Skip to main content

Paul Parsons - Four Way Interview

Dr Paul Parsons was a theoretical cosmologist at the University of Sussex, and is now a science journalist and author. He has contributed articles to the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph and New Scientist, and has served as editor of the award-winning BBC science magazine Focus and as managing editor of BBC Sky at Night magazine. His previous books include The Periodic Table, How to Destroy the Universe, The Science of Doctor Who (longlisted for the 2007 Royal Society Prize for Science Books) and 30-Second Theories: The 50 Most Thought-provoking Theories in Science. His latest book is The Beginning and the End of Everything.

Why science?

The short answer is I’m very lazy! I just don’t seem to get very much work done if I don’t find the work obsessively, head-hurtingly interesting. I’ve loved maths, physics and astronomy since school. Understanding how things work, and using that knowledge to make predictions and solve mysteries is fascinating to me. And the systematic nature of maths and the physical sciences is especially appealing. So that’s what I studied at university, and it’s what I’ve tried to make a part of my work (if you can call it that) ever since – whether that’s actually doing science or writing about it.

Why this book?

That’s a good question. In the past I’ve often lamented the appearance of so many new books all telling the story of the origin and evolution of the universe. The Beginning and the End of Everythingis a bit different for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it tries to include or at least give more weight to the end of the universe, and how that fits into the story – and how we can speculate about the ultimate demise of the cosmos by combining our current theories with the observations that we’re able to make. But also, there have been some interesting new discoveries and some interesting new mysteries that have emerged in the last few years. So the time seemed right to pull all of the latest new findings and new thinking together and take stock of how it all changes the story of the universe as we understand it. That’s what I’ve tried to do with the new book.

What’s next?

I’m working on a couple of projects for packagers – essentially book projects that they’re producing for other outlets – which I’m probably not allowed to elaborate on just yet. After that, I’m not sure. Lots of possible ideas kicking around, but so far nothing fleshed out in sufficient detail for a book. My day job involves a lot of statistical analysis, and I’ve often thought there’s room for more popular writing in this area. If coverage in the newspapers is anything to go by, the general standard of the public understanding of stats and probability still seems pretty low. 

What's exciting you at the moment?

There have been a lot of new discoveries lately. I think the most exciting of these for me is the detection of gravitational waves – ripples in the fabric of space and time itself, that were predicted by Einstein’s general theory of relativity. In the early 1990s, I did my undergraduate project on modelling the emission of gravitational waves by dense, dead stellar objects called neutron stars. It was thought, or perhaps hoped, that the detection of these waves was just a few years away back then, rather than the decades that it actually turned out to be – they were finally seen experimentally in 2015. Now the study of gravitational waves looks set to open a new window through which to observe the universe, in much the same way that neutrino astronomy did back in the 60s and 70s. Measuring the gravitational waves from objects in far-off galaxies promises to give us more accurate determinations of cosmic distances. This will refine our estimates of how fast the universe is expanding and, crucially, how fast that expansion is accelerating – which will help to pin down the nature of dark energy. This mysterious stuff is thought to account for around 70 percent of the mass-energy of the universe. It’s dominated the evolution of our universe and it will probably have the final say in how the universe actually ends. Understanding its nature is one of the biggest mysteries in modern cosmology today.


Popular posts from this blog

How to Drive a Nuclear Reactor - Colin Tucker ****

How To Drive A Nuclear Reactor does exactly what it says on the tin. The book is a general overview of nuclear reactors. From the basic principles that make them work through to what buttons to press in what order (and of course how and why they can go wrong).Nuclear power could be a good step on the path to a greener energy future, but there is a lot of understandable fear. This book can give some idea of what an incredible feat of both science and engineering one of these machines is and, hopefully, make anyone reading it feel far more comfortable about them.The book presents information about everything, almost down to the literal nuts and bolts, giving you a near complete understanding of how a nuclear works. From putting in the fuel to getting out the power and down from the control panel to the construction material. Everything you could ever want to know is here. By the end you'll likely feel ready to walk into a control room and get started (do not try doing this, nuclear …

Being Mortal - Atul Gawande ****

I heard recently that the local geriatric ward puts a photograph of the patient in his or her prime by each bed. The aim is to help staff to treat their patients as individuals, but it makes me uneasy. Do these people only matter because of what they were, not what they are? Because once they stood proud and handsome in their uniform, or looked lovely on their wedding day?

Professor Atul Gawande has the problem surgically excised and laid out for inspection in one of his unflinching but compassionate case studies:

‘What bothered Shelley was how little curiosity the staff members seemed to have about what Lou cared about in his life and what he had been forced to forfeit... They might have called the service they provided assisted living, but no-one seemed to think it was their job to actually assist him with living – to figure out how to sustain the connection and joys that most mattered to him.’

Gawande is an eminent surgeon. As a young resident he displayed little overt emotion when hi…

Twenty Worlds - Niall Deacon *****

This is a truly entertaining and informative book, but the reason I’m giving it the full five stars has as much to do with the refreshing novelty of the author’s style as anything else. There’s novelty in the subject-matter too – the wide variety of recently discovered exoplanets orbiting other stars – but even so this is the third book on the topic that I’ve read. The first two were a lot less fun to read, and (without naming and shaming the authors) it’s worth a brief diversion to explain why.The first author was a university professor with a vast knowledge of the subject, who seemed determined to convey the entirety of that knowledge without stopping to think whether it was interesting or necessary for a general audience. The second author – another academic – took a different but equally tedious approach, with a plodding chronological account that focused as much on the dull routine of the scientists involved as on their work.Niall Deacon doesn’t make either of those mistakes. He’…