Science with Marcus Chown

ARTS, Books, Features, Interviews
img_marcuschownThe engaging writer walks us through the wonderful world of science, fiction, and Twitter ahead of New Zealand Festival Writers Week.

Marcus Chown is an astrophysicist. If the second law of thermodynamics makes your eyes glaze, Chown has made a career making the awesome, intricate complexities of the physical world understandable to the layperson. He writes for the New Scientist, and has published a number of highly popular books, but it’s arguably Twitter that he has used to make his name world famous. He has become so popular that The Telegraph called him the fifth most influential tweeter over 50 (ahead of Richard Dawkins). I chatted to Chown ahead of his visit to Wellington for the New Zealand Festival, where we discussed (suitably, given his oeuvre) things as eclectic as Elizabeth Knox, the Big Bang, and probiotics.

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BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM: I have a usual ice-breaker question, which if I’m talking to a musician, I ask “why music,” or a writer, “why writing.” In your case, I have a double-pronged question, the first being, why science? Did you have an Einstein compass moment as a child?

MARCUS CHOWN: I’ve got no idea, no idea at all. It is something I do think about. Nobody in my family was into science or anything like that. My parents left school when they were fifteen, they didn’t have any qualifications because my parents were children during the Blitz in London in the War. They didn’t get proper schooling or that kind of stuff. I don’t know. More specific than that, it’s astronomy. My Dad did buy me a book when I was eight, an astronomy book. It was by someone who was at the London Planetarium. It switched a light-bulb in my head and I have no idea why. I have no idea why my Dad bought me that book. Of course, I’m giving away my age now, but I was unbelievably fortunate to be nine years old when the first person stepped on another world on the Moon. I remember my Dad got me up to see these fuzzy black and white pictures. Even to talk about it now sends a shiver down my spine. I imagine you’re much younger than me?

BG: A little bit.

MC: Just to think that life has been on Earth for billions of years and the previous major step was fish coming out onto land—and I was there. Those kind of things switched me on, but nobody in the family at all. That was a long answer.

BG: My second question is why writing?

MC: I like those two things. When I was at school, I really used to like writing imaginative things, stories, and I also liked science. One of the problems—I don’t know what it’s like in New Zealand schools—[is that] in English schools, they won’t let you do arts and science together. When you’re 16, you have to pick one. I ended up picking science, but I would have loved to have done English and physics, but they wouldn’t let you do that. I went to university and I did physics, and I went to California and did astrophysics, but I always used to write short stories and I wanted to get back into writing. I’m very risk averse, so I thought to myself that I could write for a science magazine. I wrote to newspapers and magazines from California, and they all told me to get lost, but I did manage to get going. Gradually, I’ve been working my way back to writing. I’ve been writing children’s fiction and all of that. I like Popular Science because I like science, and also because people will pay me, crucially.

BG: How much did you learn from Richard Feynman? He wrote about extremely complicated things as if they were every day.

MC: I was incredibly lucky to be taught by Richard Feynman. That was an amazing thing at CalTech. What did I learn from Feynman? To enjoy it. To enjoy physics. I learned that you only understand something when you can explain it to anybody, to somebody waiting for a bus, because that was Feynman’s criterion. There he was at the top of the tree, this Nobel Prize winning physicist, but he used his criterion to be understood. I remember he was asked when he got his Nobel Prize by a layperson at UCLA to give some public lectures on quantum electrodynamics. He initially declined because he thought, “I can’t explain it.” But then he actually did write a book, QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter. It’s a tiny thin book and it doesn’t have a single equation in it. But it’s got all of these little arrows, and vectors—all of these arrows were wave function vectors. He explained everything. Everything in the world, because quantum electrodynamics basically explains how light interacts with matter, so it explains how the atoms in your body are glued together and follows pretty much everything in the world. And he explains it all in terms of quantum electrodynamics, the emission of photons. He explains the things that you think are obvious, like why is the angle of incidence of light bouncing off a mirror the same as the reflection? Lights goes in all possible directions, but only in that direction in which incidence equals the angle of reflection do all of these arrows not cancel each other out. Do you have a physics background?

BG: No, I did do high school physics, though.

MC: It’s a wonderful book. If he couldn’t explain it to anyone, he realised he didn’t really understand it. It’s really what I kind of do. I try to understand things myself. I don’t really have a reader in mind. I learned all of these amazing things when I was in CalTech, but they’re all mathematical. I’m quite a visual person and I try to get pictures in my head. This deep understanding to get to grip with things, to find better ways of explaining stuff. Fortunately that happens to be the same way as trying to communicate it to somebody who doesn’t know, which is very fortunate.

“The metaphors you can use as a science writer, they give people glimpses of the reality, but the reality is mathematical. Nobody can grasp that, nobody at all. The reason for that is that universe does not exist in three dimensions. It’s a four dimensional universe. Four dimensions are beyond your mind to comprehend and no physicist can do it.”

BG: Is it a fine balancing act, because science requires a lot of rigour and analysis and experimentation. Trying to explain it to somebody, is there a risk of simplifying what is incredibly complicated and needs that detail?

MC: There’s always that danger, but the actual language of physics is mathematics. We have no idea why that is. It’s one of the deep mysteries of the world. There’s a perfect analogue, this perfect metaphor of the physical world in mathematics. For instance, Newton writes down a law of gravity, which tells you the force between two bodies is proportional to the product of their masses and the inverse square of their separation. And that is a formula, which he writes down mathematically on a piece of paper. That is a total analogue to the real world. No-one knows why. Mathematics is the perfect metaphor for physics. But all of the other things you try for in science writing, they’re also metaphors, but they’re not as all-embracing. I can tell you the universe is expanding, and there’s no centre to that expansion. The picture that people use, the metaphor that people use: they use raisins in a cake. Raisins being the galaxies like the Milky Way. As the cake rises, the raisins move apart from each other. If you could reduce yourself down to the size of a raisin, it wouldn’t matter which raisin you were on. You would see all of the others moving away from you. Of course, that’s imperfect. Because it’s not the mathematical metaphor, that gives you an idea, but wait a minute, the cake has an edge. Of course the universe does not have an edge. The metaphors you can use as a science writer, they give people glimpses of the reality, but the reality is mathematical. Nobody can grasp that, nobody at all. The reason for that is that universe does not exist in three dimensions. It’s a four dimensional universe. Four dimensions are beyond your mind to comprehend and no physicist can do it. We learn more and more, we learn about string theory and ten dimensions, [but] in a way, no human brain, these three pounds of jelly and water, can actually comprehend the universe. I’m just using a crude metaphor for the mathematics.

BG: The thing I love in your writing is the pleasure you take in explaining this incredibly intricate existence that we have. Do you find it pleasurable just looking at the world? I don’t know how you concentrate on anything.

MC: I hate it. No, no, no. I just think it’s amazing. I don’t know if I said so in my books, but I think previous generations would have killed to know the things that we know. If you take the universe, we can see to the edge. With our telescopes we can see the edge. We know the extent of the universe, we know the content of the universe. We know there are about a hundred billion galaxies like the Milky Way. We have a pretty good idea that it all burst into being in a hot fireball about 13.8 billion years ago, and out of all of this cooling debris, have congealed the galaxies like the Milky Way where we are. These kinds of pictures are things that the previous generations would have killed for. And many other things. I think it’s really exciting. Because we have these pictures, we can begin to ask new questions like how was the Big Bang, where did that come from, what happened before. We have a good chance of answering those questions in the next ten, fifteen years. It’s an amazing time to be living. Previous generations could only speculate about the origin of the universe in religious terms. We have a picture that we can tap.

BG: One thing I noticed in What a Wonderful World is how interrelated everything is—from the smallest things like an atom, it’s all linked to the biggest things like gravity and galaxies.

MC: It is and it’s beautiful. The reality is that you have to be a physicist, you have to be an Einstein to totally appreciate it. Nevertheless, normal people like me and you can glimpse some of that beauty and that connectedness.

BG: Does science need to engage with everyday people and communicate its ideas?

MC: It should be part of culture. Ultimately science is about origins and where the human race comes from, where did the Earth come from, where did the Universe come from. When you put it in those kinds of terms, everybody is interested, even people who would have switched off by the boring science in school. I was. Science teaching is not very good in Britain but you’ve got to be pretty much brain dead not to be interested in “what am I doing here? Where do we come from?” That’s an interesting thing, but we also live in a world where you need to understand a lot of scientific issues. Global warming to nuclear power—it is important that people know. I was going to say to try to hold the politicians to account but I think politicians have gone off by themselves.

BG: I was interested in philosophers who were misused because they were almost too accessible, the likes of Marx, Nietzsche, Rousseau—their ideas became something that people used divorced from their original intention. Is there a fear a science can be used in similar ways? I was thinking of the way the opponents of climate change use pseudo-science for example.

MC: They do. This is showing the power of science. Even the opponents, even your nutters, have to use the ‘language’ of science. They try to use all of the phrases and such, because science has that kind of power. What we tend to use for things like climate change is consensus. Okay, there are 10,000 climate scientists who believe this, and there are three over here who believe the opposite—it’s like that. Science is a consensus business.

BG: For something like climate change, I almost get the feeling that because it’s politicised, opponents use their audience’s lack of scientific knowledge to spread misinformation.

MC: That is the major problem. Quite apart from the normal problems we have with democracy not really functioning across the Western World, there is a problem that democracy can’t function when decisions have to be made on scientific issues. Most of the population don’t know anything about scientific issues and couldn’t really argue that global warming was happening or not happening, and that’s a real worry.

BG: One of my bugbears is people’s use of pseudo-science with food, and how the diet industry and food industries use pseudo-science to strip everything back to “labels” like carbs or proteins or Paleo-diets or stuff like that.

MC: That’s all pseudo-science. Something like probiotics, there’s a whole industry, where there isn’t any real evidence. There’s obviously evidence you need a certain flora in your stomach to digest your food and to be a healthy person. There isn’t any real evidence that as a healthy person you need anything added. Obviously if you’re using antibiotics, and they’re killing off some of your gut flora, then you need them replaced, but not that that’ll happen normally anyway in the space of a few weeks. Stuff like vitamins, this is a major industry around the world. There’s no evidence at all that extra vitamins make any difference at all to most healthy people. Obviously if you’ve got scurvy or living in the Third World, it would make a big difference, but in the Western World, your diet provides all that you need. In fact there’s evidence that overdoses of things like Vitamin C is not good for you. That’s a kind of pseudo-scientific industry.

“Quite apart from the normal problems we have with democracy not really functioning across the Western World, there is a problem that democracy can’t function when decisions have to be made on scientific issues. Most of the population don’t know anything about scientific issues and couldn’t really argue that global warming was happening or not happening, and that’s a real worry.”

BG: You’ve taken on new technological forms like Twitter and podcasts to get your message out there. How useful has the internet been to increasing people’s knowledge of science?

MC: The only reason why I started using Twitter is because my publisher said I should start writing a blog. I only wanted to write stuff that came out in books.  If I wrote a blog every day, that’s going to take up so much time. And they said, “oh there’s this thing called Twitter. It’s microblogging. You only have to do two tweets a day.” I started doing it and I couldn’t really understand what it was about and now it has got this life of its own. Now, I’m the “fifth most influential tweeter in Britain,”[1] and the only people who are more influential than me are people with millions of followers who are celebrities [e.g. Simon Cowell and Jeremy Clarkson]. It has become a monster. I’m also the most influential tweeter in the UK about our prime minister.

What has happened is I started tweeting about science, but our NHS, our health service is being dismantled, and our government is lying about it. And all of the media, including the BBC, are not reporting the story. I began by using my Twitter presence and trying to wake people up and it has reached a crescendo this weekend because I had this celebrity called Rufus Hound, who’s a celebrity and a comedian and an actor, and he’s got a million Twitter followers and I got him to stand as a candidate in the European elections to try to highlight this issue. It has got all over the papers and it’s amazing this social media that I started using . With books, obviously, if you’re Richard Dawkins or Stephen Hawking and your book is out, you saturate the market. My problem is not everyone knows I exist. Twitter gets me to a much larger audience.

The most amazing things have happened to me on Twitter. One of my favourite novelists is Elizabeth Knox, and I really loved her book, The Vintner’s Luck. And then one morning I found out that Elizabeth Knox is following me on Twitter and I was “why is she following me on Twitter. She doesn’t know that I like her. I didn’t know that she was into science.” You find these people who are your heroes following you. As far as science is concerned it’s bizarre. Twitter is your personality, it’s you, and if you’re a celebrity, and think, “I’ll use celebrity to promote myself,” it’s really like me in a room with you, face-to-face, saying, “I’m brilliant.” You’ll completely switch off. Really, you just have to be yourself and then people out there think, “that Marcus Chown seems quite interesting, oh he’s an author,” and then they look at your book. I’ve tweeted some interesting things hopefully and now I have a constituency. There are people who follow me for my science stuff and there are people because of my campaigning for the NHS. There’s a lot of crossover. It’s a fun thing.

BG: Do you fear the judgment of your peers for writing about science on Twitter. Would someone like Einstein have tweeted?

MC: Wouldn’t that have been amazing? Would he have done it? Einstein said things should be made as simple as possible, if not simpler. It’s quite clear you can try to say something, and you’re not really communicating because you don’t have enough space. But I find it fascinating because I write in all forms. I write in book length, I write articles for New Scientist and newspapers, I write at tweet-length. Twitter is so multi-faceted. One of the things that happened when I was writing a book—I would tweet, “here’s something interesting that I just discovered,” and no-one is interested. I could see that immediately. “Better leave that out.” Then I find something else I find interesting and I tweet it—and loads of people are interested. It’s almost like stand-up comedians, they try stuff in front of an audience and they instantly know what works and what doesn’t. They can remove all of the rubbish, and put some new stuff in. Twitter is an instrument in finding out what works.

I don’t really go out of my way to tweet loads of science. I tweet interesting things. Initially when I started Twitter I had a thousand followers and I went to my publisher and said, “how about two thousand.” He said, “why don’t you try tweeting images.” I thought that’s a good idea. So the first thing I tweeted got retweeted 2000 times. It was an image of the Earth taken by Voyager, and the Earth is a tiny dot. It’s nothing in the picture, and it puts us all on this tiny blue dot together, all seven billion of us. It changes people’s perspective. There’s this wonderful image of the Sun taken at night. How can you take a picture of the sun at night? It’s below the horizon, but this picture is of the Sun on the other side of the Earth, taken by looking through 8,000 miles of rock, through the Earth’s core to the Sun on the other side. There are something like 100 billion neutrinos going through your thumbnail every second and eight minutes ago, they were in the heart of the Sun. They’re created by the same nuclear reactions that generate sunlight, but they’re very antisocial. They’re hardly ever stopped by normal matter, which is why you don’t notice. But if you put a whole load of atoms together, like thousands and thousands of tonnes of water, very occasionally these are stopped and they make a flash of light and that’s how that image was created. I put lots of these images that lifts people’s eyes from the mundane every day and give them more of a complex perspective.

People absolutely love it and we need that more and more. I don’t know about New Zealand—New Zealand I found a quieter place compared to London—but people’s lives are getting more and more hectic, internet and all kinds of things, and they don’t look up and see our world in perspective. It’s ironic really because if you go back to 1969 or to ’68, that photograph was taken on Christmas Day of the Earth rising above the Moon, that picture that probably kick-started a lot of environmental movements because we saw the Earth against the black of space. That was an amazing image. Since then, because of the launch of space telescopes, and space-ships that have been to Saturn and Jupiter, there are literally thousands of these images but they don’t seem to be shown to the public. There’s a spacecraft called Rosetta that was woken up last week and it’s going to a comet. When it gets there and lands on it, there’ll probably be at the end of our news at nine o’clock, they’ll spend 15 seconds showing a picture and nobody will ever see it again. And there are all of these wonderful images. There’s a picture of a sunset on Mars, an alien sunset, that no human being has ever seen, and people are amazed. The sun looks smaller, it looks white, obviously on Earth, the air takes out the blue light and when the Sun goes down it’s red—on Mars it doesn’t do that. You can really blow people’s minds. You asked about things being too simple—I wrote a book called Tweeting the Universe. That was actually multiple tweets.

BG: Which fictional writer has captured science that you thought really nailed it? That they really understood science, and you didn’t feel embarrassed as a science writer to have read it.

MC: I can’t even think of any novelists. Martin Amis uses science and he bandies it all around, things like multiple universes and things. I don’t really know it has been used in mainstream fiction. My favourite novelists are people like Doris Lessing and people like that, who really don’t use science. It’s a shame and it shows you the two cultures, that there are arty people and there are scientists. If you turn it around, the most literary scientist is C.P. Snow, who wrote the great Strangers and Brothers series, but he was a scientist who worked with the great Ernest Rutherford and then he wrote all of these novels, including The New Men, which was about the atomic bomb project during the War. There’s a physicist from MIT, Alan Lightman, who writes novels, but he’s a rare example. Actually, novelists who go the other way, I’m looking at my shelf and I can’t really see any. [Chown emailed me after the interview to state that Time’s Arrow by Amis, The Curious Case of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon, and Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino are examples of science used well in literature].

BG: Given the eclecticism of your writing, is that something you have in mind?

MC: I’d love to. I think I would. I’ve written fiction for children, but most of what I read is not scientific, it’s novels. A novelist mines a certain experience, which is every day, normal experience. They don’t realise that there’s this continent of stuff like science, which they can also mine, which is perfect for novels. Interestingly, comedians have begun to realise it in Britain, and now in about the last five to ten years, a large number of television programmes are comedy science, so comedians have begun to realise that there is all of this other material that could be funny. I did this TV show called It’s Only a Theory with a guy called Andy Hamilton, he’s a comedy writer, and it was for the BBC, and in a half hour programme there’d be two experts, maybe one to talk about evolution and I’d go on to talk about the Big Bang, and there’d be a panel of comedians who would ask you questions and the idea would be that they learn something, and they’re really keen to learn. There is various material you can use from science. The other way, I don’t know. It does show you the divide.

Marcus Chown joins science writer Rebecca Priestley for an hour-long discussion on Friday, March 7 at the Embassy Theatre as part of the New Zealand Festival Writers Week.

[1] The fifth most influential Tweeter in Britain over 50.