DCMS blog

The Brian Cox effect?

by

Roger Highfield

Former Editor of New Scientist and current Director of External Affairs at the National Museum of Science and Industry

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Celebrating 10 years of free entry to national museums, we’re featuring guest blogs from across the wide range of DCMS-sponsored museums.
Today, Roger Highfield, former Editor of New Scientist and current Director of External Affairs at the National Museum of Science and Industry, takes a look at how geek chic and the charms of a handsome keyboard-player-turned-physicist have transformed perception of our scientific heritage.


Take one blackboard, zinc bucket and assorted props, including a spring and multi million pound uncut diamond. Now add the boyish charms of Professor Brian Cox. Stir in a celebrity-laden audience that includes Simon Pegg, Jonathan Ross, Sarah Millican and Konnie Huq. What you get is a strange and wondrous hybrid of the traditional prime time ‘night with’ TV format and a first year undergraduate course on quantum mechanics.
I can think of no more vivid example of how it’s now chic to be geek than when I found myself in the Royal Institution for the recent filming of Brian Cox’s Night with the Stars for BBC2 (broadcast 18th December 9pm). It is yet another example of a palpable upsurge of interest in science: there’s been a boom – long overdue – in the numbers studying mathematics and sciences at A-level, along with an upward trend in the number of students taking physics in university.
Before I gave up the editorship of New Scientist in November, the UK newsstand sales had soared by 20 per cent since the start of the year, which is remarkable given the relentless downward trend of average sales of all magazines.
Silent Disco at Science Museum Lates
Photo of the Science Museum Lates Silent Disco courtesy of Science Museum. All rights reserved.
Now I have joined Ian Blatchford’s talented team at the National Museum of Science and Industry. We have seen a massive growth in visitor numbers to the Science Museum in South Kensington over the last five summers, from around half a million in July/August 2006 to more than 700,000 this year. The Museum’s “Lates” programme (an “adults only” combination of “science and snogging”, according to one magazine) has attracted thousands of the twenty- and thirty-somethings who have traditionally given science the cold shoulder.
Museum exit surveys have also seen a surge in the proportion of visitors who “strongly agree” they have ‘a keen interest in science’, from 5% in 2008/09 to 33% in the first half of 2010/11. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to support this swing in attitudes. For example, there was the appearance of the geek calendar (yes, I am in there with Cox, Ross and many more nerds) and eruption of science events at music festivals, from Glastonbury to the Green Man Festival in Wales. It seems that the punters do welcome a little scientific fibre with their wholefoods and music.
The Geek Calendar
Photos of the Geek Calendar (L-R Brian Cox and Gia Milinovich, Ben Goldacre, Evan Harris and Sabrina Chevannes, Imran Khan) by geekcalendar on Flickr. Some rights reserved.
I found myself at one, the Wilderness Festival in deepest Oxfordshire with Rory Sutherland, the irrepressible advertising guru. We were opposing the motion that “new technology is creating more serious problems than it solves”. Despite the disadvantage of our both looking very much stereotypical tools of the Establishment, I am pleased to say the festival-goers warmed to our technophilic arguments, and we won the vote.
And, of course, traditional science festivals are thriving too. The Cheltenham Science Festival, too, has grown from selling more than 11,000 tickets in 2002 to almost 31,000 this year. The Manchester Science Festival, which was first held in 2007, doubled in size last year. Prof Nancy Rothwell, president of Manchester University, says visitor numbers at the university museum – and the excellent Museum of Science and Industry nearby – are up.
Many commentators have put this down to the “Brian Cox effect”. True enough, it is hard to think of any other professor of physics who routinely appears on talk shows, writes for a tabloid newspaper and has been voted 11th most influential man in Britain by GQ. Apart from his smouldering good looks, what explains the upsurge of interest in him and his scientific message?
Cox himself is the first to point out that there are broader forces at work. One key factor has been the BBC’s decision to make science a more prominent part of its schedule – and put people with academic backgrounds, such as himself, Jim Al-Khalili, Alice Roberts and Adam Rutherford, in presenting roles. The same point is made by Sir Paul Nurse, the president of the Royal Society, which last year ran a remarkable series of events to celebrate its 350th anniversary.
I also think that the optimism and wonder of science – just think of the awesome power of the Geneva based Large Hadron Collider, the implications of the faster-than-light neutrinos or the recent discovery of an Earth-like exoplanet – offer a powerful and welcome antidote to the global economic gloom.
What we are witnessing is not so much a rise of science as its restoration to its rightful place in our culture. Cloning, IVF, genetic modification, fusion power, renewables, the web, you name it – the appliance of science is changing our world. Turn your back on science and you turn your back on the future.
Perhaps what is more surprising about the Cox effect is just how long it has taken for mainstream culture to cherish and relish the way that science, technology and engineering are the biggest cultural forces at work today. That’s to be welcomed. For democracy to work, everyone needs a basic grasp of what science is all about.


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