Marcus Chown is a best-selling science writer and journalist. He is currently the cosmology consultant for New Scientist magazine and his books, including ‘We Need to Talk About Kelvin’ and ‘Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You’, are regularly in the popular science charts. He graduated from the University of London with a first in physics and later gained a Master of Science in astrophysics at the California Institute of Technology.
Science is stranger than science fiction.
On becoming interested in science
That’s a very good question. What drew me to physics and astrophysics, I don’t really know. My mum and dad left school when they were fifteen without any qualifications. My dad bought me a book on astronomy when I was about eight, no idea why. He’s dead now so I can’t ask him. It kind of clicked and I was always very interested.
It was called ‘Dr H.C. King’s Book of Astronomy’. Dr H.C. King was the, ah, director of the London Planeterium. I don’t know. I don’t know why he bought me that book but I liked it. And then when, I’m old enough to remember the moon landing, my Dad would get me up to see the moon landings, the fuzzy pictures and the bizarre thing was that I, ah, so I was interested in space but I didn’t see any connection with school because they never mentioned it at school. They never mentioned astronomy or space so it was a long time before I realised it was a subject! And then I thought I’d like to be an astrophysicist. So I became an astrophysicist! But then I realised that was slightly disappointing. You know, I’d seen all these lovely colourful pictures of nebulae and galaxies and I thought that’s what astronomers looked at. I didn’t realise they hadn’t looked through telescopes for more than a hundred years since the invention of the photographic plate which is hugely more sensitive than the eye. And now of course they use electronic detectors.
So all I did when I worked as an astronomer in California was number crunching and using telescopes you never looked through! So I lost some of the romance.
But yes, nobody else in the family is interested in astronomy or physics so I don’t know. I don’t know!
On becoming a science writer
I used to be a scientist, I used to be a radio astronomer at Caltech in California. I gave that up and now I’m a full-time science writer. I’m actually the cosmology consultant of New Scientist magazine in England, um, really, that had a physics consultant so they just made that name up and really I just write about things that are of no use to man or beast! So I’ll write about things like parallel universes, can time run backwards, you know, was our universe made as a DIY experiment in someone’s garage. That kind of stuff.
Initially I was always very interested in astronomy and physics, but as a science writer the wonderful thing is to be able to phone people up, Nobel Prize winners, and just ask them really stupid questions and learn about things that you know nothing about. So my latest book is about everything. It’s about economics, biology, um, money, all kinds of things. I just really like learning about…I mean, I used to be a researcher but I’ve got more of a kind of butterfly mind. Rather than focusing on a very small area, I’m interested in lots of things and I get to do that by being a science writer.
It’s important to find out about things and be curious about our universe, because it’s so unbelievably fantastic. Because science is stranger than science fiction. You know, we now know that atoms can be in two places at once, that they can communicate with each other instantaneously when they’re on opposite sides of the universe. You know, we know so many fantastic things. Previous generations would have killed to know the things we know. So that’s why I think we should be curious.
I live with the knowledge that it’s all understandable to anyone. I mean, it really is. I write for my wife, who’s a nurse, she doesn’t have any science background, she has a medical background but she doesn’t have any science, you know, physics background so that’s who my audience is. And I really think I could explain things to pretty much anyone and if I can’t then it’s my fault and I need to think of a better way of doing it.
Interestingly Richard_Feynman who was probably the greatest physicist, I was lucky enough to be taught by him, his criteria of whether he understood anything was whether he could actually explain it to a gardener or somebody on a bus. And he thought that everything could be explained as well. And he wrote a wonderful book called Q.E.D: A Strange Theory of Light and Matter which was about quantum_electrodynamics which is the theory he got the Nobel Prize for and he was asked by somebody at UCLA, the university in Los Angeles, to come and give some talks about what he’d got the Nobel Prize for to ordinary people. And he came up with this amazing explanations with pictures.
So I think anything’s explicable to anyone but you do have to realise you do have to put a slight bit of effort in, um, Feynman himself said he knew the difference between science and pseudoscience because pseudoscience didn’t require much effort and yet everything that he learnt was that science took a lot of effort. So I can describe things to people but they’ve got to be prepared to make a small effort.
So I wrote a book called ‘Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You’ and people say things like, ‘Oh well, it hurt me a bit’, and I think, ‘Well, I can’t make it painless for you. You’ve got to make some effort to understand!’
On dark energy and dark matter
I’m pretty amazed by some quite esoteric things. One of them is the existence of some very unusual energy states in some different atoms. We’re only here because the atoms – or the simple atoms at the universe started out with, hydrogen – glued together to make more and more complex atoms. Turns out it can only happen because Carbon-12, which, ah, has a particular energy state which allows for helium atoms to come together and stick.
And also, one thing that really blows my mind is dark energy. Only discovered in 1998, it’s the major mass component of the universe. It’s got actually repulsive…it fills all of empty space, it’s invisible, it’s got repulsive gravity, it’s speeding up the expansion of the universe. So when a teacher at school says that things attract each other with gravity, most stuff in the universe actually repels with gravity. What’s interesting about this dark energy is that physics…physicists have got absolutely no idea what it is. And our very best theory of physics is quantum theory. Quantum theory has created the modern world. It explains why the ground is solid, why the sun shines, it’s given us lasers and computers and nuclear reactors, it’s fantastically successful. But when we use it to predict the energy of empty space, that’s the dark energy, we get a number which is one followed by a hundred and twenty zeros, bigger than what we observe. This is the biggest discrepancy between a prediction and an observation in the history of science. So something is amazingly wrong. Some huge, big idea is missing from physics. And that excites me.
It could be that the reason that quantum theory predicts an energy for the dark energy that is so wildly wrong is that quantum theory itself is incorrect, because we have a quantum theory of three of the four forces of nature. We’ve been unable to include gravity, um, and we know that our theory of gravity – which is Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity – is wrong because it breaks down in the heart of a black hole, we know it’s wrong. So it could be that when we unite, finally unite, gravity with the other forces and have a quantum theory of gravity, suddenly this discrepancy will go away and we will understand why the dark energy has the value that it has.
The dark energy is really very, very shocking. Before its discovery Stephen Hawking said that we were very close to getting a theory of everything, you know, a set of equations you could write on the back of a stamp that explained pretty much everything, you know? Every scientist who’s ever said that has got egg on their face so it’s incredible that he bothered to say that, because then we discovered the dark energy. We realised we’d missed the major mass competent of the universe. But we not only missed that, but we missed the dark matter, which is invisible stuff, um, which we know is there because its gravity is pulling on the stars and galaxies and changing their motion. Now, when we look at the universe now it turns out only 4% of the universe is the stuff that you and I are made of, atoms, and the stars are made of, and only half of that have we actually seen: 2%. The huge majority of the universe – 98% of the universe – is invisible stuff. We don’t really know what it is. This is an incredible…well, an incredible place to be after 350 years of science, to suddenly realise that everything that science has been looking at is only 2% of what there is. I mean, imagine if Darwin tried to come up with a theory of life and he only knew about frogs. And he didn’t know about mice or elephants or sharks or anything like that, well, cosmologists have come up with a theory of the universe on 2% of the stuff they know about.
If we talk about dark matter, your guess is as good as mine. There are literally hundreds of proposals being made about what the dark matter could be. It could be black holes the size of your fridge. It could be new sub-atomic particles. Unfortunately, the Large Hadron Collider that recently found the Higgs particle has not found any of these hypothetical particles. So we don’t know what the dark matter’s made of but when we come to dark energy, we’re clueless. So that’s really what makes science so exciting.
You know, kids at school, they’re taught that it’s all sewn up, you know, here are all the gas laws and electrical laws and…but it isn’t all sown up. There’s these enormous questions that are unanswered.
On having faith in science
In some sense, the whole method of science is an act of faith because ever since the Greeks we have thought the universe is actually simple underneath. It looks complex but underneath it’s actually simple, so you know, back in 440BC, Democritus said the universe is made of tiny, little indivisible grains, the Greek for uncuttable was átomos, atom, so he said, well these all these fundamental lego bricks and they’re assembled in different ways to make a flower or a newborn baby or a galaxy or whatever and incredibly, that belief that beneath the skin of reality the universe is simple dyed science. And we’re looking for universal laws, we find four fundamental forces, we think there’s only one, but that’s an act of faith and incredibly no-one ever mentions this act of faith. But this act of faith worked over 350 years. We don’t know why. We don’t know why the universe is designed in a simple way, or it appears to be designed in a simple way. And it clearly works because it’s given us control over the world and we’ve learnt to build things, computers and lasers to understand things and yet it’s an act of faith.
So although we don’t know, we believe the universe is simple, we have, although we don’t know that for sure, it has allowed us to progress and understand the universe in deeper and deeper ways and uncover deeper and deeper laws. So although we don’t know why the universe is simple, empirically we have made progress with that act of faith. So it isn’t, you know, there is some evidence that it’s correct.
Scientists have no choice. Whatsoever. I mean, people who are in religions have choice. They can believe anything they like because it doesn’t have to be backed up by any empirical evidence. Interestingly, one of the things that science seems to be telling us at the moment is that there’s more than one universe. You know, we’ve been banged over the head by nature telling us this is not the only universe. I’d written a book, it was called ‘The Universe Next Door’ and I talked about this kind of idea and I did see on a blog, and it was a New Zealand bishop saying, you know, he couldn’t believe the lengths scientists would go to to avoid a God explanation. Basically, the laws of physics appear to be fine tuned for us to be here so there’s two possibilities. God fine tuned them or there are a lot of different realities with different laws of physics and we’re in the one where the laws of physics are okay for us to arise. How could we be in any other? So he said, you know, the lengths that scientists will go to to avoid the God explanation. But that’s back to front. Scientists can’t avoid anything. They can’t. They have to accept what nature gives them.
Even the Big Bang theory. This was something that scientists were dragged kicking and to. They all, or most of them, believed in a steady state theory which means that the universe has existed forever and that meant that you didn’t have the sticky question of what happened before. So they were forced into the Big Bang, you know, the idea that the universe was born 14 billion years ag by the evidence. And then they had to face those sticky questions of what happened before