Professor Brian Cox discusses the future of discovery in a Q&A session live online!
21 November 2014
Professor Brian Cox OBE, renowned physicist and presenter of Human Universe, spoke to students across the country, in a video linkup organised by Speakers for Schools, Google and the Guardian Teacher Network.
In a session moderated by Helen Pidd, Northern Editor of the Guardian, initial questions were posed by students of Chorlton High School, followed by Coleg Meirion-Dwyfor in Dolgellau, Wales and Whalley Range High School in Manchester via a video link, before moving on to questions from students across the UK submitted via Google + Hangout and Twitter. Here is a short sample of the great questions Professor Cox answered:
Jasmine of Year 11 at Chorlton High School: What is the significance of the Rosetta mission?
The amount of data uploaded from Rosetta could take years to analyse effectively. Comets are pristine information from the formation of the Solar System – data unaffected by the past 4.5 billion years since the Earth formed. Among the key discoveries that Rosetta could answer by analysing the composition of the comet, we could finally learn about the origin of our oceans (the basis of all life), currently believed to be made up of melted ice from cometary impact.
Mea of Year 10: Is it morally right to spend so much on space exploration?
The money we spend is an investment, and always has been. The most expensive space exploration we (as the human race) have done is the US Apollo mission, at its peak about 4% of government spending. Studies have since suggested a 14:1 return from this, generating engineers and scientists who may go on to solve the energy crisis, to build the next medical imaging devices – and of course to stimulate the economy. The European Union spent 1.5 billion Euros over ten years on the Rosetta mission, equivalent to everyone in the EU spending the third of the price of a cinema ticket to see ‘Interstellar’. Advancing knowledge, investing in research and furthering science gives returns far in excess of the money we invest.
Alan from Coleg Meirion-Dwyfor asked: What would you say is the most unsung scientific discovery of recent years?
Inflationary cosmology – the idea of what happened before the Big Bang – was developed in the 1980s and we haven’t quite culturally got our heads around it. The more we look at the data available – things like the cosmic microwave background, which is the afterglow of the Big Bang that we can see in the sky – the more they confirm that there was a time that the universe was doing something else. These are big questions about the origin of the universe that we’re still working on today.
Ayshea of Whalley Range High School: What advice to student planning to take up science?
There are two answers to this. The practical answer is that there’s a huge shortage of scientists and engineers – we need a million scientists to support our hi-tech economy by 2020. But this isn’t the reason to do it; it’s just a happy side-effect in my view. It’s a tremendous profession, fascinating and hugely satisfying. I’ll just add that determination is very important; it’s not easy to understand nature. If it’s tricky, it’s because nature’s tricky. No one ever found science something they could just do: it is difficult, it is challenging. Everyone who works in the field ended up becoming fascinated and persevered; if you want to do it keep at it. Everybody gets stuck but that’s part of the fun.
Hasya of Whalley Range: What can be done to increase the number of women studying physics?
It’s currently at 15%; there are many reasons to want it to be nearer 50/50, and not only for moral reasons. But because there’s so much talent across both genders, we should be working with the best minds in our country – whether boys or girls. As for what can be done, that’s something I should be asking you. If you’re interested in physics, it’s something you should feel comfortable studying at university – you’ll find it’s brilliant fun.
Stephenson Studio School STEM Club: Should we be doing more to find more efficient fuels?
Yes, nuclear fusion to name but one. This is essentially the way that stars work, but it’s proven to be possible even in a lab – we can make mini-stars, if you like. This has been done several times, in big research stations around the world. But we need enough talented engineers in this area to make this possible on a smaller and more commercial level. It’s also a matter of political will: if someone invested as much as we did in Apollo, we could certainly make this a reality.
A big thank you to everyone who submitted questions, the hundreds of schools who tuned in and joined us via social media and the support of Google, the Guardian Teacher Network and of course Professor Brian Cox!