Professor Brian Cox spoke of his dedication to continuing much of Professor Stephen Hawking’s research after he was honoured with the Hawking Fellowship at the University of Cambridge.
The 54-year-old broadcaster, a professor of particle physics at the University of Manchester, spent the morning of Wednesday (November 16) addressing a group of schoolchildren from across Cambridge as part of his work to inspire access to physics, before receiving the award at the Cambridge Union in the evening from Tim Hawking, Stephen Hawking’s son.
Ahead of the presentation its and accompanying lecture, Professor Cox told the Cambridge Independent that he was “delighted and astonished” to be chosen as the recipient of this year’s Hawking Fellowship.
“Stephen has obviously been a hero of mine for decades,” he continued, “and one of the reasons I went into physics was A Brief History of Time – and I got to know him later in his life. So to have an award that’s attached to Stephen is for me a dream, basically, and I genuinely mean that. I don’t want to overstate it but it is!”
Professor Hawking was something of a mentor to Professor Cox and encouraged him in his career. “He was very supportive about public engagement,” recalled Professor Cox, whose television documentaries include Forces of Nature and Stargazing Live. “He was a great believer that physics should be for everyone, and that our society will be better if as many people as possible really understand what it is.
“Because it’s not just about finding out about black holes or the size or scale of the universe – it’s much more than that. It is the way that we acquire reliable knowledge of that nature. That’s really important; it’s really important for people to have just a basic picture of how it is, then we can make authoritative statements about things like climate or the response to the pandemic, or whatever it is.
“So I think he [Stephen Hawking] firmly believed that – and not only myself, actually, but he encouraged a lot of people who were academics and researchers to have that component of their careers; a component where you engage with the wider public.”
Professor Cox’s association with Stephen Hawking went further than just offering scientific knowledge and advice – into the realms of surrealist comedy, for example.
“One of the wonderful days I spent with Stephen was filming for the Monty Python live shows,” said Professor Cox. “Eric Idle, who I’ve known for a long time, had asked me, ‘Do you know Stephen Hawking?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I can email Stephen’. So I emailed him and Stephen was a big Python fan…”
The pair then filmed a sketch that was used as part of the Monty Python farewell performances at the O2 in 2014. “It was basically that I’d had an ongoing joke with Eric that the Galaxy Song [from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life] is inaccurate,” explained Professor Cox.
“We filmed it in Cambridge, so I was by the river saying that of course it’s nonsense because the Earth goes in an ellipse, not in a circle, and there’s a little dot in the distance, and it’s Stephen.
“He comes flying down the path, knocks me to the ground and says, ‘I think you’re being pedantic’ and then he starts singing the Galaxy Song! The bit where he says, ‘I think you’re being pedantic’ was an ad lib that he did when we were telling him about the joke, so he wrote his own line that ended up in the Python live shows.”
In his lecture at the Union, Professor Cox spoke on black holes, and his ongoing work to continue much of the research that Professor Hawking dedicated his life to.
For Professor Cox, so much of physics brings us back to the question: ‘What does it mean to live a small, fragile and finite life in an infinite universe?’. He told members of the Cambridge Union Society that he was “honoured” to have received the fellowship, having known and worked with Professor Hawking.
The talk was extremely popular, with the Union’s historic debating chamber reaching full capacity. The Cambridge Union is grateful for the ongoing support of the Hawking family,…