The Brian Cox Effect

The forth in our series on this year’s group projects by Science Communication students is The Brian Cox Effect, street art by Margaux Calon, Stephanie McClellan and Rosemary Peters.

Brian Cox. With his shaggy hair and pop star status, physicist Brian Cox has risen to popularity in the United Kingdom. Men of the UK want to be him, and women want to be with him. At least that’s how it seemed to our small group of international students. When we sat down for our first group meeting in January, desperate for group project ideas that would creatively communicate some aspect of science, we kept circling back to this iconic British face of science. What is Brian Cox’s appeal? Why did everyone seem so obsessed with him?


Though we knew audience members were learning about scientific topics from his documentaries and radio show, it also seemed they were being spoon-fed a constructed idea of science whilst being denied the opportunity to engage or employ critical thought. Was Brian Cox building the nation’s understanding of science or was he promoting non-intellectual reverence?
Once we settled on an object of obsession for our project, we needed a medium to communicate through. “How about street art?” Margaux said in one of our first meetings.
With that simple sentence, something beautiful was born. The Brian Cox Effect. It employed a medium of communication often void of scientific content and mashed it up against religion, popular culture, and social media.  Our goal with our two stencil-styled images was to give science a place in urban culture and to cause viewers to question how Brian Cox popularises science.
We brought our images to the streets of East London. Street art emerged in this area in the 1970s, when artists started to move in the empty and very cheap warehouses made available from the bombings of WWII and the following demise of the textile trend. A decade later, London’s hip-hop scene arose, directly imported from the States. Young people started to tag their names all over town, the most famous being Mode 2, who set up the first renowned graffiti crew, the Chrome Angelz (Armstrong, 2006). The ferocious battle of London’s Mayor Ed Koch against graffiti at the end of the 1980s actually marked the beginning of the transition from graffiti to street art and the rise of a new generation of street artists in East London such as Banksy and Shepard Fairey who are now famous worldwide, thanks to their active personal branding. In fact, it was the success of their personal branding that inspired us to include the hashtag, #TheBrianCoxEffect, in our designs.
Through using this hashtag, we were able to track our street art’s success. We were delighted when the designs took off. Our images, originally stuck on brick and mortar, soared across the digital landscape. Street art blogs, Twitter, Instagram, and even The Guardian were buzzing about #TheBrianCoxEffect. Our group was hooked on reading every tweet and blog post, wondering what people thought, what message they had taken away.
From our point of view, we weren’t trying to force one particular message on our audience about Brian Cox. We weren’t saying that he was sexy, smart, or overhyped. It would have been very un-street art of us to do so. Instead, we just wanted people to think. We wanted our audience to question their relationship with Brian Cox, and through this questioning, to ask themselves about their relationship with science.
Margaux Calon, Stephanie McClellan and Rosemary Peters are are all currently studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London.