TEACHERS have a tough time convincing students that science can be exciting.
But a "middle-aged" man talking about alien civilisations mesmerised students during an hour-long lecture at UCD's new €300m O'Brien Centre for Science.
Professor Brian Cox, host of the BBC's 'Wonders Of The Universe' television series, renowned physicist and former popstar, even threw in a 20-minute algebra lesson to a clueless, but enthralled, audience.
"Statistically, there really should be other civilisations out there," he said. "But in reality, we're not seeing any signs of them. It's a bit of a mystery."
Prof Cox, whose band D:Ream once had a No 1 hit with the song 'Things Can Only Get Better', told the Irish Independent that the UCD facility was one of the best he had ever seen. He also said that a common government strategy of making scientific funding dependent on early commercial returns was "a huge mistake".
"Even in a recession, I don't think that there are good reasons for that."
"I can see how it can be attractive to a politician to say that things need to be commercially profitable to be funded. But you can't always pick early winners. It's not possible.
"You never know where the next big discovery is coming from. Take the internet, which was a spin-off from researching particle physics. How much is global e-commerce funding worth now?"
And afterwards he tweeted fellow science buff and TV presenter Dara O Briain. "Just been to your old uni – very impressive. When you going back to start your PhD?" he asked.
O Briain replied that he was "glad to hear the old place scrubbed up well".
Prof Cox, who described himself as "middle-aged", also said that western countries need to spend "significantly" more on scientific research if they want to stay ahead, economically.
"The amount we spend on all higher education, including research budgets, is bugger-all," he said.
"It's nothing. For example, in Ireland, R&D is under 0.6pc of GDP. But you look at the percentage of GNP that comes from knowledge-based industries and it's around 50pc."
Prof Cox said that funding PhD students was particularly important.
"All the research tells you that PhD students are the engines of creatively translating research into industrial innovation," he said.
"So your research base is utterly fundamental to the success of your economy in the medium term.
"If you lose your PhDs, all those hi-tech companies and drug companies disappear and just go somewhere where the PhDs are." But Prof Cox praised Ireland for its high rate of third-level access.
"The number of people who go through tertiary education here is proportionately highest in the OECD.
"So this is a model of how to do it. And you can see the results because of the hi-tech industries which are here because of the skills base," he said.
Private donors for the new facility included Airtricity founder Eddie O'Connor, DCC founder Jim Flavin and the late Irish-American businessman, George Moore. The science centre's largest donor was billionaire telecoms businessman Denis O'Brien, after whom the facility is named.
"I want to recognise and record my indebtedness to UCD as a third-level student," said Mr O'Brien.
"I spent several of the happiest years of my life on this campus. Science is so absolutely central to the global community of which we are all part and engaging in ground-breaking research to tackle the health challenges that face a rapidly growing global population is essential.
"I hope that some of what will happen here will lead to scientific solutions to some of the problems that see far too many die, far too young, in a world that is so sophisticated in many respects and yet so deficient and negligent in other aspects."