Q&A with Marcus Chown, author of “We Need to Talk About Kelvin”

January 21, 2010 in Book Reviews, On Writing by pacejmiller

Award-winning writer Marcus Chown is on a blog tour down under to promote his latest book, We Need to Talk About Kelvin. And guess what – the man himself was kind enough to drop by to answer a few questions about his book, his writing, and his views on the universe!

Marcus is one of a handful of guys in the world that can make science sound interesting without making your head explode trying to understand it.  He is currently the cosmology consultant of the weekly science magazine New Scientist, and is the author of hugely successful books such as The Universe Next Door, Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You and Felicity Froshiber and the Three-Headed Aldebaran Dust Devil.

In We Need to Talk About Kelvin, Marcus takes familiar features of the mundane world and shows, how in the light of our current scientific knowledge, they tell us profound truths about the ultimate nature of reality.  For example, did you know that:

  • the reflection of your face in a window is telling you that the universe at its deepest level is orchestrated by chance? or
  • the iron in a spot of blood on your finger is telling you that somewhere out in space there is furnace at a temperature of 4.5 billion degrees? or
  • your TV tuned between the stations is telling you the Universe had a beginning?

Don’t worry, I didn’t know either.

Well, without further ado, let’s get this Q&A started!

(Click on ‘More…’ to read the Q&A!)

Marcus Chown

1. Let’s get straight to the question everyone has been asking – just who or what is Kelvin and why do we need to talk about him/it?

Let’s hope you are right that everyone is asking that question!  Because – well – that’s what I hoped.  My book, in common with the books of every other author, has to compete with thousands of others in a bookstore.  Why should anyone else stop for a moment and pick it up and read what it’s about?  Well, maybe because the title intrigues them, because they think What’s that about?  Who is Kelvin?  Why do I need know about him?  It seems to have worked with you, which I am very happy about!

I picked the title because, in the UK, Lionel Shriver’s novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin, about an American boy who massacres his schoolmates and half his family with a crossbow (!), was a huge best seller (Reading your question, I worry it might not have been so big in Australia!).  People who recognise the pun, laugh, which again makes them stop and pick up the book.  On 20 December, The UK’s Independent newspaper wrote: “The award for the cleverest title of the year goes to the popular science writer Marcus Chown for We Need to Talk About Kelvin.”  But, actually, it doesn’t matter whether you recognise the allusion and chuckle, or whether you don’t recognise the allusion and just wonder Who the hell is Kelvin?  The point is that you notice my book.  Or, at least that’s the hope!

(Lord Kelvin was actually one the greatest physicists of the 19th century.  He invented the “absolute” temperature scale which bears his name and was even involved in the laying of the first undersea telegraph cable between England and America – it snapped! – a task comparable to the Apollo program.  Oh, and he spent much of his life trying to figure out why the Sun is hot, which is the subject of one of the chapters of my book, and why I sneaked him into the title.  The book is subitled by the way “What everyday things tell us about the Universe”.  And one of those everyday things is the Sun being hot)

[Editor’s note: for the record, I did ‘get’ the title of the book.  I just thought it was a funny thing to ask.]

2. You were formerly a radio astronomer at the California Institute of Technology – what made you decide to become a writer?

I always wanted to be a writer.  But, when I was at school, I liked English – writing stories – and I liked science.  Unfortunately, in the British system – and I hope it isn’t the same in Australia – it’s not possible to do both beyond 16.  Personally, I think it’s stupid that you can’t do arts and science.  But that’s we way it is.  So I had to choose.  And I chose physics, first going to university in London, then, as you say, the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena.  But I kept writing stories and I always wanted to get back to writing.  So I decided to give up research in the US and come back to England and see if I could be a science journalist.  And I’ve been working my way towards being a writer ever since.  I’ve gone from science journalism to writing popular science books to fiction.  The book I am most proud of and had the most fun writing is actually Felicity Frobisher and the Three-Headed Aldebaran Dust Devil, which is for kids – from 5 to 85.  As a plot device it does use “wormholes” – shortcuts through space-time which are permitted to exist by Einstein’s theory of gravity.  But, actually, it’s about having a very bad school friend who gets you into loads of trouble and it was just an opportunity to be very, very silly.  It’s also autobiographical!

[Editor’s note: luckily, in the Australian system, you can do both science and English.  I didn’t do science after 15 because I sucked at it and my science teachers (when they were not throwing dustpans at our heads) bored me to death.  Funnily enough as a child, the first thing I wanted to be when I grew up was a scientist.  If only I had Marcus Chown to explain stuff to me, then maybe my life could have been different.]

3. You have written books about the origin of atoms, quantum theory and a little girl by the name of Felicity Frobisher.  Where do you come up with the ideas for your books?

The ‘origin of atoms’ book you are referring to is The Magic Furnace.  I happened to go to some lectures while an undergraduate at the University of London.  They were on “nucleosynthesis”, how the atoms in our bodies were forged inside the furnaces of exploding stars and the big bang.  It blew my mind.  We all think of the Universe as out there, not at all connected to our everyday lives.  But it isn’t.  The big and far away is directly connected to the small and close to home – the atoms in your body.  The iron in your blood, the calcium in your bones, the oxygen that fills your lungs each time you take a breath – all were forged inside stars that lived and died before the Earth was born.  If you want to see a piece of a star, hold up your hand.  You are stardust made flesh.  All this stayed in my head.  Then, one day, I thought, I could write the story of how we made this discovery.  Unfortunately, I didn’t realise how complicated it was and how long it would take me.  However, The Magic Furnace is in my opinion my best book.

The other book you mention is Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You.  It’s about the two major developments in physics of the past century: quantum theory and Einstein’s theory of gravity.  Quantum theory is our theory of very small things – our very best description of atoms and their constituents.  It has given us lasers and computers and nuclear reactors, not to mention an understanding of why the sun shines and why the ground under your feet is solid.  Einstein’s theory of gravity is our theory of big things – stars, black holes and the whole Universe.  The reason I wrote about them was that, as cosmology consultant of New Scientist magazine, I’m often given books to read with titles like Quantum Physics for Dummies or Einstein for Dummies.  And they baffle me, even though I have a physics background!  So I thought I’d try and see if I could do better.  The result was a slim, 200-page book, with no equations or anything like that.  Writing it helped me understand quantum theory better.  And it has surprised me and my publisher by selling far more copies than any of my other books.

Now to Felicity Frobisher and the Three-Headed Aldebaran Dust Devil!  Well, as I said before, I always liked writing imaginative stories.  So I thought I would write a children’s book.  Because it’s a very competitive field, I thought: How can I be different?  What can I do that other children’s writers cannot?  And I thought: I can use things that I know about because I have a science background.  That’s why I used “wormholes” as a plot device.  They are shortcuts through space-time, which are permitted to exist by Einstein’s theory of gravity.  But, actually, Felicity Frobisher is really not a science book.  As I’ve said, it’s about having a very bad friend who gets you into loads of trouble.  And it was an opportunity for me to be very silly (This reviewer really got what it was about… http://tinyurl.com/ylxeb6p).  I had no idea what to expect.  But I had an overwhelming response from children.  And The Sunday Times, which never reviews my popular science books, called it: “One of the books most likely to fire children’s imaginations”.  I had so much fun writing Felicity Frobisher that I am writing a sequel at the moment called Felicity Frobisher and the Newly Weeded Capellan Toast Weevil.

4. How long does it usually take for you to write a book?  Is a lot of research involved?  You don’t just make things up…do you?

Normally a year – although The Magic Furnace took me about 4 years and nearly drove me to drink!  One problem was that I had left my staff job on New Scientist and gone freelance.  I kept waking up in the middle of the night and thinking: How am I going to pay the electricity bill?  Consequently, journalistic jobs that paid within a few weeks always took priority.  And, when I got back to writing the book, I couldn’t remember where I’d got to.  It didn’t help that the story of how we discovered where the atoms in our bodies came from was a complicated one, spanning astrophysics and nuclear physics and geology and chemistry.  As I’ve said, teasing out a linear narrative was like trying to unknot a very knotted ball of string.  To add to this friends kept saying to me: “You really want to finish that book, Marcus!”  They thought they were helping but it was infuriating.  I wanted to finish the book. Even worse, friends would come around and drink coffee with me and say: “You really want to finish that book!”  They were drinking coffee with me, taking up valuable time when I could be finishing the book, while telling me I should finish the book!  Anyhow, I did finish the book.  And it’s still my best book, I think.  But I vowed never to spend so much time writing a book again.

Actually, the idea for the next book occurred to me while I was writing The Magic Furnace.  I noticed that, when I wrote articles for New Scientist or newspaper, I usually got no letters from readers.  But, occasionally, I got an avalanche of letters.  So I thought: Why don’t I write a book about the subjects that trigger an avalanche of correspondence?  Can time run backwards?  Are there multiple universes in which all possible histories occur?  Was our Universe made as an experiment by aliens in another universe?  The book became The Universe Next Door.  It’s from a line of poetry by e. e. cummings:

            Listen, there's a hell of a
            good universe next door: let's go!

5. Do you have any quirky writing habits?

I can’t do it unless I’m stark naked with bells on my toes.  No, I have all my clothes on!  I just said that to make myself more interesting since my writing habits are so dull and boring.  Basically, I sit with a notepad and write, crossing out most of it and throwing it in the bin with disgust.  It’s actually my non-writing habits which are more interesting.  Like most writers, I am constantly looking for some distraction.  When my wife comes home from work – I work at home – I always tell her I’ve been slaving all day.  Unfortunately, I give myself away with my comprehensive knowledge of which celebrities have appeared on daytime TV that day!

6. Tells us the story of how you got your first book published.  And make it exciting (embellish if necessary).

I was chatting to Spielberg about the big bang and Spielberg said: “You wanna write a book about that, Marc.”  And I said “You know, Steve, I’ve never thought of that.  What a great idea.  I think I’ll do it!”…

Actually, it was duller than that (isn’t it always!).  In the early 1990s, a NASA space experiment called the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) observed the “afterglow” of the big bang fireball, effectively taking a “baby photo” of the Universe.  So what? you might think.  Well, after one of the scientists involved said “It’s like seeing the face of God” and Stephen Hawking said “It’s the discovery of the century, if not of all time”, the international media went wild.  In the aftermath, the face of God man reportedly got a $2 million advance to write a book.  At the time I was working as science news editor at New Scientist and I followed the story.  Someone said: you could write about that.  You see, I knew a bit about the background.  So I wrote two A4 pages with bullet points about what was so interesting about the afterglow of the big bang and why it would make a great book and sent it to one publisher after another.  They all rejected it, saying the $2 million guy was writing a book, why write another?

Then, finally, my proposal fell on the desk of Neil Belton at Random House.  He said, yes there is this guy with the $2 million advance but we could get a book out quicker and ride on the coat tails of the publicity.  So Afterglow of Creation was born (Actually, the best review was from The Australian, which said “Beautiful science, beautifully told”).  But the fantastic thing is that my current publisher has let me update it and the new edition is published on 21 January 2010!  It means a lot to me because in the Foreword I write about my dad, who had a quite ridiculous amount of faith me.  It just so happened that, when I came to write the Foreword, it was the 10th anniversary of my dad’s death.  I sat under a tree in London’s Hyde Park and just wrote. I couldn’t think of a better way to mark the anniversary. So it’s a very personal book. If you read it, you’ll also learn how I was Margaret Thatcher’s “first success”!

7. You’ve been called the Katie Price of science writers.  Why do you think other science writers make science so bloody hard to understand?  And do you like Peter Andre?

That’s me calling myself that!  You see, I read that one of Katie Price’s books outsold all 100 books on the Booker Prize long list (That’s the most prestigious book prize in the UK) and she never wins any awards for her writing.  I thought, I never win any awards either, and my books outsell just about every other science writer (except people like Richard Dawkins).  So I thought, for a bit of fun, I’d call myself the Katie Price of science writing!

Peter Andre seems like a nice bloke.

I don’t know why “other science writers make science so bloody hard to understand”.  Do you think they all are?  Or just some?  What I would say is that many scientists popularise.  Some are very good, like Steven Weinberg, and some are not. What distinguishes the good from the bad is the time and effort they put in, which is a function of how seriously they view popularising.  Weinberg takes it very seriously and even takes a year off research to write a popular science book.  Others think they can dash something off in a spare moment.  But I blame the editors.  If they were doing their job, they would not be intimidated by big-shot scientists and would say: “What’s this? I don’t understand?  What are you talking about?”

8. What advice or tips would you give to aspiring writers?

Be persistent. Never give up. It took me 5 years to get Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You published.  Publishers rejected it, telling me it was “unmarketable”.  It has outsold all my other books.

And lastly…just out of interest…in your opinion, what are the odds intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe, and what are the chances that they have or will visit us on Earth?

I believe the chances of intelligent life existing somewhere else in the Universe is 100 per cent.  It’s a numbers game.  At least 10 per cent of nearby stars has planets.  There are 200 billion stars in our Galaxy and about 100 billion galaxies.  That comes to 2 billion billion planetary systems, or to put it another way, 2,000,000,000,000,000,000.  I cannot believe that we are the only intelligence to have arisen in all those planetary systems.

The fact remains, however, that we have seen no sign of intelligence – though we have been scanning the Heavens for 50-odd years – and there is no sign that any ETs have been here (I write about this in my book, We Need to Talk About Kelvin).

Many believe that, depressingly, we are the first intelligence to arise in our Milky Way galaxy.  However, absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence.  ETs could be out there but difficult to spot.  But, as the Italian-American physicist Enrico Fermi pointed out, one of the most important scientific questions – perhaps the most important – remains: Where is everybody?

[Editor’s note: I knew it!]

Well, that’s that!  Thanks to Marcus Chown for stopping by.  You can check out the rest of his blog tour spots at his website, marcuschown.com

Review of the book coming soon!