Brian Cox, black holes, chicken parmo, and the pointlessness of life | Jack Marshall’s column

The contrast was stark but all the better for it.

By Jack Marshall
Monday, 28th February 2022, 4:55 am
NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has revisited the famous Pillars of Creation (credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA))
NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has revisited the famous Pillars of Creation (credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA))

For a recent birthday, I was given tickets to see Professor Brian Cox - he of the unique smile and terrifying brain - performing a warm-up gig ahead of a tour with his new show.

The gig was in Stockton-on-Tees, land of Bob Mortimer and Yorkshire folk you forget are actually Yorkshire folk. We arrived and went in search of food.

It was then that we came across a sign, a sign so wonderfully North East that it was almost parody. ‘Parmo + Pint £6.79’. Perfect. ‘Ampersands can do one’, it seemed to say. ‘You get this + this.’

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Before the show, we were confronted with a far more graspable equation...

Here to see a frankly off-puttingly smart man talk about the fabric of the universe, black holes, and the multiverse theory, first we had another equation with which to grapple: parmo + pint = two happy customers. The perfect little contrast.

The show itself was amazing, tackling concepts, scales, and maths which very few brains can wrap themselves around. After a whistle-stop tour of black holes - collapsing stars and all that jazz - it got real.

Where would a theoretically-immortal astronaut go if he fell into a black hole given there’s no time and space there? I shuffled in my chair. The premise of time itself ending was an uncomfortable concept to sit with in a quiet provincial theatre.

Talk turned to Stephen Hawking and wormholes, before being dismissed as mathematically impossible (wormholes, not Stephen). Then Brian got very scary indeed.

When black holes die, what happens to the stuff which fell into them? he asked. The correct answer is ‘I don’t know’, but Brian had an even more correcter one.

Apparently, Very Clever Maths reveals an imprint of core information is left after black holes die, leaving the very real possibility that us and everything we love is merely encoded cosmic data plastered on the crumbled wall of a dead black hole.

Right. Bit much for a Monday night, Bri.

We left and everything felt a fraction less important. It’s hard not to feel small and pointless after such a barrage. Then we learned that Brian’s tour had been postponed due to Covid, so the warm-up gig had been effectively pointless, too.

Which made me feel a bit better, for some reason.