Life, the Universe, and/or Everything: An Hour With Marcus Chown

ARTS, Books

img_marcuschown1New Zealand Festival Writers Week
Embassy Theatre | March 7

As a grey-leaning sold-out crowd nestled into the Embassy, I found myself wondering which variant of Marcus Chown would be present for tonight’s session: the populist scientist famous for his books, or the increasingly outspoken political firebrand more likely to be present of late on his Twitter feed.[1] As interlocutor Rebecca Priestley noted, the mission for the session—to explain life, the universe, and everything—was a challenging remit in its own right, and also try to take on David Cameron’s dismantling on the NHS would threaten a session denser than a black hole.

Thankfully, at least for those of us who prefer learning to evangelising, it was largely the former Chown present, politics firmly tucked away and neither the words “Cameron” nor “NHS” breaking the flow. Just as well, because between a delayed start and lengthy intro, there was perhaps 45 minutes remaining to cover the three largest topics imaginable. The life section of the evening, wisely, was constrained to Chown’s own; his history as a radio astronomer, his teenage love of English, first abandoned in favor of physics then returned to later in life, albeit in the “risk-averse” context of popular science.

There’s another part of Chown’s life mentioned in the intro—his ventures into the world of comedy on both stage and screen—that became increasingly prominent as the presentation went by. In discussing Chown’s first book, which he wrote while still an editor at New Scientist, he revealed that he feigned a bad back in order to get the time off of work, and that his boss was so concerned that he sent Chown books on back injuries. It’s an effective punchline, and one of many that pepper the night.

But it also points to a tendency towards glib reductiveness, which, of course, is endemic to the man’s work—he did, after all, have a book entitled Tweeting the Universe, which was culled from his 140-character explanations of the world—but sometimes does disfavor to more complicated concepts, at least in this rushed section. Explaining the universe in fifteen minutes, and trying to quickly put a bow around concepts such as the black hole information paradox (central to Stephen Hawking’s recent declaration that black holes don’t exist, a declaration that Chown asserts is baffling to even people in the know on account of Hawking’s paper being only three pages), multiverses, and dark energy, is a giant ask, and at times it feels coherency is sacrificed for fear that the audience might get restless if the next idea doesn’t show up quickly. Fascinating concepts and facts[2] are quickly moved past in the name of reductiveness: undoubtedly a product of the time constraints, and by the time Priestley asks about the idea of a universe being a hologram, even Chown notes that the questions are getting hard. Meanwhile, my notes falter and instead of a tidy précis on why we might be a hologram I’ve written “this is like a firehose, rushing to simplify overcomplicated ideas.”[3]

The “everything” section, too, is circumscribed: it’s about his new book, What a Wonderful World, which is Chown’s first attempt to branch outside his field of knowledge and apply his reductive skills to other fields, through science and beyond to economics and money. Priestley describes it as a book about everything, but Chown demurs, noting that he would have done more subjects but had a deadline, referring to it as “Everything, part one.” One of the most resonant and illuminating parts of the evening was Chown noting his challenges in comprehending experts, at times having to consult up to four experts until he could find one that could communicate the key concepts of their field in a language Chown could understand. It simultaneously relieves my anxiety about the times when I’ve found academic jargon impenetrable and points the value of an author like Chown who can take these giant ideas and reduce them.

And if, at the end of the session, I’m left with the feeling that Chown’s thoughts have been perhaps slightly more reduced than I’d prefer (to say nothing of the session length, which ends very promptly and abruptly), I’m also left with some of Chown’s enthusiasm for science—a field, truth be told, I abandoned long ago amidst poor marks in Physics at university, and have kept at arm’s length ever since—and, in that, his mission has been accomplished.

Marcus Chown also joins Eleanor Catton and Robert Sullivan for ‘Writers Under the Stars’ on March 9 at New Zealand Festival Writers Week.

[1] In Lumiere’s previous profile—which features some overlapping anecdotes from what the evening provided—Chown noted that he was the fifth most influential Tweeter in Britain, a fact that shocked me at first and then further perplexed when Googling revealed that title was held by the least popular member of One Direction. During the session, it was clarified that he was in fact the fifth most influential Tweeter over fifty in Britain.

[2] 1% of television analog static comes from the Big Bang. (Although the Big Bang itself has at least three major theoretical problems, though nonetheless it’s incontrovertible that the universe began in a “hot dense phase.”) If gravity were 2% stronger or 2% weaker, the sun wouldn’t work. 73% of the universe is dark matter. And so on. I don’t mean to denigrate this stuff by reducing it to a footnote. It’s fascinating. But, at least for my brain, it’s a lot to absorb.

[3] To be fair, I also noted that Priestley mentioned she would find it reassuring to be a hologram, a reaction that seems to genuinely surprise Chown.

Filed under: ARTS, Books


Doug Dillaman is an American expatriate living in Auckland. He wrote and directed the feature film Jake. He is writing his first novel, edits television for a living, and plays drums for Climate Change.