Eight Questions With… Marcus Chown

Welcome to Eight Questions With… Marcus Chown, these questions (and answers) can also be found on the last page of the December edition of Teen Librarian Monthly, and now for the first time on the website itself. This is for those readers who do not subscribe* but are interested in finding out more about our scientist in residence.

Q1 Which of your books would you recommend for teens and young readers

For teens, any of my popular science books. When I was a teenager I used to read popular science books by people like Arthur C. Clarke and Carl Sagan. I write at their kind of level – in fact, I write for my wife, Karen, who has no science background. So, if I was a teenager today, I might be a reader of my books, if that makes any sense!
My most accessible books are Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You and The Magic Furnace. In fact, several school science teachers have said they’ve given Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You to their teenage pupils.
Did you know that there’s so much empty space in matter that, if you could squeeze it all out, the entire human race would fit in the volume of a sugar cube? Did you know that a single atom can be in two places at once – the equivalent you being in London and New York at the same time? Did you know that you age faster on the top floor of a building than on the ground floor? All these things are in Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You, which is about Einstein’s theory of relativity too. All in less than 200 pages. Without an equation. And, hopefully, it won’t hurt you (at least, not much!).
The Magic Furnace is the book of mine I like best. It’s about the discovery that we are far more intimately connected to the cosmos than even the astrologers guessed. Want to see a piece of a star? Just hold up your hand. You are stardust made flesh. The iron in your blood, the calcium in your bones, the oxygen that fills your lungs every time you take a breath, all of these atoms were forged inside the furnaces of stars which lived and died before the Sun and Earth were born. The story of how we discovered this is the story of The Magic Furnace.
So much for teens, what about young readers? Well, there’s Felicity Frobisher and the Three-Headed Aldebaran Dust Devil (www.felicityfrobisher.com). It’s the book I had the most fun writing. Felicity Frobisher is quiet and polite and never gets into any trouble whatsoever. Until the day she is visited by Flummff, a young Three-Headed Aldebaran Dust Devil (he comes down a “wormhole” from a dusty planet around the red giant star Aldebaran).
Flummff is very, very bad. He gets poor Felicity into all sorts of trouble at school. She gets chased out of a park by a fist-waving park keeper and accused of cheating in the school cross-country run. But, despite having the worst day of her life, she also gets to beat the school bully, and go down a wormhole to Hawaii, the International Space Station and Flummff’s horribly dusty, horribly gritty home planet. The Scotsman newspaper called the book: “A thrilling, silly escapade among the stars.” And that’s about it. It was my chance to be really, really silly, which I don’t ever get with my popular science books.

Q2 Do you ever read the works of other science writers? If yes who can you recommend?

When I was a teenager I used to read Arthur C. Clarke and Carl Sagan. But I would recommend anything by Simon Singh, because he’s a good writer (and because he’s my friend!). So Big Bang or Fermat’s Last Theorem. Richard Feynman was an eccentric, bongo-playing Nobel-prizewinning physicist but he popularised too. His best book is QED: The strange theory of light and matter, which is about what he got his Nobel Prize for. That’s small and without equations but demanding. But the books about his adventures such as Surely, You’re Joking, Mr Feynman? And What Do You Care About What Other People Think? are great fun. (I was incredibly lucky to be taught by Feynman)

Q3 How did you become known as the Katie Price of Science Writing and who first gave you the nickname?

I have to admit I gave it to myself! I heard that Katie Price never gets any prizes but that one of her books outsold all 100 (I think) books on the Booker Prize long-list combined. I too never get short-listed for any book prizes or anything like that but readers seem to like my books because they buy a lot of them. So I thought: I’ve got something in common with Katie Price. So that’s why I called myself the Katie Price of Science Writing on my website (www.marcuschown.com). It’s tongue-in-cheek, really. Just a bit of fun!

Q4 What is the most satisfying part of the writing process for you?

When the money arrives! No, I’m joking!

Actually, the best part is when your book comes out and you keep going in bookshops to see if it’s arrived yet. I am very sad. I tend to get my wife, Karen, to photograph me holding up the first book in a shop! But it’s great. The thrill never wears off. When I was at school, I liked English and writing stories. My absolute dream was to write a book and see it published and go into a bookshop and see it on a shelf. And, when it happens, it’s just as wonderful and amazing as I imagined it would be.

Q5 I have recently acquired a copy of Felicity Frobisher & the Three-headed Aldebaran Dust Devil (an amazing title and even better story) – do you have any plans for a sequel or perhaps even writing similar books for older readers?

I am so glad you like my title – and the story! I really enjoyed writing it. I had never written children’s fiction before and I had no idea whether children would like it. But I was overwhelmed by the response when I went into schools. And children keep asking when they can read more about Felicity Frobisher. I think children identify with Felicity because she isn’t like the normal heroes of children’s books. She isn’t any good at school, isn’t athletic, and she wears big glasses. Her mum and dad never notice anything about her. And she’s being bullied by the school bully! And, if things could not get any worse, she is befriended by Flummff, an alien boy who is very, very bad. But, although he gets her into tons of trouble, he definitely gives her the adventure of her life. Definitely, the sort of thing most children would like to brighten up a dull, boring day at school

The good news about a sequel is that I am writing Felicity Frobisher and the Newly Wedded Capellan Toast Weevil and also have a third book fully plotted. The bad news is that my publisher does not want to publish any more. So I will have to find another publisher. But don’t worry. I will. I’m persistent!
As for writing similar books for adults, my wife is 50 and she loves Felicity Frobisher. So I think the book can be enjoyed by both children and adults.

Q6 Are there any novels that you have enjoyed that you would recommend for Teen readers?

I really liked Elizabeth Knox’s teen novels The Rainbow Opera and The Dream Quake. She’s one of my favourite novelists. I also really like Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses about a world where black and white people have switched roles. I also liked her sequels, Knife Edge, and Checkmate. I liked Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines, about cities that trundle across the planet, fighting and gobbling each other up. And, of course, I love The Lord of the Rings, which I first read when I was 18.

Q7 What can you tell us about Kelvin (that won’t ruin the end of the book)?

It’s about what every day things that tell us about the Universe. It’s as simple as that. Every chapter starts with a familiar everyday observation – like the sky is dark at night or teacups break when you drop them – and leads on to the, often amazing, thing this tells us about the Universe. For instance, the reflection of your face in a window tells you about the most shocking discovery in the history of science – that the Universe is based on chance, the roll of a “quantum” dice, that ultimately things happen for no reason at all. The fact that iron is common – in the metal of cars, even in the blood coursing through your veins – is telling you that out in space there must be a blisteringly hot furnace at a temperature of at least 5 billion degrees. I finish the book with one everyday observation for which we don’t yet know what the thing it is telling us is. If you see what I mean! The observation is that there are no aliens on Earth – not lurking on street corners, not floating angelically overhead or beaming up and down like characters from Star Trek. It could be that we are the first intelligence to arise in our Galaxy. Or it could be it’s so dangerous out there in space that any race that ventures out from its home planet gets wiped out. Or it could be anything else. In fact, this is case where your guess is as good as mine. Or the guess of the best scientists!

Q8 Do you ever visit School or Public Library Reading Groups or science classes? If yes, what is the best way to get into contact with you or your agent about it?

In the past, I have been to state schools. I have also given talks at events like the Cheltenham Literature Festival and the Edinburgh Science Festival. What I can do depends on what else I am doing at the time. But the best way to contact me is through my publisher, Faber & Faber.

Thank you! I’ve really enjoyed answering these questions!

– –
* Subscription to teen Librarian Monthly is free and can be done by sending an e-mail to teenlibraryservice (at) gmail dot com

We Need to talk About Kelvin : chapter 11

Earth’s full, go home

How the fact there are aliens on Earth is telling us either we are the first intelligence to arise or some unknown factor prevents the evolution of space-faring civilisations

Sometimes I think we are alone, sometimes I think we are not. Either way, the thought is staggering.
Buckminster Fuller

I’m sure the Universe is full of intelligent life. It’s just been too intelligent to come here.
Arthur C. Clarke

One striking feature of the world is so obvious that, like the darkness of the sky at night, it is almost never remarked upon. It does not matter what country you live in, what continent you are on, where at all you are on the planet. There are no aliens. They are not loitering on street corners, coasting angelically through the clouds above your head or materialising and de-materialising like crew members of the “Star Trek” Enterprise.
The fact there are no aliens on Earth is widely believed to be telling us something profound about intelligent life in the Universe. Unlike the case with the other everyday observations in his book, however, no one is quite sure what that profound thing is.

Over the years, many people have realised that the lack of aliens on Earth is a deep puzzle. However, the person who articulated it in the most memorable way was the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi. One of the last physicists to combine the roles of front-rank theorist and an experimentalist, not only did Fermi come up with a theory of radioactive beta decay, which predicted the existence of the ghost-like “neutrino, but he constructed the first nuclear reactor – on an abandoned squash court under the west stand of the University of Chicago’s Stagg Field. Fermi’s “nuclear pile”, which went “critical” on 2 December 1942, made the “plutonium” for one of the two atomic bombs dropped by America are on Japan. Those bombs were tested in the desert of New Mexico. And it was, while visiting the bomb lab at Los Alamos in the summer of 1950, that Fermi made his memorable observation about extraterrestrials.
He was having lunch in the canteen with Herbert York, Emil Konopinski and Edward Teller, the “father of the H-bomb”. The physicists had been discussing ETs because of a recent spate of newspaper reports of “flying saucers”. Although the discussion had turned to more mundane subjects, Fermi had gone quiet, deep in thought. Suddenly, in the middle of the ensuing conversation, he blurted out: “Where is everybody?” The others around the table immediately knew what he was referring to – ETs. They also recognised that Fermi, a man with a reputation as a deep thinker, had articulated something important and profound.
Fermi was a renowned for his back-of-the envelope calculations. For instance, at the explosion of the first atomic bomb at Alamogordo in the New Mexico desert on 15 July 1945, he had dropped a scrap of paper from shoulder height and watched how it was deflected by the shock wave from the Bomb. Knowing that Ground Zero was 9 miles away, he estimated the energy of the blast – the equivalent of more than 10,000 tonnes of TNT.
Implicit in Fermi’s “Where is everybody?” question was a similar back-of-the-envelope calculation. How long it would take a civilisation that developed a star-faring capability to spread to every star system in our Milky Way galaxy?
Fermi never revealed the details of his reasoning. However, more likely than not he realised that the most efficient way to explore the Galaxy would be by means of self-reproducing space probes. Such a probe, on arrival at a destination planetary system, would set about constructing two copies of itself from the raw materials found there. The two daughter probes would then fly off and, at the next planetary system, build two more copies. In this way, the probes would infect the Galaxy relatively rapidly like bacteria spreading throughout a host.
Using plausible estimates for the speed of such probes and the time required to make copies, it was possible to estimate how long it would take to visit every star in the Milky Way. And the answer was surprisingly modest – between a few million and a few tens of millions of years. Since this was a mere fraction of the 10 billion-year lifespan of our Galaxy, one conclusion was unavoidable. If a star-faring race had arisen at any time in the history of our Galaxy, its space probes should be here on Earth today. So, in Fermi’s immortal words, “Where is everybody?”

Teen Librarian Monthly December 2009

The December edition of Teen Librarian Monthly is available to download here

This edition contains an interview with Marcus Chown who is hanging around Teen Librarian today as well as many other interesting articles and links for the discerning Librarian.

The Marcus Chown Blog Tour: stop 8

I would like to welcome eminent scientist and author Marcus Chown to the Teen Librarian site.

For the two or three people who are not too sure who he is, here is a brief biography (and photograph in case you meet him in your Library).

Marcus Chown - Auckland Writers Festival, 16 May 2009 (2) (image via Flickr courtesy irkstyle)Marcus Chown is an award-winning writer and broadcaster. Fomerly a radio astronomer at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, he is currently cosmology consultant of the weekly science magazine New Scientist. His books include The Universe Next Door, Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You and Felicity Frobisher and the Three-Headed Aldebaran Dust Devil, which the UK’s The Sunday Times called “One of the books most likely to fire children’s imaginations”.
Although Marcus’s wife is a nurse and does a very socially useful job, Marcus tends to write about things that are of absolutely no use to man or beast! Can time run backwards? Are there an infinity of universes playing out all possible histories? Was our Universe made as a DIY experiment by extraterrestrials in another universe?

There will be more from Marcus going online at various times throughout the day so be sure to check back later!

Fallen by Lauren Kate

Best librarian / library Edublog 2009

There is currently voting for the 2009 Edublog Awards (the Eddies)— this makes 6 years of Edublog Awards!

One of the finalists in the best Librarian/Library category is the brilliant Bright Ideas Blog run by the School Library Association of Victoria.

They have promoted Teen Librarian in the past and even ran a feature on Library Myth Busters.

If you have not had a look at the Bright Ideas site I urge you to follow the link above now and then go onto vote for them in the awards – it is something they richly deserve!

Voting is open to everyone and you can cast your vote here: Best Librarian/Library Edublog 2009.

My Love Lies Bleeding by Alyxandra Harvey

Looking for something to sink your teeth into? Need a new hero to get your pulse racing? Waiting in ‘vein’ for another Twilight book? Look no further – the Drakes have arrived . . .

Solange Drake has always known she is a vampire, but she’s not just any vampire. She is the only female vampire ever born; she is destined to fulfill an ancient prophecy and become queen. The trouble is, a lot of people and vampires want to kill her because of this, and those that don’t just keep falling in love with her. To top it all off, Solange doesn’t really want to be queen and would rather concentrate on surviving the excruciating, and possibly fatal, change from human to vampire that occurs on her 16th birthday. Right now, life sucks for Solange.

Lucy is Solange’s human best friend. So when Solange is kidnapped Lucy is determined to come to the rescue with the help of Nicholas, Solange’s sexy older brother. Can Lucy save the day and resist the charms of Nicholas?

Try the prologue and first chapter here

Bloomsbury has created a Facebook fan page for ‘fang-tastic’ My Love Lies Bleeding this will be regularly updated with news, competitions and more. Access the fan page here.

Strange Angels: Betrayals by Lili St.Crow

BetrayalsPicking up immediately after Strange Angels ended, Dru is thrust into yet another dangerous situation.

Placed in a Schola for her own protection, she does not know who to trust or who is trying to kill her. The Schola is riven by factions, the Wulfen who welcome Graves, her loup-garou friend and look upon him as a prince of their kind, and the Djamphir, part-Vampires, whose disdain for the Wulfen is almost palpable. The Wulfen mistrust her and the Djamphir see her more as a tasty snack than a potential saviour.

Surrounded by secrets and lies, Dru learns that she does not know everything she thought she did, and must rely on her own instincts and skills to stay alive.

What are Christophe’s true intentions, and to whom does he owe his loyalties? Why is she being kept sequestered in a reform school for the supernatural? Who are her friends? Who is the traitor in the Order and why has she been lied to and misled? What is her full name?

We start finding answers to some of these questions in Strange Angels: Betrayals, the second book in the Strange Angels series by Lili Saintcrow.

One thing is for sure – she is not at Hogwarts, and no-one can be relied on to protect her.

Betrayals is an excellent follow up to Strange Angels, a kick-arse heroine, supernatural politics, more mystery than you can shake a stick at and just enough information is dropped during the book to make me want the third book NOW! I loved it – even more than Strange Angels, and can see this series going far

Lili Saintcrow captures the high school atmosphere and transfers it to a setting where the characters can sprout fur (natural for teens) and fngs (slightly less natural) and are expected to draw blood in their lessons. It gives new meaning to high school being a warzone.

Betrayals can be read on its own but will be more enjoyable if read in sequence.

The Making Of ‘Grandville’ And The Anthropomorphic Tradition – a talk by Bryan Talbot

Bryan Talbot is the award-winning creator of The Tale of One Bad Rat, The Adventures of Luther Arkwright, Alice in Sunderland and more recently Grandville – a graphic novel which is a Victoriana/Art Nouveau steampunk tale of murder and intrigue (with added badger). He has also illustrated many other graphic novels including Slaine, Nemesis the Warlock, Sandman, Hellblazer and Teknophage.

Mr Talbot has a talk he can give for older audiences, called ‘The Making Of ‘Grandville’ And The Anthropomorphic Tradition’.

Bryan can be contacted for more info via… bryantalbot at btinternet dot com

Free eBook offer from YA author Jonathan Zemsky

YA author and all-round excellent bloke Jonathan Zemsky has released his first novel Beyond the Shadows of Summer into the wilds as an eBook.

Download the book here: Beyond the Shadows of Summer

It is one of the first books I reviewed, you can read the review here.

Did I mention that it is free? Get downloading! It is a fantastic read and an excellent introduction to a brilliant writer!