Wondering About Wonders of Life: Does it matter that Brian Cox is not a biologist?

If a brain in a jar thinks it watched "Take Me Out", will it still experience the irreversible damage?

If a brain in a jar thinks it watched “Take Me Out”, will it still experience the irreversible damage?

Professor Brian Cox has been on the telly recently and like everyone who goes on the telly he received a bit of criticism. Not from the various groups that harbour general furiousness at Professor Cox for showing that the Earth orbits the sun, or that very small particles can tell us something important about the entire universe or that unicorns don’t wear yellow wellingtons (or indeed any wellingtons), but by some scientists.

Over the past few weeks the image of Professor Cox has been flying into our homes, lounging at our delighted and curious faces over a partially lit mountain, a photosynthesising jellyfish in one hand, a mantis shrimp in the other and an infectious grin and a great big particle physicists brain in the centre. Following his successful series Wonders of the Universe and Wonders of the Solar System, Professor Cox is starring (or the biological equivalent not involving stars) in Wonders of Life. This show is about life in general and more specifically about how physics affects life and its definition, development and everyday functioning. For example the first two episodes were about what life “is” and how living things used physics to detect their surroundings. Sounds good doesn’t it? It is.

So why are some people annoyed? Well, it’s because Brian Cox is a physicist and this is about life, the turf of the biologists. And if anyone should know about turf it’s the biologists. This seems like an issue that has passed, and indeed a lot of the criticisms seemed only to be present just before and during the first episode. However I took the radical decision to watch the whole series and have a think before putting my precarious and confused thoughts on the matter in a blog post. I enjoyed the series and learned a lot. I certainly don’t agree with the mean spirited and badly thought out argument by Elaine Glaser that Brian Cox presents science in a manner that evokes wonder at science but little else.  Quite the contrary. I am much more in agreement with Stephen Curry’s Occam’s Corner article on the subject. The show invoked wonder, gave explanation and invited further investigation by the viewers themselves. The nobbers!  But does the fact that a show about life in its disgusting and multiple forms is presented by a physicist rather than a biologist matter?

Not really. The point of the show is to relay science, with some pretty pictures if possible, into the waiting and receptive eyes and brains of the viewers. As long as the facts and the scientific methods used to achieve these facts are as true as the scientific model will allow then does it matter who passes them along? As long as it’s done with a modicum of charm, is clear and conveys understanding, which Brian Cox of course manages to do, it should be fine right? He is a well known figure, known for his expertise and enthusiasm for science in general and this renown is useful in gaining audience trust and attracting an audience to a more credible show in the first instance.  Brian Cox is a particle physicist and nobody seemed to mind when he makes shows about space. It’s all just physics innit? It’s all the same innit? (No)

But it’s about biology, the biologists cry in a manner as loud and as plaintive as that of the kakapo, the loudest and one of the most amusingly named birds, whose mating call can be heard from 4-5 miles away! Isn’t it? Tangentially, yes. The show is about biophysics and as such and by the arguments of those who are complaining should need a biophysicist rather than a biologist. It’s not as if the show doesn’t have biologists behind it, advising on the presentation of their incredible and complex subject. To ignore their input and focus on Cox as the star (Starfish? Is this a biological equivalent?) is to miss their own point. Biologists and biophysicists do have a vital input to the show; they’re just not relaying the words.

As I have already mentioned Professor Cox has previous form in this area. He makes interesting and accessible shows that get people interested in science and if people need a recognisable face to draw them in then is that really a problem? Sir David Attenborough himself recently said he would gladly pass the torch of his legacy in science presenting to Professor Cox. This must have felt an astounding honour and I’m not sure many would argue that Attenborough has no experience of and no right to talk about nature. If they do it’s probably while whispering while hiding in a bush. Which is ironic.

Or is a trick being missed like a magician with bad aim? Could the show have been used to add another inspirational figure to the television roster? A biologist or biophysicist would have even more enthusiasm talking about a field they know in even greater detail and could act as another role model for people to admire and to seduce them further into scientific interest, exploration and understanding.

This is obviously a balancing act. Use a new expert for every programme and you lose the “celebrity” draw and trust in the show that initially attracts people and likely allows the show to be created in the first place. Only use one echinoderm (It doesn’t work, does it?) for every science programme and you lose credibility. After all if you’re only using the presenter as a celebrity to learn and repeat some facts and explanations without fully understanding them themselves then we might as well be watching Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Geology or The Davina McCall of Nature. And as interesting as it is we can’t make every science TV show or documentary somehow about physics. This way lies such shows as Dead or Alive?: The Quantum Physicist’s Guide to Feline First-Aid and Wonders of the Art of Salvador Dali.

But the real star (I think we’ll just stick with that) of the show is of course the science and if that’s getting across accurately and entertainingly then that’s fine with me. Would it be good to have a biologist or biophysicist presenting this show and shows in a similar vein? Yes of course, the more the merrier, up to the point of celebrity dilution and audience loss. This feels like it needs a graph.

Is it bad for Brian Cox to do it? No, not really. I’m not an expert in television or physics so by a lot of the arguments relevant to this discussion my opinion on it doesn’t matter. And it doesn’t.  This seems like a good point to end the blog post. So does it matter that Brian Cox is not a biologist but is making TV programmes tangentially connected to biology? A bit but no really. Not an astounding or strong conclusion but like many issues in science communication the issue isn’t clear cut. Carry on Professor Cox! This is not a film suggestion.

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6 thoughts on “Wondering About Wonders of Life: Does it matter that Brian Cox is not a biologist?

  1. I am a biologist with 30 years experience in the field. I don’t mind at all that Brian is doing this show. In fact, it didn’t really register that there was anything wrong with it. If he brings to his audience even a bit of the wonder and awe that I still experience after all this time, then I’ll happily cheer him on. Go Brian!

    • I totally agree. It would be nice to have some inspirational biologists (and there are some I think do great work) but while Professor Cox does a good job and brings in the audience then fantastic.

  2. I think the important thing is that people who don’t have science training and don’t ‘do science’ are encouraged to think about it in ways that we (whether physicist (which I am) or biologist (which you may be)) use to try to understand the world. We want people to be excited by science – and they can’t see the division between disciplines; good!

    Brian

  3. As a chemist, I was rather pleased to see some proper not-too-dumbed-down chemistry in there as well. He actually spoke about hydrogen ions and hydroxide ions in the first episode. I mean, gosh, that’s year 11 GCSE chemistry. That’s very advanced for a tv show!

    • Yeah, some of it was quite complex which is great. I think sometimes viewers should come away with some things they don’t quite understand so that maybe they then go and look it up and learn more.

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