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Marcus Chown: 'What a Wonderful World'

The scientific world sometimes seems to pose more mind-boggling questions than it can answer. Astrophysicist Marcus Chown's new book takes on the challenge

Taking his title from the 1967 hit by Louis Armstrong, renowned popular science writer Marcus Chown really is aiming high with his new book. In fact, the author of 'We Need to Talk about Kelvin' has taken on the task of no less than 'One Man's Attempt to Explain the Big Stuff'.

If the scale of his task daunts Chown he wears it lightly, sipping coffee in a fancy patisserie in Marylebone and clearly enjoying a recent accolade from former Queen guitarist and astrophysics geek Brian May. With a succinctness that would have impressed Tacitus, May pronounced that "Marcus Chown rocks!" He has a point. Chown's books rattle along with the wide-eyed gusto of a man thoroughly enjoying a world that needs to be explained.

The author is used to rubbing shoulders with some pretty big names. Taught by Richard Feynman, he has a background in physics and worked as an astronomer at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, before discovering that he had a knack for explaining the most complex of ideas in unusual, original and entertaining ways.

Being under Feynman's wing was a huge moment for Chown as the theoretical physicist was interested in, and lectured on, "absolutely everything". Inspired by the great man, Chown claims to be able to explain quantum theory in five minutes and frequently uses the mosquito to explain how electricity works.

The latest book in a long line of highly readable and successful 'pop science' titles – although Chown is not convinced that the epithet applies to his work – is a conduit for sharing his boundless interest. And while many of his previous publications have been closely focused on a specific theme, such as the origin of atoms or a guided tour of the universe, 'What a Wonderful World' is far harder to categorise.

"It's really about how the world of the 21st Century works," says Chown, before explaining that he's not entirely serious in claiming to have written about absolutely everything: "Think of it as Everything Volume One. In fact, it's a bit of an attempt to break out of the pop science ghetto and write about a wider range of subjects. I was fortunate to go to Caltech and learn a load of amazing things, but I think it is just as important to be able to communicate them."

Despite Chown's background in academia he thinks of himself as a writer. For many years he was on staff at New Scientist, where he is still retained as a cosmology consultant. It was here he learned about "things such as cell biology and how the brain works, earth sciences, climatology and meteorology. All this developed from my narrow speciality in physics. I suppose where I might be different is that I try to bring a sense of humour to what I write, a flavour of myself. I quote people like Bruce Forsyth. I don't just quote Aristotle".

Getting the message out

Chown says that one of the most joyful things about what he does is meeting people who have been inspired by his books to read physics at university. "When I met the first person to have gone down that path, I thought at least I'd replaced myself in the system. I remember being switched on by people like Carl Sagan and Arthur C Clarke. So it's great to feel that I've done my bit in return and inspired other people. But the big problem that we are facing at the moment is that universities are tending to provide attractive courses."

I mention to Chown that this doesn't sound on the face of it that much of a problem. But he clarifies his statement by saying that this is why so many people go into subjects such as media studies, rather than those that "we actually need". But it's nothing new, he says, telling me the issue was flagged up in the 1850s, when it was brought before Parliament that Germany was training more engineers and scientists than Britain. "Today, this is exacerbated by the university system."

But, he explains, he was lucky. He may have been the product of "an ordinary comprehensive school in north London, where the prospects for the brighter kids were limited to being an electrician or a plumber", but he was advised well by his father. "My Dad left school with no qualifications and he told me to do what I love doing. And I love astrophysics."

A world of surprises

Chown says that while writing 'What a Wonderful World' he learned "lots of very strange things. I talked to Chris Stringer, a paleoanthropologist at the Natural History Museum, who told me that in technology terms, the crucial advantage that humans may have had over Neanderthals was sewing". He elaborates by introducing one of those facts that either excites you or doesn't: no one has ever discovered a Neanderthal needle, while lots of bone needles fashioned by humans have been found. "Today people seriously think that it was the human ability to sew baby clothes during the Ice Age winters that may have actually contributed to a reduction in infant mortality, and so increased the chances of human survival."

Warming to his theme, Chown goes on to explain how 95 per cent of the cells in your body don't belong to you. "There's just loads of bacteria and stuff like that hitching a ride. Also 99.75 per cent of the DNA in your body belongs to alien organisms. So only 0.25 per cent of you, is actually you. We're aliens. I just learned all this amazing stuff about cellular biology. Pretty much all of your cells are replaced every seven years. Maybe that's why after seven years you look at your partner and think that's not the person I got together with! Maybe that's the origin of the Seven Year Itch," he muses.

"I'm off at a tangent," says Chown, chuckling over the remains of his coffee. "But in my defence, I am a person who is absurdly interested in everything around me.

"The thing is, I've been pigeonholed as a science writer, but really I'm just a writer with wider interests than science. The thing that most interested me while writing my new book was the history of civilization. The problem of course is that people do like you to be in a category."

'What a Wonderful World' by Marcus Chown is published by Faber & Faber, £17.99

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