The Voltaire Lecture 2010
Brian Cox, most recently seen pulling in millions of viewers for his BBC series ‘Wonders of the Solar System’, spoke last week on ‘The value of Big Science: CERN, the LHC and the exploration of the Universe’, at the 2010 Voltaire Lecture for the British Humanist Association and the South Place Ethical Society.
The event was chaired by Polly Toynbee, President of the BHA. This interview begins with an interview of Professor Cox with Andrew Copson.
Watch on the BHA YouTube channel.
Professor Cox’s lecture responded to the idea that science is not enough to fulfil people’s “spiritual needs”, to satisfy our sense of wonder, or to find purpose or meaning. For some, he said, ‘science doesn’t deliver and they need to fill in the unknown with something imaginary.’ Yet this, he argued, is completely unnecessary. Part of the intense wonder and beauty of the universe is in its fundamental simplicity. He gave the analogy of a snowflake in the hand. At first it is intricate and very complex but as it heats up it becomes just a pool of water. It is always H20, but as it freezes the structural complexity of the snowflake hides the underlying simplicity. At the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), scientists are reversing this process, finding the underlying simplicity of the universe just after the Big Bang by heating up the universe to expose that simpler, earlier state.
Professor Cox explained how the universe – and everything in it – is constructed from a few basic building blocks, subatomic particles. However, there is a particle still missing from the “standard model”. At CERN, they are still looking for one particle – the Higgs boson – which may be what gives matter it’s mass, and is key in explaining the formation of the universe after the Big Bang.
The lecture was not all about the physics, however. Professor Cox demonstrated that the UK is a world leader in science, and that science-based, knowledge intensive industries are responsible for about 40% of the economy, far more than the finance industry. He spoke on the threat to science in the UK, especially from the threat of cuts to the science budget – a budget that is already an extremely small part of national spending.
He concluded: ‘Science is clearly economically valuable and clearly spiritually valuable. I don’t see why you would need anything else.’
The next event from the British Humanist Association is a day conference on Humanism, Philosophy and the Arts.