Usually, physics is viewed as a boring and unfathomable subject for many people, and physicists as nerdy types wearing NHS glasses and patched up Aran sweaters.

But thanks to a former pop star, the subject is being made more accessible to the British people.

Brian Cox is not only the former keyboard player of pop band D:Ream - whose 1993 No1 hit was "Things Can Only Get Better", used by Tony Blair's New Labour during their successful General Election campaign in 1997 - but he is also a particle physicist at Manchester University.

Professor Cox, from Oldham, near Manchester, has a knack for explaining physics in a simple, easy-to-understand way, which is why his new BBC documentary, "Wonders of the Solar System", has attracted 5 million viewers in the UK, an unheard of number for a science documentary (although his good looks may have thousands of women tuning in).

The show has become so popular that even young children beg him for his autograph when he's out shopping.

I'm the Liam Gallagher of physics, says Professor Brian Cox

By Lara Gould


Making physics understandable: Professor Brian Cox

We've had celebrity chefs and celebrity gardeners.

But, with the exception of star-gazer Sir Patrick Moore, celebrity scientists are rarer than men from Mars.

That was until the arrival of particle physicist Professor Brian Cox - who has become science's new poster boy after fronting BBC2's Wonders of the Solar System.

The five-part series, which comes to an end tonight, has attracted stellar audiences of up to five million - almost unheard of for a science documentary.

The programme attempts to explain the secrets of the universe in simple terms and has become as popular for its easy-on-the-ear approach as its easy-on-the-eye presenter.

Brian Cox (playing the keyboards, far right) performing in the early Nineties with his pop band, D:Ream

With his boyish good looks and passionate approach to his subject matter, Cox has become "the Liam Gallagher of physics".

"I suppose I've made science sexy," the 42-year-old says, slightly bemused. "I'm happy for people to think I'm a pin-up if it gets them talking about science.

"I'm a little celebrity at the moment and it's good to be a role model to kids because of my subject, not just to be famous for the sake of being famous.

"I'm not a genius, I'm just someone who works hard and is passionate about their subject."

Cox, who's a professor at Manchester University, adds: "My students are very grateful. Before I was on TV physics students were seen as a bit boring and no one wanted to speak to them.

"Now they say, 'You've made physics cool'. The other students are interested in the subject and they get chatted up a lot more."

But not everyone's pleased with Brian's new-found fame - not least his American TV presenter wife Gia Milinovich, with whom he has a 10-month-old son.

"My wife's not overly happy with the level of attention I'm getting," he says.

"It takes us three hours to get round Sainsbury's because kids want autographs and we've had paparazzi taking pictures of us.

"But I'm proud to be shining a light on physics and drawing attention to a subject I love. After the series finishes I'm going back to teaching. My work is science. I don't want to be a TV presenter."

Professor Cox is adamant that he hasn't worked on his image, insisting: "I don't pay much attention to how I look."

But then this isn't his first taste of fame... Before launching his TV career, Brian was the keyboard player in chart-topping D:Ream - the group whose single Things Can Only Get Better became the theme to New Labour's 1997 election victory.

He toured the world supporting Take That and Robbie Williams at the height of their fame in the 1990s at the same time as studying physics at Manchester. "It was mental," he recalls. "I was a student, so I would be in the lab doing experiments or in lectures during the day. Then I'd take off my lab coat, get on the bus and be playing live in front of 50,000 in Manchester's G-Mex stadium in the evening."

Brian goes on: "We were on Top of the Pops with the Bee Gees and Take That. I really wanted their autographs but I didn't have any paper.

"The only thing I had was my physics exam syllabus so I ripped a page out of that and got them all to sign it."

Wonders of the Solar System is a 2010 television series co-produced by the BBC and Science Channel, and hosted by physicist Brian Cox.

D:Ream wound up in 1994 but reformed three years later after their single was chosen the represent Tony Blair's election campaign. The band were invited to play live at London's Royal Festival Hall as New Labour swept to power. And 13 years on, Brian says he still feels a loyalty to Labour as Gordon Brown prepares to go to the polls. "Being part of the election in 1997 was an iconic moment," he says. "We were right at the centre of the action and our song was at the heart of it.

"I'm political now in a different way. I want politicians to put science at the top of their agenda. I know the Lib Dems are trying to push science into the manifesto and Labour are too.

"But I haven't heard anyone from the Conservatives even talking about it. I haven't heard David Cameron mention how important science is once.

"As far as I can tell the Conservatives don't have any understanding. The shadow Science Minister, Adam Afriyie, has been quoted as saying there will be savage cuts to higher education funding. That's gross short-termism."


Prof Cox explains one mystery of the solar system...

The Sun is an enormous ball of hydrogen and helium. You could fit a million Earths inside it.

Deep in its core, the temperature is 15million degrees Celsius, so hot that atomic nuclei of hydrogen stick together to make helium. A helium nucleus is a tiny bit lighter than a hydrogen nucleus - a scientist would say that it has less mass. Einstein's most famous equation, E=mc(squared) tells us that it is possible for mass to vanish and re-appear as energy. c(Squared) is the speed of light squared, which is a number with 17 zeros after it.

In other words, a little bit of mass is equivalent to a huge amount of energy. The Sun converts 600 million tonnes of hydrogen into helium every second! That releases 400million million million million watts of power - a million times the yearly power consumption of the U.S. produced by the Sun every second!

Last edited by Blackleaf; Apr 4th, 2010 at 12:58 PM..