Magicians of science: an interview with Marcus Chown

For the release of his new book Magicians, we spoke to writer Marcus Chown about the discoveries that have propelled humankind forward.

Marcus Chown’s latest book The Magicians chronicles some of the key discoveries in science, exploring the people and the history behind the revelations that unlocked the secrets of the Universe.

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The ‘magicians’ of the book’s title are those scientists who made giant leaps in fields such as exoplanets, black holes, gravitational waves.

We spoke to Chown to find out more.

Marcus Chown

What’s the one discovery that makes you think “I wish I’d thought of that”?

Antimatter. Imagine being British physicist Paul Dirac in 1928 and plucking from thin air – which is what he did – an equation describing an electron travelling close to the speed of light, and being gobsmacked to see that the machinery of the equation was duplicated.

It also described a positively charged electron, the first hint of a previously unsuspected universe of antimatter. And where would be warp engines of the Starship Enterprise be without antimatter?!

How far back in history can we go and still find scientists who were changing our understanding of the Universe?

Science really arose only in the 17th century, so that’s when humans first began to discover the laws which orchestrate the universe. Perhaps the most famous was Newton’s law of gravity.

How amazing that a man of the 17th century, whose father could only sign his name with a cross, was able discover a universal law – one that applies at all places and all times.

Following Newton’s lead, physicists have found ever more universal laws such as the laws of quantum theory and relativity.

Do you think any human has the potential to make a groundbreaking scientific discovery?

I think you need a certain degree of mathematical aptitude because, for some reason we don’t understand, the fundamental laws that orchestrate the Universe are mathematical.

But, if you have such a mathematical aptitude, and years of training, the answer is, yes.

Are there any other ‘magicians’ you would have liked to include in the book, but couldn’t?

The ‘magicians’ of my book are the scientists who have spectacularly demonstrated the central magic of science – that arcane formulae scrawled across a whiteboard or a blackboard or a piece of paper predict the existence of things that, when people go and look for them, turn out to actually exist in the world.

Things like previously unsuspected planets, the Higgs particle, black holes and gravitational waves.

Ihope I have featured the most important magicians, but if I missed any, please point them out for the next edition!

In which areas of science do you think we are most in need of magicians making big breakthroughs?

The two towering achievements of 20th century science are quantum theory – the theory of atoms and their constituents – and Einstein’s theory of gravity – which describes the large-scale Universe.

We badly need to find a way to unite them because in the Big Bang the large-scale Universe was small.

Only if we can do this, will we be able answer ultimate questions such as: what is space? what is time? what is the Universe? and where did it come from?

To make progress, we definitely need another magician like Einstein, or preferably several magicians!

Marcus Chown The Magicians
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Marcus Chown’s The Magicians is available now from Faber & Faber.