Christopher Potter Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Christopher Potter
Photo: Joyce Ravid

Christopher Potter

An interview with Christopher Potter

Christopher Potter discusses You Are Here - a layman's exploration of the universe and our relationship to it, as seen through the lens of today's most cutting-edge scientific thinking.

Why did you write this book?

Like many writers do, I wrote the book to see if I could find answers to some questions that had been bothering me. Some of them are the kind of questions that bother children, who then eventually put them to one side and think about other things. But these questions have gone on bothering me into adulthood. Where did the universe come from? Where are we in the universe? How could something come from nothing? Will the universe come to an end? I suppose it's because science does actually have answers to these sorts of questions that I got interested in science in the first place.

Of course I'm not an expert, so writing this book became my way of finding out how much a general reader - an interested non-scientist - could learn about science if left to his or her own devices.

Was it possible to tell the story of science all in one short book with no equations (well, there is one), and without getting bogged down in technicalities? That was the impulse that kept me writing.


But isn't this a book about the universe?

I use the universe as a way of talking about all of scientific knowledge. In a way, when we look to the horizon of the universe we are looking out to the farthest extent of our scientific knowledge, to the farthest extent of our understanding of the universe. As our knowledge grows so does the universe. The universe is always bigger than our understanding of it, which is hardly surprising given that we are in it, and part of its output.

Science sets out from the position that the world is made out of things that move. Science ultimately tries to find out what those things are made of, and what we mean by motion. It turns out it's really rather hard to answer those two questions.

A world made out of moving things is what we call the material world. It is the part of Nature that science describes. Some scientists might argue that there is nothing else, that the world science describes and the world of Nature are one and the same thing, and my book is partly an attempt to balance such extreme materialism.


Summarize our current understanding of the material universe in a single sentence

I would say: The universe is a patch of light that evolved.

Our story of the universe begins with a Big Bang: a very hot patch of light that rapidly expands. That expanding patch of light has been expanding and evolving for about 14 billion years. It has evolved into all the structures of matter we find in the universe, including (incidentally but perhaps not ultimately) ourselves who tell this story.


Why you?

For twenty-five years I was an editor of books. For almost twenty of those years I worked at 4th Estate, where I published novelists (Annie Proulx, Michael Cunningham, Carol Shields, Michael Chabon, Hilary Mantel) and writers of non-fiction (Dava Sobel, Simon Singh, Matt Ridley, Peter Singer, James Gleick). As a publisher, I often found myself trying to explain the ideas of writers I published on one side of the science divide to writers on the other. Over the years I realised I liked doing it. I also realised that many of my friends, even though they were really interested in science, and had thoughtful questions to ask about it, felt there weren't science books that were addressed to them. I feel I understand those who are ambivalent about science, who were put off at school (as I nearly was), who would like to know more but have not yet found a way in.

I'd always hoped during my time as a publisher that I'd find someone to write a book that crossed the divide. I suppose after years of looking without success I decided I'd better do it myself.


There are other histories of science. How does your differ?

As far as I know mine is the only one that covers so much of the story: electromagnetism, Einstein's theories of relativity, quantum theory, the evolution of life, theories of consciousness and so on, and all in so few pages. The style is unusual: I'm more interested in the ideas behind an experiment rather than the experiment itself. To that extent the book is philosophical, but not in a rarefied way. Children are philosophers: they ask 'why?' as soon as they can speak. All children wonder about their place in the universe from their early years. Who didn't write out his or her home address, ending with 'the earth, the Solar system, the Galaxy, the Universe?' Science started out as philosophy but for the last four hundred years or so we've had a methodology that we apply to what's out there, and out of that scientific method we have won the world of central heating, medicine, and i-Phones as well as the world of precision bombing and global warming.

There are many excellent popular science books but I don't think anyone has tried to write a popular book about the nature of the scientific endeavor itself: What is it that scientists do when they do what they do?

All other forms of knowledge flow into each other, but science knowledge appears to be a different. We take the material world so much for granted we never question what it is. And who would dare question such a world when there is so much of it? To question it would be to question progress itself. But perhaps now, as we wonder whether the earth has a future, is the time we must ask ourselves: at what cost science? We cannot unravel the material world, and who would want to? Materialism is the greatest story ever told. But we can try to understand what we mean by a material world and what we are in relationship to it.

These sorts of philosophical question, however, are what I hope the reader will ponder after reading the book. What really makes the book unique is its structure: that the reader is taken on a quest across the universe, and learns about science en route.


How is the book structured?

I start the journey by considering us, we human beings, who live here on earth, among things with which we are familiar. By considering things larger and larger in size, I eventually take the reader away from this comfortable zone into outer space. Only gradually does the universe become more abstract, and unfamiliar. Planets, galaxies, even structures of galaxies are not difficult to understand, even if the size of them is mind-blowing. Out of our understanding of how these structures relate to each other I begin to fill in some of the story of science: the history of scientific ideas and how they have been put into practice. Once we discover what the largest structures are in the universe the reader will discover that we are forced to ask what the universe looks like if we travel in the other direction, to the smallest parts of matter. Currently science still struggles to join together theories that describe the smallest parts of the universe to those that describe the universe at large, but out of the attempt comes our best scientific account so far of how the universe may have evolved (randomly from nothing) into the universe as we see it around us today.

The book, then, is a journey across the universe through all orders of size from the smallest things to the largest things, and through all of time from the birth of the universe to its ending. I hope that I have found a way of telling the story of the universe that is informative, entertaining, at times dizzying, even amusing.


Is it possible to cross the divide between art and science, or between religion and science?

Even intellectuals can find science and scientists intimidating. W.H. Auden once said that when he found himself in the company of scientists he felt 'like a shabby curate who [had] strayed by mistake into a drawing room full of dukes.' When we read a book by a scientist I think often we have to overcome some sense of inadequacy, which we don't feel when we read a novel, no matter how high-minded that novel might be. Science is ultimately written in the terrifying language of mathematics that we, the general public, do not speak, but that doesn't mean we need be excluded from a debate about the nature of the scientific enterprise itself.

In a world that has become ever more uncertain and unsettled, this may be the moment to remind ourselves that those scientists and those bishops who talk about certainty, do not describe the world as it is. True prophets and philosophers remind us that the nature of nature is uncertainty and change. Death, as Freud continually reminds us, is what certainty looks like. Life is a process of continual renewal and change.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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