Stepping onstage at Commonwealth Bank’s sustainability conference Momentum, Professor Brian Cox highlighted the value of humour to the audience after being introduced not only as a particle physicist, but as a “rock star scientist” and former member of the boyband D:Ream — known for their 1994 hit ‘Things Can Only Get Better’.

“That song, by the way, is physically inaccurate — according to the second law of thermodynamics, things get worse,” he quipped.

Best known for his TV series on the cosmos, Professor Brian Cox wrapped up the Momentum: Accelerating Australia’s Transition conference, held at Sydney’s International Convention Centre, with a keynote presentation that offered the “widest possible perspective on our planet’s place in the universe”.

His 30-minute address touched on colossal black holes where time and space collide, the probable origins of life on Earth in deep-sea hydrothermal vents billions of years ago, and the sheer size and scale of the universe — 400 billion suns in our Milky Way galaxy, and around 2 trillion galaxies in the “dauntingly big” observable universe.

“So we’re small,” he said with a wry laugh.

Professor Cox said that “[at Momentum] we’re talking about sustainability, and the sustainability or otherwise of our civilisation… It’s easy, when you look at the size and scale of the universe, to feel that it doesn’t really matter.”

It was a  seemingly bleak message for a sustainability conference — but he finished with a more uplifting perspective that tied his keynote back to Momentum’s purpose.

“Just imagine that indeed [Earth] is the only place in this galaxy of 400 billion suns where there are collections of atoms like us that can think and feel and bring meaning to the universe,” he explained.

“It means that if we eliminate ourselves through deliberate action, or maybe inaction, then we run the risk… of eliminating meaning perhaps forever in this galaxy, if we’re the only place where a civilisation exists.

“That tells us, perhaps paradoxically, that the science that told us we were physically insignificant has also possibly told us we are indescribably valuable.”

Sally Reid and Brian Cox Sally Reid and Brian Cox

Professor Cox’s speech was followed was a question and answer session with Sally Reid, Commonwealth Bank’s Executive General Manager of Global Client Solutions, who brought the session “back to Earth” by first asking him what humanity would do differently if we took science more seriously.

“I think we would invest more in knowledge,” said Professor Cox, explaining that knowledge provides not just perspective, but unimaginable potential benefits in the future.

No one, for example, foresaw the development of our modern electrical system “when people like Michael Faraday [the inventor of the electric motor and the dynamo] and others were fiddling around with magnets,” Professor Cox pointed out.

Ms Reid, stating space is seen as a “new frontier” in solving climate challenges, asked Professor Cox how he thinks space technologies can be applied to decarbonisation.

Professor Cox cited an interview he had with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who said he initially relied on pre-existing infrastructure — the internet and the postal service — to build the tech company. Bezos, who also founded spaceflight company Blue Origin, told Professor Cox that he wants to provide space infrastructure so the entrepreneurs of the future can operate there, perhaps one day moving polluting industries to other planets.

Ms Reid prefaced her ”philosophical” final question with the Oscar Wilde quote “A fool who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”, asking Professor Cox for his perspective on intrinsic value versus extrinsic price.

“You can put a price on what happens if you completely eliminate our civilisation— you can cost out our civilisation’s worth monetarily,” said Professor Cox. “If it’s true that we’re [the only civilisation] in this galaxy, you don’t just eliminate just the economy of the galaxy, you eliminate meaning in the galaxy… I don’t know how to value that.”