Given that I got the tickets as a Christmas present, I had been waiting a long time to see Professor Brian Cox’s live show when it came to Preston Guild Hall yesterday evening. And it was certainly a good turnout, with the show sold out and apparently about 2000 people in the audience. Brian Cox, in case you don’t know, is a physicist whose scientific research is generally based around particle physics – but he is best known for presenting popular science programmes, particularly on astronomy. I’d seen him once before, last November, when he conducted the Q&A at Jim Lovell’s lecture in Pontefract.
The main subject of the lecture itself was cosmology – the history of the universe as a whole. In about two hours (not including the interval), Brian delivered an engaging summary of the Big Bang theory and the evidence for it; exactly how the universe initially expanded and the first galaxies came to form; and how this expansion is proceeding today. When it comes to the big picture, this is as big as it gets – or maybe not: one of Brian’s final remarks was on the possibility of the ‘multiverse’, infinite other universes outside our own. Interspersed with this were appearances by Robin Ince, who presents a BBC Radio 4 show with Brian called The Infinite Monkey Cage; he had a lot of funny comments to make, including an impression of Brian Blessed. There was also a Q&A session immediately after the interval, with physicist Jeff Forshaw joining Brian and Robin to answer questions that people had posted on Twitter.
The whole thing was a great experience, but to me, the most memorable part was the introduction, in which Brian’s objective seemed to be emphasising the scale of the universe and our place within it, to set up what followed. This part of the presentation included a picture of some of the farthest galaxies photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope; given how far the light had had to travel, this was looking back in time to a scene not too long (relatively speaking) after the beginning of the universe. There was also an image from the Curiosity rover on Mars, showing Earth – all of us and all we know – as a tiny blue speck in the sky: what Carl Sagan described as the “Pale Blue Dot”. Most breathtaking was the animation of a 3D representation of the universe, constructed through the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, in which each of the thousands of pinpricks onscreen was a galaxy.
It was the sort of thing that makes you feel very small – but also appreciate how grand and beautiful and incomprehensibly immense our universe is, and how precious our own little planet is as well. We should feel very lucky to be here.