UK science interest spiking? Blame Cox

By Phil Plait | August 19, 2011 1:27 pm

In the midst of a lot of bad science news (though to be fair there’s some good news, too) comes some great news: in the UK, students taking A-level math and science has gone way up. There’s been a 40% jump in math, and 20% each in physics and chemistry over the past 5 years.

Why? No doubt it’s at least partly because employers need people highly-trained in sciences — our new technology won’t invent itself, folks (the T-1000 notwithstanding).

But the UK newspaper The Guardian (and the BBC as well), reporting on this, wonders if perhaps there is one man behind this: Brian Cox.

Brian is a scientist, a speaker, a science popularizer, and has hosted several TV shows, including the wildly popular "Wonders of the Solar System" and "Wonders of the Universe". Brian used to be in a rock band, and has the sort of Beatles-esque look, charm, and talent that makes his work very compelling.

Full disclosure: Brian and his wife, Gia, are friends of mine. I’ve done a few things with Brian in the past (a podcast taped at the Large Hadron Collider, for example — that picture here is the two of us deep inside the LHC — and a fun bit on NASA’s Deep Impact mission for a BBC show). But that’s not why I’m supporting him here; in fact, it’s the reverse: I like him because he’s a good guy doing good work.

It’s not hard to see why The Guardian — and the people interviewed in that article — might say Brian is behind this recent jump in sciencophilia. His impact on the culture of science in the UK is both wide and deep. It’s probably not possible to know the exact influence he’s had, but when you look at how many people were drawn into science by Carl Sagan 30 years ago, it’s not out of the question that Brian really has taken up that mantle. As have many others, as I’m sure my Hive Overmind Discover Magazine co-blogger and science writer Carl Zimmer would agree, too.

There are times I despair for my own country because of the copious and pernicious attacks on science, but if what The Guardian says is true, it means science popularization may be stemming that tide, or at least holding it back a bit. Making science understandable, comprehensible, even fun, is having a more profound and very real impact on individuals. It may even be inspiring an interest in math and science, and causing people to study these fields further.

And that, my friends, is exactly the whole point.


Related posts:

TV as a source of science inspiration
Geek calendar
Cox on TED
Astrologers jump on Cox

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Geekery, Piece of mind, Science

Comments (46)

  1. DrFlimmer

    If someone wants more infos on Brian Cox, there is a nice 3-part Q&A with him on

    Universe Today.

    (The link goes to part 3, which is in some ways also related to this post)

  2. Bigfoot

    Hopefully, your headline was meant only to be read and not spoken …

  3. Bobby

    There is so much awesome in this picture!!
    Yes, Brian Cox is a great science presenter and his influence is not limited to the UK. He, and a few other people, resident BA included, have inspired me to do the same – bring part of the wonders of astronomy and physics to as much people as possible. And it feels great to do so.

  4. Michael

    Thanks to Discovery and the Science Channel, I’m hoping Brian has a strong impact over here as well. I love watching his shows and my son is very interested as well.

    Hopefully Tyson can take up the torch for the US for awhile, especially with the Cosmos remake coming out.

  5. Hey, who’s that guy nest to Phil? :P

  6. I would say that Brian being on TV helps, but there are so many more excellent, enthusiastic people working to making science, engineering and maths accessible to kids, from the grassroots on up to the TV. We send staff out to schools regularly to talk about space and run a grant scheme for people who want to do the same. And there are so many others – one of them being my wife, who is the Event Manager for The Big Bang, – thebigbangfair.co.uk – where they plan to get 35,000 kids through the doors next year and dazzle them with science!
    So, great news that these results are up, and I personally blame my wife… :)

  7. jess tauber

    Too bad that the writers of these shows (generic for Science, Discovery and other members of that particular family) make so many factual blunders, some real whoppers. And the graphics are often way off. Like when the NASA guy on Morgan Freeman’s show points to a eurypterid and calls it a trilobite. Good to know the experts are on top of things. Well, at least it isn’t some biblical personage riding a dinosaur. But its all a matter of degree, not of kind. Reminds me of when the newly graduated MD I’d been friends with in college insisted that DNA was a protein. And you wonder why we have a population of Fox News lovers and potential jihadists?

  8. @Craven #4 — the proper response is: “Who is that guy next to Brian Cox?” :-P

    Seriously, that is good news, indeed, for the UK. Now, if only, Professor Cox could come and inspire our up and coming generation, too. But we do have our our own space stars — remember that Neil deGrasse Tyson will be hosting a remake of Cosmos! The original is still amazing, and I know that Neil Tyson will bring it to life for a new generation. I hope they pay attention. :-)

  9. Neil

    Great to see you guys together. Brian’s wonder effect is outside uk, here in india also

  10. ken youngstrom

    The quality of most, of not all, of the BBC science programs is incredible; no pandering, no golly whiz bang, just good science. Now watching a math three parter called “The Code.” Just look a the two Cox “Wonders of…” series and imagine the travel budget alone! And here in the US, PBS struggles and Discovery is geared toward entertainment with a gloss of science. So sad. And, though I know Phil really likes the “Mythbusters” folks, I have to wonder if they really can’t do anything without “three, two, one…” The epitome of entertainment with a science veneer.

  11. Daniel J. Andrews

    Reminds me of when the newly graduated MD I’d been friends with in college insisted that DNA was a protein.

    jess tauber…send your MD friend this DNA rap video if he’s still confused (cheesy alert).
    youtube.com/watch?v=d1UPf7lXeO8

    I did a guest lecture for a first year biology class and I used this video as an ice breaker. The prof later told me he’s never seen so many right answers on the test they had shortly after that.

    Edit: oh my…there are a lot of ‘interesting’ song/remixes regarding biological themes. Some are not so good, but some, are brilliant…this one for example, Bad Project a la Lady Gaga. That one gives me flashbacks to the school days.
    youtube.com/watch?v=Fl4L4M8m4d0

  12. Teshi

    While I was pleased to read about this upsurge in scientific interest this morning, look what I saw is being advertised on UK tv today: http://www.4headaches.co.uk/home.ashx

    Remind you of anything?

  13. psuedonymous

    A nice idea in theory, but the unfortunate truth for those A-level students going into science and engineering degrees is that nobody will want them once they graduate. I, and most of my classmates on my MEng course, are and have been essentially unemployed for over a year after graduating (barring occasional basic computer troubleshooting/retail work/etc just to make ends meet). The UK just doesn’t have any engineering jobs for those without 5-10 years experience in a specific field. It’s a catch 22 situation.

  14. Iva

    This is great news indeed (and the picture is awesome), but I am not sure what these numbers are actually telling us. What is the actual fraction of student who are taking math and science classes in the first place? If the fraction of all student taking math classes grew from 2% to 2.8% (a 40% increase), I’d be had pressed to be impressed, but if it grew from 40% to 56% (also a 40% increase), we should all buy Brian Cox a beer. I couldn’t find this info in the article. Does anyone know?

  15. This is the Nerdiest photo ever.

    Two of my absolute favourite rationality and science advocates in front of the LHC. Awesome!

    There is only one way this picture could have been cooler: if Neil Tyson was in the shot as well.

    Ok, another way it could have been coolest: if I were in the shot with all three!

    Note: Nerd is one of the more complimentary terms I know.

  16. iain

    I always enjoy watchink his shows! ;)

  17. Nigel Depledge

    Pseudonymous (14) said:

    A nice idea in theory, but the unfortunate truth for those A-level students going into science and engineering degrees is that nobody will want them once they graduate. I, and most of my classmates on my MEng course, are and have been essentially unemployed for over a year after graduating (barring occasional basic computer troubleshooting/retail work/etc just to make ends meet). The UK just doesn’t have any engineering jobs for those without 5-10 years experience in a specific field. It’s a catch 22 situation.

    I disagree.

    I’m not sure which type of engineering you refer to, but I’ve known several Electronics engineering graduates in the UK who went straight into a job after graduating; and similarly for Mechanical engineering. I think the same can be said for some areas of science. The company for which I work is currently recruiting life-science graduates, and no prior experience is necessary if you have a relevant degree and have understood your course material. All too often I’ve interviewed candidates who look great on paper but seem not to understand what they have done, or seem not to understand how it can be applied in industry (in particular, MSc graduates from two universities in India that I shan’t name, and a postdoc who seemed unaware that there was any application to his knowledge outside what he does in his lab).

  18. To be fair, Sir Patrick Moore has had the ‘Sagan’ effect for the past five decades now; he is responsible for kindling the interest of several generations of British astronomers (Dr. Brian May, being but one notable example — Piers Sellers the astronaut another).

    So, if Brian Cox is going to be considered successor to anyone, it’s Patrick Moore, and not Carl Sagan (as far as the British audience is concerned).

    He even scooped an interview with Neil Armstrong back in 1970:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x55yan1Tzmc

  19. The only think I don’t like about Brian Cox is that my wife has made it clear that, given the opportunity, she would leave me for him.

    Of course, I’d probably leave her for him too….

  20. harry tuttle

    I really like Cox.
    (apologies, but it had to be done.. I’ll get my coat)

  21. Anthony

    We have a game we play during Brian Cox documentaries – anytime he’s in some tremendously beautiful part of the world, staring off into the distance as a camera pans around him, take a drink.

    In all seriousness though, he’s a great ambassador for science, and has a near Sagan-like ability to break down complicated or abstract concepts into something us plebs can understand. Kudos to the BBC for continuing to spend money on these sorts of documentary series.

  22. MadScientist

    Wow – I wouldn’t mind working on *that* detector array. Then again, I’m sure the technicians and engineers wouldn’t be too happy to see me tearing it apart to see how it works.

    As for the science news – where in the UK is that happening? With the latest disaster with university funding in England I would have expected the opposite.

  23. Felix

    Isn’t the lead-time on university applications too long to ascribe the effect to Cox’s series?

    I mean you have to be good at maths, and science age 11 then you have to choose subjects at 13 or 14 (i.e. single science or triple science) then you have to pass your GCSEs and select you A-level subjects then 2 years later you have to apply to uni.

    So that’s at least 4 years with able students.

    @Madscientist
    This is the last year were university applicants will be able to get their degrees at the old fee level I believe which may have led to an increase in applicants across the board.

  24. Marc

    In the UK both Professor Brian Cox and Professor Jim Al Khalili have been given a boost when they had both programmes on similar subjects on the telly at the same week. The comedian Harry Hill did a skit on the difference in budgets on both programmes, with Jim actually appearing on the programme and singing!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AAgvVxnMhuI

  25. Steve Marshall

    Brian Cox puts me off watching his shows because of his camp delivery and habit of going all dreamy about cosmic stuff. ” Wow! Space is biiiiiiigggggg!” (looks all dreamy like he has just injected some heroin). Nah, Cox is a real put off. Even his physics books bore me to death, Why Does E =mc squared? was tiresomely bland (though Jeff Forshaw should take some of the blame being the co author). Paul Davies writes ‘em way better.
    No, give me Jim Al khalil any day of the week for physics programme presentation . And for maths give me Marcus Du Sautoy. And for astronomy give me the lovely Maggie Aderin Pocock, who should be presenting The Sky at Night so that Ptrick Moore can retire!

  26. The Yorkshire Sceptic a.k.a. Adam Higgs-Boson

    Anyone else noticed this penchant for ‘Geeks on Peaks’?

    First it was Prof. Cox stuck on a mountain in Norway, then Neil Oliver roaming British hilltops in search of Stone/Bronze/Iron Age Brits.

    What next…? ;-)

  27. SkyGazer

    Dutch response would be:
    Don´t praise him to much or he´ll get coxy…

    smallprint
    (You need to know that in the Netherlands we tend to cut off everything/body which grows over the cornfield. i.e. cut off everything/body who stands out.)
    /smallprint

    Anyway: GO! Great news!!1!
    Good teachers, inspiring people is what we need.
    It all starts with a spark. And you never know which kid is getting the jolt…

    PS I like him the way he says “big bank”

  28. SkyGazer

    PPS “There are times I despair for my own country”
    Hey, cheer up! You´ve got Tyson. The Destroyer of Worlds!
    And he did it!
    You only write about what-could-be´s…
    ;^)

  29. Robby

    Just wondering if anyone has looked into how the de-funding of humanities and social science programs at the Uni level in the UK might have affected students’ decisions. When it is easier to get into Uni for science, how many people ignore what they want to do and choose something that interests them a little bit and gets them the funding they need?

    (This is not, in any way, to downplay the good news of improved science interest, nor the positive influence of Mr. Cox.)

  30. Anon

    “making science fun” reminds me of this… http://youtu.be/aeaN8UBwg2M

  31. Sam

    People like Brian Cox, you phil, Tyson, Feynman, Sagan and much of the sceptic community have all had a massive impact on my life when I discovered them a few years ago. Since then I have watched most of the content produced and I would like to recommend “The infinite Monkey Cage.” a Radio 4 podcast which you did not mention here. As a UK resident this is quite easy for me to access but like much of the content on the web these days we seem to be limited to our area of residence. I dont like to influence illegal downloading but in this case I would urge you to torrent this podcast series (www.thepiratebay.org) or listen to a few clips on youtube.

    I’ve just graduated in a computer science course and I’m gutted I didn’t discover you guys a few more years back as I would certainly be doing an astronomy / physics degree now. How could you not after discovering such a wonder?!

    PS. Also find the radio 4 podcast with Brian Cox talking about his inspirational man, Sagan

    21, Sam, UK

  32. More interest in science is indeed good news. For only scientists can build the super-weapons of the future, the death stars, star destroyers, robot armies, mind control devices, genetically engineered supermen and global control systems from which the Galactic Empire will be forged. Scientists are the most useful of slaves — such good servants of men of will and power! The new Empire salutes this renewed interest in science among the fallen people of the old Empire, and eagerly awaits the fruits of your labors.

  33. Grimoire

    @Sith Master.

    Cripes, dude, how old are you? 12?

  34. Messier Tidy Upper

    Brian Cox is a legend. In the Aussie vernacular sense of the word! :-)

    I’m a huge fan of his as well. Saw the last in the ‘Wonders of the Universe’ series which screened on ABC TV Oz recently. Most impressed. Plus by his ‘Wonders of the Solar System’ too. :-)

    Having him present something is the next best thing to having Carl Sagan or Isaac Asimov present it and there isn’t any higher praise than that from me. :-D

  35. SkyGazer

    @Grimoire
    I´m afraid he is a visionaire… we always go for the bigger bang.

  36. MihaM

    10 years ago, when i was making my career choice, there was no easy access to interesting science shows. The ones on discovery channel were a bit bland, local tv networks didnt produce any of their own or bothered to buy any foreign ones (i have only a dim memmory of watching Cosmos when i was very very young, but nothing for years after that), nothing to peak a teenagers interest. Which is why, even though i was a bit of a science geek all my life, i decided to go for economics.

    I wont say that i regret that decision now, as i do love what i do, but seeing as how i love reading and studying and learning stuff like this on my own now, not because i have to, but because i find it fun and fascinating, i can totally see picking a different career path all those years ago, if it was presented with as much enthusiasm for the field as Cox and Tyson have for it.

  37. Glad to see some good news concerning increased interest in science, math. In the U.S. According to my memory, The highest math-science scores in high school were in 1961, following the big Eisenhower push and funding for math-science following Sputnik in 1957. Such academic scores have been going downhill ever since, partly due to the hippy erra in the 60’s concerning “tune in and drop out” mentality.

    Fortunately just a few years ago these scores started to rise again. It might take another decade of continued improvement before they again reach the ’61’ level. Somehow, I think, the U.S. needs another big math-science push which I believe would more than pay for itself in the long run.

  38. Grand Lunar

    I have “Wonders of the Universe” on right now, and I can see Cox’s appeal.
    He seems almost Sagan-like in his presentation. A pretty good technique.

    I can only hope that his charm (and that of others like him) manage to strike a cord in the United States as well, and spike intrest here too. We need it, badly.

  39. I love the Wonders… series. Not only is Brian Cox’s role in it good from a presenter standpoint: one can feel in his speech how much he loves science; his voice is also so soothing, that after each program I feel like I’ve been to pilates class: they could dub the series In Harmony with the Universe :p

  40. QuietDesperation
  41. Dunc

    It’s not just the good Dr Cox, we’ve also has some really great shows from Jim Al-Khalili and Marcus du Sautoy too. Heck, considering the timescales involved from people first discovering an interest in science to choosing their A-level subjects, I’d argue that Adam Hart-Davis has probably had a pretty big impact too.

    We’ve got many great science communicators, and we’ve also got a TV industry that’s prepared to give them a chance by letting them make the sort of programmes they want to make. If anything, Brian’s “Wonders of…” series are my least favourite, having the most Discovery-style completely gratuitous wizz-bang stuff chucked in. I’d take another series of Adam Hart-Davis’s “Local Heroes”, or anything by Marcus du Sautoy, over another “Wonders of…” – there’s only so much time you can spend watching Brian staring intently into the middle distance in an exotic location for no discernible reason. I’d rather watch Adam Hart-Davies make a 19th-century fax machine out of string and tin cans.

    I appreciate that you like to big-up your mates, but there’s a lot of other people doing equally great work. :)

  42. Sili

    If someone wants more infos on Brian Cox

    I do.

    there is a nice 3-part Q&A with him on Universe Today.

    But that’s not the kinda ‘info’ I want.

    (Damn you, Gia. Damn you to heck.)

  43. Peter Davey

    I once happened to come across a book – “How to Live Like a Lord Without Really Trying”, by an American writer by the name of Shepherd Meade (he wrote “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”). The book was based on a year or so Mr Meade spent in England in the 1960s.

    In a section on broacasting, he blames the BBC’s willingness to handle the more “advanced” subjects on the English class system, with its insidious doctrine that some people are more intelligent than others.

    He warns any other Americans visiting the UK not become addicted to this form of broadcasting, or it might spoil their appreciation of the healthy, democratic American system of broadcasting, where every programme can be understood by the smallest child.

  44. Ted Mead

    And I am proud to say that “How to Live Like a Lord Without Really Trying” was just republished by the Bodleian Library. An honor. My father would have been as pleased as punch.

    BTW, no “e” on Mead, and my parents lived in the UK from 1958-1968. I finished my schooling there and came back to the States in 1976.

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