physics

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

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I kept seeing this book advertised with a cover that looked like it should be speculative fiction, and noting it was described as historical, and passing over it. Eventually I read the synopsis, decided it sounded intriguing anyway and got it out of the library (from the general fiction shelves, not SF). It does have a historical setting but I don’t see how the main point of the book, which I can’t reveal without spoiling it for future readers, could be anything other than fantasy fiction. Besides which it contains a physics student and some ornate clockwork – if you’re at all of a fantasy bent and you like a Victorian setting I highly recommend it. Even if you’re not particularly of a fantasy bent but you enjoyed The Hourglass Factory by Lucy Ribchester you’ll probably love it.

A dull civil servant who didn’t particularly mean for his life to turn out that way inexplicably finds a gold pocket watch on his bed one day. Months later it saves him from an Irish bomb in Whitehall (Clan na Gael, this is the 1880s not the 1970s) and he tries to find out where it came from. Meeting the strange, lonely Japanese watchmaker changes his life. Meanwhile a young woman with a Japanese friend is finishing her undergraduate studies in physics and is desperate to finish her experiments on the ether before her parents can marry her off. All these lives eventually collide with fascinating consequences.

I can’t quite explain why but it felt like a delicate book, perhaps it was the intricacies of the plot (the clockwork theme, cogs, wheels within wheels are echoed through everything) or the descriptions of tiny pieces of machinery, hair-thin wires, fine Japanese porcelain. It made me feel as though I was holding my breath, and as though I was right there with the characters (even if where they were didn’t feel like an absolutely historically accurate Victorian London). There’s a lot about love and duty in it, and the idea of lives turning on the tiniest event which might seem inconsequential at the time. It was intriguing, beautifully written, and I thought it was refreshingly original in a nicely thought-out setting. I’m glad I finally picked it up.

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Science writer for hire

I had a revelation recently: I haven’t lost my love of physics, it had just faded for a while, and that being the case I could potentially combine science with writing.

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Because I loved the one on the left and have never been able to get rid of the one on the right

I do write sci-fi, you can read some of it in the Cracks in the Foundations collection (which also contains fantasy stories), and I’ve continued to read it even in my science-free years but I’d got out of the habit of reading popular science books or New Scientist and it hadn’t occurred to me to write factual science articles. Until now.

Last summer I did a story and science evening with Alice Courvoisier for the York Festival of Ideas and helping Alice put together her relativity presentation made me realise I was still fascinated by physics. For the last few months I’ve been giving private tuition in GCSE physics (with occasional forays into maths and chemistry) and loving those moments where understanding dawns. My don’t-inspect-too-closely analogies are definitely improving. Considering all this, when I say that I finished reading an interesting and well-wrought popular science book on the same day as I got an email from a MOOC provider (you know I love my free online university courses) advertising a science writing course, you’ll have guessed that I signed up immediately.

I’m hoping to get some science-related writing published soon. If anyone would like to point out any opportunities or offer work along those lines, the usual methods of communication apply (@JYSaville on Twitter; jy at ostragoth dot co dot uk; or leave a comment here and mark it private so I don’t let it through moderation).

In the meantime you can read my review of Marcus Chown’s book The Ascent of Gravity here at The Bookbag.

Mobius Dick by Andrew Crumey

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Although it’s not a comedy I can see this novel appealing to fans of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams. Lots of philosophy, weirdnesses (technical term) of time and space, and it’s not too heavy (i.e. it’s got its share of farce and sarcasm, you can tell it’s a British novel). Having said that, as well as being a Douglas Adams fan I do have a degree in theoretical physics which included as many philosophy modules as I could access, so I may be part of a niche target audience. Mobius Dick is one of the few books I’ve come across where the main character is a theoretical physicist, which is actually what swayed me when I picked it up in a charity shop last summer, having heard of neither the book nor the author. Speaking as a partial insider then, I don’t know how much you’d have to be comfortable with the idea and philosophy of quantum mechanics to get into this. If ‘what would happen if the wave function didn’t collapse’ is just a string of words to you then you might find it a bit hard going (and potentially uninteresting).

There is also an undercurrent of thriller, with some peculiar goings-on at a nuclear research facility in Scotland that we as readers want to get to the bottom of. I read almost the entire book on a return train journey to Liverpool, becoming immersed and zipping through the pages, whereas OneMonkey (who also has a degree in theoretical physics, sorry) found it hard to get going because it chops and changes between different times and places and people, with chapters from fictional memoirs interspersed as well.

Part of what I saw as the Dirk Gently aspect was the key question of coincidences – are they significant or do we only ascribe them meaning when they chime with us? Alongside the recurring motifs of Moby Dick (and its author), the composer Schumann, and the physicist Schrödinger, coincidences and many-worlds hypotheses are the philosophical meat of the novel. It takes in the topics of re-lived lives, the nature of time, the nature of dreams and reality, causality, attractors in space-time folded time, and of course: What would happen if the wave function didn’t collapse? If that list is freaking you out, then maybe it’s not one to add to your To Read list, but if you like philosophy and the accidents and what-ifs of history then you’ll probably like being made to think by this book.

Fiction as a thought experiment

The final event I went to at this year’s Ilkley Literature Festival was another Comma Press one. For a few years they’ve had a project where a writer gets paired with a scientist: the scientist briefs the writer on a particular topic, the writer writes their story which is somehow linked to it, and the scientist then provides an afterword. The latest anthology of these stories (due out next month) is called Thought X, and is concerned with thought experiments.

Having spent a total of 9 years at 3 universities immersed in maths and theoretical physics, I hadn’t realised that thought experiments were anything other than an everyday matter or that the concept might be unfamiliar to people (I can’t think why people complain about academia being disconnected from the real world…). There are a variety of different sorts of thought experiment, some just an ‘imagine you have a…’ to get people to grasp a concept, others that either stop you from having to do an experiment (because you’ve worked it through logically via your imagined scenario) or that highlight a flaw in a theory by showing that there would be some contradiction if you thought your way through it in this case.

We heard extracts from three of the stories respectively based on the grandfather paradox in time travel, Laplace’s demon, and Schrödinger’s cat. Each thought experiment gave the author an existing narrative (e.g. there had to be an element of time travel and it had to involve some version of killing your own grandfather) around which to base their own narrative. Each of the three stories were different in tone and setting, and it sounds like it should be an interesting book.

To follow the readings, Professor Steven French of the University of Leeds (coincidentally Mark the artist’s academic grandfather i.e. his PhD supervisor’s PhD supervisor) talked about the importance of thought experiments in science, the history of Schrödinger’s famous cat and the many-worlds theories of quantum mechanics, as well as literature as a thought experiment. Which made me think science fiction is almost always explicitly a thought experiment – what happens if we increase global temperatures, what happens if there’s a scarcity of resources, what happens if we develop this technology? A good cue to go write some.

Without regular exercise your imagination will die

This morning over our tea and croissants, OneMonkey and I were listening to the World Service (more people should, it’s an absolute treasure); I was enticed to stay with them after the news had finished, when they announced that Robert May (a well-known physicist, even to those who know no physicists well. Not to be confused with Brian May, a physicist well-known for other things) would be talking about chaos. Now back when I was still a physicist myself, chaos was my thing (anyone who’s ever visited my house would be forgiven for thinking it still is) so while I didn’t necessarily think there’d be anything I hadn’t heard before, I was still interested to hear how he put it across to a lay audience (very well, in my opinion, without dumbing it down, and with the inclusion of genuine maths). Also on the program were a financial journalist, and a doctor, Abraham Verghese. Abraham was given 60 seconds to outline a good idea, and the good idea he chose was ‘read more fiction’.

For someone who writes fiction that’s obviously going to sound like a great idea – a bigger readership has got to be a good thing. For someone who enjoys reading fiction, it also sounds like a great idea, if you’re anything like me (and I hope for your sake that you’re not) you’ll find it hard to understand how anyone could get through their lives without reading novels (even if ‘reading’ means an audio-book on the move). The point he was making, however, was that the imagination of a lot of adults never gets exercised, whereas when you read a work of fiction, you’re invited to create a world in your head, and watch events unfold there (it won’t necessarily match the world created by other readers, or by the author), and therefore it exercises some part of the brain that all too often is left to wither away (presumably not literally). He complained that all the metaphorical names for diseases are at least 100 years old, all the colourful descriptions that conjure up an image for someone who knows nothing about the underlying reality. These days everyone’s too concerned with technical terms, like stars being named by a string of letters and numbers – it makes things easier for the astronomers but they’re hardly memorable or romantic, and I find it hard to believe that anyone points at the sky and says ‘oh look, you can see HD-1234 tonight’. (Please don’t anyone point out that that’s not a valid star-name. I never did any astrophysics, I know as little about it as the proverbial man in the street, and probably even less. LeMat was an astrophysicist before he diverted into philosophy, and despairs sometimes.)

I’m all for scientific rigour, it does wind me up when terms are used imprecisely in the media, by journalists who were probably brought up in the ‘not understanding maths is fine but never having read Shakespeare is a crime’ vein, but a well-crafted metaphor (as long as it’s clear it is just a metaphor and not the literal truth) can be invaluable as a way of getting ideas across. A metaphor can make you grasp the gist, even if the details are entirely beyond your comprehension, but the metaphors are either not there at all these days, or stale and not likely to conjure up any vision at all in today’s adults, saturated with images handed to them on a televisual plate.

So let’s all read (and write) more fiction, whether it’s set in a fantastic world or in Bradford (other Northern cities are available), and not only will we be hanging on to a youthful part of our brain, but we’ll also contribute to a wider understanding of science, and thus to a better future. If only.

Maths jokes for beginners

Another tip from my Guardian book of how to write comedy was to find a niche, be original, don’t just cover the same old ground. Interestingly, the intended composition of the proposed sketch group (being deliberately tentative in case we hate each other as writing partners and the idea folds at the first meeting) is firmly science based: S and B are nearly at the end of PhDs in engineering, though S did physics and computing beforehand, and between Mark and I we have degrees in astrophysics, theoretical physics, maths, philosophy of science, and six years of largely pointless research in applied maths.

To the outsider, that might not seem like a rich comedic vein, but when Mark and I were students together we talked about producing a comic based on our department. We wrote down the incidents, outbursts and conversations around us, but when we looked through them they all seemed too outlandish and surreal, and we figured no-one would accept it. The departmental computing officer walking into a room playing a tune on a child’s purple plastic caterpillar for no apparent reason. The student who travelled a hundred miles to collect sponsorship money of fifty pence. The fabulous moment in a seminar when the guest speaker said of his equations ‘They’re wrong in a number of ways. In particular they’re wrong because they don’t give the right answer’ with a perfectly straight face.

Of course most of this isn’t science-specific, it’s just the weirdness of human nature, but with a bunch of mathematicians or physicists in the vicinity, there’s a higher concentration of weirdness than in the general population. And that’s before you even get onto the genuine subject-specific jokes. I know quite a few bad theoretical physics jokes, but the number of people who understand them isn’t huge, and the number who’d laugh is a lot smaller. Once, that may have been a drawback, but with all the highly specific websites out there, not to mention the proliferation of niche radio and TV channels, a comedy show for people with a maths, physics or environmental engineering background doesn’t seem that far-fetched, and if nothing else, we’re unlikely to have much competition.