A journey into space with Brian Cox, Colin Pillinger and Martin Rees

How would you like to go into space with Brian Cox, Colin Pillinger, Martin Rees and former astronaut Charles Simonyi? You might not get a word in edgeways, of course, as they'd be debating the Universe all the way to the Moon. But I could live with that.

I did actually listen to these four erudite gentlemen for two hours recently. It wasn't a real journey to the Moon as I for one am not nearly fit enough to be a real astronaut. Instead, it was a series of talks put on by Intelligence Squared in a 800-seater auditorium at the Royal Geographical Society. The event was completely sold out, proof perhaps that public desire for live science is on the rise (Brian Cox and Robin Ince's Uncaged Monkeys is currently doing the rounds of local theatres).

This was the easily most interesting space-related event I've ever attended, and well worth attending if they ever put it on again. But if you missed it, fear not - you can listen again to the audio of the event online. You won't regret it, but if you're very pushed for time, here's my very digested account...

The capable chair of proceedings was Rick Stroud, author of The Book Of The Moon. Rick introduced Richard Holmes, author of an acclaimed history of science called The Age Of Wonder. Holmes took us on a whistle-stop tour of the history of astronomy, with some fascinating asides on literature and art, not least a painting by Joseph Wright called The Orrery in 1765 depicting an Isaac Newton-like figure demonstrating the Solar System to children. Famous scientists like Newton were celebrities of a sort.

Next up was a man who needed no introduction - Sir Martin Rees. He pointed out what an early stage we're at in the evolution of the human race. There's at least as much time ahead of us as we've already had, which is more than enough time for us to spread across the Universe - a scary thought, perhaps, but hopefully long enough for astronomers to solve the mysteries of dark matter and dark energy.

And then the hottest star today took the stage - not Eta Carinae but Prof Brian Cox of Wonders of the Universe fame. Cox is famous for saying "I love physics", which has almost become a catchphrase, and he proved it with this talk, explaining how CERN's Large Hadron Collider will recreate conditions in the first billionth of a second after the Big Bang.

One of the aims of the Large Hadron Collider is to find the Higgs particle, which physicists believe provides all other particles with mass. Cox seemed pretty certain that the LHC will indeed find Higgs, but said it didn't matter either way. If Higgs doesn't exist, the discovery will be equally momentous for physics - in fact, arguably more as they'd literally have to go back to the drawing board.

While most of us can only talk about space, Charles Simonyi has actually been there. He spent 28 days in space aboard a Soyuz mission to the International Space Station. As well as getting a few laughs by describing space station toilets and suction pumps, Simonyi reminded us what an elite bunch astronauts still are. Less than 500 people have flown to space, but the top 10 have together flown 60 times.

And last but not least, Prof Colin Pillinger gave my favourite talk of the evening discussing his varied career. He began by analysing samples brought back by the Moon, a fact that Neil Armstrong later acknowledged when the pair later met. Pillinger is convinced that his Beagle 2 spacecraft would have found evidence of biological or organic matter on Mars. But despite its well-publicised failure to land successfully, his achievement remains extraordinary. To build it, his team took a whole lab's worth of equipment weighing 1 tonne and squeezed it into an instrument weighing just 5kg.

All in all, a most enjoyable and highly educational evening. If Intelligence Squared launch another trip to the planets, it's well worth your while to hop onboard.

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