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

Infinity Plus: Quintet (SF) - Keith Brooke (Ed.) ****

When I was younger there was nothing I liked better than a good, deep, dark (frankly, often downright miserable) science fiction story, and this collection delivers excellent modern examples that would have fit easily into a thoughtful if downbeat 70s collection such as the 'New Writing in SF' or the Interzone magazine of the day (one was actually first published in Interzone, in 1987 - the rest date between 1989 and 2010).

If I'm honest, I prefer more upbeat fiction now, but that doesn't stop me appreciating the quality of these five stories, put together by the SF website and publisher Infinity Plus. I've rarely seen a better contradiction of Margaret Atwood's putdown of science fiction as being limited to 'talking squids in outer space.' What we have here is pure character-driven storytelling with not a mention of space, spaceships, ray guns or aliens. It's the inner world, not the outer trappings of sci fi tropes that interest these writers.

On…

The Lost Planets - John Wenz **

Reading the first few lines of the introduction to this book caused a raised eyebrow. In 1600, it tells us, Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake 'for his radical views - that not only was the Sun just one of many stars, but those stars likely had planets around them as well.' Unfortunately, this bends the truth. Bruno was burned at the stake for holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith - for conventional heretical beliefs amongst which his ideas on cosmology were trivial. This was an unfortunate start.

What John Wenz gives us is a people-driven story of the apparent early discovery of a number of planets orbiting other stars, made by Peter van de Kamp and his colleagues at Swarthmore College in America, most notably connected to a relatively obscure star called Barnard's star. Wenz is at his best dealing with personal conflict. The book really comes alive in a middle section where van de Kamp's discoveries are starting to be challenged. This chapter works wel…

Bone Silence (SF) - Alastair Reynolds *****

Of all the best modern SF writers, Alastair Reynolds is arguably the supreme successor to the writers of the golden age. He gives us wide-ranging vision, clever concepts and rollicking adventure - never more so than with his concluding book of the Ness sisters trilogy.

Neatly, after the first title, Revenger was written from the viewpoint of one sister, Arafura and the second, Shadow Captain, had the other sister Adrana as narrator, this book is in the third person. It neatly ties up many of the loose ends from the previous books, but also leaves vast scope for revelations to cover in the future if Reynolds decides to revisit this world (he comments in his acknowledgements 'I am, for the time being, done with the Ness sisters. Whether they are done with me remains to be seen.')

As with the previous books, the feel here is in some ways reminiscent of the excellent TV series Firefly, but with pirates rather than cowboys transported into a space setting. Set millions of years in…