In focus

“Rock-star physicist” Brian Cox talks climate change, investing and data

Brian Cox, the British physicist and professor of particle physics at the University of Manchester, may seem an unlikely voice on the topics of business and finance.

But he has been vocal on Twitter about the need for investors to “force the issue” of climate change. And he was chosen to introduce COP26 in Glasgow, where he highlighted the statistical rarity within our known universe of sophisticated life-supporting planets such as Earth.

Brian Cox is credited with bringing science to a wider audience – for example through the BBC Horizon series, the radio show The Infinite Monkey Cage and most recently his Universe documentary – and received an OBE for services to science in 2010.

But as a teenager he got a D in A-level mathematics and went on to be a keyboard player in Dream, a UK pop act known for the 1994 hit “Things Can Only Get Better”.

He is also the Professor for Public Engagement in Science for The Royal Society and has worked on The Large Hadron Collider, the world’s most powerful particle accelerator.

This is an edited version of a conversation on December 11 2021, when Brian Cox spoke at a Cazenove Capital Charities event at our London headquarters.

1. Why does our understanding of what scientists do matter, for example in the fight against climate change?

Brian: Science is the way that we acquire reliable knowledge about nature, so we wouldn’t even know about climate change if it wasn’t for science.

There’s a mindset which I think is really important. It’s the reason that science education is valuable even if the people who are being educated are not all going to become scientists.

What everybody needs is an understanding of how we acquire reliable knowledge.

If as many people as possible, preferably everybody, knew about that process and trusted it, then we would have an easier job when it comes to addressing climate change. We wouldn’t have to convince people that the modelling, imperfect as it is, is the best we can do at any given time – which is by-and-large what science is. It’s a snapshot of our knowledge at any given time. It’s a very complex thing and it changes.

We’ve seen this from the pandemic. Go back two years, this virus presumably didn’t exist and we certainly didn’t know about it, and in that very short space of time we’ve learnt a tremendous amount. We’ve managed to sequence the genome, we’ve managed to develop vaccines that work, we’ve managed to develop fast tests that we can take in minutes.

All those things are based on a vast reservoir of knowledge that we have, and our response to them is based on trusting what the scientists say.

2. How can we use data to effect change?

Brian: Data’s all we have, ultimately. If we know nothing about the system then we cannot really change it, we don’t know how to change it.

I showed a dataset earlier that’s a 3D map of galaxies. We measure how far the galaxy is and where it is in the sky and we end up with a 3D map.

What’s interesting is that when we did that we were able to see patterns. And the patterns in the data, which were unexpected, turned out to be predicted from a theory that was developed in the 1980s way before that dataset. So the dataset supports that theory, but the theory was about things that happened before the Big Bang.

It almost goes without saying that big data sets hide or have within them patterns: some we might have predicted, some we might suspect, some we might have no clue about – but the pattern’s there.

3. At COP26 you had a message for world leaders. Could you repeat that for us?

Brian: It is possible, given what we know about biology and astronomy together, that we are the only planet that hosts intelligent civilisation in our galaxy of four billion stars. It’s possible on average that there’s one civilisation per galaxy.

And so my message was, given that if we mess this up through inaction, or deliberate action there, might be nowhere else in a galaxy of 400 billion suns.

The ability to know things is a property of intelligence. Intelligence is a property of brains and brains are made of atoms. Think about what’s in your head and my head. How does that get assembled spontaneously over four billion years from a load of stuff in the bottom of an ocean, a rock and some seawater? How does that turn into something that can write a symphony? It’s quite a big ask.

We’ve got a planet, a beautiful world. Maybe that’s the only place where that’s happened for thousands, even millions of lightyears in every direction.

That’s my message. Your responsibility, world leaders, is to look to the galaxy, not only the planet.

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