One of the world's best-known physicists and science communicators, Professor Brian Cox, is returning to New Zealand next year as part of a world tour. He spoke with Herald science reporter Jamie Morton about black holes - both those in space and those in a "post-truth" cyber-space now threatening our democracies.

So what's the flavour of this tour?

I'm going to talk about the universe in the wider sense, and our place within it.

One of the most exciting things for me is that I'm going to talk quite a lot about Einstein's theory of gravity.

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I've been working with the company that did the graphics for [2014 science fiction film] Interstellar to visualise a black hole.

We are going to create a virtual black hole and then I'm going to discuss what happens to space and time in the vicinity of the black hole, and what would it would be like to fall into.

Could there be worm holes that would allow us to travel around the universe at high speeds and things like that?

So I'll be using Einstein's strange but beautiful theory of gravity to explore the origin and evolution of the universe, the end of the universe, and also the strangest and most violent place in the universe, which at the moment I think are black holes.

Also, we are at the stage now, for the first time, that we can observe how black holes behave - and in particular, when they collide.

It's teaching us a vast amount about fundamental science and fundamental physics - and there's also a lot of astronomy in there.

I'm also going to talk about the recent mission to Pluto.

On this coming New Year's Day, the spacecraft New Horizons will get to another small object in the outer Solar System.

We don't know what we will find, but there will be some very new observations.

One of the great things I can do is, because it's a world tour, I can use enormous screens and I can spend a great amount of money on graphics and visualisations and imagery so that it can be as spectacular as anyone could make it.

In the past few years we've had a pair of massive breakthroughs - the landmark detection and physical confirmation of gravitational waves, and further cosmic ripples that picked up the collision of two neutron stars - the smallest, densest stars known to science - 130 million years ago. These were enormous discoveries, but has the public interest around it all died off somewhat?

I don't think it's been fully explained yet, in terms of science writing, or the conversation around what this new form of astronomy can do.

As you know, gravitational wave astronomy opens up a completely new window on the universe.

The idea that we can test things like Stephen Hawking's area theorem - and the way that black holes behave when they collide and merge - is remarkable.

Now, for the first time, we can test this frontier of our knowledge, and it's really a union between general relativity and quantum mechanics, or the search for a quantum theory of gravity.

We now have the data of those most extreme environments.

I think that is going to capture the public's imagination because it's like saying, well, Galileo has looked through his telescope now.

The detection of gravitational waves - ripples in space-time - stands to transform our understanding of the universe. Photo / 123RF
The detection of gravitational waves - ripples in space-time - stands to transform our understanding of the universe. Photo / 123RF

That's the level we are at with gravitational waves - we're at Galileo's level, but we've got the first telescope, and we all know where that led.

Recently, we saw the final work of the late Professor Stephen Hawking, and that suggested the universe is finite and much simpler than what's suggested by current theories about the Big Bang, 13.8 billion years ago. Is it fair to say that our understanding of our universe, at its absolute simplest, will be changed by more twists as more of these huge breakthroughs are made?

Yes, is the simplest answer.

Black holes bring together several areas of our understanding, where we are at the edge and we are unsure what to do.

We don't know what happens at the gravitational singularity - or at the centre of a black hole.

Black holes could be the key to understanding many of the big unresolved questions about the universe. Photo / 123RF
Black holes could be the key to understanding many of the big unresolved questions about the universe. Photo / 123RF

And we don't fully understand what happens with Hawking radiation, or the way that black holes evaporate, why they have the temperature that they do, or what the relationship is between the temperature of a black hole and inflation in the universe.

These are all at the edge of our understanding.

That's why gravitational wave astronomy is so exciting - it's not only that it's raising questions about how these black holes got there, but more.

It's a very simple point that there seems to be a load of 30 solar mass black holes floating around in the universe and we'd like to know where they came from.

But we can also observe precisely how they behave when they collide and merge together.

As measurements get more accurate, I think that's going to be an absolute revolution.

That's where we are stuck and if we are going to make a giant leap beyond general relativity and quantum mechanics, it is going to come from our understanding of black holes.

Because now, we can observe them.

It seems such an irony that at this moment in our time, when we're able to do such incredible things, we are hearing very prominent scientists expressing their concern about "post-truth" and a growing rejection of evidence. New Zealand's Environmental Protection Authority recently noted "a growing scepticism" about science and the role of experts, and the fact that those who opposed fluoride, 1080, vaccination, genetic modification and much more were having their views reinforced and nurtured in the "unmoderated milieu" of the internet. You've spoken about this yourself to no end.

Yes, it is a growing problem, obviously not only in New Zealand, but right across the English-speaking world, strangely.

It is a serious problem, because [science] is the way that we've made progress since the Enlightenment.

To be able to interrogate nature and gather reliable knowledge about nature for all of our benefits is a 500-year project.

We all know that we can list the benefits - should they be for medicine, defence, communication, technology ... just the way that aircraft fly.

In fact, everything that we do is not something we could have done in the Stone Age or the Bronze Age - it comes from this kind of thinking.

And if we jettison it - and certainly if our citizens lose an understanding of what it means to gain reliable knowledge and instead begin to believe that opinion, or the forcefulness of your argument is all that counts - then we are in deep trouble.

Worry about the rise of anti-science has people around the world to march in the streets. Photo / Diego Diaz/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images
Worry about the rise of anti-science has people around the world to march in the streets. Photo / Diego Diaz/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

So yes, I think this is one of the most serious issues that we as a civilisation face at the moment.

Once you lose contact with reality, and nature in the broadest sense, then you put everything at risk.

Do you think social media is to blame?

I do.

But let me qualify that, because a lot of people are doing a lot of research into this.

The way to answer that question is to do some really good social science to understand whether this is the case.

You could argue it's not social media itself, but the way that interested parties manipulate the conversation on social media that's causing problems.

I don't know the answer to that, and I think we need more research.

But for some reason, we are still seeing these inexplicable movements, like the flat Earth movement for example, which have absolutely no basis.

It's difficult for a rational person to understand how you can have such a thing in the 21st century.

But it's all linked to climate change denial, or to the anti-vaccination movement.

They all have a common foundation in that they seem to value instinctive opinion and instinctive reaction above the data and evidence.

And that's a deep problem.

Here in New Zealand, we've seen an encouraging effort led by the Prime Minister's chief science advisor Professor Sir Peter Gluckman and others to make our society more science-literate. That involves everything from teaching kids about critical thinking to having scientists interacting with the public much more. Is that the solution?

Yes I think it is.

Democracy means that ultimately, citizens determine their countries' future, and that's something we quite rightly value.

But that requires citizens to have a basic understanding of - and respect for - evidence.

It's a skill you have to learn, as it's not natural to value your own opinion at a lower level than external evidence.

That what being a scientist is, really - it's attempting to remove your human bias.

We may invest a large part of our careers in a particular scientific theory, but as [American theoretical physicist] Richard Feynman famously said, if the evidence comes in and contradicts your theory, then you are wrong, and you move on, and you try to find a better model, and a better way of understanding of nature.

That's the only way to proceed.

But that's a sort of humility that has to be taught.

Richard Feynman wrote this great essay in the mid-1950s called The Value of Science and it makes this point that, once we become dogmatic, and once we become convinced of our own correctness, or the rightness of individuals, then we stop progress from happening.

But I think the younger you are when you are taught how to think about reality, the more naturally it comes, and the more accepting of evidence our societies will become.

It's vital because, as people, that's a difficult thing to do.

Why shouldn't people have the right to their opinion?

But if you think about the alternative, the alternative is that we cease to make progress.

Ultimately, it doesn't matter what the majority think about nature, because nature doesn't care about democracy.

Professor Brian Cox's world tour lands in New Zealand next year, with shows at Wellington's TSB Arena, Christchurch's Horncastle Arena and the Auckland's Trusts Arena on June 11, 13 and 15 respectively. People can register for pre-sale tickets now at www.lateralevents.com