Marcus Chown in Auckland

Marcus ChownMoata Tamaira conducted this interview with science writer Marcus Chown during the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival 2009. Chown was a visiting author on the library blog on January 19, 2010.


When I arrive in the lounge on the 28th floor of the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Auckland, Marcus Chown, science writer, is bidding a fond farewell to the interviewer who has the slot immediately before me … who happens also to be a librarian. This bodes well, particularly for someone who just scraped by in sixth form physics and considers setting the clock on her DVD player as “a great leap forward in the field of science and technology”. Science boffins can be scary. They speak a language that mere mortals of the humanities realm do not necessarily understand.

Becoming a writer

Marcus Chown is visiting the Christchurch City Libraries blog on Tuesday 19 January 2010 as part of his virtual blog tour.

Exclusive: excerpts from We need to talk about Kelvin

Quick Links

But as author of several popular science books Marcus Chown inhabits the space in between. A writer but with a science background. As a youngster he enjoyed both physics and English at school but had to choose one, with physics winning initially. However writing, as it often does, had its way in the end.

“I went to university and did physics which I really enjoyed and I went to California and did astrophysics … I was interested in astronomy because I read books when I was a kid and they had pictures of colourful nebulae but in real astronomy no one’s looked through a telescope in a hundred years. Photographic plates are much more sensitive than the eye so I got a bit disillusioned and I thought I’d like to do writing again.

"So I wrote to newspapers and magazines in England and said ‘I’d like to be a journalist’, and they all said ‘go away for ten years, if you get some experience you can come and clean our toilets’. So I was persistent and I did get a job eventually at New Scientist magazine and then I worked there for a while.

"My wife’s a nurse and she got a job somewhere else in Britain so I left New Scientist and I went freelance and I started writing books. But they are popular science books, not that imaginative though I’ve written children’s fiction as well. So it’s not really a career path. I’ve always been doing the same thing. I like writing and I like science and that’s what I’ve always been doing really. So even when I was doing physics I used to write things… I’m a very, very boring person in that I’ve kept a diary every day for about the last thirty years. That’s very sad isn’t it?”

Making quantum physics easy

It’s debatable whether journal-keeping is a habit of the boring (Samuel Pepys seemed to have a fairly interesting life despite his habitual diary writing) but I’m more interested in how someone who went to Cal-Tech translates the mysteries of quantum physics into something that the science-challenged can understand? As it turns out the answer is actually rather simple.

He’s writing as much for his own understanding as he is for his readers’ which perhaps is the reason that his books less daunting than scientific heavy-weight and author of one of the most “started” books in the Western world A brief history of time by Stephen Hawking.

cover“I’m trying to write for myself. I’m trying to understand things myself. Trying to understand things better. I went to university. I did mathematics and whatever but you only ever vaguely grasp the ideas and I’m just trying to work it through my own head and explain it to other people as well.

"I was taught by Richard Feynman, a great physicist. He won a Nobel prize and his criterion for whether he understood something was whether he could actually explain it to someone waiting for a bus. Sometimes he couldn’t and he would realise 'I don’t really understand it'. So for me if I can’t explain it I think 'I don’t really understand that'."

"People write things on Amazon about my books and sometimes they’re lunatics and say the book’s “terrible” but someone did say that I was “easier than Hawking” so I think that’s probably a good description. I try and explain things in an easier and better way, I hope, than Hawking. But Hawking’s book has done very well because of who he is. It’s from the horse’s mouth. I’m just a science journalist but he’s a scientist.

Quantum theory cannot hurt you

Chown on libraries

"I could say the last time I went to the library it was hit by a bit of re-entering space shuttle, something like that. But no, it wouldn’t be true. I know that people like Doris Lessing are very worried about libraries. They’re kind of like Cinderella in that they sometimes don’t get the money they need. For people that don’t have any money they’re just a window on the world."

By calling his latest book “Quantum theory cannot hurt you”, Chown acknowledes non-scientists find quantum physics is a big scary animal. The title itself was not exactly what he wanted.

“Quantum theory cannot hurt you” comes from a poem by Adrian Mitchell. “Mashed potatoes cannot hurt you, darling”. The poem is actually called “Giving potatoes” and can be found in The Norton book of light verse.

I fought like mad to keep that “darling” on the end and my publisher removed it. It was going to be “Quantum theory cannot hurt you, darling” and they said “Oh no, no we can’t have that on a science book”, and I said “Well look, we want to make my book different from every other book, why can’t we have it?”

"But I thought that that got the idea across. Quantum theory cannot hurt you. Most people think “Quantum theory, oh God”. It isn’t that scary. And a liberating thing about it is that you’re not going to understand it completely. Nobody does. Not even the physicists.”

“… I try to put things in terms that everyday people will understand. I have said that there is a lot of empty space in atoms. Squeeze it all out and you could fit the human race in a sugar cube. Don’t you think that’s astonishing? We are essentially ghosts, and that was of course discovered by a New Zealander, Ernest Rutherford, one hundred years ago. Probably the greatest experimental physicist of the last hundred years.”

No-one understands it all

Most of us aren’t Hawkings or Rutherfords but Chown does think is achievable is for the everyday punter to get a little more insight into the world of the “quantum” which is just a fancy science word for “really, really little”).

“You can always understand these things at some level. You’re not going to understand it at the level that Stephen Hawking understands it but you’ll get some appreciation of it. If you read my book and if you read someone else’s book you’ll understand a bit more, and a bit more, and a bit more. So I’m trying to say “quantum theory cannot hurt you”. I’m trying to talk to the reader. Stroke them gently. Reassure. Because there is that problem that people won’t pick up books about science. They think it’s scary but it’s fun, it’s exhilarating, it’s mind-blowing and you don’t have to grasp it all but you can grasp some of it.”

CoverFour-dimensional thinking

Well, that made me feel better. So it turns out that if you’re having trouble coming to grips with some of the strangeness that quantum theory tries to explain, it’s really not your fault but I did wonder why we have so much trouble understanding this stuff. Why do we need someone like Chown to translate it for us?

“It’s the fact that the universe we live in is really, really amazingly weird, stranger than anything that we could possibly have invented. I find it very exciting but it does mean that you can’t grasp it in its entirety.”

“It’s like, the world is essentially four-dimensional. We live in three dimensions of space, one of time. Einstein discovered that gravity is the warping of space-time. We can’t see it because we cannot experience four dimensions. We can only experience three dimensions. Or the “Big Bang” itself. You can’t get your head around it completely. How could it have happened everywhere at once? But it’s a four-dimensional thing so you can’t get your head around it. You can get glimpses of it but people get the glimpses and they think they ought to be tied together into a coherent picture. They don’t realise that that’s all that you can get.”

Seeing gravity

Chown starts to say something about the role of mathematics in illuminating part of this incoherent picture when he contradicts his earlier statement by suddenly “seeing” gravity.

“…by God somebody’s just jumped off that tower. Isn’t that an amazing thing? I just saw someone fall off a building while I was talking to you. That’s an unusual thing to see isn’t it?”

I do a quick and somewhat startled turn to where he is looking, out the window over my shoulder, and am relieved that his outburst is down to the fact that the 28th floor of the Crowne Plaza hotel affords a pretty good view of tourists doing a controlled jump from the Sky Tower and not because someone has decided that “experiencing gravity” will be their final act in life. For a moment I thought something terrible had happened. Perhaps we should discuss something a little safer.

How does he feel about libraries?

“… love libraries … Where we live in London we’ve got a library near us. (My wife) Karen’s always in the library and it’s actually brilliant. Karen brings back great big stacks of books and she’s a fast reader. She’s a filter, so I only get the cream.”

But it eventuates that Chown has a cunning plan with regards to libraries should he ever fall upon hard times.

“In England there’s this thing called “The public lending right” which I don’t know if you have in New Zealand. There is a pot of money that the government has for authors because there are a lot of authors that loads of people read through libraries but their books are not bought. So this pot of money is divided. They have certain libraries around Britain and they record which books are borrowed and it works out to about two pence per book.”

“I’ve always thought that I could just make a living by borrowing my book repeatedly. I’ll just go into my library and borrow my book, and then give it back and then borrow it again. Karen says “but it will take them ages to put it back on the shelf before you can re-borrow it” but I just thought potentially I could make a living, couldn’t I?”

“But the great thing about the public lending right is that you get some idea of who’s reading your book, and the other thing is that every year you get this cheque and you’ve kind of completely forgotten about it. You’re not expecting it and it comes in and it’s a hundred pounds or something and even though it’s just a hundred pounds you’re so pleased. It’s like winning the lottery because it’s unexpected. And it says that “15,000 people borrowed Quantum theory cannot hurt you” and “12,000 borrowed this”. It’s really good. I really like it.”

“That’s really my boring library story. I could say the last time I went to the library it was hit by a bit of re-entering space shuttle, something like that. But no, it wouldn’t be true. I know that people like Doris Lessing are very worried about libraries. They’re kind of like Cinderella in that they sometimes don’t get the money they need. For people that don’t have any money they’re just a window on the world.”

He stops in mid flow to again draw my attention to someone “jumping off that building” before adding: “I love libraries. I think they’re fantastic.”

May 2009