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Science Book Club Episode 9

I began to get insights into these things which perhaps I got because of my physics background.

My book came about because I’ve got an editor at my publisher, Faber, and he took me to lunch and he said, ‘What you do is you explain complex physics to anyone.  How about using that skill to explain anything to anyone?’  So my book is about everything from finance to thermodynamics; sex to special_relativity; human evolution to holography.  So it’s really about what makes the world tick.  How the world of the 21st century works.

What I did…I mean, people think that I’m, you know, that I’m a genius because I can write about everything but in fact what I did was I just identified people who knew about particular subjects, whether it was finance, cell biology, the brain, phoned them up and just picked their brains.  And so that was actually quite hard in the beginning.  I picked all the subjects that I knew nothing about and there the problem was: I’d often end up talking to someone who spoke a completely different language.  And trying to get them to answer my basic, stupid questions was sometimes very difficult.  So I often had to go to three or four people,  whereas when I’d normally interview someone about physics I’d probably have a 95% chance of getting what I want almost immediately.  So that was quite a hard process.  But, you know, I just became fascinated by the brain and human evolution and all this kind of stuff.  

I mean, did you know for instance that for 1.4 million years there was no improvement in the design of stone hand axes?  I learnt this from Chris Stringer, who’s a professor at the Natural History Museum, and, you know, we live in this world where we expect the iPhone to be different next year but we don’t realise that for most of human history nothing actually happened.  So it could’ve been during that 1.4 million years that people made bone tools that looked indistinguishable from, you know, natural bones.  Or they made tools out of wood, but none of that has survived.  And certainly lots of things were happening, maybe inventing fire, you know, societies were getting more complex, they invented language, but for 1.4 million years, that’s 60,000 generations, we looked at the stone hand axe and couldn’t think of any way to improve it.  Paleoanthropologists call it the 1.4 million years of boredom.

Basically, I put off my editor for two years.  I thought, ‘How can you write a book about everything?  This is impossible.’  And I wrote these outlines and I ripped them up and I thought, ‘I’ll just put him off’.  In the meantime, I did this App called Solar System for iPad and what I had to was I had to write something like 120 stories about moons and asteroids and planets in nine weeks.  There was no alternative there but to just leap in and start writing about things you knew about – or I know about – and when I was writing them, start thinking about, ‘Well, what do I need to research or write about next?’  So in the end I just kept in and thought, ‘I’ll start with some of the things I know absolutely nothing about’.  So the first thing I tried to find out about was money, you know, I don’t know the first thing about money.

So I talked to lots of people.  I talked to a guy called Ha-Joon Chang at Cambridge.  He wrote a book called 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism.  He’s the only Korean to have written a bestseller in the west.  And so, um, I really asked him incredibly basic questions and I came to kind of conclusions that perhaps other people wouldn’t have come to.  So when I was talking to him I realised that money allows trade to time travel.  And maybe that’s because of my physics background, but say I’ve got, ah, some fish, and I want to trade my fish with your stone hand axe.  I have to trade my fish today or tomorrow or they go rotten.  But if we can agree on some medium of exchange – it could be shells or something that we consider to be valuable – then I can exchange my fish for money and then I can do my trade at any time in the future.  So money liberates trade and it creates enormous numbers of possibilities and it allows trade to time travel.  And also it allows trade to space travel.  Say I’ve got a huge, great grinding stone or whatever and I want to trade it for some beads which I can get over the mountains or wherever.  I can’t take it with me but if I exchange it for money then I can travel there.

So I began to get insights into these things which perhaps I got because of my physics background.

Over the years I began to realise that my stupid questions are not really stupid questions, you know, they’re kids kind of questions, they’re toddler questions.  And I’ve learnt that I can ask Nobel Prize winning physicists those kinds of questions and so that’s given me the confidence to think that I’m not going to be stupid asking these kinds of questions to anyone else.  So really I’m just doing the same that I always do.  And also I’ve got a lot more interests than just science.  You know, I’m interested in history and all kinds of different things so it was good to write a book about everything to try and, you know…it’s supposed to be about more than science.  It’s about kind of breaking out from the science ghetto.  But then again there were certain subjects that perhaps I didn’t touch on like, for instance, religion, because mainly they have to be a subject where there’s a consensus, you know, where I can write what the consensus is.  If the subject is just a whole matter of opinion then I don’t seem to be, you know…I can’t really do my work on it and get to the bottom of what makes it tick.

‘What a Wonderful World: One Man’s Attempt to Explain the Big Stuff’ by Marcus Chown is available as an iBook here 

Or you can get it as an actual hardback book here