Skip to main content

Four Way Interview - Marcus Chown

Image courtesy Sunday Brunch, C4
Marcus Chown graduated from the University of London in 1980 with a first class degree in physics. He also earned a Master of Science in astrophysics from the California Institute of Technology. Currently the cosmology consultant for New Scientist magazine, Chown has written a string of successful popular science books. His latest title is The Ascent of Gravity.

Why science?

Good question. When I was 8, my dad bought me 'Dr H. C. King's Book of Astronomy.' I don't know why he bought me that book. But it caught my imagination. Later, he bought me a small telescope. I used to poke it out of the window of our North London flat and observe the stars above the orange glow of the North Circular Road. I saw Jupiter's moons and the rings of Saturn. I began to realise I was living on a tiny mote of matter lost in a mind-bogglingly huge universe. And it awakened in me a desire, which I have never lost, to find out more and more about where it all came from and our place in it.

Why this book?

I was fascinated by the paradoxes of gravity. It was the first force to be discovered, yet today it is the least understood. It is a 'force' that keeps your feet on the ground yet, according to Einstein, no such force actually exists. It is the weakest force in the everyday world, yet it controls the ate of stars and galaxies and the universe as a whole. Gravity, to steal the words of Winston Churchill, is 'a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.' And penetrating that enigma promises to answer the biggest questions in science: What is space? What is time? What is the universe? And where did it all come from?

What’s next?

I have just been asked to write a Ladybird book. If you remember, Ladybird used to produce those distinctive books for children on topics like 'Going to the dentist' or 'How aeroplanes work.' Well, Penguin revived the imprint a few years ago. They did a range of spoof books for adults [after copying the idea from an artist they sued for doing the same thing - Ed.], which were a publishing phenomenon. So, they have now decided to do an 'expert' series. Prince Charles did one on climate change. I'm chuffed to be doing one of the big bang.

What’s exciting you at the moment?

The fact that nothing fits. We have a model of the universe in which 95% of its mass is invisible - so-called dark matter and dark energy - and we have no idea what it is. We have two incredibly successful theories of physics - quantum theory and Einstein's theory of gravity - and they appear incompatible. All this makes it an incredible time to be alive. We are on the verge of a revolution in our picture of the universe. Someone is going to pull it all together. Someone whose name will become as well-known as Newton and Einstein. At least, I think so!


Popular posts from this blog

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

Conjuring the Universe - Peter Atkins *****

It's rare that I'd use the term 'tour de force' when describing a popular science book, but it sprang to mind when I read Conjuring the Universe. It's not that the book's without flaws, but it does something truly original in a delightful way. What's more, the very British Peter Atkins hasn't fallen into the trap that particularly seems to influence US scientists when writing science books for the public of assuming that more is better. Instead of being an unwieldy brick of a book, this is a compact 168 pages that delivers splendidly on the question of where the natural laws came from.

The most obvious comparison is Richard Feynman's (equally compact) The Character of Physical Law - but despite being a great fan of Feynman's, this is the better book. Atkins begins by envisaging a universe emerging from absolutely nothing. While admitting he can't explain how that happened, his newly created universe still bears many resemblances to  nothing a…

Big Bang (Ladybird Expert) - Marcus Chown ****

As a starting point in assessing this book it's essential to know the cultural background of Ladybird books in the UK. These were a series of cheap, highly illustrated, very thin hardbacks for children, ranging from storybooks to educational non-fiction. They had become very old-fashioned, until new owners Penguin brought back the format with a series of ironic humorous books for adults, inspired by the idea created by the artist Miriam Elia. Now, the 'Ladybird Expert' series are taking on serious non-fiction topics for an adult audience.

Marcus Chown does a remarkable job at packing in information on the big bang, given only around 25 sides of small format paper to work with. He gives us the concepts, plenty about the cosmic microwave background, plus the likes of dark energy, dark matter, inflation and the multiverse. To be honest, the illustrations were largely pointless, apart from maintaining the format, and it might have been better to have had more text - but I felt …