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Marcus Chown - Books


Afterglow of Creation


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This is the story of the cosmic background radiation - the 'afterglow' of the Big Bang in which the Universe was born - and how it was discovered.

Chown brilliantly weaves a tale of the search for the origins of the Universe, from the early years of cosmology (remarkably less than 100 years ago) to the flight of the COBE satellite and its crucial discovery.

This is the supreme detective story of cosmology. It begins in 1924 with Hubble's discovery of galaxies and continues through to the 1992 discovery of extremely distant remnants of the Big Bang, ripples in space/time that provide a tantalising echo of the first beginnings.

Like all the best popular science, the book is as much about the people involved as the science itself. Afterglow finishes with a description of the resulting publicity and wrangling among team members who felt that one team leader, George Smoot (who had described a ``map'' of the ripples as ``like seeing the face of God''), was hogging the spotlight. It's a very relevant reminder that scientists may attempt to be objective in their work, but remain human.

This book was nominated the prestigious Rhone Poulenc prize for science writing (now the Aventis Prize).

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A very good piece of storytelling... Chown writes as if he were addressing his fellow human beings. New Scientist

Practically perfect. The Good Book Guide

A book I'd recommend to my mother! An an excellent overview of the whole story, written in an exciting way, while being pretty fair on all the main players, and presented at an accessible level. Prof Douglas Scott, University of British Columbia

Chown superbly captures the spirit of scientific endeavour... The story is told with panache and the science is so well explained it makes and effortless read. Afterglow of Creation is upbeat, witty and informed. The Sunday Times

An excellent introduction to the most recent developments in cosmology... he carefully explains intricacies in which other writers would have been bogged down. The Observer

"=The thrilling story of the search and study of the heat created when the Universe was born... This is what Big Science is really like. The Daily Telegraph

Chown's book could reach people who have never know nor cared about the origins of the cosmos. Association of British Science Writers

The secret of the universe in 170 pages! Focus

My favourite book. Yehudi Menuhin, violinist

Beautiful science, beautifully told. The Australian

It's a long time since this reviewer has read a popular science book that so accurately communicates the science involved while maintaining the reader's interest through the beauty of the written word...Afterglow excels at portraying science as a human endeavour where personalities, ideas, egos, politics and money all mix in the endeavour we know as astronomy... This book should be in every middle school, high school and public library and on the shelves of anyone interested in either astronomy or the nature of science. It is a wonderful story, brilliantly told. The Science Teacher

Chown writes in a deceptively breezy style that conceals his impressive understanding of astrophysics and cosmology... This is science as it really happened, not the dry-bones account of how it was supposed to happen found in textbooks. All in all, Afterglow of Creation is a wonderful read for college and high school students, and also for well-educated adults, who may find it sparks an interest they did not realise they possessed. Science Books and Films

A lucid account of the key developments in modern cosmology, especially good in capturing the human dimension of scientific work. KirkusReviews

Very readable, even somewhat breezy... could serve as a novice introduction to a complex subject. Library Journal

Afterglow of Creation is an entertaining read. I can recommend it to lay people, but those who will gain most from it are scientists in other fields curious about the recent huge strides in cosmology. Meteoritics and Planetary Science

Books like Afterglow of Creation keep the story of the universe and the hard work of human discovery alive. Astronomy

An extremely entertaining narrative of the birth of cosmology. American Scientist

The Magic Furnace


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In a careful, enjoyable way, Chown leads us through one of the most fundamental aspects of science - where do the physical building blocks of the universe, atoms, come from?

Remarkably, we discover that the atoms that make up everything from our bodies to the Earth itself have been around for billions of years - the lightest of them emerging from the big bang, the heavier ones from exploding supernovas.

There are broadly two types of book addressing cosmology, the wildly speculative and the immensely practical. This is very much the latter. Highly recommended.

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Suspense is the mark of a good storyteller, and The Magic Furnace keeps readers anxious for the next puzzle piece to fall into place. Marcus Chown, cosmology consultant for New Scientist magazine, tells the story behind the researchers who eventually discovered the elusive source of solar energy. And he does it with an entertaining writing style borrowed from fellow Londoner Arthur Conan Doyle, for The Magic Furnace reads like a Sherlock Holmes novel. Nick Nichols Astronomy Magazine

I heartily enjoyed Marcus Chown's impressive book. This is the story of ultimate alchemy -- not the sorcerer's simple fantasy of transmuting lead into gold, but the mighty creation of all elements from none. With excitement and admirable skill, Marcus Chown narrates a complex epic on the grandest and smallest scales, peopled by the rogues and geniuses who deciphered the universe. Dava Sobel Author of Longitude

The Magic Furnace is the work of a literary alchemist who transmutes the iron of complexity into the gold of lucidity. Chown's wizardry translates baffling mysteries of physics into concepts comprehensible to non-specialists. Fascinating as a detective story, the author's crystal-clear narrative allows us to follow, step by step, the unfolding story of how scientists came to understand atoms and the cosmos. The [Nashville] Tennessean

In a series of artfully connected and well-crafted stories, cosmologist Marcus Chown traces humanity's 2,500-year quest to understand the nature and origin of matter... Thanks to Mr. Chown's gift for storytelling, readers eagerly follow every step, misstep and blind alley on the path of discovery from Democritus to the present. They celebrate each human triumph and foible, chance discovery and brilliant insight. In the end, they savor the unanswered scientific and philosophical questions that the author places before them as just desserts for beings whose substance was 15 billion years in the making. Dallas The Morning News

Marcus Chown's The Magic Furnace tells the story of how we came to understand first that the world is made of atoms and then how those atoms were made in the Universe. It's an inspiring tale that bears retelling, especially when famous anecdotes are freshened up with intriguing details... It is undeniable and astonishing that, starting from a formless hot gas, atoms have developed a sense of their history. Chown's book offers readers and their inner atoms an enjoyable introduction to that history. A fine nonspecialist account of the foundations of cosmochemistry. Science

In The Magic Furnace, science writer Marcus Chown recounts how scientists had to understand atoms before they could understand what made the stars shine, and how this led to the realization that the atoms on Earth were themselves forged in ancient stars. In tracing this intellectual quest, Chown highlights the advances made by many important but under appreciated pioneers in the field. Marcus Chown's fascinating chronicle of their achievements deserves to be widely read. Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees Natural History

The strength of The Magic Furnace is in the story - it never gets bogged down in scientific jargon. It's written so that no background knowledge of atomic science or stellar evolutionis required, and yet Chown makes these complex topics eminently comprehensible and downright entertaining... The Magic Furnace is a very readable piece inner workings of stars and the origin of everything in the universe - including us. Sky & Telescope

This charmingly written adventure recounts the trail leading to our modern understanding of how the elements formed. In some ways this popularization covers much of the same ground as Ken Croswell’s The Alchemy of the Heavens, but Chown’s is the easier read. The general excellence and accuracy of the text highly commend it. Professor Owen Gingerich Journal of the History of Astronomy

The Magic Furnace tells the story of the discovery of the birth of atoms inside stars. The discussion of the build-up of atomic nuclei is very good. Marcus Chown is happiest when recounting the personal stories of scientists and their achievements. The account of Gustav Kirchhoff's discovery that each element has a characteristic spectrum, and his identification of the elements in the spectrum of sunlight, makes enjoyable reading. Hans A. Bethe, Nobel prizewiner Nature

All the narrative devices you'd expect to find in a Harry Potter book are here, and they transform the story of the quest to unlock the secret of the atom into a giddy page- turner. Who could resist chapters subdivided into morsels tastily sub-headed The Incredible Shrinking Sun or The Most Outrageous Prediction in Science? Or the cliff-hangers that punctuate each chapter? Or the anecdotes? For example, Marie Curie's laboratory notebooks recording her work on radioactivity are still considered too dangerous to handle and are kept, 60 years after her death, in lead-lined boxes. It is an unusual approach to science writing but a just one, because, when you think about it, the cosmos holds little more breathtaking or magical than the facts of creation. The Daily Mail

The thrill of science without the confusion. 2500 years of science in 200 pages. Physics Education

We are stardust, as Joni Mitchell sang. Or, as Marcus Chown puts it, we are cosmic nuclear waste. This wondrous creation continues in our own sun, which transforms 400 million tonnes of hydrogen into heavier atoms every second; releasing energy that keeps us alive. Stellar nuclear fusion has therefore given us atoms for our bodies and warmth in which to evolve. Magic is not the word. Chown has done this story great service, melding astrophysics with deftly worded pen portraits of the protagonists, from the cripplingly shy Arthur Eddington who worked on the principles of stellar mechanics to the wine- swigging, womanising Ukrainian George Gamow who first astonished the world with the idea of the Big Bang. The end result is a graceful, witty biography of the universe's most important entity: the atom. The Observer

If only because of it's grand scale cosmology can bring out the worst in science writers. But The Magic Furnace is as unputdownable as any thriller as it unifies the very big and the very small in a single coherent vision of Creation. Simon Ings Amazon.co.uk

If you have ever wondered what it is that makes the sun or stars shine, or what it is that makes up matter in the world, you might be surprised to find out that these two questions are very much connected. The Magic Furnace can tell you the answer to both these questions and more. Marcus Chown carries the reader on a whistle-stop tour. The fast pace means that the book never becomes too technical. It is also a great book on the history of science. The North Western Evening Mail

A clear introduction to a fascinating area of physic sand astronomy. Chown is to be congratulated on a beautifully crafted book. Like his previous work, Afterglow of Creation, it will surely be a strong candidate for future science book prizes. New Scientist

Marcus Chown's The Magic Furnace is an eminently readable piece of science history dealing with the quest to discover the nature of matter, recounted with a novelist's eye for character and suspense. New Statesman/Books of the Year

The Magic Furnace sheds light on the random and haphazard way a good fraction of big scientific discoveries were made. The research must have been a nightmare but it is well worth it. The Magic Furnace is well constructed, well written and extremely readable. Astronomy & Geophysics

Chown writes clearly and excitingly about how the creation of the elements was discovered. The physics is accurate but explained simply and directly. This book is a stimulating account of how the Universe is constructed in such a way that 'atoms acquire the ability to be curious about themselves. Astronomy Now

Chown, cosmology consultant of New Scientist, is considered second only to Stephen Hawking in science writing. His previous book, Afterglow of Creation, was runner-up for the Rhone-Poulenc Science Book Prize and Hawking's A Brief History of Time is the only book to have outsold it. Welwyn & Hatfield Times

"I am reading it on the plane and thoroughly enjoying it-- you really have a very lucid style, which makes even the likes of me feel like I know what you're talking about! Brian May, Guitarist, "Queen"/PhD in Astrophysics

It's fantastic and destined to be the next Longitude! Anne McNaught,Science producer BBC TV

Chown writes with both clarity and fluency, opening up the extraordinary landscapes of the known universe for the lay reader. The Magic Furnace is a potent example of how science-fact can be more absorbing, more entertaining and more magical than any science-fiction. But it can only be so in the hands of a natural communicator. Chown is one, and his innate understanding of the parts that character, circumstance, politics and serendipity play in any major scientific discovery gives The Magic Furnace a human dimension which is both illuminating and intriguing. A super book. Phil Whitaker/Author of "Eclipse of the Sun" and"Triangulation

A truly a very enjoyable book about origin of atoms and cosmology. People who are even slightly interested in physics and chemistry will not be able to stop turning page after page, wanting to know what happens next. Where did the elements that comprise everything come from? Where and how were oxygen, carbon and nitrogen made? They were born in the stars which died aeon ago... Depicting a history of science in such an entertaining manner is certainly the work of a master. It is possible because the author can tell how and what the scientists are thinking when they are doing their jobs, as if he is right there with them... An extremely enjoyable book for young people who will encounter the charm of science. Of course, this book is enjoyable as well for those who are not so young but also want to enjoy the world of science. Asahi Shimbun

This is certainly a science enlightening book of the first class. It is long time since I last encountered such a simply written book, yet in which rich contents are condensed. The Yomiuri Weekly

The Universe Next Door


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The universe is a strange place. A very strange place. And Marcus Chown's book is a great way to find out just how amazingly, mind-bogglingly, wonderfully strange it is.

By following some of the more extreme scientific speculations, Chown leads you on a fairyland tour of the remarkable possibilities of our universe. These vary from the near-mundane - that a pencil stood up on its point actually falls in all directions at once (or it would if nothing interfered with it) - to the out-and-out bizarre thought that the universe might have been intentionally created by super-intelligent beings.

This isn't a Physics of Star Trek type book, where real science is applied to science fiction stories (though Chown does use a number of quotes from science fiction), but valid (if sometimes not widely accepted) speculation about the nature of the real universe.

The only slight flaw is that the book does read slightly like a number of articles that has been strung together - there's a lack of consistent linking between sections - but that's a minor complaint because the whole thing is a delight (and not too long, unlike certain popular science books we could name). A gem.

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One of the top 5 titles for 2002 in the UK. Physics World December 2002

An exuberant book. A parallel universe where science is actually fun. The Independent 14 January 2002

An enjoyable romp among the abstruse theories of 21st-century science The Scotsman 12 January 2002

One of the 10 best science books of 2002 The Independent 22 August 2002

Punchy, conversational and well-stocked with reader-friendly analogies. Read this for a wonderful collection of exceedingly strange ideas Scotland on Sunday 6 January 2002

The deeper I delved into The Universe Next Door the more I became suffused with a fervour for the subject. Science is great. It stretches you. It expands the mind. It transports you to the frontiers of the unknown. And my, what frontiers these are. Chown has deliberately set out to be thought-provoking and disturbing. And he succeeds superbly. Professor David Hughes New Scientist 23 February 2002

The cosmological ideas in this book will ‘knock your socks off’. Our universe could be the outcome of an experiment carried out by a superior intelligence in another universe. Or the unexplained dark matter in the universe might be ‘mirror matter’, and there could be ‘an entire invisible universe occupying the same space as the visible universe’. One physicist cited in the book says: ‘I would be happy if I was completely wrong - but made a lot of people think.’ Chown certainly succeeds at that. The Guardian 8 March 2003

Finest cosmology writer of our day Matt Ridley (Author of "Genome")

Reminds me of Carl Sagan at his best. Michael White (Author of "Leonardo: The First Scientist")

The theories described here range from the beguiling to the terrifying to the preposterous, and Marcus Chown handles them all wih admirable clarity. A book that can be enjoyed and understood by the layman. The Yorkshire Evening Press

A rising star in the field of popular science. The Good Book Guide

Gripping. Brian May (Guitarist “Queen”)

One of the Top Ten Science Books of 2002. For sheer intellectual exhilaration, few books offer more. Booklist

A wonderful book that leaves you with the notion that the universe is likely a lot stranger than even a science fiction writer can imagine. WICN, New England June 2002

Marcus Chown is a latter-day Carl Sagan. Writing with wit and humor, he popularizes complex theories for laypersons untutored in physics, biology, chemistry, and cosmology. Congratulations to Mr. Chown for another stimulating and provocative work. The [Nashville] Tennessean 9 June 2002

If you are anything like me, nothing pleases you more than a source of new scientific ideas. This book is filled with them, yours for the taking. You should hurry, though. I already helped myself to one! Charles Sheffield The Bulletin of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Fall 2002

Pick up a copy of Chown’s The Universe Next Door and see what scientists are thinking about time that runs backward, infinitely layered realities, multiple universes, quarks as loops of time, extra dimensions, mini-black holes, mirror matter, creation, the origins of life, the prospects for ETs, and the possibility that we could find alien artifacts in our solar system. Chown has a remarkably smooth, deft style that must appeal to readers of all sorts in much the same way that the late Carl Sagan’s work did while pushing the imaginative envelope as much as Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. This is a readable and enticing exploration of the wildest ideas of legitimate science. Great fun for all. Analog Fall 2002

An exciting book devoted to crazy ideas currently brewing in the minds of theoretical physicists. Science News May 2002

An enjoyable book. Chown’s word images captivate readers. Astronomy June 2002

Colorful but seriously researched. The Washington Times 22 December 2002

Anybody who is attracted to new ideas of where science might be going will find this book of interest State Journal-Register [Illinois] 14 April 2002

Beautifully explains all kinds of crazy ideas that just might be the next major step forward. Tonic for the imagination, highly recommended! Gregory Chaitin (IBM Research Division/Author of “Conversations with a Mathematician”)

In cosmology and physics, reality is far stranger than fiction. Chown gives a fine survey of some of the more remarkable ideas that are currently being explored. Julian Barbour, theoretical physicist (Author of "The end of Time")

Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You [The Quantum Zoo]


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The two towering achievements of modern physics are quantum theory and Einstein's general theory of relativity. Together they explain virtually everything about the world we live in. But almost a century after their advent, most people haven't the slightest clue what either is about.

Did you know there's so much empty space inside matter that the entire human race could be squeezed into the volume of a sugar cube? Or that you grow old more quickly on the top floor of a building than on the ground floor? And did you realize that 1% of the static on a TV tuned between stations is the relic of the Big Bang? These and many remarkable facts about the world are direct consequences of quantum physics and relativity.

If you think that the marvels of modern physics have passed you by, it is not too late. In Chown's capable hands, quantum physics and relativity are not only painless but downright fun. So sit back, relax, and get comfortable as an adept and experienced science communicator brings you quickly up to speed on some of the greatest ideas in the history of human thought.

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Every week I receive one or two e-mails asking if I can recommend a book on quantum physics or relativity. Despite the huge number of books on these subjects, it seems that readers are still hungry for something intelligent, fun, readable and slimmer than War and Peace. Marcus Chown's The Quantum Zoo fits the bill. Chown's brief primer on quantum physics and relativity introduces the reader to a series of weird and wonderful physics: time travel, multiple realities, multiverses, superfluids. Best of all, it is all good physics as told by a good physicist.

Chown immediately captures the reader's attention with a series of staggering factoids. For example, you age faster at the top of a building than at the bottom. Also, 1% of the static on a television tuned between channels is radiation left over from the Big Bang. Equally bizarre is the statement that every breath you take contains an atom exhaled by Marilyn Monroe. Chown reminds us too that the Norwegian novelist Jostein Gaarder once wrote: "A hydrogen atom in a cell at the end of my nose was once part of an elephant's trunk." Such facts are amazing, but Chown invests them with mind-blowing power by examining the physics behind them. As such, the book is an effective antidote to some of the baloney that now and then creeps into popular introductions to quantum physics. Simon Singh Los Angeles Times 7 May 2006

Wild, sexy and mind-blowing. An entertaining little gem that leads the reader through many of the wonders of twentieth century physics with a light and sometimes quirky touch that I thoroughly enjoyed. It is so full of little insights and neat analogies that I found myself folding over the top corners of countless pages containing quotable passages. I have seen many of the descriptions and analogies elsewhere, but that is to be expected. What is remarkable is the number of new ways Marcus Chown has found to explain difficult and often abstract concepts. This is what good popular science writing is all about. Jim Al-Khalili  Nature 13 April 2006

Chown admirably takes on the task of elucidating two of the most commonsense-defying concepts in modern science: quantum mechanics and relativity. He divulges the mysteries hidden in the very building blocks of matter, piques reader curiosity with every question and then satisfies it using language that is light, companionable and full of wonder. From why tables are solid when atoms contain lots of empty space, to the fact that gravity isn't a real force and you age faster the higher up you are, Chown touches on the intriguing consequences of quantum mechanics and relativity. The success of any popular science book about these unfathomable realities hinges upon the deployment of metaphor and imagery; in this, the author stands out. Readers who want to know what the big deal is about quantum mechanics but want to avoid more nitty-gritty examples (such as black body radiation) will find a clear window into the utter strangeness that defines our universe. Publishers Weekly 9 January 2006

You age faster at the top of a skyscraper than you do on the ground floor. Marcus Chown uses startling facts to illustrate the strange consequences of Einstein's general theory of relativity... Popular books on quantum theory and relativity are plentiful, so it is a welcome relief to find a fresh approach. Each chapter begins with a short vignette that highlights how bizarre the key ideas in modern physics are and then describes them in a non-technical way. An entertaining romp for those who want to get to grips with physics, yet struggle with standard explanations. New Scientist 25 March 2006

Quantum theory and relativity normally evoke a shudder of fear in the mind of the Man in the Street.  'Isn't this way to difficult for me to understand?' Well, no more! In this elegantly written book, Marcus Chown takes you to the heart of the most challenging concepts known to man and makes you feel that understanding is truly within your grasp. Marcus Chown rocks! Brian May (Guitarist "Queen")

The Never-Ending Days of Being Dead

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There's something deeply satisfying about the title of Marcus Chown's book - it really catches the attention. This isn't one of those collections of little scientific snippets - you know the sort of thing, the type of book that asks if penguins' feet freeze - though it could be mistaken for one thanks to the look of the cover. Although it is a collection of different scientific theories, it is both a much deeper and more mind-boggling book than the "questions answered" type. It is subtitled "dispatches from the frontline of science", and that frontline is the interface between scientific ideas and the deepest questions of the universe. For Douglas Adams fans, this is real Deep Thought territory.

Chown takes off with the relatively familiar but still mind boggling concept that our universe could be but a single bubble amid a myriad variant universes, so many in fact that there's one out there where Elvis lives, and another identical to this, except you aren't reading this review right now (spooky, but irritating behaviour by that other you). From there he moves on to Stephen Wolfram's much attacked but still fascinating idea that the whole universe could be the outcome of a surprisingly simple computer program. Elsewhere you'll find the really strange bits of the quantum universe, Chaitin's amazing number Omega (which, neatly Chown claims is the real life equivalent of Douglas Adams' 42), the chances of meeting up with an alien (and how we are likely to spot what they are trying to say to us), finally reaching the title story. This last one is the weirdest of the lot. The idea is that by the end time of the universe, there will be beings who are so technologically advanced that they can re-engineer the universe in a special way that will enable the end times to stretch for ever (subjectively), and that they will run a computer simulation so clever that we will all wake up after death in this electronic, everlasting heaven.

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A limousine among popular science vehicles. The Guardian

Marcus Chown has a happy knack of making abstruse subjects seem intelligible. Sir Patrick Moore

An enthralling walk on the wild side of science. Brian May

Written with clarity and eye for an illuminating analogy. Chown's tour of the frontiers of modern physics is utterly awe inspiring. Phil Whitaker.

Reading this book is a little like being at a party with an almost perfect DJ. Scarlett Thomas, author of "The End of Mr Y", Independent on Sunday

It will make you hug your knees, and rock back and forth saying 'Whoa!' Dazed and Confused

We need to talk about Kelvin

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Look around you... the reflection of your face in a window tells you that universe at its deepest level is orchestrated by chance. The iron in a spot of blood on your finger tells you that out in space there must be a furnace at a temperature of 4.5 billion degrees. The static on a badly tuned TV screen tells you that the universe began in a big bang. In fact, your very existence tells you that this may not be the only universe but merely one among and infinity of others, stacked like the pages of a never-ending book.

Marcus Chown, author of the hugely successful Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You, shows how familiar features of the world reveal profound truths about the ultimate nature of reality. With the aid of a falling leaf, or a rose, or a starry night, Chown makes cutting-edge science clear and meaningful.

His new book will literally change the way you see the world.

UK hardback, US paperback

"Marcus Chown rocks!" Brian May, Queen

"Finest cosmology writer of our day" Matt Ridley, author of Genome

"Smartest, sexiest silver fox award" Christchurch Libraries, NZ



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