BBC’s Cox Seeks Sagan Touch in Taking Cosmos to Masses

Professor Brian Cox, the pop star turned physicist backed by David Attenborough to become the new face of BBC science programs, said he’s in talks for a series that would emulate Carl Sagan’s mold-breaking “Cosmos.”

Cox, who worked on the Atlas experiment at the CERN nuclear research institute that’s credited with observing the elementary Higgs boson particle, said the television program that so fascinated him as a boy in the early 1980s remains the blueprint for bringing science coverage to a mass audience.

Discussions are under way with the British Broadcasting Corp. about a program that would draw on some of the same themes as “Cosmos,” Cox said in an interview. The scientist brandished a copy of the book that accompanied Sagan’s 13-part epic in his own breakthrough series, “Wonders of the Solar System.” Filming could begin at the end of this year, he said.

“I grew up watching Cosmos,” Cox, 44, said in London, where he is based between TV assignments, his work at CERN and a teaching post at Manchester University. “I’d like to make something kind of not a history of science, but a way of thinking. I think it will have a component of that in it.”

Cosmos blended science with history and philosophy to tell the story of the universe via an imaginary journey through the solar system and into deep space, aided by special effects and a soundtrack featuring music from pop instrumentalist Vangelis. Made by the U.S. Public Broadcasting Service, with the BBC as co-producer, episodes bore titles including “Blues for a Red Planet” and “Who Speaks for Earth.”

Vital Voice

Cox, who played keyboards with chart-topping dance band D:Ream while studying for a doctorate in the 1990s, said he accepts his burgeoning role as a TV science advocate because he believes the discipline should play a central role in society.

“If a large fraction of people don’t understand something about the way science is done and what it means to make scientific statements then you’ve got a problem,” he said. “Someone has to be that voice, many of us hopefully. So I’m comfortable with it in that sense. I accept the challenge.”

Cox is taking on a wider remit at the BBC as some older established names fade from the scene.

Astronomer Patrick Moore died on Dec. 9 after establishing “The Sky at Night” as the world’s longest-running TV series with the same presenter during 722 episodes spanning 55 years. He was 89 years old. Attenborough, responsible for some of the BBC’s most iconic programing including 1979’s “Life on Earth,” is now 86.

Energy Flow

“If I had a torch I would hand it to Brian Cox.” Attenborough, whose latest series “Africa” took four years to make and involved filming expeditions in 27 countries, said on Jan. 29 at an event staged by BBC listings magazine Radio Times.

Astronomy remained the theme in Cox’s second major TV series, “Wonders of the Universe,” in 2011. The third, “Wonders of Life,” has marked a foray into zoology and drawn comparison with Attenborough’s own natural history programs.

Still, Cox said that the series, which began in Britain last month, remains focused on areas relevant to his expertise.

Inspired by quantum physicist Erwin Schroedinger’s 1944 book “What is Life?,” the program seeks to fuse physics and biology, with the first episode exploring how an energy flow via so-called proton gradients helped create and support life.

Cox said he’s determined to remain a working scientist, despite his increasing fame.

Science Connection

“It’s important for people who present science to have been -- and ideally still to be -- scientists,” he said. “I don’t want to be disconnected from the university system and from academia and I’m not, I take a conscious decision to lecture.”

Cox said there’s an argument for each successive generation to be exposed to seminal TV programs such as “Life on Earth” and Jacob Bronowski’s 1973 BBC series “The Ascent of Man,” which charted human development through scientific progress, if schedulers could be persuaded to screen them.

Cosmos, at least, is due for a revival. Sagan’s widow Ann Druyan is overseeing production of a sequel to be presented by U.S. astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson that updates the original with the latest discoveries.

Sagan, a professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, specialized in planetary studies and contributed metal plaques to the Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft that were designed to explain their origin to an alien intelligence. He was also responsible for NASA turning Voyager 1 toward Earth as it left the solar system in 1990 to record the “Pale Blue Dot” photograph illustrating our planet’s isolation in space. Cox has used the photograph in his public appearances.

Scientific Advances

Cox said that updating Cosmos is essential given advances in the intervening three decades, with the Milky Way galaxy now known to contain millions of other planets and missions such as Cassini, which began in 1997 and is due to run until 2017, providing a more detailed view of the solar system than available via the Viking and Voyager probes on which Sagan himself worked.

In other ways, Sagan’s original opus remains as current as ever, especially as a lesson in how scientists can best tell their story, according to Cox.

“The message that Sagan gives will never be dated,” he said. “The great pieces where he talks about the value of knowledge and the value of science, you could never do better.”

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