Photo: Vincent Connare
When Cillian Murphy began to incorporate unusual hand gestures into his portrayal of a physicist in Danny Boyle’s new film, Sunshine, researcher Brian Cox asked him why. “Well, it’s because you do it,” the actor replied.
In preparation for the role, Murphy spent time with Cox, a particle physicist working on CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, who was tapped to serve as both the movie’s scientific consultant and the model for Sunshine‘s lead character. The film’s producer, Andrew Macdonald, says that he wanted to “reestablish the physicist in film” in the image of the young Albert Einstein—an innovative thinker who was fascinated by the fundamental properties of our universe—and needed a model. About a year before filming began, Macdonald was watching a BBC program in which Cox was discussing Einstein’s work; he instantly knew Cox was it.
The resulting portrayal is “a really positive view of a physicist,” says Cox, who also created a scientifically plausible backstory to the film’s rather outlandish premise that the sun is dying and a crew of young scientists must stop it to save mankind. “If all scientists in films are mad, evil people who are destroying the world,” Cox continues, “then I think that seeps into society… Even a benign kind of image like ‘scientists are always old guys’ is a bad image…because you discourage women from going into science.”
Cox has been emerging as the UK’s public face of physics since he completed his PhD and ditched his old career as keyboard player for the electronic music group D:ream. Aware of his rock-star past, the BBC approached Cox to do a radio show. From that modest beginning, Cox’s profile as a science communicator has grown. He has appeared in several television programs, including the BBC series Looking Good, Feeling Great, as well as a short film about CERN, Lords of the Ring. “If people don’t have an understanding of what science is and what scientists do,” Cox says, “then they can tend to think that global warming, for example, is just a matter of opinion.”
Cox’s ambition is to draw on his experiences in television and film to create
“something like Carl Sagan’s Cosmos,” he says. “It’s one of the things that got me into science—programs driven by charismatic scientists.”
Originally published July 20, 2007