Exploring the Science of Sunshine 0
Dr. Brian Cox – neither the original Hannibal Lecter nor a character from Scrubs, but rather an experimental physicist – has a grin on his face the size of Saturn. We’re ten thousand odd feet in the air on a flight bound for Geneva and he’s just explained to Rotten Tomatoes UK that the universe is so large, so busy, so old and with such life ahead of it that the entire human race is not even worthy of a footnote in a fifty-volume encyclopaedia on its contents.
The look on our face is what’s giving him cause to smile, and it’s widening as we attempt to wrap our heads around the concept that we are, ultimately, about as insignificant in the grand scheme of things as a grain of sand in the Sahara Desert. He’s practically laughing as our ego fades away, its tail between its legs.
Tom Cruise may be the biggest movie star on the planet, or perhaps that honour belongs to Johnny Depp or Julia Roberts. It doesn’t matter. None of them have been around longer than 50 years and the universe is more than ten billion years old. None of them will be around when humanity dies out (assuming we don’t wipe out our own existence in one way or another) or evolves to a point in which we’d no longer recognise ourselves as we do now. The whole of human history is and will be a blip on the universe’s radar and Dr. Cox thinks that’s a fascinating notion.
“I love it!” he laughs, “But the flipside of it’s also about the amazing ingenuity of these little insignificant idiots on this planet that we can send people into space and explore all these mysteries. That’s an incredible thing; while we’re insignificant because it’s so big we’re also kind-of wonderful because we strive to understand how it all works.”
We’re sat next to Dr. Cox on a flight to Geneva for a tour of CERN – the Center for European Nuclear Research – a complex so big it straddles both Switzerland and France, and a place where the building blocks of the universe are being explored by thousands of scientists and technicians – including him – in an attempt to unravel the mysteries it contains. “We think we only know about 5% of the universe’s secrets,” he says, “so the project I’m working on, The Atlas Project, is looking to discover a little bit more to cut into the other 95.”
Founded in 1954, CERN’s primary goal was to bring together European nations divided by the Second World War. In the years that followed it’s been the sight of dozens of major scientific breakthroughs, provided working space for experiments that’d net their scientists Nobel prizes and invented a little thing called the World Wide Web. Tim Berners-Lee was working at CERN when he created a system for cataloguing and indexing data with hyperlinks so that navigating the results of the main experiments being carried out would be simpler.
Our first stop when we arrive at CERN is to take a trip underground. 100 feet underground, to be exact, to a tunnel that runs in a circle with a 27km circumference and houses a Large Hadron Collider that forms the centrepiece for the Atlas Project experiment. It’s an impressive sight – the tunnel is large enough to house the nave of Westminster Abbey and the latticework of cabling, giant magnets and impressive machinery puts our new iPod to shame – and it’s set to do some pretty incredible work.
The facility is nearly finished when we visit. When it’s done, later this year, the tunnel will be radioactive and tours of it will be a thing of the past. They’ll be accelerating two beams of protons to near the speed of light and then colliding them head on. Atlas is one of four specially built detectors and its goal is to detect particles not witnessed in the universe since moments after the big bang. The press notes summarise it best, Atlas will search for the Higgs particle, dark matter, supersymmetry and, rather beautifully, the unknown…
But it’s not the only job Dr. Cox does. He’s also a Research Fellow at the University of Manchester and, so that we can finally explain the purpose of our visit, the science consultant on Sunshine, a new film from Danny Boyle about a crew of astronauts, fifty years into the future, on a mission to reignite our dying sun. He’s changing our understanding of universe by day and moonlighting on the set of a major motion picture… as much as he tries to convince us of our shared insignificance we can’t help but feel he’s proactively battling his.
The film stars Cillian Murphy as the ship’s physicist and when we meet Dr. Cox we’re taken aback by the physical similarities between the two. Cox is young, full of energy and with a passion for physics that makes us so excited we can’t understand why we only got an E when we did it at school. He also has a fascinating past; he played keyboards as a member of D:Ream, most famous for the song “Things Can Only Get Better” a phrase which found new meaning when Labour chose it as their campaign song in the 1997 general election and political satirists began pointing out that, alas, things didn’t get better.
Dr. Cox makes physics look cool – some would argue D:Ream couldn’t manage the same feat for music – and as Cillian Murphy’s brown-eyed doppelganger it’s no surprise that Murphy based his character’s mannerisms and enthusiasm on him.
When you think science fiction you think Star Wars. Star Trek. Back to the Future. Sunshine dares to be different; Dr. Cox has been on board since pre-production, ensuring that its fiction doesn’t do anything to upset the balance of its science. Over the course of our trip to Geneva, he’s making a fine case for the rest as science fantasy.
Travelling faster that the speed of light isn’t possible – so you can ditch both Wars and Trek right away. Trek also suffers from transporter trouble; teleportation of matter is possible but information isn’t so if we did make it to the other side our brains would be completely wiped. It’s only possible to go forwards in time, not back – let’s not even discuss going back to the future – and doing so would not be real time travel, you’d have to be in constant motion at speeds approaching the speed of light (88 MPH isn’t going to cut it) so that when you stopped, ten minutes to you would be four thousand years to everyone else. And, erm, the sun isn’t going to die out in fifty years time. So Sunshine probably has a place on the list too.
“We’ve probably got about five billion years before we have to start worrying about that,” laughs Dr. Cox, but this is science fiction so liberties have to be taken somewhere, “It’s still a middle-aged star. It certainly will die in five billion years – it’s losing four million tonnes of mass every second. But even if we were to survive that long, we’d have to be more worried about a meteor about the size of the one that killed the dinosaurs, or the Andromeda Galaxy; that’s looking likely to collide with the Milky Way in about three billion years which could play havoc with the gravitational forces.”
But as we come to the conclusion that we’re never actually going to get to wield a real-life lightsabre, Dr. Cox does provide us with a Star Wars-shaped grain of sand. Tourism to Tunisia – the real-life Tatooine – is likely to pick up when Betelgeuse, the largest star in the constellation of Orion, finally explodes. Scientists reckon it could pop any day now (in scientist-speak, that’s assuming a margin of error of around 10,000 years) and when it does there’ll be a second sun in the sky for several weeks.
If the conceit that gives Sunshine its motivation is slightly fictional, though, the rest of the film is pretty strict in the balance of what’s accurate with what looks cool on a cinema screen. And it’s provoking endless amounts of discussion between its cast and crew on the nature of the universe.
“Everyone has a different idea about what the film ultimately means,” says Dr. Cox, “I took Cillian to CERN before shooting began and was on set through production; we all got into arguments about what these people were thinking and what their mission meant.”
Despite the film’s writer, Alex Garland, having a clear idea in his head, those ideas clash with Danny Boyle’s. Danny’s clash with Dr. Cox’. Dr. Cox has a different take than Cillian Murphy. And Cillian Murphy can’t get on board with Boyle’s theories.
“It’s not just the cast and crew though,” he tells us, “On the press tour I’m travelling all over the world and hearing a different interpretation every day. It’s bizarre, but it’s great that people are embracing the film like this.”
Of course telling you why people disagree would rather defeat the purpose of going to see the film…