Publication: The Sun
From pop to the Big Bang
An enjoyable commission from The Sun in 2007 was a visit to CERN, a vast underground laboratory near Geneva where profound discoveries are being made about the atomic particles that make up everything in the universe. It was great to be able to present two pages about cutting-edge particle physics in the UK's top-selling daily newspaper.
Brian Cox is used to working miracles. His band D:Ream's hit Things Can Only Get Better helped a once unelectable Labour party to win power in the UK in 1997. Today, with a doctorate in his pocket, he is preparing to work on something even more incredible - unlocking the secrets of how the universe began.
Brian will tackle this massive challenge by exploring the smallest objects in nature - particles of the atoms that make up everything there is.
He gave me a tour of his laboratory - a vast underground chamber on the border of Switzerland and France and close to Geneva airport.
This is CERN, the European organisation for nuclear research. Here, 96 years after scientists first split the atom, Brian and around 1,800 buddies are planning to blast, pulverise, and smash it to pieces.
They're building a fantastic £2 billion machine called the Large Hadron Collider that will recreate conditions that existed in the first billionth of a second after the Big Bang. That is the moment, astronomers believe, when everything in the universe, including space and time, blew into existence in one fireball of matter and energy.
The experiments will help Brian and other muclear phsyicists to discover the recipe and the reasons for the material that makes up all the stars and galaxies. Odd then that their "observatory" lies 100 yards underground. It consists of a tunnel 17 miles long - roughly the same length as London's Circle Line - with giant detectors placed at strategic points along it.
Brian's own detector, called Atlas, dominates a cavern the size of the nave in Westminster Abbey. When completed later this year, the machine's powerful magnets will fire atomic particles in opposite directions, accelerating them to speeds approaching that of light.
Atoms are so small that a speck of dust contains around three trillion of them. They are made up of protons, electrons, neutrons and even smaller particles.
Bunches of the protons will be fired so fast that they make 11,245 trips around the tunnel every second. Scientists say the resulting collisions will answer fundamental questions about the particles' make-up. Even more mind-bogglingly, they expect it to open the door to previously unknown dimensions - as many as ten of them!
Brian (seen on the right in the photo) mentions, in a matter-of-fact way, that he believes the experiments will also create millions of black holes. Unlike those gobbling up stars at the centre of galaxies, these will be so microscopic that they will evaporate as suddenly as they form. That means there is no danger of the Earth being turned inside out, Brian assures me.
But the prospect alarms organisations such as the US-based Lifeboat Foundation which believes scientists playing God could wipe out mankind in an instant. It certainly sounds the work of crazed, wild-eyed scientists in white coats from fifties B-movies. But Brian appears remarkably normal.
He still has a pop star's good looks that belie his 39 years. But he was studying for his PhD when he played with D:Ream and now he has given up music completely to concentrate on particle physics.
Brian tells me: "We're trying to understand the basic building blocks of the universe, how those building blocks stick together and, with a bit of luck, why those building blocks are there at all.
The particles are unimaginably tiny. Brian says: "One of my favourite photos is from the Hubble space telescope and shows a patch of sky so small that you could hide it by holding a penny at arm's length. Yet in that picture are many thousands of galaxies, each containing one hundred thousand million stars."
"The difference of scale between those thousands of galaxies and Switzerland's Mont Blanc is the same as between the mountain and the atoms we are probing."
It is a study that explains such things as how and why the sun burns. So Brian's expertise was sought to help make the new British blockbuster sci-fi movie Sunshine. The film, made by Trainspotting and 28 Days Later director Danny Boyle, sets a doomsday scene where in 2057, the sun is dying and a space mission is sent to kickstart it with a nuclear bomb.
It sounds a prepostrous idea, especially as astronomers generally agree that the sun has around another five billion years of life left in it. But Brian insists that the dramatic fate is a real possibility because he believes strange objects created in the Big Bang could threaten the sun's future.
He says: "A host of strange things could have been created and still be flying around the universe today. It is just possible that these objects could cause havoc if they drifted into the heart of a star like the sun."
Photos: The top picture is courtesy the Science and Technology Facilities Council. The photo with Brian Cox is by Paul Edwards of The Sun.
Some fascinating physical facts
CERN was founded in 1954 to bring European nations together after the war. Today it has 3,000 full time staff from 98 countries. Fifteen per cent are British.
Hospital scanners around the world are based on the early detectors built to carry out particle physics.
Superconducting cables being built for the new Large Hadron Collider would run around the equator nearly seven times. If their strands were laid end to end, they would stretch to the sun and back five times with enough left over for a few trips to the moon.
Pipes in the LHC hold a vacuum close to that in outer space. Engineers check for leaks so small that if they were in a car tyre it would take 10,000 years to go flat.
Part of the LHC will be the world's largest deep freeze and could hold as many sausages as 140,000 fridges.
Particle accelerators are used to dry the paint on soft drinks cans.
British boffin Sir Tim Berners Lee invented the World Wide Web as a means of sharing data while working at CERN. The scientists are now working on a web replacement called the Grid.
CERN is the world's biggest laboratory devoted to fundamental science. It produces anti-matter which annihilates itself and ordinary matter when they come into contact.
99.999999999999 per cent of an atom's volume is empty space. If the proton in an atom were a pea at the centre of Old Trafford, the corresponding electron would lie at the back of the stands.
The sun is a nuclear reactor the size of a million Earths and burns 600 million tons of hydrogen a second.