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

The Demon in the Machine - Paul Davies *****

Physicists have a habit of dabbling in biology and, perhaps surprisingly, biologists tend to be quite tolerant of it. (I find it hard to believe the reverse would be true if biologists tried to do physics.) Perhaps one reason for that tolerance is Schrödinger’s lecture series and book What is Life?, which had a huge impact on molecular biology and with a reference to which, not surprisingly, Paul Davies begins his fascinating book. 

At the heart of the The Demon in the Machine (we'll come back to that demon in a moment) is the relationship between life and information. In essence, Davies points out that if we try to reduce life to its simple physical components it is like trying to work with a computer that has no software. The equivalent of software here is information, not just in the best publicised aspect of the information stored in the DNA, but on a far broader scale, operating in networks across the organism.
This information and its processing gives life its emergent compl…

The Cosmic Mystery Tour – Nicholas Mee ****

This is another book, like last year’s Enjoy Our Universe by Alvaro de Rújula, that sets out to provide a light-hearted introduction to physics and astrophysics for the general reader. It’s from the same publisher (OUP) and packaged in the same way: as a high quality small-format hardback with 200 glossy pages, the majority of them adorned with colour pictures. But that’s where the resemblance ends. Unlike its predecessor, this new book by Nicholas Mee delivers exactly what it promises.

It’s not that de Rújula’s book was a bad one, but he just wasn’t able to think his way into the reader’s mind. He kept saying ‘physics is fun’, but he was talking about the fun a professional physicist gets out of doing it – which is a very arcane, often highly mathematical, type of fun. The result, for a non-specialist reader, was actually quite alienating. Mee, on the other hand, understands exactly how his readers think, what they find interesting, and the details that – no matter how important they …

Professor Maxwell's Duplicitous Demon - Brian Clegg ****

‘It’s not uncommon when trying to give Maxwell his rightful place in the pantheon of physics to bracket him with Newton and Einstein’, Brian Clegg says towards the end of this book. In one sense that’s perfectly true. Dip into any physics textbook and you’ll see Maxwell’s name at least as often as the other two. His greatest achievement – Maxwell’s equations – did for electromagnetism what Newton had done for gravity, while laying the essential theoretical groundwork for everything Einstein was to do.

There’s a big difference, though. A few years ago, when I was offered the chance to write short biographies of Newton and Einstein, I jumped at it – because they addressed mysteries of the universe that anyone can relate to, and their lives outside physics were, if anything, even more fascinating. At the risk of sounding downright rude, you can’t say either of those things about James Clerk Maxwell. In spite of that, Brian Clegg has done a wonderful job here of recounting just what Maxwel…