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Four Way Interview - Jo Marchant - November 2008

Our four-way interviews give a quick insight into the current thinking of a popular science author.

Jo Marchant is a journalist specialising in science and history, currently the opinion editor at the leading science magazine New Scientist. Her book, Decoding the Heavens describes the discovery and investigation of the remarkable Antikythera Mechanism.

Why Science?

There’s a saying that truth is stranger than fiction and I think that is particularly true of science. There’s a constant flow of ideas and insights coming from the frontiers of science – such as parallel universes, quantum teleportation, the bizarre ecosystems that surround deep ocean hydrothermal vents – that rival if not surpass anything that we could make up. I find it incredibly inspiring and endlessly fascinating.

Why this book?

I suppose you could say it was love at first sight. I first heard about the Antikythera mechanism in November 2006, in an editorial meeting at the journal Nature, where I was working at the time. A paper revealing its workings was about to be published in the journal and I couldn’t believe that I had never heard of this mysterious artefact before. I wanted to know more about it: What did it do? Who built it? How could the Greeks have developed such sophisticated technology, only for it to vanish without trace?

My editor sent me to Athens to see the remains of the mechanism and to interview the researchers working on it, and I was hooked. The story had everything, from the treacherous adventures of the sponge divers who discovered the wreck on which the mechanism was found, to the ancient Greek astronomers and philosophers and their search to understand the heavens, to the feuds and obsessions of the scientists who have devoted their lives to decoding the 2000-year-old fragments. I was really lucky to stumble across a story that was so little-known and yet such a joy to tell.

What’s next? >

I’m hoping to write another book. I’d love to find another story with the same blend of history, science and adventure, but I think that will be tough. I’m also trying my hand at blogging, at www.decodingtheheavens.com/blog. When writing the book I was surprised how hard it is to find accessible but trustworthy information on ancient civilisations, so I’m hoping to tell readers about any interesting developments that I come across, as well as keeping them up to date with research on the Antikythera mechanism itself.

What’s exciting you at the moment?

Lots of things. The Large Hadron Collider at Cern, near Geneva, is very exciting. Once physicists there start colliding particles together next year then it could be just a matter of months before they start to discover completely new physics – forces or particles that are outside the current “Standard Model” that they use to describe things. It sounds like a cliché, but this experiment really does have the potential to change our understanding of how the universe works.

Synthetic biology is very hot at the moment too. Scientists have built viruses in the lab already, and they are close to building a bacterium in which the genetic material has been synthesised completely from scratch. It’s the kind of work that forces us to address fundamental questions such as what “life” really is.

Finally, after writing Decoding the Heavens, I’m still fascinated by the science and technology of ancient civilisations. Other artefacts like the Antikythera mechanism could be lying undiscovered in shipwrecks, so I hope that as underwater archaeology techniques improve, there will be a lot more stories to tell.

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