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Prof Brian Cox: We'll colonise Mars if we don't destroy ourselves in next 20 years

TV's cool kid of astronomy Professor Brian Cox is back in Belfast soon with his live space-science show. He tells Joanne Sweeney that, although he believes humans will have colonised other planets within a few decades, life on Mars is not for him

Prof Brian Cox – humanity could survive forever providing we don't destroy ourselves within the coming few decades
Joanne Sweeney

PHYSICIST Brian Cox may not be on a mission to Mars to live with his family but it's definitely a prospect that he believes might appeal to today's young children and teenagers in 20 or 40 years' time. Mind you, the prediction comes with the sobering proviso that the human race does not manage to destroy itself in the interim period.

The TV presenter and former keyboard player with Derry pop band D:Ream was excited about the future of space colonisation when he spoke to The Irish News, ahead of his Belfast show in May.

"A couple of weeks ago I was in the States and I spoke to [space and science entrepreneur] Elon Musk who owns the company SpaceX. He's already building rockets and a space station. His aim is to put people on Mars within 10 years," says Cox.

"We are almost at a decision point in our civilisation that for the first time we have the technology and the will to turn ourselves into a multi-planet civilisation. That's if we don't have a big political setback or we don't destroy ourselves in a nuclear war. If we don't do that within the next 20 years, I say we will have got over that hurdle and humanity may exist for the foreseeable future – even forever, if we get through these next few decades."

The 49-year-old has ruled himself and his family out of the race to inhabit Mars, though.

"Honestly, as everybody knows, the first people who go to Mars are going to be pioneers. It's going to be very difficult and a bit like the Pilgrims sailing to the New World so you need a particular kind of person who really wants to live on the frontier. I don't think it will be for families.

"It will be more for individuals. But in 20 or 40 years, after those first people have colonised it, it will be a lot easier. It probably won't be for the next one or two generations before families will go there. People who are in their teens could be the the first people to live on Mars."

Cox is the 'cool kid' of astronomy on television, his shows part informative, part chat show and part lecture. He'll be back with another Stargazing Live on the BBC from Australia at the end of the month.

There's great demand for his Professor Brian Cox Live show, which returns to Belfast on May 23 – this time to the SSE Arena – having sold out at the Waterfront Hall last November. During the stage show the audience have a chance to get up close and personal with Cox, via an interview followed by a question-and-answer session hosted by his co-host on hit Radio Four comedy/science show The Infinite Monkey, Robin Ince.

Complete with a 60ft state-of-the-art LED screen, the audience will also be treated to some of the most stunning pictures of the cosmos ever taken, along with commentary by one of the brightest brains around.

Cox says: "One of the great advantages of playing to bigger arenas is that I can have the biggest screen that we can possibly fit in the venue that allows for me for the first time to give these astronmical images of galaxies the presentation they deserve because they are such incredible photographs."

While he's flattered at the interest in his show, which is touring throughout the UK, he knows that the fascination with space is down to the big questions of life that intrigue an enquiring mind.

Brian Cox says technological advances mean that we live in a scientific golden age of discovery

"I think Belfast was the fastest-selling of any of the shows of the tour. I'm not surprised in the sense that I know that people are interested in these big questions, as we are talking about questions about the origins of the universe, the origins of life, the possibility of life in other worlds...

"There are now answers to some of these questions and we are getting closer to answering the most profound ones. Some of the questions I get asked during the Q and A sound like late-night philosophy-show questions but actually they are not. In many ways we live in a scientific golden age of discovery and it's because we have got things such as space telescopes and space probes on different facilities.

"Once people have enough information to make that connection then I think people want to know more."

Cox's body of television work includes his four-part series The Forces of Nature last year for BBC One, which followed on from The Human Universe (BBC Two, 2014) and The Wonders of Life (2012). Apart from Stargazing Life with Dublin comic Dara Ó Briain, he is due back on our screens later this year in a one-off programme ponding our connection with space, which is still to be announced by the BBC.

These days the audience he plays to is much bigger than to any that his band D:Ream – whose hit Things Can Only Get Better became the ubiquitous theme song to the Labour Party's 1997 landslide-victory election campaign – ever played to but they did support Take That in their heyday.

Cox managed to combine playing in the band fronted by Peter Cunnagh, who he still meets up with at least once a year, when studying Physics at the University of Manchester.

"It's a slightly different experience than what we did in D:Ream," confirms Cox. "It's a show about ideas as well, such as how we know things because when people like me say that the universe is 13.8 billion years old, it's interesting to ask how do you know, how do you go about measuring the age of the universe? Actually that's not too difficult to explain – it's actually a simple measurement – but its incredible that it can be done now.

"For me the question and answer is the best bit as it involves the audience in a discussion and in the sense it best works when you have thousands of people coming together to try and understand and to think about things. There's a real atmosphere which I think is unique. It's quite intoxicating actually."

:: Tickets to Professor Brian Cox Live at the SSE Arena on May 23 are available from ticketmaster.ie

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