Brian Cox on Scilly

First published in issue 58 of Scilly Now & Then

The obvious opening question had to be what do you think of Scilly, to which Brian said he liked it a lot and would definitely come back with his family for a holiday - a ringing endorsement if ever there was one - but time was short and we had a lot more to get through. For example, what exactly was he doing here?


We were filming a series about the history of British science and we wanted to come over here because this particular programme is about the difference between pure and applied science and whether there is one.


“By that I mean there’s the kind of science that is completely curiosity led so you just get interested in some natural phenomenon and investigate it but you don’t care whether it’s of any use at all for research. There is also the very applied science where there is a specific problem and someone might even give you money to go and solve it. Science is the only way we can solve problems such as the longitude problem - how to navigate and find your position at sea.


There was a famous incident here in 1707 when the Admiral of the Fleet, Sir Cloudesley Shovell, lost his flagship HMS Association along with the HMS Eagle, HMS Romney and HMS Firebrand when they struck the Western Rocks on their return from Toulon. It is not known exactly how many men were killed but statements vary from 1,400 to over 2,000, making it one of the worst maritime disasters in the history of the British Isles.


It was later determined that the main cause of the disaster was the navigators’ inability to accurately calculate their position.“And that was one of the key motivations that led the Admiralty to put up the prize for the longitude problem being solved,” said Brian. “John Harrison solved it by inventing a clock so essentially our filming here provides an introduction to one of the great historical examples of a specific problem that was eventually solved and interestingly not by some kind of pure discovery. I think at the time the Longitude Board would rather it had been some astronomical discovery where there was something about the universe you could use to determine longitude but that’s not the way it’s done, it’s done by timing.”


To the shame of the Longitude Board, Harrison wasn’t paid for his efforts. The £20,000 prize, worth almost £3m today, was withheld because the Board felt that the accuracy of his Sea Watch ‘H4’ was down to luck. After designing a second sea watch ‘H5’, Harrison obtained an audience with King George III who advised him to petition Parliament for the full prize after threatening to appear in person to dress them down. Finally in 1773, when he was 80 years old, he was given £8,750 for his achievements, but never received the official award.


The Harrison discovery will form part of a three-part series currently under the working title of Science Britannica. It should be broadcast on BBC2 in April or May.


‘We’ve finally finished it after about a year. Yesterday was our last filming day,” said Brian. “Other things we covered were the origins of the Royal Society, which is over 350 years old and is the oldest scientific society in the world; the Royal Institution, where Faraday invented the electric motor among other things; scientific publishing and the way scientists communicate with each other. We also looked at how scientists interact with the public so we looked a little bit at Frankenstein and those sort of myths.”


Might the subject matter extend into a religious debate? Brian shook his head. “It’s more historical although we did look at the challenges in the perception of science.”


It was time to make our way to the departure lounge so our time together was short, but we had to either confirm or put an end to the rumours that he is to take over The Sky at Night.


“No! I love to contribute to the programme and I know the team very well. I was thrilled to appear as a guest on the 700th edition but The Sky at Night is in very good hands with Chris Lintott and the team who have worked on it for years. I am of a strong view that is the way it should stay.


“I think it is a superb programme. It’s part of the fabric of the BBC and part of the fabric of the astronomy community in Britain. Patrick was one of the reasons I got into astronomy - although that’s true of virtually every astronomer in Britain.”


Another of Brian’s great interests is, of course, music. He was a keyboard player in the band D:Ream, having joined shortly after my brother Al Mackenzie, one of the founder members, departed. I had to ask if he had plans to do any more music, to which he very quickly said no.


As we reached the departure lounge I asked what excites him most about physics and he pointed to the window, where we could see the twin-otter waiting to fly him back to the mainland.


“Things like aircraft. I’m often asked if physics is just one way of looking at the world; well no it isn’t - as you can see by the design of aircraft wings. Nobody has an opinion about that!”


He started to laugh, before adding: “It’s the same when you are talking about the origin of the evolution of the universe or how old is the Earth and things like that. You’re not allowed to have opinions on these things.”.

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