The Never-Ending Days Of Being Dead

Review by Andrew Crumey

Published in Scotland on Sunday

The Never-Ending Days Of Being Dead
Marcus Chown
Faber & Faber, £15.99

The speculations of cutting-edge physicists have taken firm root in popular culture. From the parallel realities of Doctor Who to the simulated universe of The Matrix, science has fed the public imagination a rich diet of outlandish ideas. The essays of science journalist Marcus Chown are yet another plate on the smorgasbord, and it is difficult at times to know whether these “dispatches from the front line” are fiction or fact.

“It has long been known that an atom flying through space really does fly along multiple trajectories simultaneously”, says Chown. Certainly, it has long been said in popular science books that this is what happens, but can we be sure that what looks like a case of being in two places at once is really that? Physicists have been arguing about it for the best part of a century, and a mind more sceptical than Chown’s might conclude that what it shows is that there is still a lot left for physicists to figure out.

Chown acknowledges that big questions remain unanswered, but what is troubling about his book is the way it too often elevates speculation or interpretation to irrefutable fact. We would not expect a political journalist to trumpet the views of Blair or Cameron without challenge, yet Chown appears to think that for science to be palatable to the public, it must be presented with an air of unqualified credulity.

It is only when reporting the extreme ideas of cosmologist Frank Tipler that Chown is prepared to show any real doubt at all. Tipler believes that mankind will one day colonise the entire universe, download its collective memory into indestructible computers, and resurrect every human in a simulated afterlife that will last for an eternity – the never-ending days of Chown’s title. The opinion of most physicists is that Tipler’s theory is good after-dinner entertainment but scientifically worthless. Chown, however, gives it the sort of even-handed presentation customarily adopted by television pseudo-documentaries about ghosts or alien visitation, offering no more than a disclaiming shrug after a long and sensational exposition.

Most of us are able to make up our own minds about ghosts or aliens, but when it comes to asking whether variations in the “fine-structure constant” reveal the tinkering hand of a cosmic super-intelligence, it is to people such as Chown that the public turns for help; yet Chown is no help at all. Physicist John Barrow made the suggestion ironically in a letter to Nature; Chown repeats it dead-pan and unsourced, as a serious possibility.

The essays in this book appear to have started life as New Scientist articles, making them somewhat repetitive in content. Each has an attention-grabbing sense of “incredible if true”, though without asking “is it true?”. Many of the topics are extremely interesting, but a significant proportion are the hobby-horses of “renegade” scientists doing battle with the establishment. Even the greatest minds have lapsed into crank science – if Chown could have interviewed Isaac Newton, he might have written an article explaining how planetary orbits, as Newton claimed, give absolute proof of intelligent design. Like this book, it would have made for a lively and thought-provoking read – but when the public seek entertainment rather than knowledge, there are better places they can turn to.