Science is stranger than science fiction – just ask our guest blog star Marcus Chown

Kia ora Marcus.
We are pleased to welcome science writer Marcus Chown to our blog today as part of his virtual trip around the blogosphere. He’s the star of our blog, and also the Christchurch City Libraries web site which has just published an interview with Marcus by Moata Tamaira during the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival 2009.

I asked  him a few questions:
Who is your favourite science writer and what is it about their writing that appeals to you?

I suppose it’s the people I read when I was a teenager, who expanded my mental horizons and blew my mind, who are my favourites. I’m giving away my age but I would say Arthur C. Clarke and Carl Sagan. I know, that’s two! So I’ll narrow it down to Carl Sagan since Clarke was principally a science fiction writer.

I particularly liked Sagan’s The Cosmic Connection. I recall him describing being a planetary astronomer and working on the NASA Mariner flybys of Mars. When the space probe arrived at its destination, to everyone’s dismay Mars was shrouded in a planet-wide dust storm. But, gradually, as the dust settled, there were revealed volcanoes that would dwarf Everest and canyons whose minor tributaries were bigger than the Grand Canyon. Sagan had the gift of sharing with you what it was like to be at Mission Control as, one by one, the grainy, black-and-white pictures came in. He communicated the excitement of being one of the first people in history to stare at face of an alien world. It sends a tingle up my spine even thinking about it. So, I think Sagan has my vote for his genius in conveying the sheer wonder of the Universe we find ourselves in.

Actually, I interviewed Sagan once. It was one of my first journalistic jobs. I was so nervous at meeting my hero, who was staying in a palatial suite at London’s super-posh Dorchester Hotel, that, rather than asking him much about him, I told him all about me. Even now, I cringe at the thought!

I love this quote from Sagan: “To create an apple pie from scratch you must first create the Universe.” As British comedian Robin Ince has observed: “Maybe that explains why Sagan’s recipe books never sold.”

(I’ll just add in this lovely mashup song  that utilised Sagan’s ‘create an apple pie’ words)

Marcus ChownKiwi scientists – we’ve got Ernest Rutherford (my great-grandad’s brother or some such) and fellow Nobel winner Alan McDiarmid. Do you think scientists can be heroes like sports stars?

Wow, Ernest Rutherford was one of your ancestors! What a claim to fame! He was the greatest experimental physicist of the 20th century and he is one of my heroes.

To answer your question, scientists can certainly be heroes, though in general it’s harder for them to achieve such a status because, obviously, it’s harder for the general public to appreciate just what they’ve done. But, sometimes, that isn’t even necessary. I’m thinking of Einstein. In 1919, after Arthur Eddington proved him right and Newton wrong by demonstrating the bending of starlight by the Sun’s gravity during a total eclipse, Einstein was catapulted into the front rank of mega-celebrity. He became as famous as Charlie Chaplin. Such was his global fame that, much later, when Edith Piaf visited America, she told reporters that the person she most wanted to meet was Einstein and that she kept a copy of his book on relativity by her bed, even though she had never read it.

I think in recent years the only scientist who has even approached Einstein’s level of fame has been Stephen Hawking.

But I think we would have to live in a far better educated world before people appreciated scientists’ achievements enough to hero worship them like sports stars.

Are you into sci-fi at all? Can science and science fiction co-exist?

I used to read a lot of science fiction. And I even wrote two science fiction novels with John Gribbin. Double Planet and Reunion were about terraforming the Moon.

Yes, science and science fiction can certainly co-exist. In fact, it’s hard to imagine science fiction – certainly hard science fiction – without any science to inspire it!

One of the problems science fiction has faced in recent years has been that science today is arguably stranger than science fiction. For instance, we have discovered that 73 per cent of the mass-energy of the Universe is in the form of mysterious “dark energy”, invisible stuff whose repulsive gravity is speeding up cosmic expansion; we have discovered microorganisms surviving in total darkness kilometres down in solid rock and in super-hot, sulphurous vents on the seafloor – even in the cores of nuclear reactors; and we have seen the rise of “superstring theory”, which views the ultimate building blocks of matter as impossibly small “strings” the vibrating in a 10-dimensional space. Science fiction writers have had a hard time keeping up. The speed of change, has raised the bar for the imagination of the current generation of science fiction writers. But I see no reason why they will not rise to the challenge.

What scientific discovery would you like to have been a fly on the wall for?

I’d like to be there with Marie and Pierre Curie in there dilapidated laboratory in Paris in 1898. I’d like to be there when, after their Herculean effort of dissolving, filtering and crystallising many tonnes of the pitchblende, they were left with a tiny, tiny speck of radium. I’d like to be there when the sun went down outside and darkness descended on the laboratory and, in a heart-stopping moment, they noticed that the speck of radium was glowing with an eerie, menacing light.

On the street outside, horse-drawn carriages clattered over the cobbles. A dog barked. A few forlorn birds flew across the watery sky. The world was same as it had been an instant earlier. Yet the world had changed irrevocably. The road that led to Hiroshima and Chernobyl would one day be traced back to this moment, this place.

Moata Tamaira, who interviewed Marcus at the Auckland Readers and Writers Festival last year came up with the following curly questions:

Why is it that scientists are usually so terrible at explaining scientific things *cough* Stephen Hawking *cough*? It almost seems like they’re being confusing ON PURPOSE (though, surely that’s not true).

I’ve often thought about this. Years ago, when I was a student at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, I was struck by how bad at explaining things most of my lecturers were. They appeared to be unable to put themselves in the shoes of the students. This seemed odd to me. After all, there must have been a time when they themselves did not know things. However, they simply could not remember what it was like before they knew.

The question is: Why could they not remember? One of my lecturers was the bongo-playing Nobel prize winner Richard Feynman. He had won the Nobel prize for Quantum Electrodynamics, and he was undoubtedly at the top of the academic tree. Yet he could remember what it was like before he knew. That’s why he was such a good teacher. He even gave a series of lectures to ordinary people on QED, which became the brilliant popular science book, QED: The strange theory of light and matter. A tiny, thin book, with not a single equation in sight.

The thing about Feynman is that his criterion of whether he really understood something was whether he could explain it to an ordinary person. So he put in the effort to do this. And I think this is the key. Any scientist could explain things – perhaps not as well as Feynman –but certainly a lot better than they do if they put in the effort. If they realised that popularising is an important and serious thing and, like all important and serious things, takes time and application.

I believe the Nobel prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg took a year off research to write his popular science book, Dreams of a Final Theory. He realised that popularising was a serious business and that, doing it well, was hard, like doing science. Perhaps if more scientists recognised this and put in the effort – and didn’t just think popularising was something they could do in a spare moment – the public would be better served.

Do you have any suggestions of authors other than your good self who have a knack for making this stuff intelligible to the average punter?

Simon Singh is very good. Try his Fermat’s Last Theorem and Big Bang. He is also a very nice person. He and his wife, Anita, had the most amazing wedding at London Zoo. Simon arrived on a white horse with pink glitter hooves and was sawn in half by the best man. My wife, Karen, and I got to stroke a skunk. Now, how many weddings can you do that at? Simon is currently trying to get the UK libel law changed after writing in The Guardian newspaper that there was very little evidence for claims that chiropractic was useful for treating conditions like childhood asthma. The British Chiropractic Associations sued Simon – not the newspaper – won, and Simon has had to pay about £100,000. Incredibly, in UK libel law, the truth is not a defence.

Stuart Clark is also good. I have not read his book The Sun Kings yet but it has had very good reviews and I know Stuart and so know he knows his stuff. Stuart used to be a research astronomer. He’s also a bit of a rock-and-roller!

And Graham Farmelo’s recent biography of Paul Dirac, the man who discovered antimatter and did a very good impression of Mr Spock, is very good. See The Strangest Man.

What’s the weirdest scientific fact that you’ve ever come across?

Wow, there are so many. That, after all, is what makes science so interesting today. It’s stranger than science fiction, stranger than anything we could possible have made up!

I repeat this often but I still think it is amazing that, if you squeezed all the empty space out of matter, you could fit the entire human race in the volume of a sugar cube. That’s because the atoms out of which you are made are 99.9999999999999 per cent empty space. I don’t feel like a ghost. But I am. And so are you!

Of course, the person who discovered this was… Ernest Rutherford, assisted by Ernest Marsden. A fitting point to end this Q&A on since, of course, they were both New Zealanders!

Thanks Marcus for taking time out to visit us – and we know you are busy because your new book Afterglow of Creation is published in two days time!

2 thoughts on “Science is stranger than science fiction – just ask our guest blog star Marcus Chown

  1. Mo-mo 19 January 2010 / 3:08 pm

    This will sound terrible, given all the other interesting things that Marcus had to say but I can’t think of anything right now other than white horses with pink glitter hooves. Even my sister’s my little pony didn’t have glitter hooves. Wow.

  2. Marcus Chown 20 January 2010 / 2:09 am

    Dear Mo-mo,

    No, it doesn’t sound terrible at all. I agree with you – that was the most interesting thing I wrote. It was an amazing wedding. Glad to have lodged an image in your mind. Keep thinking white horses with pink glitter hooves!

    Best wishes,

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