Tuesday, 19 June 2012

The Wonder of Brian Cox – Ben Falk ***

Poor old Brian Cox. Many scientists are already very snippy about his media success – they will be even less delighted to see he now has a biography on the shelves, putting him up against the likes of Einstein, Dirac and Feynman. (Or more accurately the members of One Direction.)
‘But why?’ they will moan. ‘He’s nothing special as a scientist.’ And there they will have missed the point entirely. What is special about Brian Cox, a point this book brings out superbly well, is that he is ordinary. He’s the bloke down the pub who can really explain science to you. (And it doesn’t hurt that the ladies like him.) As Zaphod Beeblebrox’s analyst says of him in Hitcher Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, ‘He’s just this guy, you know?’
I ought to say straight away – and it’s the reason it only gets three stars – that this isn’t a scientific biography. Ben Falk is straight about this. Referring to a talk by Cox and his long-time collaborator Jeff Forshaw, Falk says ‘Personally I struggle to understand why they’re talking about, but then I gladly gave up science at GCSE.’ This is not a book that is going to explain Cox’s science to you, it’s very much about Cox the man, Cox the musician and Cox the media star.
As such, and bearing in mind it has been written without any cooperation from Cox, it does a pretty good job of putting together a picture of where he came from, his lucky breaks and his essential qualities that allowed him to make something of those breaks. Perhaps the most fascinating point is where the second band Cox had an involvement with, D:ream have just became well know and are about to set off on a world tour. He decides (a good choice as it turned out, because D:ream’s fame did not last long) not to stick with them, but to go and start his physics degree.
I’ve had coffee with Brian Cox while waiting to do a gig at the Science Museum together just before he was famous, and I think the book is a fair reflection of how he comes across in life. A nice guy, passionate about his science, but dazzled by the media. At the time he had just got the job of science advisor to the financially disastrous Danny Boyle movie Sunshine, and he was absolutely fascinated by the whole business.
My main criticism of the book is that it’s a shame Falk couldn’t do a bit more with the science. He can’t entirely ignore it, but it’s clear whenever he talks about the scientific part of Cox’s life (a relatively small percentage of the book), Falk is just quoting what he’s read without any understanding of it. Anyone familiar with press releases on science subjects will be familiar with this style.
Weakest of all is Falk’s coverage of IT. I think because it’s less scary he is prepared to put things in his own words, and gets it wrong. So, for instance, we are told that ‘Perhaps the most incredible discovery at CERN prior to 2008 was the internet.’ This would come as something of a surprise to those at ARPA who started the internet from the non-secure part of ARPAnet years earlier. He means, of course, the world wide web. Elsewhere, Falk tells us that Cox was using C++ and clearly thinks this is obscure and highly technical, apparently unaware that the vast majority of bog-standard programs on Windows, Mac OS and Unix are written using this language.
This is a good book, as long as you treat it as you would any other media biography of a current phenomenon. (It’s interesting that there is no back material, not even an index, which somehow is very suggestive of this genre). It even has a longish quote from our review of Cox and Forshaw’s The Quantum Universe. Don’t look for science here, but those jealous scientists who can’t understand Cox’s success would do well to look here to get a better understanding of why it’s him, and not them, in the limelight.
Review by Brian Clegg

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