2011-03-24

Talking Bollocks about Cox

Physicist Brian Cox's current Wonders of the Universe series seems to have set off a chain reaction amongst UK journalists. I can't be arsed to link to all the articles I've read (one exception below) but some common themes emerge. I think the claims made in the press should be subjected to some rational (and empirical) scrutiny..

1) "This mop-topped stargazer revels in the insignificance of mankind"

This from Brendan O'Neill of the Frank Furedi Cult writing in the Telegraph. Brendan continues: "In contrast, today’s cod-Copernicans in the Cox lobby are drawn to the cosmos because its weirdness and bigness feeds their drab, down-to-earth belief that there isn’t much point to life." Hmmm, there must be some more words beginning with “c” one could insert into this sentence to help the alliteration along …. Hey, I’ve just thought of one!

I suppose Brendan would prefer it if Brian revised modern physics and cosmology in order to recognize just how important Brendan O'Neill really is. In any case, the claim that Brian "revels in the insignificance of mankind" is simply false. Utterly false! Brian repeatedly and enthusiastically revels in the fact that mankind is around to witness this stage of cosmological evolution and award it the significance it deserves – read his books!

2) Brian wears GoreTex

The “most expensive GoreTex money can buy” in some accounts. Indeed! He’s on top of a fucking mountain. You don’t need to spend long looking at what Brian normally wears to notice that he is not the sort of chap who gets off on sporting expensive designer clothes. I’m sure he has a mucky old cagoule with rips in it in his wardrobe, but I’m guessing the film crew thought it best if he wore something that would look better on camera. I dread to think what the hacks would have said if he’d worn his own cagoule.

3) Brian is standing with his legs apart

Again, he’s on top of a fucking mountain. There’s a sheer drop of several thousand meters on all sides. It’s windy. He’s being buzzed by a helicopter that has rotor blades and a down-draft.He’s talking about gravity which, I expect, kind of concentrates the mind in such circumstances. Of course it’s possible, in spite of all this that Brian’s just trying to pose in the style of Joe Strummer on the original Clash album but, on the other hand, Brian (as again we are constantly reminded in the media) was in a rock band. In fact he was in two. If he’d wanted to “pose” with his legs apart, he really has had his chances before. He really didn’t need to wait until they put him on top of a fucking mountain.

4) Brian is standing on top of a fucking mountain

I’m sure they’d have preferred to film him on the surface of the planet Zog in the constellation of Hyperbole but I think that was probably beyond the budget.

A lot of science education is about relating weird and wonderful concepts to stuff with which we earthlings are familiar. There’s an interesting and instructive analogy between the 4D geometry of space-time (versus the 3D geometry with which our intuitions are more familiar) and the 3D geometry of a mountainous landscape (versus the 2D landscape you’d see on a map).

Moreover, there are any number of (more subjective) analogies between the grandeur and scale and beauty and longevity of a mountainous landscape and the cosmos as a whole.

Putting Brian on top of a mountain got all this across succinctly and poetically and cleverly in a televisual way which (I hope we all hope) will inspire young people watching to appreciate the wonders of science and consider science as a career.

Nuff said.

5) Brian was dumbing down

A tricky area I admit, but are we really suggesting Brian should have stood in front of a white- board detailing the differences between Mesons and Leptons? In any case, many of the most baffling puzzles of modern physics and cosmology can be appreciated (though, of course, not solved) without understanding the details.

When they are engaging with the general public, it’s the job of scientists to and stay interesting and comprehensible for long enough to inspire that general public. It’s easy to be snobbish about Brian writing for the Sun or appearing on popular radio and TV, but as long as he does not misrepresent his subject through oversimplification (which he is careful never to do) it’s highly laudable that he makes the effort to appeal to a wider audience.

6) Brian has an ego the size of a planet

Bollocks!

Watch his body language! He walks on stage looking as self-conscious as any of us, less used to the limelight, would. He is self-deprecating and always ready to laugh at himself. All this slips away completely, however, when he starts talking, not about himself, but about the ideas that interest him and move him. At such moments he oozes confidence and (yes) shines like a star. He becomes Pete Towshend. Get him back on to the subject of Brian Cox and he reverts to John Entwistle (with a hint of Tommy Cooper thrown in). Funny sort of egotism.

7) Me

You could, I suppose, call me a “fan” of Brian Cox (though my respect for him predates his current TV star status). I do not, however, fancy Brian or have a “man-crush” on him or regard him as some kind of saint. I am sure he has all the failings and annoying habits that the rest of us mere mortals have. All this said, I get deeply pissed off when journalists (who typically understand about as much about science as I understand about the rules of American Football or the plot of Emmerdale Farm) traduce a fellow geek as a substitute for doing something that would – if they were capable of doing it – actually be interesting: Engaging with the fucking ideas!
/rant

69 comments:

  1. It hasn't been "Emmerdale Farm" since 1989. Shows how much you understand about the plot. Oh, wait a minute, I see what you did there. Clever ;)

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  2. "I’m sure they’d have preferred to film him on the surface of the planet Zog in the constellation of Hyperbole but I think that was probably beyond the budget." I laughed hard when reading these lines. It's all bollocks. I think that the stuff they done in #wonders is amazing and breathtaking. This all gibberish crap is just plain talking about nothing. Brian is amazing and also intelligent a lot, so i hope he won't make any serious thoughts about this nonsense.

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  3. Well said "power to the geeks" let's trend that #powertothegeeks

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  4. This. Is. Amazing. Thank you for so eloquently writing my exact thoughts about this ridiculous and demeaning topic :-)

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  5. Saw this linked on Twitter; good points, well made.

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  6. Well said! You brits are lucky to have him! I have to watch his shows via the Internet. The man is no Sagan but he's not far from it. Tell your press to keep making up fear mongering stories about nuclear meltdowns and leave the science to the likes of Prof. Brian Cox.

    Regards from Canada,
    Julian

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  7. *Applauds* (no sarcasm intended)

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  8. Totally agree. Brian is doing a fantastic job of trying to explain the universe to a wide audience, and stoke some interest in science along the way, something which I (like him) believe is vitally important, especially with the economy in need of a boost at the moment.

    His TV programs are utterly fantastic, and he really grabs you and keeps you interested in the ideas and methods used for discovering incredible things about our universe.

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  9. Brilliant- you hit upon all the points that have made me so angry about the media coverage of this latest series. Fact is, we should be chuffing rejoicing that the BBC have found someone that the vast majority (excusing pretentious wanky journalists)of the public enjoy watching and LEARNING from. That's the key-LEARNING, and I have had my interest piqued and have learned much, which has led me on to wanting to learn more. FFS we get a TV experience that is a million miles away from the sodding X Factor and the hacks STILL complain. I love 'Wonders' and I'm gutted it's just 4 episodes this series..I want more.
    Thanks again for a great post!
    Lisa
    =^..^=

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  10. HaHa! Quality article! People just like to have opinions that stick out I think. Sells the papers and gets their names known.

    Personally I think it's great to have a show discussing such complexed things which is still accessible no matter what your intelect (pretty much).

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  11. Just a thought re: egos.

    "Brendan O'Neill is the editor of spiked, an independent online phenomenon"

    Phenomenon? Pot, Kettle, Black methinks...

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  12. Well said, Brendan O'Neill in particular really is a piece of shit - that article of his was barely fit for toilet paper

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  13. I don't get the 'dumbing down' thing at all. As much as I thought Jim Al-Khalili was bloody marvellous on Everything And Nothing this week, it sails over the head of my 6-year-old son. He's a massive, massive fan of Professor Cox, however, and loves watching Wonders and indeed lots of other popular science shows.

    As do I. Because I already know most of the underlying physics (waves MPhys about geekily), and what I'm looking for from the show is the inspiring demonstration of what the implications of the numbers mean at an emotional level.

    Above all, I love the way that the BBC, not just with Cox and Al-Khalili, but from Iain Stewart's geology programmes all the way to Steve Backshall's brilliant 'Deadly 60' wildlife series for CBBC, recognise the power of a "presenter" that is someone who knows their stuff enthusing about _why_ they find the subject fascinating enough to learn about it, rather than an actor reading a script.

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  14. The one thing Prof Cox brings to the screen more than anything is an enthusiasm and love for his subject - great positivity. That's why the hacks are laying into him, their stock trade is negativity.

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  15. Well said - pity this couln't be published in the pAress! I personally think all these so called journalists are extremely jealous!

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  16. Literally ALL the British press do is attack anyone who is successful at anything. If I were Brian I'd take is a compliment and never read the bloody rags ever again.

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  17. Nicely said.

    Oh by the way, i found this because Coxy retweeted you.

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  18. Brilliant. The wonders of British press, they cannot stand anyone getting too much attention, so they have to rip them down. I find not buying newspapers stops me having to read the twisted egotistic twaddle that they spew out.
    Wonders is brilliant, as a 40 odd year old mum,I can now understand a bit about what my two sons, who are doing A Level physics, are talking about, and I no longer sit there glazing over as they start to talk.

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  19. Wow, why all these petty attacks against such a wonderful program. One of the beauties of it, apart from it's fantastic visulisations and music, is the way brian presents it in a way the layman can understand it without being patronising at all. I'm a big fan :)

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  20. Agreed. I think most of the criticisms, though, arise from the latest series having too many "gratuitous cox shots". The series, and Brian, are great, but there do seem to be an unnecessary number of shots of him standing looking meaningfully over a landscape.

    Makes for a good drinking game though. You can get hammered on an episode...

    Also, honestly, watching turtles lay eggs did not help me understand time!

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  21. Thanks for saying what the rest of us are thinking. Well put!

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  22. I love the repetition of "he's on top of a fucking mountain". You've just brightened up my day!

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  23. Brilliant - couldnt agree more.. finally someone that has given so many people an interest in science and the universe that schools today fail at doing. My physics teacher was an alcoholic twit who's only concern was making it to the end of the day so he could go to the boozer.

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  24. Well said! (And very amusing).

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  25. Brilliant post!

    My only issue with the series so far is that in the last episode, the music was a bit quiet...

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  26. We had the same physics teacher Alistair ~~~his home brew was awesome :-)

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  27. Who was it that said that if you think you understand quantum mechanics, then you don't?

    In your FACE people who think the 'dumbing down' goes a rock too far.

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  28. Without wishing to sound geeky, my favourite scientist of all time is the sadly departed Richard Feynman. And why is that? It's because of something that both he and Brian Cox share(d) in spades; an all-encompassing enthusiasm for their subject matter that is so contagious, you quickly lose yourself in the wonder of it (no pun intended) and find yourself yearning to find out more. That is a rare talent and can only happen when someone truly understands their subject and is blessed with the ability to translate that information into an easily digestible form for any listener. Few people fit into that category and even fewer can be heard in our living rooms. The likes of Prof Brian Cox should be praised, not derided.

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  29. I've just seen this after Prof Cox tweeted about it. You've said what the rest of us are thinking, I didn't enjoy physics in school (although I wasn't bad at it) but I've really enjoyed the series. It's reached out to a lot of people that would normally avoid watching a programme about science.

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  30. Well said mate. Having seen his Horizon programs in the past (and a few of the outtakes on youtube) I looked forward to "wonders of the ..." and was/am not disappointed by either series.
    Maybe he should look at getting sponsored by Berghaus, or The North Face. Then, like footballers and their stupid orange boots, he'll get them for free.

    It's people like Brian Cox, Iain Stewart and Patrick Moore that enthuse people to go out and learn about things that would otherwise seem a bit too daunting or, dare I say it, boring.

    P.S. Astrology is rubbish!!!

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  31. Couldn't agree more! If Brian Cox had any sort of ego would he have allowed the less-than-flattering sequence of him in the centrifuge to get into the show?
    Attractive as he is, what these "nobbers" of journalist fail spectacularly to understand, is that to most of his fans, his looks are only a small part of his appeal.

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  32. Hear! Hear! - on all points.

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  33. You may sleep tonight knowing that you have helped right a wrong! Your work is done. Best thing I have read for ages!!!

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  34. Well said.

    I honestly don't understand the complaints.
    I first got to know who professor Brian Cox is when I watched BBC Horizon's episode about the nature of Time ("Do you know what time it is?"), and his presentation was extremely fascinating, and I'll quote Brian quoting Carl Sagan: captured my imagination.
    Since then I saw several lectures, and now in Wonders of the Universe, and I think he's doing a great job. It's interesting, it sends sparks in the imagination, it makes you feel awe and wonder. Not many can communicate those feelings well. Carl Sagan could. Brian Cox can too.

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  35. Did anyone else see the rope attached to him while on top of that mountain and wonder who or what was on the other end?
    Got to say I'm loving seeing all these media types spouting and trying to knock Cox meanwhile giving the rest of us a chance to put them in their place (sadly they're prob too thick(skinned) or self-centred to realise it).

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  36. I think it's the journalist that has the ego, either that or he's just jealous, probably a bit insecure too, poor man he's got s few issues, quess he should see someone, he needs a good talking to!!! Brain Cox is a man to be admired, and there's not too many of them around these days...keep up the good work Brian, for man as well as mankind!!!

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  37. Strange that not one female reviewer or journalist has been negative about him. Perhaps the male hacks are just annoyed their female partners spent the entire broadcast smiling.

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  38. My kids are absolutely riveted by Brian Cox. Both really inspired by watching 'Wonders'. 10 year old lad created PowerPoint presentation about the solar system for school + my 8 year old daughter has been writing stories about stars collapsing + meteors creating new life... Brian Cox is brilliant at making a tricky subject more accessible + his enthusiasm is infectious!

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  39. Well said. "Wonders" is a brilliant program and Brian presents it with such enthusiasm and clarity. If physics was taught like this we would have far more young people studying it.
    It's the media doing the dumbing down.

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  40. Nice post. Brian does get a lot of exposure at the moment but he is bringing science to the masses and making it interesting and understandable. But you've covered it all in your blog anyway :-)

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  41. Points well said, but hey since when was someone who became popular and appealed to us ignorant masses wasn't targetted by the media? It was only a matter of time, anyway Coxie will rise above it!

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  42. the most endearing quality that Brian Cox possesses is the ability to be moved to enthusiasm over the wonders of the world/ universe we inhabit. This kind of enthusiasm is contagious and inspires one to go and find out things for oneself ie research and learning. It is the culmination of the skill of a good scientist and the artistry of a great teacher.

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  43. Thank you, couldn't agree more. Why are so many journalist so full of themselves and as for Brendan O'Neill his just unpleasant.

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  44. honestly? It seems to me that Brendan O'Neil has had a run in with the green eyed monster, and I dont mean a visitor from the planet Zog! Utter dribble Mr O'Neill, why dont you write an article on the question of whether the human race originally came from this really nice couple who spent most of their time walking around in designer fig leaves?

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  45. Professor Brian Cox has inspired more people an children than intimidated biased low life journalist who are so skint that they'd waste their time reasoning with Brian. He is an AMAZING figure and role model for so many children and some biased journalist can't take that away!

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  46. Although I do have a man-crush on Brian because he is intelligent, funny and a decent looking chap, I still appreciate the ideas he communicated in his Horizon appearances for their own merit, before he dazzled the minds of young and old alike in Wonders of the Solar System and this new epic.

    I laugh at the charge of dumbing down: I'm pretty sure a good many people feel the same about Horizon or documentaries about Jacob Bronowski on BBC4. There will always be some pompous idiot who believes such information should be limited to a technical audience.
    The idea behind Wonders seems similar to Sagan's Cosmos and Attenborough's Life on Earth; Get the information out there in a way that reels as many people in with a sense of awe and doesn't patronise. I feel the 'Wonders' series achieve this.

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  47. Was passing the newspaper display in the supermarket today, but couldn't bring myself to buy a Telegraph. Hope they lose a few thousand sales in the same way. Deeply unpleasant "journalist" will not sully my kitchen table by lurking between its pages.

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  48. Hoorah for this blogger talking sense. Brian Cox is making science fascinating and accessible to all.... and he's a bloody descent chap. Enough said.

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  49. "I’m sure they’d have preferred to film him on the surface of the planet Zog in the constellation of Hyperbole but I think that was probably beyond the budget."

    Thanks for the belly-laugh (my neighbours are probably wondering what I'm up to).

    Great points - amazing what passes for 'journalism' these days.

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  50. I also agree with the points you make.

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  51. Brilliant! Anyone who has a go at Cox clearly is jealous because he's one of the smartest men around (and they're clearly not)!!

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  52. The man is an inspiration and not surprised there are so many begrudgers: no one kicks a dead dog.
    He made me feel passionate about science again.

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  53. I go to Manchester Uni where he works! In fairness, I can't stand watching his stuff, but only because I've seen doccumentaries on it before and read up the stuff. Then again I'm a scientist and should be expected to, what little I've seen is clearly intended to engage the public with science, a worthwile agenda that he achieves brilliantly.

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  54. Applause for that man, you made all the points a lot of us were thinking :) I say keep up the great work Prof Cox. My husband is a physicist and loves the programmes too which just shows the series appeals to everyone. People (eg Hacks) always think that negativity sells but it doesnt and once in a while we would like something nice said about someone who deserves it, newspapers take note.

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  55. Quite agree on all points (though I did giggle at the Slash/Sambora-guitar-solo-esque mountain shot). What I admire most in Brian is that he always downplays the role of born-in intelligence in science, emphasising that an open mind, some self-confidence and a fair bit of hard work can bring some of these joys to most people. Too many people dismiss themselves as "not smart enough" for science. If he can persuade just some of those to give it a shot, he's done a good job, and I have no doubt he'd be thrilled to know it.

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  56. Thanks so much for writing this! It really needs to be said. I'm sick of watching people of true merit get chewed up and spat out by the gutter press. And they can't really hit back.

    I think the message by "Jako" in the comments section also makes some good points in defense of Brian. Too many ignoramuses just think he's a celeb who's famous for being a celeb rather than for having done worthwhile things, which they probably don't even know about. So they pronounce all the usual shallow superficial judgments without engaging their brain. If they have one.

    Your blog is a blast of clean pure air which helps blow away O'Neill's stench. You seem to know Brian personally - good on ya for being a real friend. And for a top piece of writing.

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  57. I love watching #wonders and was very annoyed to read the drivel from Idiot O'Neill. Thankfully you have shown him up as a complete jerk! Well done!

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  58. [I'm the same Anon as posted just above Cardol] I see that cowardly bastard Brendan O'Neill seems to have disabled the comments section in his blog, while still leaving his poison pigeon-droppings intact. The slimy little pondweed can dish it out but he sure can't take it. IMHO it's bound to be because the comments were running about 98% in Brian's favour, and even included a reply from Brian himself. I can't believe anyone could be so dishonest. Oh, wait... yes I can.

    I think we should write to the Telegraph and complain about O'Neill's tactics under their banner, and see if we can persuade them to restore the comments. If they respond at all they'll probably try to say it was a website malfunction or something. A malfunction that leaves the poison intact and neatly disables the antidote. Yeah, right.

    Their contact info (from their website so this isn't disclosing anything private) is

    Telegraph General Switchboard: +44 20 7931 2000
    Online contact form: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/topics/about-us/form/
    General home page (Contact Us link on bottom right): http://www.telegraph.co.uk/

    Anyway, sucks to them, I'd saved the web page offline so here's what Jako wrote, which I think needs repeating:

    > Whether or not you like Cox's style (I do, but it's not to everyone's taste), this is still crap "journalism". Whether or not Cox irritates you, he is still accomplishing something productive and worthwhile which can only benefit our society. He has encouraged a huge number of kids to go into the sciences. Various official bodies had been lamenting in print and statistics that university studies in the hard subjects were down, both in the UK and US; whereas now, physics applications have risen sharply. So have telescope sales, astronomy club memberships and many other science-related things.

    Cox added considerable weight to the Science Is Vital campaign, which was in itself vital to helping curb the government funding cuts. He has raised huge awareness of science-related fields, and rekindled my own long-dormant interest in physics. I don't have the abilities to contribute directly, but I can vote, write letters, persuade. Science IS vital, and he's doing a great deal to promote it. (You might remember that next time you need medical treatment or want to know you can trust a bridge.) Plus he makes interesting TV programmes which nobody has to watch if they don't want to. What is O'Neill doing?

    Whether or not you like Cox's enthusiasm, it's not just an empty smile for the cameras. He is genuinely knowledgeable. They don't give out professorships or CERN experiment leaderships unless you can deliver the goods; and you don't get the OBE and the Kelvin medal without having made a significant contribution to your field.

    That meaning DOING things, not just sitting around taking cheap potshots because you don't like someone's manner or - is this the nub of it? - his gigantic media success. Anyone who is successful in his chosen career AND gets to be a TV star is bound to attract jealousy.

    Not to mention trolls. I've wondered if this whole article is just a huge put-on - its stupidity suggests that - but even if so, the above points stand. A lot of the Cox-bashing that goes on is for very superficial reasons and is monumentally beside the point. You can dislike his smile/hair/bouncy enthusiasm, but there's no gainsaying the genuine accomplishments he has made, and been officially recognised for by professional institutions.

    Do people like O'Neill even THINK of this? No, too busy grubbing around in the mud trying to find some more to throw. Trouble is, the mud sticks to them too.

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  59. Surely the whole point of scientific research into fundamental questions like 'where did we come from?' is to communicate it to mankind as a whole. Brian Cox is just part of the team effort necessary for that communication to be effective. To criticise him personally is stupid and wrong. To criticise the effort to communicate is stupid and wrong. Brendan O'Neill's criticism that Dr Cox revels in mankind's insignificance wasn't worth saying, even if it were valid, which it is not. It reveals O'Neill's belief that Humankind is in some way superior or beyond the reach of nature. Perhaps the point of Wonders was put across too well to Mr O'Neill and a realisation of his own insignificance prompted his childish and jealous article.

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  60. Brendan O'Neill occasionally comes out with some really interesting stuff but a lot of his output is bollocks. To be honest I think he knows this. He always goes against "the grain" and I'm sure he's smart enough to realize that often, the grain is right.

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  61. With you all the way to zorg ;)

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  62. Dr. Cox's love of science is infectious, and his enthusiasm is so utterly refreshing. I guess we have to remember that a sense of wonder doesn't sell -- blood and scandal and tragedy sells in today's media. Wonders is exactly that -- wonder. I can't wait until we Canucks get to watch.

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  63. I think Brendan is exhibiting a clear case of "Cox Envy"

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  64. I agree!
    His enthusiasm is inspirational, and a great role model for my generation! For non-scientists, he has a wonderful way of describing things which we can't quite grasp.

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