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Manchester scientist helps bring Sunshine to the big screen

A new $45m British-made science fiction film is being unveiled this week - and a physicist from The University of Manchester has played an important role in bringing it to the big screen.

Dr Brian Cox, who can usually be found investigating how the universe was formed at the Centre for European Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland, has been working with Sunshine scriptwriter and University of Manchester old boy Alex Garland (The Beach) and director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting and 28 Days Later).

Oldham-born Dr Cox has been acting as scientific advisor to Boyle and Garland to ensure the dramatic storyline retains some degree of plausibility and isn't simply a far-fetched flight of fantasy.

He was also on hand to give the cast and crew a better understanding of advanced physics and worked intensively with Cillian Murphy, who plays Capa, the ship's hero physicist.

Previously a member of 90s pop act D:Ream, while still in the group Dr Cox was studying for his PhD at The University of Manchester. He eventually left the band to finish it and went on to become a Royal Society University Research Fellow based in the High Energy Physics group within The University's School of Physics and Astronomy.

Filmed at the 3 Mills Studio in London's East End, Sunshine shuns the usual Hollywood stereotype of physicists being ageing crazy frizzy-haired blokes, as in Back to the Future or Dr Strangelove.

Lead character Capa is described as being around 30 and handsome - and in a recent interview with The Guardian, Boyle even likened him to Dr Cox.

Sunshine - on general release from April 5 - is set 50 years in the future. The sun is dying and the earth is in permanent winter.

Capa is the physicist in an eight-strong Asian-American team of astronauts who are 16 months into a mission to reignite the sun with a huge nuclear bomb. Ultimately, it is left to him and his knowledge of physics, to save the planet.

Part of Cox's role was to come up with a plausible explanation of why the sun is dying well ahead of schedule in the film. It will expire eventually but not for another five billion years or so.

The explanation offered in the film is that a so-called ‘Q ball' has got itself lodged in the sun - although Cox admits that our own sun is not dense enough and it would fly straight through. The hypothetical Q ball would eat through normal matter, ripping apart the Sun's neutrons and protons.

It's not yet know whether Q balls actually exist but Dr Cox says that CERN are planning to search for them using their £4bn atom-smashing Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which is due to be switched on later this year.

"The science is extremely sound in the film," explains Cox. “You can tell Alex Garland is a fan of science as well as a science fiction fan. There were a few edges we ironed out but basically it was the back story rather than the plot that my expertise was needed for."

On the official website for the film, Boyle comments that they have tried to obey the rules of physics and make it as real as possible, "but in the end you have to abandon certain elements and just go for what is dramatically effective."

Dr Cox is a leading researcher on the LHC - a massive project involving 10,000 researchers and based at CERN, which is the world's largest particle physics centre.

The 39-year-old is working with an 11-nation team that is building detectors to pick up particles such as the as-yet-undetected Higgs boson - the so-called ‘God particle' which could help to explain why matter has mass.

The LHC represents the biggest scientific experiment of all time, and will collide tiny beams of protons with the aim of recreating conditions in the Universe less than a billionth of a second after the Big Bang.

A special preview screening of Sunshine will be held at The Cornerhouse on Oxford Road, Manchester, on Tuesday March 27 at 8pm. Members of the cast and crew - including Dr Cox - will be present and will take part in a question and answer session after the film. For more information please ring The Cornerhouse on 0161 200 1500.

Jon Keighren | alfa
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