The O2 is typically a venue for rock stars and pop sensations; the idea that the 20,000-seat arena could fill up for a physics lecture may seem unlikely, but actually proved a resounding success.
The stage was wonderful simplicity: Professor Brian Cox stood on a raised platform with a huge screen displaying images of the cosmos behind him. Seeing high-quality images of the phenomena discussed was powerful and inspiring, helping bridge the complexity of physics equations with awe-inspiring galactic beauty. These were interspersed with diagrams and formulae to illustrate the otherworldly entities, and the audience was even treated to the O2’s first live “equation solo” – who needs guitars!
Cox is an excellent orator and truly gifted when it comes to putting complex concepts into terms everyone can understand. Better still, he manages to do so without patronising the audience. Translating high-level scientific concepts to laymen and experts alike is certainly a science, if not witchcraft. The joy his specialty brings him is palpable: particular highlights included descriptions of astronauts jumping into black holes, and of “closed time-like loops” being time machines. All this seemed to resonate strongly with the audience, with laughter and murmurings of awe to be heard throughout the show.
Fellow Infinite Monkey Cage star Robin Ince was a delight to watch, and a wonderful complement to Cox. The show benefitted from silly humour to break up moments of existentialism, one of my favourite jokes being that Cox can’t go through metal detectors because physicists don’t understand magnets. It was also great to see active audience engagement – I’ve never before heard a request to whoop if you’re a mathematician. The two showed a real fondness and appreciation for so many people having come to spend their evening finding out about quantum mechanics.
During the show’s interval, the audience was invited to submit questions online for Cox to answer. This was an excellent way to see how different people engaged with the material. Questions ranged from those about parallel universes, whether we are all characters in someone else’s dream, and whether cereal or milk comes first. To the latter, the answer was indifference – they’re both full of protons. I commend the respect that the performers had for queries from children: their ability to ask outlandish questions that stump the experts, and their boundless capacity for learning. The whole experience was a testament to the joy of knowledge, and a great opportunity to geek out with one of the world’s most prestigious scientists.
The only let-down of the experience was a combination of technical difficulties and poor staff communication at the venue, which nearly caused me to miss the start of the show. Fortunately, montages of starry skies and alien landscapes (as well as Cox’s dulcet Mancunian tones) did the job of chilling me out once the performance began. Horizons was a simultaneously joyous and intellectually stimulating production, which seemed to strike a chord with tens of thousands of nerds from all over the South East. It was only on later reflection that I came to really appreciate Cox and Ince’s ability to convey both comedy and sagacity in an audience-friendly manner. This show is an out-of-this-world experience for lovers of stars, space, and scientific silliness!
Written by Professor Brian Cox
Directed by Nic Stacey
Produced by Phil McIntyre Live
Horizons: A 21st Century Space Odyssey tours internationally throughout 2022. Further information and dates can be found here.