Every Friday, Light Years will bring you "5 Questions" with a newsmaker, author or influencer in the space and science worlds.
Rock star-turned-physicist Brian Cox, at 43 years old, has quite the impressive resume. This British particle physicist left rock ’n’ roll in the early '90s to pursue his first and true love: science. Dr. Cox is the host of the BBC program “Wonders of the Universe,” which debuted in the U.S. this week, and is the author of the recently released book by the same name. Cox is a Royal Society University Research Fellow at the University of Manchester. In addition, he is working on the ATLAS Experiment at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland.
You went from playing the keyboard in a British rock band to teaching science. How did that transition take place?
I’d always been interested in astronomy and space exploration. My dad tells me that I watched Apollo 8 go around the moon back in 1968, when I was only a baby, so I’ve always been interested in science. Being a musician came a bit later. When I was 14 or 15, I got into music and took a little detour and then went back to the university. Being a musician was fun. I traveled out of the UK just once, going to LA when I was 19 to make an album. But to be honest, I think I got out of it at the right time. I wouldn’t want to be doing it now. I love being a physicist. Before doing a TV program and writing books, I was just doing research in labs in Germany and Switzerland, and that’s what I love doing. I accidentally stumbled on this new career of making TV programs, but that’s been quite fun as well.
Are there planets in our universe, besides Earth, that can sustain life?
Technically, we don’t know. We know that on Earth, where you find liquid water, you find life. Mars is getting more and more interesting every month. The evidence is that there’s probably liquid water there, but it hasn’t been proven yet. Another one is Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. It has a saltwater ocean beneath the surface. That’s real tempting — what you better do is go and find out.
Do you believe the human population will be living on those planets anytime soon?
At some point, yes I do. I would be very disappointed if I didn’t see us land on Mars within my lifetime. We should be there already — we know how to do it. We already live in space. The space station’s been there for over a decade. There should be a base on the moon, too. I guess it’s up to the ambition of the human race.
You think we’ll be forced to leave Earth one day?
Earth has a finite amount of resources. The chance of a species getting wiped out from an impact of something from space is quite high. We will get hit by something big. We need to know how to live and work in space in order to protect our planet. As [legendary American astrophysicist] Carl Sagan once said, “If the dinosaurs had a space program, they’d still be around.” I don’t understand why we’re limiting ourselves to Earth. There’s lots of room, lots of resources out there — it seems inconceivable that we wouldn’t explore it.
When do you believe the universe will end?
I think at the moment that it will last forever, but that doesn’t mean we can last forever in it. All structures end up decaying away — at some point, there will be no stars or planets. Even the black holes will be gone. Right now, when stars die, the gas and dust from them goes out to create new stars. As the universe expands and thins out, that process slows down and there will be no new stars born. If it expands forever, it will eventually disintegrate into radiation. We’re talking trillions of years in the future, but at that point, all the stars will run out of fuel, so it will kind of end in a way.