Marcus Chown | making your head hurt with logic

Some of you may know the name Marcus Chown.

You might remember his book Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You: A Guide to the Universe or perhaps you spotted Felicity Frobisher Three headed Aldebaran Devil (pictured) last year.

Marcus is a science writer and an astrophysicist. And he’s written a new book - We Need to Talk About Kelvin. (In between deciphering alternate universe and what-not) The man himself was kind enough to stop over and answer some questions:

So you’re a scientist… How many coco-pops would it take to cover the moon? (Copious notes and mathematical equations are expected)

Assuming that a coco-pop is about 3mm across and they are round (to an approximation), each has area of about 7 square millimetres… The Moon has a diameter of 2160 miles (I’m so sad I can remember that off the top of my head. I think I should get out more!), which is 3476 kilometres, or 3,476,000,000 millimetres, which means its surface area is about 38,200,000,000,000,000,000 square millimetres…

Therefore number of coco-pops it would take to cover the Moon is about 3,800,000,000,000,000,000 divided by 7, which equals: 5,400,000,000,000,000,000
5.4 billion billion
or enough to fill a breakfast bowl the size of Dublin!

Right, that’s the important question done - on with the interview!

What are you working on right now? (Detailed notes on top secret projects are acceptable)

Apart from all that I’ve been doing publicity for my new book, We Need To Talk About Kelvin (Faber). As a freelance writer, I work from home and mostly only have Reg, the goldfish, for company. So the great thing about the publicity – doing radio interviews and giving talks and so on - is that it gets me out and meeting people, which I like.

Not much on the writing front, though I’m having a fun time at the moment. This week I did a BBC comedy-science show with comedians Andy Hamilton and Reginald D. Hunter. I’ve never done TV before… It was a lot of fun – but nerve-racking. And I wrote the cover article in this week’s New Scientist magazine, it was on black hole star ships…

Outside of writing about things that make my head hurt, are you planning a return to Felicity Frobisher?

You’re right, I tend to write about things like… can time run backwards? Are their multiple universes in which all possible histories are played out? Was our Universe created as a DIY experiment by aliens in another universe?!

But, yes, I really enjoyed writing Felicity Frobisher and the Three-Headed Aldebaran Dust Devil (Faber) more than anything else I have written. When I was at school I liked English – writing stories – and I liked physics. But, unfortunately, the system is set up so that you can’t pursue both. So I plumped for science and ended up as a radio astronomer in California. But then I gave that up to be a science journalist and write popular science books… but I have gradually been working my way back to more creative writing.

The great thing about Felicity Frobisher is that I was able to be very silly indeed. It’s actually not about science but about having a very bad friend who gets you into endless trouble (It’s autobiographical!). I had no idea how to write for children and so have been overwhelmed by the response from children, who keep writing to me asking when they can read more about FF. I am currently writing Felicity Frobisher and the Newly Wedded Capellan Toast Weevil.

What is your favourite part of the new book, We Need to Talk About Kelvin?

The book is about what everyday things tell us about the Universe. And I think it is amazing that when you look out of a window and see faint reflection of your own face, that this simple thing is telling you about the most shocking discovery in the history of science – that, ultimately, the universe is based on random chance, the throw of a “quantum dice”, that things happen for no reason at all.

This so shocked Einstein that he refused to believe it and famously declared “God does not play dice with the universe”. Unfortunately, thousands of experiments have shown that he was wrong (even Einstein was fallible!). What I like about this is that seeing your face reflected in a window pane is such a mundane observation yet it has the most profound implications.

Can quantum theory really not hurt us?

Well, I’ll admit that it can make your head hurt! Then again, it makes the heads of working physicist hurt too, so there’s no need to feel you are alone or stupid or anything. But the point is that it isn’t beyond the average person, and physicists who say it is are doing the public a big disservice.

Quantum theory, I should explain, is our description of atoms and their constituents. It’s a fantastically successful theory. It has essentially created the modern world, not only giving us computers and lasers and nuclear reactors but also an explanation of why the sun shines and why the ground under your feet is solid. But is has a strange dual nature. Not only is it a recipe for making things but also it provides a window into a counter-intuitive “Alice In Wonderland World”, where, for instance,  a single atom can be in two places at once, the equivalent of you being in Dublin and Dubai at the same time.

In writing Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You, I wanted to show people what an incredible universe we live, one that is stranger than science fiction, far weirder than anything we could ever have invented. And I wanted to try and reassure people that it won’t hurt you, there is no need to be scared by this stuff. You won’t get it all – but nor does anyone. But the glimpses of the quantum you will get are well worth it.

So, now that you’ve solved the mysteries of the universe for us, what’s your next plan?

I would really like to continue writing children’s fiction because I enjoyed it so much. But I need to find another publisher for that.

My book, Afterglow of Creation, will be published by Faber on 21 January. It’s the human story of the people who discovered the “afterglow” of the big bang fireball, which incredibly is still all a round us today. Ridiculously, the people who found it thought they’d detected the glow of pigeon droppings (I think you can see some pigeons on the cover!). Rarely in the history of science has so profound a discovery been mistaken for something so mundane!

The great thing about writing, though, is the unexpected things that happen. For instance, when I wrote The Magic Furnace, I got a letter from the wife of a South London taxi driver, who said she had been brought to tears at the end of chapter 2 of my book (I hope it wasn’t the thought of having to read chapter 3!). She had three children and had left school at 14 with no qualifications. She was inspired by my book to get educated and go to university, where she was very successful – a real-life Educating Rita. She was just one of the thousands of people passed by by the education system. She was like a keg of gunpowder waiting for someone to light the match. It could have been anyone. But it happened to me. It’s that kind of thing that really makes writing worthwhile.

So, I hope for more unexpected things!

Marcus is around to answer science and other questions in the comments - and will be visiting Sue Guiney’s Blog on 6 December!

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