Science Book a Day Interviews Brian Clegg


Special thanks to Brian Clegg for answering 6 questions about his recently featured book – Dice World: Science and Life in a Random Universe

Born in Rochdale, Lancashire, UK, Brian attended the Manchester Grammar School, then read Natural Sciences (specializing in experimental physics) at Cambridge University. After graduating, he spent a year at Lancaster University where he gained a second MA in Operational Research, a discipline developed during the Second World War to apply mathematics and probability to warfare and since widely applied to business problem solving. Brian now concentrates on writing popular science books, with topics ranging from infinity to ‘how to build a time machine.’ He has also written regular columns, features and reviews for numerous magazines and newspapers, including Nature, BBC History, Good Housekeeping, The Times, The Observer, Playboy, The Wall Street Journal and Physics World.  – Adapted from Brian’s Homepage

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#1 – What was the impetus for Dice World?

I am fascinated by probability and randomness, and particularly the way that these very important aspects of the world around us are not ones that we can easily understand. I think when science, and the maths that supports it, are counter-intuitive it is at its most interesting. Sometimes it’s just a case of something being fun, at other times it can be truly mind boggling.

#2 – What are misconceptions people have about randomness? How do we get ourselves into trouble with these misconceptions?

If you ask someone to write down what they think are a sequence of random numbers, they will have far too few repetitions. Similarly when we get a cluster of events occurring, we assume that there is a local cause. When you think about it logically, it shouldn’t be a surprise that randomness contains clusters. If you imagine dropping a can of ball bearings on the floor, you would be very surprised if they all settled down into a neat, evenly distributed pattern. You would expect clusters and gaps. But when something happens in the ‘real world’, like a cluster of accidents or illnesses, we assume there has to be a local cause and blame it on the local witch/nuclear power station/phone mast etc.

This seems to be primarily because we understand the world through having a grasp of patterns. We are very good at seeing patterns and use them all the time so we don’t have to relearn what to do every time we come up against a slightly different situation. But we are so good at seeing patterns we see them even when they aren’t there, conjuring up bogeymen. Of course sometimes a cluster will have a genuine cause, but we can’t assume just because there is a cluster that it has a specific cause, and particularly can’t assume that the cause is our personal bete noir. It’s interesting that those who are quick to blame clusters of illness on power stations etc. rarely blame them on pubs or churches, even though they are often present as well.

#3 – Do you have a philosophy when it comes to conveying such difficult concepts of randomness?

‘Philosophy’ sounds too heavy a word for what I do – I certainly try to make the concepts more approachable, that’s what my job is all about. One of the key tools in making science approachable is storytelling. Humans are much better at taking in information in story form than a pure collection of facts. That’s why popular science, sometimes to the irritation of working scientists, often has a lot about the people involved, or stories that put the concepts across. The fact is, it makes the information more accessible.

#4 – How have people responded to your book? What feedback have you received?

Generally very positive. There are a couple of well-known probability based problems in there, like the Monty Hall problem and the two children problem that always cause a considerable amount of feedback. It doesn’t matter how much you explain these problems, they are so counter-intuitive that you will get people arguing with the solutions, despite them having been around a long time. I also get a lot of positive comment on the comparison of conventional randomness and chaotic systems which, while not strictly random, are impossible to predict beyond a relatively short time horizon.

#5 – As the author of many science books, how do you plan out your books? How does this plan change from book to book?

The most painful part of writing a book is writing the proposal. This gives a chapter-by-chapter outline of the book and how it will develop. It really is like pulling teeth. But it is an incredibly valuable part of the process, as once that outline is in place the author has a valuable structure on which to hang the final book. It won’t be exactly right – the book always changes a little as it is written – but it gives that basic plan. What that will be can differ from book to book. In some cases the natural structure is chronological, in others it might be types of science or technology. The important thing as that the plan works as a whole – often this means having a kind of narrative arc through the book, though it may just be a theme that binds it together.

#6 – Are you working on any new projects/books?

I always am! I have had one book out with my UK publisher, Icon, since Dice World, which is The Quantum Age, exploring not just what quantum physics is, but also the remarkable applications that have become so important to us. Very soon I’ve a new book out with my US publisher, St Martin’s Press, called Final Frontier, which looks at the history and future of manned spaceflight, and how the reality is very different from fictional imaginings. There are a couple more books under development, but not quite at the stage to discuss yet.

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