Q&A with science writer Marcus Chown

It’s my great pleasure today to introduce you to Marcus Chown, author of We Need To Talk About Kelvin who is on a blog tour to promote the book (which I reviewed here). Apart from writing great popular science books, Marcus is cosmology consultant of magazine New Scientist, having formerly been a radio astronomer at Caltech in Pasadena. Marcus’s own website is here where you can see the whole blog tour and find out more about his books.

As to my questions, I trained as a scientist originally and now work in a school as a lab technician, so I was particularly interested in asking about his views on teaching and popularising science at all levels …

Annabel: Everyone likes a bit of Sci-Fi, witness the popularity (still) of Star Trek, but how can you transform that into an enjoyment of proper science and convince readers (and the wider public) that ideas and theories from the cutting edge of science are not fiction and are worthy of serious consideration?

Marcus: Oddly enough it was science fiction that kept me interested in science when the teaching of science at school was dull and boring! Most of my fellow pupils were turned off. I think it was because the science I read about in science fiction, particularly the novels of Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov was fun and exciting and mind-expanding, and the stuff I learnt at school wasn’t.

So, I think the answer is clear: Teach all the mind-blowing stuff at school! (I address how you do this in another of your questions below).

My evidence is my book, Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You. Now who would have though that a book with a title like that would sell like hotcakes? But it has. Far faster than any of my other books. And the feedback I’ve been getting from readers – many of whom have no science background at all – is: Why the hell didn’t they teach this kind of stuff at school? If they had, I would have stayed interested. Why didn’t I discover that matter is so empty that, if you squeezed all the space out of atoms, you could fit the human race in the volume of a sugar cube? Why didn’t I learn that, according to Einstein, you grow old more slowly on the ground floor of a building than on the top floor? Why didn’t I learn that atoms – the building blocks of you and me – can be in two places at once, influence each other instantaneously even when on opposite sides of the Universe, and do things for absolutely no reason at all? We live in a Universe that is far stranger than science fiction, far more weird than anything we could possibly have invented. If kids realised this, I believe they would be interested in science.

Annabel: How do you strike a balance between making scientific theories accessible and ‘dumbing down’ the often complex physics and maths that underpin theories? There wasn’t a single equation in WNTTAKel, although many were effectively expressed in word descriptions in the text – is that your secret?

Marcus: I don’t think about striking a balance between making things accessible and ‘dumbing down’, and for a simple reason: I write for me! I’m constantly trying to understand things better, get things straight in my own mind. And explaining things in words and images is how I understand things (that’s why I have no equations). By good fortune, the way I explain things to myself happens to be pretty much the same thing as explaining stuff to you or my wife or someone waiting for a number 22 bus. So, when you read my books, often it’s me wrestling to get to grips with some concept!

I was incredibly lucky to be taught by the American physicist, Richard Feynman. I’m obviously in no way comparable to him, but I do remember his criterion of whether he really understood something was whether he could explain it to someone, anyone. That’s the way I feel.

Annabel: Do you have any opinion of science education in schools? Science these days is seen as a ‘difficult’ subject, and many are discouraged from taking it further after GCSE as there are easier options to get grades. This is leading to understaffed and under-resourced science departments and ultimately a lack of future scientists …

Marcus: Recently, I’ve had some correspondence with science teachers who have said they have used Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You with their teenage pupils and have said it’s just the kind of thing they should be teaching. It kind of confirms something I think about science teaching. School science – at least when I was at school – was taught chronologically. So first you do Newton and gas laws and lots of pretty dull stuff. By the time you get anywhere near the present day and all the fun, amazing stuff like quantum theory and relativity, it’s all over and it’s time to leave school. So what I think should be done is that a lot of the fun stuff should be taught first – don’t worry that it’s mind-blowing; younger kids have no fear – then, later, when the children are hooked, fill in all the background.

It’s exactly the same as getting kids hooked on reading by giving them Harry Potter. Later, you can give them the classics. When I was at school, it was the opposite way around. I had to read Nicholas Nickelby when I was nine. And it put me off Dickens for 20 years! And that’s what I think we’re doing at school with science. We’re not telling kids about this incredibly amazing world we find ourselves in, where, for instance, a single atom can be in tow places at once – the equivalent of you being in London and New York at the same time. We’re not telling kids that the Universe is stranger than anything we could possible have invented, stranger than any sf movie they have ever seen. If we did, we might grab their interest.

But, of course, I understand, that with so few good science teachers, you need to get more kids interested enough to do science and be science teachers, to get more kids interested… It’s a chicken-and-egg problem.

Annabel: Do you think more effort needs to be made to popularise complex scientific ideas? How much does physics, maths and cosmology suffer from spin, both media and political?

Marcus:
Yes, I do think that more needs to be done to popularise science, for the simple reason that we live in a world where we need to be informed on scientific and technological matters such as the anthropogenic greenhouse effect, nuclear power, genetic modification, and so on. But, you’re right, there are obstacles in the way of popularising. Many of the gatekeepers in the media have arts backgrounds and are ignorant or nervous of science. It is very hard for science journalists to get stories past their editors on, for instance, radio and TV. That’s why we normally only get only alarmist stories such as “the LHC’s going to destroy the world” or the briefest, over-simplified, trite soundbites such as “the LHC is going to recreate the Big Bang”. And, in addition to over-simplification and sensationalism, there is the problem of a non-science-literate media giving a platform to people with an agenda such as those saying “My drug will cure cancer/Parkinson’s/ME/or whatever.”

Annabel: And lastly, just in case no-one has asked you this yet – How did you come up with the title of WNTTAKel – it’s inspired? (Ironically my other half has never heard of the ‘other’ book – but did say ‘I’ll read that after you’…)

Marcus: Good titles are very hard to find, and I drive my wife up the wall, wasting whole holidays, trying to get them! Poetry is good, and songs lyrics… The Universe Next Door came from line of an e. e. cummings’ poem: “Listen, there’s a hell of a good universe next door: let’s go!” The Never-Ending Days of Being Dead was a line from Jim Crace’s brilliant novel, Being Dead. Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You was from Adrian Mitchell’s “Mashed potatoes cannot hurt you, darling”. I fought like mad but I wasn’t able to get my publisher to let me have the “darling” on the end. I still hope I’ll get it on a future edition!

We Need to Talk About Kelvin just came to me when I was coming down the stairs of our house. I’d read Lionel Shriver’s bestselling novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin, which is about a boy who kills his schoolmates and most of his family with a crossbow (!), so it must have been in my mind. The title immediately struck me as a good one. If you know the allusion, great. If you don’t, maybe you’ll think – Who’s Kelvin? Why do we need to talk about him? – which might just intrigue you enough to pick up the book in a bookshop (In fact, the reaction of your partner suggests this may be true!).
Actually, I went to a talk Lionel Shriver did at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. But I was too shy to go up to her and ask whether she would write a Foreword to my book!

Thought-provoking questions! I hope my answers live up to them. Thanks for hosting me on your blog site!

Annabel: Marcus, thank you very much for your considered and insightful answers, and for actually being the first author to be a guest on my blog. Good luck with the book and the rest of the blog tour.

To visit the next leg of Marcus’s Blogtour, click here.

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6 thoughts on “Q&A with science writer Marcus Chown

  1. Hi Marcus, I bet LS would have been honoured to be asked to write a forword for your book. Science lit up my world when I was in high school. It was the one subject that held my interest and kept me coming back to school each day. No idea why I never put my love of science to better use though. I seem to spend most of my time searching for, and failing to find, a way to make A&P sessions interesting.

  2. You're absolutely right about the gatekeepers of Media being very art-centric.I work in the creative industry, currently at a publishers and I get nothing but bemused questions when I show up to work with the latest New Scientist rolled up and stuck in my back pocket.It's very hard to validate it, even when I say I like it because newspapers are always full of doom & gloom, whereas NS is full of optimistic stories of how new technologies are coming into fruition. I tend to say "I start the day with a paper for a healthy does of cynicism, I read NS after to undo all of that."Creatively though, I think NS has some of most interestingly written and illustrated articles around. Thats what caught my attention in the first place, before i was particularly interested in science. Maybe NS is the way to stick it to the media as there is more creativity in a single issue of NS than is put out where I'm currently sat in an entire month. *plays tiny violin 😦

  3. Dear Deej,Maybe I'll be brave enough to ask Lionel Shriver for the next edition, then!I've put my love of science to an unexpected use. I kind of expected that I might be working in science, doing research. In fact, I worked briefly as a radio astronomer at Caltech in Pasadena. But, actually, I work outside of science. Being a journalist/writer suits my butterfly mind. I get to talk to different people all the time – and pump them of all the interesting things they know!Maybe you'll get to put your love to unexpected use too.Best wishes,MarcusBest wishes,Marcus

  4. Dear Ross,I passed your comment onto Roger Highfield, the editor of "New Scientist", because I thought it would make him very happy!Did you know that "New Scientist" was started on the strength of a speech from an arts person – Winston Churchill!? He said, in the mid-195s, that in a modern technological society it was essential that ordinary people to know about science. That was the catalyst for the creation of NS in 1956.Best wishes,MarcusBest wishes,Marcus

  5. Marcus – many thanks for popping by to answer comments. I enjoyed hosting you on my stage of your blogtour. Cheers!Annabel

  6. Dear Annabel,You're very welcome. Your questions – about the teaching of science, and so on – were different to everyone else's. I really enjoyed answering them. Thanks again for your kindness in hosting this leg of my blog tour.Best wishes,MarcusPSI've actually got another book out on 21 January (Afterglow of Creation). I'm actually not prolific. But books are like buses. There are big gaps, then a load all come along at once!

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