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!

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Quantum Space: Jim Baggott *****

There's no doubt that Jim Baggott is one of the best popular science writers currently active. He specialises in taking really difficult topics and giving a more in-depth look at them than most of his peers. The majority of the time he achieves with a fluid writing style that remains easily readable, though inevitably there are some aspects that are difficult for the readers to get their heads around - and this is certainly true of his latest title Quantum Space, which takes on loop quantum gravity.

As Baggott points out, you could easily think that string theory was the only game in town when it comes to the ultimate challenge in physics, finding a way to unify the currently incompatible general theory of relativity and quantum theory. Between them, these two behemoths of twentieth century physics underlie the vast bulk of physics very well - but they simply can't be put together. String theory (and its big brother M-theory, which as Baggott points out, is not actually a the…

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…

Everything You Know About Planet Earth is Wrong - Matt Brown ****

This is the latest of a series of 'Everything You Know About... is Wrong' books from Matt Brown. Although I always feel slightly hard done by as a result of the assertion in the title, as there are certainly things here I know that aren't wrong (I mean, come on, the first corrected piece of 'knowledge' is that 'The Earth is only 6,000 years old' and I can't imagine many readers will 'know' that), it's a handy format to provide what are often surprisingly little snippets of information that are very handy for 'did you know' conversations down the pub (or showing up your parents if you're a younger reader).

Some of the incorrect statements that head each article are well-covered, if often still believed (for example, people thought that world was flat before Columbus), some are a little tricksy in the wording (such as seas have to wash up against land) and some are just pleasantly surprising (countering the idea that gold is a rar…