inspire the relatively well educated layman browsing TED videos. And really, it’s a TED talk, it can’t be complete, but hopefully it can inspire the viewer to action and to learn more. It certainly makes me want to learn more. My kids are either lucky or cursed to have me for a dad at a time when I am really into exploring and learning about science again. They’re in for a lot of lessons about biology, astronomy, geography, and physics. We’re on a journey of learning together, and while I can’t go back and be a scientist, they can become anything. And that kind of inspiration is priceless. If a few thousand people like me see this video are inspired and spark an interest in science and learning in their children, that can have a profound impact on the next generation. And if we also work to see that science funding is made a priority so that our children can have the opportunity to expand human knowledge, then this video has done its job. Not to convince recalcitrant politicians, but to convince voters, donors, and activists.

  10. Gus Snarp

    Also, I’m always amazed that we built a space probe in 1977 that’s now 10 billion miles away and it still works and we’re still communicating with it. That’s really, really, cool.

    And the DVD of Wonders of the Solar System will be released in the U.S. in September.

  11. This one speech/talk might not win everyone over but the power is in numbers. Repeatedly hammering this theme is what is needed. Otherwise we’ll forget what we’re doing and why we’re even doing it. A constant reminder that our society wouldn’t exist as it is without advances in science is what is needed.

    If you want to convince a conservative, you talk about how it can make money. If you want to convince a liberal, you talk about how it can help humanity. Somewhere in the middle is a nice balance. :)

  12. Calli Arcale

    Being a big Voyager fan, I have to quibble with his description of the mission. He seems to think there was only one Voyager, and that “it” visited all the gas giants before “turning around” to photograph the solar system. In fact, only Voyager 2 visited all the gas giants, and the Pale Blue Dot was photographed by Voyager 1. (That was by necessity; in addition to the problems with Voyager 2’s scan platform, only Voyager 1 had an out-of-plane perspective on the solar system.) Also, Voyager 1 did not have to “turn around”. It was in fact facing Earth the entire time. The only times it did not was during pre-programmed observations during planetary encounters; at all other times, it is imperative to keep the dish pointing at Earth. I realize it sounds neater that way, but it’s inaccurate, and bugs me a bit.

    But it’s okay; the fact that he *used* the Pale Blue Dot picture makes up for it. That picture brings tears to my eyes, especially when accompanied by Carl Sagan’s exquisite description of it.

  13. Thameron

    The Pale Blue Dot picture need not be humbling. It means that we are part of a species capable of building a machine that could go there and take that picture. No other species on our planet or in our history could have accomplished such a feat.

    Appeals to the beauty of science (and I see a lot of those from the Bad Astronmer to Dawkins) are barking up the wrong tree. All that conveys is that the particular scientist finds the workings of their field beautiful, which is all very nice, but not very convincing. In things like astronomy, or evolution beauty is absolutely NOT an inherent characteristic. Beauty in these cases is a purely subjective interpretation. Just because they find it beautiful doesn’t mean that the person in the street will. The best hope for funding is sticking to the argument from relevance, not the argument from beauty.


    Anthony (#4):

    So, I did a quick search on google and failed, but does anyone know where I could get a transript [sic] of this talk? There are just so many points I’d like to go back to.

    Like, er… click here, dude. 😎

  15. HvP

    Ryan The Biologist, I have difficulty believing that “hard numbers and fact” has anything to do with the mindset of many conservative politicians. Most of their positions seem to be based on emotional arguments and personal bias, IMO.

  16. Messier Tidy Upper

    Loved it. Brian Cox is a great communicator methinks. :-)

    The 14:1 ratio of dollars back Vs dollars spent on Apollo is something I’m going to try and remember and re-quote myself.

    Plus the observation about Enceladus being the size of the British isles. (Wonder if he includes Ireland in that?)

    As for the amount of water on Europa (approx. the 4 min. 50 sec. mark) well I sort of figured that already based on knowing that its also thought to be true even of Ceres [See PS.] :

    “Once thought to be rocky, we now believe Ceres may contain 200 million cubic kilometres of water in its mantle. This is more than the amount of fresh water on the Earth.”
    – Page 10, “Ceres may be a failed miniplanet” by Jeff Foust in Astronomy Now magazine, November, 2005.

    If Ceres has so much water I’d hardly expect anything less from Enceladus which, unless I’m mistaken ( & I could be), is bigger – right? 😉

    Great talk with three of my fave images of all-time – Apollo 8 “Earthrise”, Voyager II‘s “Pale Blue Dot” and Cassini‘s “Earth amid Saturn’s rings backlit.” :-)

    Thanks BA & thanks Brian Cox for this. :-)
    I hope it had the right effect on the right people.
    It certainly worked for me. :-)


    PS. Ohhkaay – on listening again : *fresh water* for Ceres versus all the water in the Earth’s *oceans* I see where I may be a factor or two out in my earlier thinking there. [Added on edit.]

  17. Pi-needles

    @15. HvP Says:

    Ryan The Biologist, I have difficulty believing that “hard numbers and fact” has anything to do with the mindset of many conservative politicians. Most of their positions seem to be based on emotional arguments and personal bias, IMO.

    The mindset of *any* politician is firstly and durn near lastly too – POLITICS – pretty much by the nature of the beasts. Which mean the pollies will be immediately thinking about anything :

    1. What’s in it for my chances of re-election?
    2. How can I use this to attack the opposing party & support my own?
    3. How does this tie in with my predetermined political ideology or party-line?
    (Eg. Democrat /Republican in USA, New Labour /Tory in UK & ALP / Liberals in Oz.)

    Such ideologies are, of course, capable of being twisted and spun as suits the parties internal leadership and pragmatic circumstance.

    It’s sad but true. :-(

    As are the facts behind the sayings that “whoever you vote for you get a politician.”


    “Guy Fawkes was the only man to enter Parliament with honest intentions.”

  18. Szwagier

    I’m sure Brian Cox is a good scientist – you don’t get to work at CERN by being crap – but as a presenter he drives me up the wall. Every time I see him, he reminds me of Brilliant Kid from the Fast Show.

  19. Brian’s talk reminded me about a video I watched a couple of weeks ago and as a result, finally included it on my site today ( Even if Brian didn’t hit the financials, I thought his talk put a beautiful perspective on things.

    (PS I understood your sarcasm regarding giving Brian his own show)

  20. Astrofiend

    Convincing pollies of anything is a lost cause – the only way to motivate them to action is to convince them that there are votes in it. The only way there will be votes in increasing science expenditure is if the public are inspired, and typically it is not silicon chips that inspire a sense of awe, but precisely what Cox talks about in his talk. If Cox can reach the general public and inspire them (which he does extremely well) then governments will at least think twice about major funding cuts for fear of criticism. The only reason that governments fund science at the level they do now is that they fear public criticism and the slide in international prestige that inevitably comes with short-changing science.

    12. Calli Arcale Says:
    June 18th, 2010 at 11:09 am

    “Being a big Voyager fan, I have to quibble with his description of the mission. He seems to think there was only one Voyager, and that “it” visited all the gas giants before “turning around” to photograph the solar system”

    I’m sure Brian Cox is familiar with the voyager missions. Not only is he one of the world’s foremost popularisers of science and among the world’s top physicists, but he recently released a detailed doco series on our solar system and it’s exploration, called “Wonders of the Solar System”. I’m sure if he was overly brief then it was for economy of words and not for lack of understanding.

    18. Szwagier Says:
    June 18th, 2010 at 2:50 pm

    “I’m sure Brian Cox is a good scientist – you don’t get to work at CERN by being crap – but as a presenter he drives me up the wall. ”

    That’s probably ‘cos you’re American.

  21. Jack Mitcham


    As an American, I say Brian Cox is my favorite living science presenter, even above Neil DeGrasse Tyson. He’s second only to Sagan on my all-time list.

    On that note, I was very happy to see the Pale Blue Dot picture. I was hoping he’d pull it out after he brought up Earthrise.

  22. Jack Mitcham

    That was directed at number 21, actually, I apologize.

  23. Pi-needles

    @ 17 – what I said earlier :

    I will just add that some politicians *are* still better than others.

    JFK from all accounts (notably Alan Shepherd’s which I read recently) was genuinely enthusised and personally interested in the space program for instance.

    OTOH, Bush Jr was genuinely anti-science and genuinely a personally believing member of the religious Right and thus concerned with bashing it.

    So politicans will always be politicians and their thinking dominated by politics but d’uh there are some differences between them and there are lesser and greater evils among them. Natch.

  24. Szwagier

    @21 Astrofiend


    Way to go with the evidence-based scientific method. 😉 As it happens, though, I’m 100% British.

    Not to worry, we all make mistakes.

    To be perfectly honest, I thought he managed to rein in his irritating mannerisms somewhat in ‘WOTSS’, but if I see one more shot of him laying out a set of photos on sand/mountain/glacier/sea water/blackcurrant jelly like a 5-year-old and then choosing one to talk about, I swear I’ll scream.

    As Billy Connolly once said, ‘I was just thinking… that television treats you as you are four years of age. “now here is the weather. this is the country where you live. and this is a wee cloud.” I really feel brassed off when they do that. They stick clouds and lightning on the board. “You don’t need to do that. I know what a cloud looks like. just tell me, I’ll understand.” ‘ I have similar feelings about Coxy.

  25. Szwagier

    @ Pi-needles #17 and #24

    I pretty much agree with you, but…

    “Guy Fawkes was the only man to enter Parliament with honest intentions.”

    Guy Fawkes was, of course, a religious fanatic. Not the best of role models, I’dve thought. :)

    Incidentally, re Bush, I read an article about a year ago by Chris Patten (pretty much the only British Conservative I ever had any time for, despite the fact he, too, is a Catholic) where he wrote that “The problem with Bush was not lack of intelligence but a complete absence of intellectual curiosity”. I thought then, and still think now, that is a very perceptive comment.

    So, was he actually anti-science, or did he just not grasp how important it is? It’s an important distinction, although I admit the results of either would look pretty similar on the ground.

  26. Well, if Brian had a TV show, I for one would watch every episode 😉

  27. Steve D

    “You need to find the 17 minutes today to watch this.”

    No. He can talk at maybe 100 wpm. I can read at 500 wpm+. Plus I can skim to see if the piece is worth reading at all. If I do decide it’s worth the time, it will take 3-4 minutes.

    If there is video that conveys things you can’t get from a static page, great. But I’m not going to spend 17 minutes watching talking head. This goes for every site and every speaker too lazy to produce a transcript. You need to find the time to do that.

  28. You must be very busy indeed Steve D.

  29. Hamish

    Lulz, how arrogant is Steve D…
    Who quotes their ‘wpm’ on the internet?
    Why watch movies when you can read the screenplay?

  30. Gus Snarp

    I think the video was worth watching because it’s all about the way he presents, and even if you include the pictures in the transcript, it’s just not the same. Part of this is the passion he conveys with his intonation, facial expressions and body language, and that’s not in the transcript. In the case of this particular video, since most everyone here is fairly up on the basic facts involved, those things that can’t be conveyed in print are paramount.

    That said, I sympathize with Steve D’s frustration, all over the internet people are now linking to video clips, which can be a great thing, but there’s also often far too little written text accompanying the clips to let us know if it will be worth our time, and many of those videos add little to nothing to the words they convey. Many times I would much rather read the material than watch the video, exceptions to that are actually quite rare, but this video is one of them.

  31. Leon

    That was very good, though I wouldn’t have dwelt so much on “beauty” as he did. It works when preaching to the converted, but as part of a plug to help convince people of the importance of funding basic science, “beauty” might not be your most effective angle. But, well, we can’t all make the same argument every time–so maybe showing off the pretty pictures is a really good idea once in a while.

    But I do have to ask: what’s a supernover? 😉


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