Friday, May 10, 2019

Q&A with Marcus Chown

Marcus Chown is the author of the new book Infinity in the Palm of Your Hand: Fifty Wonders That Reveal an Extraordinary Universe. His other books include The Ascent of Gravity and What a Wonderful World. He worked as a radio astronomer at the California Institute of Technology, and is cosmology consultant at New Scientist. He lives in London.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for this book, and how did you pick the 50 wonders you include?

A: I am constantly amazed that the universe we find ourselves in is far stranger than anything we could possibly have invented. It’s a place, for instance where a single atom can be in two places at once – the equivalent of you being in New York and London at the same time. Science, it turns out, is far stranger than fiction.

So the idea was to show this with 50 examples of hopefully amazing things about the universe. Basically, I made a list of more than 100 things – it wasn’t hard to find them – and my publisher helped me cull them down to 50.

Q: You note that the title for the book came from a William Blake poem. What does "Infinity in the Palm of Your Hand" signify for you?

A: Yes, the poem is a famous one, from William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour

Hopefully, Infinity in the Palm of Your Hand signifies to the reader that the subject matter of the book they are holding in their hand spans the whole universe.

Q: You begin in Chapter One with the idea that humans are one-third mushroom. Why did you decide to start there?

A: My idea was to start the book with the mundane and close to home – you and me – and end it with the cosmic and far away. So I begin the last chapter with the mind-blowing idea that, out there in the universe, are an infinite number of copies of you reading an infinite number of copies of my book!

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?

A: That we live in an extraordinary universe. It’s easy for us be overwhelmed with matters in our everyday lives and sometimes get a bit depressed at what is happening in the world. So I think it’s important to get some cosmic perspective. And also to take some pride in what we as a species have achieved and how far we have come.

I mean, we are jumped-up ape with a three-pound brain made mostly of jelly water and yet we have seen to the farthest frontiers of the universe. In April, for instance, we actually saw for the first time an image of a black hole, which marks the very edge of space and time. How amazing is that?

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve just written a book about the central magic of science – the fact that someone sitting at a desk, or standing at a blackboard or a whiteboard, can write down an arcane formula that predicts the existence of something never before suspected that, when people go and look turns out to actually exists in the real world.

Examples are the planet Neptune, blackhole, antimatter and gravitational waves. Nobody knows why this central magic works – why the real universe has a perfect mathematical twin.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I think I should at least finish by picking one thing at random from my book: You could fit the entire human race in the volume of sugar cube. That’s because the atoms out of which we are made are mindbogglingly empty. As a percentage, the empty space in an atom accounts for 99.9999999999999 per cent of its volume. All of us are ghosts!

And, if you could squeeze all the empty space out of all the atoms in all the 7 billion people on Earth, they would fit in the volume of a sugar cube (mind you, it would be a very heavy sugar cube!). This is not just theory. Out in the universe there are objects where all the empty space has been squeezed out of their atoms. They are called “neutron stars|. Such a star is the relic left over when a massive star blows itself up as a “supernova.”

A neutron star packs a mass equivalent to the sun into the volume of Mount Everest. If you could go to a neutron star and dig out a chunk the size of a sugar cube, it would indeed weigh as much the whole human race.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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