BBC Icon Says Humans Have Ascended into Insignificance

Sunday morning kicked off with Professor Brian Cox, star of the BBC’s science coverage giving a keynote talk. He was introduced by Ray Snoddy, the moderator as “David Attenborough’s successor”, a position he was nominated for by David Attenborough, a BBC icon, himself.

Cox said that Carl Sagan’s Cosmos TV programme was the spark for him to decide that he wanted to go into astronomy and he was fascinated with the whole Apollo programme.

Early in his life, Cox said that he saw that TV was important as a medium. The early Cosmos programmes were truly “Reithian”, i.e. they inform, they educate and entertain (a phrase I echoed in my editorial a few weeks ago – Man. Ed). He made the point that, in his view, a recent update of Cosmos from Fox, generally a commercial organisation, was also “Reithian” in the same sense. The BBC, of course, has a duty to its funders, but Fox showed that even a commercial organisation may make good content.

TV is the most important medium, and a dominant social force and that is why advertisers put so much money into it. Cox is optimistic that there is real worth in high quality content but he also believes that it is part of the social responsibility of big corporations to be “Reithian”

How does linear TV compete in the world of multi-channel? Cox said that this is the responsibility of TV executives to decide how the technology is developed, not the technologists.

In 2010, the BBC ran the “Year of Science” and there is evidence that there was a turn around in the number of applications by students for places in Science, Technology and Maths (STEM subjects).

Cox clearly believes that there is a great thirst for understanding and knowledge even outside academic circles and he explained that he had been in Oklahoma on a TV shoot and had stopped to get fuel for his car. The attendant asked him, “About string theory, do you think there are really eleven tightly curled dimensions?”.

Snoddy asked whether there are subjects so vague that they can’t be made interesting, but Cox said no, good programmes can be made on almost any subject.

Within the BBC, he said, there is little detailed argument about topics, but he said there are sometimes “robust” discussions. He also said that in voice-overs and his pieces to camera, he has to take responsibility for what he says but can also use the freedom he has to promote his own point of view. Of course, you learn how to present with practice, but the BBC has deliberately appointed a number of working academics including himself and Prof Jim Al-Khalili. There is a level of “appropriate tension” between the TV directors and the academics. Later in the talk, he said that typically four people in a BBC team will develop a science series and plan the script.

Cox said that one of the great things about the BBC is that there is a dedicated group that works on science programmes, so there is real understanding both of TV and of the science. Cox believes that if you want to be a media journalist, the first thing is to get a PhD so that you truly “become a scientist” and he got into TV following interviews on Horizon when he was working at CERN.

“What is the function of an academic in society?”, he asked. This has changed over the years. Traditionally, he said, the job was “teaching, admin and research”, but now “social responsibility” includes promoting science and the public understanding of the importance of the academic world.

Cox continues to lecture and research for one term a year, to keep himself as a working academic and he is actively working to get more scientists talking about research.

To try to leave some time for this work, he works with his producers to try to minimise his time on camera. His new series, “Human Universe”, has more voice-overs and less of Cox on screen, partly so that he can find more time for academic work.

While researching “Human Universe”, he was interviewing a tribesman in a very primitive culture. The man said that in his tribe, it is said that “Your eyes have your age and your ears have your father’s age”, which emphasises of the importance of “the cultural ratchet” – the transmission of knowledge from generation to generation through books and other mediums.

Cox said that there had been a huge shift in the perception of humans and their relationship to the universe. He likes the “ascent into insignificance” from the view that man was centre of the universe, just 400 years ago, but now realise that we are the tiniest speck in the scope of the universe, let alone the multiverse.

It’s possible that we are the only civilised planet in the Milky Way, Cox believes, partly because it takes 3.8 billion years of stable nature to get to the point that we have got to. A lot could go wrong over that period of time. However, he said, whether we’re alone in the universe or there are aliens, both possibilities are “terrifying”. Dealing with the kind of question of where we fit and why we’re here is where philosophy, science and culture meet. The deeper question, in his view, is “How should we behave, given the nature of our knowledge of the universe”.

The world has changed very dramatically over the last 100 years or so. We went from Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetism to TV in one lifetime and from the Wright Bros to moon landings in another lifetime.

In response to a question, he said that broadcasters don’t see themselves as innovative, but the innovations have been more incremental than in some other fields. In reality (if not in reality TV – Man. Ed.), there is real innovation over time.

Cox sees the current demand and supply of more and more choice as potentially “ghettoising the audience”. Education exposes youngsters to ideas, but in the past, TV also exposed youngsters and others to more ideas. He said that a 15 year old boy could spend all his time watching game channels and that is “not necessarily a good thing”. On the other hand, youngsters are developing different skills to deal with the world they are in.

Is more choice the ultimate value for TV? No, he thinks, it’s about informed choice.

In response to another question, Cox said that the distinction between the real and virtual world is disappearing and nobody understands the implications of this.

In conclusion, the distribution of knowledge is a fundamental for society, but can’t be left purely to the market. Education and knowledge distribution are fundamental to society.

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Excuse this diversion into a non-display topic, but I thought we could include it on the basis that I also think that Reithian values are important! (BR)