a life in the day of dr brian cox

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A Life in the Day: Dr Brian Cox

The physicist, 39, is designing the world’s largest particle accelerator at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (Cern) in Geneva. He commutes between there and Manchester, where he lives with his wife, the TV presenter Gia Milinovich, and his stepson, Moki, 11.

I’m terrible at waking up — I hate it. If I can get away with it, I get up at 9 o’clock. I stay in a little Holiday Inn close to Cern at the foothills of the Jura mountains in France. They knock on the door with breakfast, so I have to get up. I get the Herald Tribune delivered and crispy bacon on French bread, pain au chocolat and coffee. Cern is one big physics lab, so if you wore anything that looked like you bought it last year, you’d look stylish. It’s a 20-minute walk away, through a little French village, St Genis, with chocolate and bread shops, and across the border into Switzerland. You can see Mont Blanc — it’s absolutely beautiful.

I’ve always been a scientist, always. From as far back as I can remember I wanted to do something about space exploration or astronomy. Apparently, even when I was a year old, I’d watch anything to do with Apollo and the moon landing. I didn’t go to university until I was 22. Instead I joined a rock band called Dare. We made two albums and toured for a few years. Then we had a fight in a bar in Berlin and split up. I came back and rang Manchester University and said: “Right, I want to come to university now and do physics.”

The Cern complex is huge, and it goes across the border, so you can go into it in France and come out in Switzerland without a passport check. There used not to be a gate in France until Jacques Chirac wanted to visit and the French said: “We have to have a gate because we keep telling him it’s a French lab, and you can only get in from Switzerland.”

It’s an odd job — a fantastic job, actually. Your job description is “Find out how the universe works — and here’s this E6 billion machine that you can use to do it.” The aim of the project is to find the origin of mass in the universe. That really means: “Why is this table solid?” Everything indicates that when the universe began, everything was exactly like light — it travelled around at the speed of light and had no mass. As it expanded and cooled, something happened to cause the things that make up me and you to get heavy. To get mass. We know exactly where in time that happened, but we don’t know exactly what it was that happened. This machine’s been built specifically to go to that place and watch that process unfold. We might not have thought of what turns up, but we know we’ve got to see it.

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Lunch is at 12. It’s a bit of a race. If you go at 12.10 the canteen is packed with thousands of physicists. There’s a lot of mingling — it’s legendary for that. It’s full of people talking about physics. They have brilliant cakes, really great elaborate things with cream and chocolate.

What we’re doing here really is as exciting as I think it sounds. It’s exploration, just like going to the moon or to Mars, or looking over the horizon to somewhere you’ve never seen before. It’s exactly the same, except you’re doing it on a really small ...

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