Friday, 15 March 2019 Interview with Comets, Cosmology and The Big Bang author Allan Chapman

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Professor Allan Chapman is a Lion Books author and historian of science at Oxford University, with special interests in the history of astronomy and medicine, and the relationship between science and Christianity. As well as university teaching, he lectures widely, and has written several books and numerous academic articles. He has also written and presented two TV series, Gods in the Sky and Great Scientists, as well as taking part in many history of science TV documentaries and in The Sky at Night with Sir Patrick Moore.

We're delighted to publish his wonderful new book, Comets, Cosmology and the Big Bang, which continues the fascinating story of astronomy on from where Allan Chapman left it in Stargazers!

Here, Allan chats with us about what he hoped to achieve by writing Comets, Cosmology and The Big Bang, his favourite woman astronomer, and where his fascination in astronomy originated.

For those who have not read your book yet, where did you first get the idea for this story? How did that idea evolve into Comets, Cosmology and The Big Bang?

Comets, Cosmology and The Big Bang follows on from where Stargazers left off. Stargazers deals with Europe’s Astronomical Renaissance, 1500-1700, and Comets, Cosmology and The Big Bang takes the story up to the present day, 1700-2000 plus. Much of my professional life has involved researching and lecturing on astronomical history, and the book grew out of my research notes and lectures over many years.

What did you hope to achieve by writing on such a vast and complex subject?

I wanted to bring out the wonderful story of human ingenuity, and how we came to discover the nature and wonder of the universe. In particular, to show how new technologies, such as bigger telescopes, spectroscopes, photography, radio astronomy, space travel, and now digital technology, made all this possible. I also wanted to emphasize the human story as well. For it was people who devised the instruments and used them to make the discoveries. Comets, Cosmology and the Big Bang looks at the lives, struggles, inspiration, and motivation of scores of men and women who made modern astronomy possible.

Your book covers pioneering women who pushed astronomy forward, from Caroline Herschel to the Victorian women astronomers, do you have a favourite woman astronomer?

Yes, Mary Somerville. She really was an inspirational figure by any standard, struggling as a girl in the 1790s against her parents’ fear that science ‘softened’ girls’ brains and drove them crazy, then coping with a first husband who believed that women should confine themselves to domesticity. After his death, however, she married Dr William Somerville FRS, an eminent medical man who was deeply proud of his brilliant wife and did all he could to encourage her. Though she was largely self-educated in science, one Edinburgh science professor admitted that Mary knew more mathematics than he did!

But Mary was also beautiful and proud to be a lady, and not a radical ‘bluestocking’. She was witty, feminine, and charismatic, as well as intellectually brilliant. I have been asked, if I could dine with any of my astronomers, who would I choose? Edmond Halley and Mary Somerville. In addition to serious conversation, the wit, humour, and fun would fly. And Mary knew how to swear! I think that Mary, Edmond and I would have a most merry dinner together.

Have you always been fascinated by astronomy?

I cannot remember not being interested in astronomy and science. As a small boy on holiday at Torquay with my parents, I first saw the moon through a promenade telescope – and I was thoroughly hooked. I could not cadge enough small coins from mum and dad to pay for as many views as I wanted.

Then I made a simple telescope from some old lenses and a cardboard tube on a home-made stand. My dear old granny, who had some funny ideas about the sky, warned my mother about the over-use of this instrument, as (in broad Lancashire dialect) ‘Them ‘ere moon beams will soften Allan’s brain, and ‘e’s daft enough as it is!’ Scientific instruments, trains, steam-engines, home-made guns, a coal-gas-filled airship which never got off the ground, and goodness know what else were all part of the same fascination. I have always been good with my hands, always owned plenty of tools, and made all manner of things. But for my 12th birthday, my parents bought me a small telescope which I still have – and my brain-softening has romped on apace!

What do you most enjoy most about being a writer?

Telling stories, and hopefully, inspiring people. The same applies to my love of popular lecturing and my Oxford teaching. History, after all, is about narrative and stories. And yes, it is imperative that we are critical and accurate in our facts, but the story must shine through. In Oxford, I always say that nobody who works on a daily basis with the brightest 20-year-olds of their generation will ever become a boring old fogey. But in addition, I hope to inspire people of all ages and levels of education – even people who are as ‘daft’ as I am.

Are there any recent developments in astronomy that have piqued your interest?

Where do I start? Scores and scores. But while I am a Neanderthal with computers, I see the digital revolution, which has happened in my own lifetime, as a thing of wonder. For digital technology underpins the whole of modern science, from the Hubble Space Telescope images to the Mars Rover vehicles to amateur astronomy – and on to body scans in medical diagnostics. The digital signal and pixel lie at the heart of modern science and civilisation on every level, from stars to surgery.

What do you think about a potential manned mission to Mars?

I have serious reservations. What would be its real purpose? Scientifically, we are discovering more and more from un-manned craft, and these are improving by the year. And what no one seems to factor in regarding long-haul inter-planetary voyages are the psychological effects. Having people shut up in a spacecraft for the two-year voyage there and ditto back, and living with the same two or three people inside a glass bubble dome on Mars itself, would be unnatural in the extreme.

As I say in the last chapter of Comets, Cosmology and the Big Bang, a space mission in a wholly artificial, cramped environment would make a spell in Dartmoor Prison seem like light relief, where at least you would have fresh air, wind, rain, and sunshine, real food (not re-hydrated mush), exercise, your mates to talk to, enemies to fight with, new faces to relate to, and visitors from the outside world to look forward to. And you might even escape one day!

Interested in learning more about Allan and his new book, Comets, Cosmology and the Big Bang? You can listen to Allan chatting to Premier Christian Radio about his new book here.

Enjoy reading Comets, Cosmology and the Big Bang. Buy your copy here!