IT'S important, when talking to a renowned physicist, to get the big questions out of the way first.
So, Professor Brian Cox, who chooses your clothes? "I do," he says, laughing. "But I'm strongly advised by my wife." As anyone who has seen Cox could attest, this lecturer in quantum mechanics, consultant on the Large Hadron Collider, and presenter of a roster of TV science shows that's expanding faster than the universe, looks and dresses rather like a rock star.
Which he was. And, in a sense, still is.
At the age of 18, Cox — who is in Australia for one-off shows in Sydney tonight and Melbourne on Friday — joined a band called Dare, founded by former Thin Lizzy keyboard player Darren Wharton. They recorded in LA, released a couple of albums, and came to an abrupt end over "artistic differences" one night in a bar in Berlin. "It was a proper fight," Cox told UK paper The Daily Mail in 2010. "We were drunk and tired and everyone just jumped on one another. And that was that."
Post break-up, Cox headed back to his family in Oldham and enrolled to study physics at Manchester University. But, aged 23, he was lured back to music, as keyboard player for the band D:Ream, who scored a UK No. 1 in 1994 with the song Things Can Only Get Better. By the time the song was appropriated by Tony Blair's New Labour in 1997, Cox was properly on his way to becoming a scientist, having quit the band on the brink of an Australian tour to focus on his studies.
These days Cox finds himself the de facto frontman of a move to groove-up science. He has presented a range of popular programs for the BBC (the most recent, Wonders of the Universe, pulled an audience of around 5 million an episode), popped up on Jonathan Ross' talk show to demonstrate how the Hadron Collider works using a scale model built from sex toys, and appeared on stage to play piano while Tim Minchin sang about Christmas.
He is, in short, helping make science sexy.
"Science is too important not to be part of popular culture," he says in his lilting Lancastrian accent. "It is the basis of our civilisation. We'd be in trees if somebody hadn't tried to work out how nature works."
Occasionally, he says, someone will ask if all this popularising doesn't trivialise the serious business of science, but he bats the objection away. "It's necessary for science to operate in this space that is filled by reality TV shows and so on. It has to jostle for attention, particularly of students and children at school."
But it's not about science being "popular" for its own sake; it's more that science not being popular poses a serious threat to us all. "There are big problems with society when society itself, which is based on science, fails to understand what science is. It's not just another belief system, it's not an interest group. At its heart, it is the way we understand how our world works."
Brian Cox presents Exploring The Universe at the Sydney Opera House tonight and at Plenary 2, the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre, on Friday at 7.30pm. His new series Wonders of Life and Stargazing will air next year.