I even had a train ticket booked for the 2019 Edinburgh Science Festival but everything got cancelled because of the first Covid lockdown, so it was wonderful to be finally be back In Edinburgh. The event was called the “Sensational Stories in Science”, which hopefully did not raised audience expectations to unrealistic levels! The venue was the fantastically rococo “Voodoo Rooms”, formerly a 19th-century Gin Palace. There was even a giant mirror ball on the ceiling!

I talked about Richard Feynman – who had told my mum physics was not the most important thing; Michael Faraday – who created our electric world – and James Clerk Maxwell – called “Dafty” by his Edinburgh schoolmates yet still managing to be the most important physicist between the time of Newton and Einstein; and Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, who has never got the credit she deserves for writing the most important astrophysics PhD of the 20th century and discovering the identity of most of the ordinary matter of the Universe: hydrogen and helium.

Special thanks to the wonderful Siân Hickson for making the event happen!

Michael Faraday won the equivalent of the Golden Ticket in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” when a man came into the bookbinders where he was apprenticed with a spare ticket for the Royal Institution lectures of Humphrey Davy, the most famous scientist of his day

 

 

Blossom reflected in the fab windows of the Voodoo Rooms

Blurry but atmospheric picture of me on arrival at Edinburgh’s Voodoo Rooms

Susan Morrison, the Titanic-obsessed compère, who, in the Green Room, regaled me with the story of how she had rescued a Chihuahua from being sucked down a vacuum loo on an intercity train

In the early 19th century, electricity was considered Satanic. Luigi Galvani had animated the dead flesh of frogs’ legs with electricity and this inspired Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein ⁦

Bruce Fummey, self-declared “Number 1 on the Gaelic afro-haired stand-up circuit”

I trot out the random fact that island of St Lucia has the highest concentration of Nobel Prizewinners in the world because of Dennis Walcott and Siân Hickson, organiser of “Sensational Stories of Science”, turns out to be his biggest fan and starts quoting his poems!

What a place to withdraw money from a cash machine: Royal Bank of Scotland, Edinburgh

Wahey! They’ve got my books!

A great day in Cheltenham – though it chucked it down with rain! (“It always rains in Cheltenham,” as my wife always says). I had been asked by Calum Smyth of the law firm Wiggin LLP to give a talk to his colleagues, titled “A Tale of Two Technologies”, about electricity – a mature technology that has changed the world beyond recognition and is heavily regulated, and quantum computers – an emerging technology that has the potential, even if it is only partially realised, to change the world beyond recognition, and will in turn require regulation.

Since Wiggin was a law firm, I had wondered about wearing a suit and tie but thank goodness I didn’t because pretty much everyone was dressed casually in jeans and trainers! After tea and cake, I began my talk by remarking on how special it was to be in Cheltenham and only 100 metres from the bus station where my wife’s parents had met in 1958! After my talk, everyone retired to the bar – how many firms have a bar? – with panoramic views of the Cotswolds and Cleeve Hill. Everyone was very friendly and there were lots of good questions.

Michael Faraday, creator of our electrical world, was apprenticed to a bookbinder. He won the equivalent of the golden ticket in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” when a customer gave him tickets to Humphrey Davy’s lectures at London’s Royal Institution

 

The Killer App for electricity was the light bulb. By making possible night-working, it doubled the productivity of the human race

 

 

The long-distance transmission of electricity was achieved by the Serbian Nikola Tesla

 

 

James Clerk Maxwell: the greatest physicist between the time of Newton and Einstein

“From a long view of the history of mankind, seen from, say, ten thousand years from now, there can be little doubt that the most significant event of the 19th century will be judged as Maxwell’s discovery of the laws of electrodynamics.” – Richard Feynman

If there is one thing that encapsulates the madness of the quantum world it is that J. J. Thomson won the Nobel Prize for showing the electron was a particle and his son won the Nobel prize for showing it isn’t! This is how I imagine Thomson family get-togethers

 

It’s 2042. A schoolgirl opens a laptop in her bedroom and sets it her homework problem. The computer splits into zillions of copies of itself, ecah of which works on a strand of the problem. The strands come together and a single answer appears on the screen. On the world’s fastest computer it would have taken longer than the age of the Universe!

“If you imagine the difference between an abacus and the world’s fastest supercomputer, you would still not have the barest inkling of how much more powerful a quantum computer could be compared with the computers we have today.” – Julian Brown

In 1994, Peter Shor galvanised the field of quantum computing by finding they could break the RSA codes by which all financial and internet data is encoded.

Oxford physicist David Deutsch points out that a quantum computer with ~270 “qubits” will be able to do more calculations simultaneously than there are particles in the Universe. He maintains it exploits copies of itself in parallel universes!

Even if a general purpose quantum computer is impossible, there is one thing they can do: simulate a quantum system like a molecule. This is what Richard Feynman envisaged in 1981 and it could still change the world.

There are 3 big obstacles to creating a useful quantum computer: 1) Building the hardware; 2) Finding useful things (algorithms) for it to do; 3) Correcting the (decoherence) errors. 1) and 2) are both hard. But 3) is the hardest

 

Quantum computers make an error (due to decoherence) every ~1 in 100 operations whereas normal computers screw up ~1 in billion. It takes 10-100 “physical” qubits” to error-correct each computing, or “logical”, qubit. No one knows whether error correction can keep up with errors.

 

Quantum computers are doubling the number of qubits every 5 years. But each added qubit also doubles the power of a quantum computer. So, unlike normal computers, whose power grows exponentially with time, quantum computers are growing in power AS AN EXPONENTIAL OF AN EXPONENTIAL To put it another way, after 4 Moore’s law doublings, a conventional computer would be 16 times as powerful. After 4 Moore’s law doublings, a quantum computer would be ~64,000 times as powerful.

 

 

Usually, big companies give money to Caltech for bricks and mortar. This seems to be the first time it has gone into partnership with a company and it underlines the importance of quantum computing

 

They think it’s all over – well it is now: Relaxing with Calum Smyth in the bar at Wiggin after my talk

 

 

Absolutely wonderful to be at a live event again – after more than two years! For The Sunday Papers Live, Cecil Sharp House, near London’s Regent’s Park, is decked out like a living room, with sofas and rugs and standard lamps, and everyone is encouraged to treat it like their home and even wear slippers. The roast dinner they do in the basement is great. But most of all it’s the live entertainment that is so fab. Poetry, music, politics, medicine, cookery… all the things you get in the Sunday papers. The most mind-blowing thing I learnt was that, when slavery was abolished in 1833, the government compensated the slave owners to the astonishing tune of £20 million. It sold bonds to raise the money and the interest on those bonds was paid by UK taxpayers until 2015! So the descendants of slaves had for 182 being been paying the slave owners. Unbelievable.

My part in all this was that I did two Space Walks up nearby Primrose Hill. The idea was to walk a scale model of the Solar System. At the foot of the hill, I held up an orange to represent the Sun – Earth was a peppercorn – and we walked up to the summit, where my wife had earlier chalked a picture of the outermost planet, Neptune, on the path. In fact, she’d chalked all the planets as I paced out the distances. When we got to the top, I asked everyone how far away is the nearest star? 2 kilometres? someone said. Birmingham? The actual answer was Beijing. An orange in London represents the Sun while an orange in Beijing represents the nearest star. It’s a vast and empty universe!

Miming a clue to the crossword we’re doing. No idea what the answer was!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the way to Primrose Hill for my Space Walk

Scale model of the Solar System: Here I am at the bottom of the Primrose with an orange, representing the Sun! We walked to Neptune, the outermost planet, at the top of the hill. My wife had kindly chalked the planets on the path. Thank goodness it didn’t rain and wash them off!

 

“So what is a planet?” someone asked. The definition keeps changing, was my answer!

 

Time for some stand-up poetry as the lights dim in Cecil Sharp House (where they rehearse for Strictly Come Dancing)

10 Things You Need to Know About the Conservatives’ Health & Care Bill Read here

Every bestselling author has been rejected multiple times. Harry Potter was rejected by 15 publishers before J. K. Rowling got her break at Bloomsbury… Here are some of my thoughts on dealing with rejection

1.GALILEO THOUGHT SATURN WAS A PLANET WITH… EARS

Changing views of Saturn (Credit: Damian Peach)

Galileo was a giant in the history of science, discovering among other things that a swinging pendulum keeps perfect time and that bodies, no matter what their mass, fall at exactly the same rate under gravity. But undoubtedly one of his career low-points was when he turned his new-fangled telescope on Saturn and  claimed it was… a planet with ears. The next year he decided planet had two big moons – one on either side. But the year after that the two moons vanished altogether. Galileo died totally baffled. The mystery was only solved 50 years later when Christiaan Huygens made a bigger telescope and realised, correctly, that Saturn was girdled by a system of rings. As Saturn orbits the Sun, rings change their orientation as seen from Earth. When they are edge-on, they appear to vanish altogether. And, when they appear at an angle to the line of sight, they do indeed look like ears.

 

 

 

2.NEWTON WAS BAFFLED BY THE CONCEPT OF A CATFLAP

Probably you know that Newton was famously bad-tempered. Probably you know that he had long-running and bitter feuds with other scientists of his day. But maybe you don’t knowthat he really loved his cat. And, to let that cat in and out of his study, he cut a hole in his study door – a kind of 17th-century cat flap without the flap. But then his cat had kittens. So Newton cut a whole row of small holes, one for each kitten. Can you believe that? Greatest super-genius of all time and he didn’t realise that the kittens could have all fitted through the big hole! (I should say I have read this anecdote in only one place – The Great Physicists from Galileo to Einstein by George Gamow, Dover, New York, 1988).

 

 

 

3. MARIE CURIE’S NOTEBOOKS CAN BE READ AT MIDNIGHT DURING A POWER CUT

Marie Curie’s notebooks are classed as “intermediate nuclear waste” and kept in lead-lined boxes in Paris. It seems her fingers were so impregnated with radium and polonium that everything she touched was too. In fact, if you were to put a photographic plate against one of her notebook pages and develop it, you would see her fingerprints gradually swimming into view.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4. ROBERT BUNSEN BLEW HIS EYE OUT WHILE EXPERIMENTING WITH ARSENIC

Robert was Bunsen was a German chemist who actually didn’t invent the Bunsen burner; he just added a small modification. But, when you’re famous, people name things after you – even if you had nothing to do with them. What Bunsen liked more than anything in the world was experimenting with evil-smelling, noxious, toxic chemicals. He even blew his eye out while experimenting with arsenic. But, even though he lived his life in a fog of offensive vapours, by all accounts the one-eyed Bunsen was a very nice man. He was kind to small animals and children and always gave up his seat to old ladies on the horse-drawn omnibus. In fact, the wife of the famous German chemist, Emil Fischer, said of him: “First, I would like to wash him, then I would like to kiss him, because he’s such a lovely man.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

5.WHEN THE LIGHT FROM FARTHEST KNOWN GALAXY BEGAN ITS JOURNEY TO EARTH, THE UNIVERSE WAS LESS THAN A TENTH OF A PER CENT ITS CURRENT SIZE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6. YOU ARE BORN 100 PER CENT HUMAN BUT DIE 50 PER CENT ALIEN

A whopping 50 per cent of the cells in your body do not belong to you. These are microorganisms including gut bacteria, without which you could not digest your food. You get them from your mother and from the environment and most are acquired by the age of three. In fact, it is worse than this. The microorganisms that inhabit your body have a total of at least 8 million genes whereas the human genome contains a mere 23,000. You therefore have about 400 times as many microbial genes exerting their effect on your body as human genes. You are born 100 per cent human but die 99.75 per cent alien!

 

 

This year is the 150th birthday of my Italian publisher, Hoepli. And Barbara Hoepli, Chairman of the Board, kindly invited me to join the celebrations of this milestone at the Milan Planetarium – which is celebrating its 90th birthday – and give the keynote speech on 11 November. Sadly, despite the heroic efforts of Barbara, Letizia Di Girolamo, Lisa Ceccarelli and others at Hoepli, the Covid-19 pandemic prevented me from travelling from London to Milan. I therefore had to record my talk on “The Voice of Space”, which was broadcast on YouTube after speeches from dignitaries from Milan, Hoepli and the Planetarium. You can see my talk here. It begins at about 40 minutes in.

Barbara Hoepli, Chair of the Board of Hoepli, introduces the 150th birthday celebrations in front of the Planetarium’s Zeiss Projector

HOEPLI-CATALOGO GENERALE 150° 2020

 

Milan Cathedral in the time of Covid

Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Last Supper”

 

 

 

 

Did you feel queasy on 14 September 2015? If you did, it was probably something you ate (!) because the stretching and squeezing caused by the passage of gravitational waves was TINY.

We have yet to detect the gravitational wave equivalent of a baby crying (You’d have to be there to understand where I was going with that!)

The discovery of gravitational waves earnt the 2017 Nobel Prize for three of the scientists involved

Although the discovery of gravitational waves was deemed worthy of the Nobel Prize, some thought it was worthy of the X-Files. According to one man: “They’re building a time machine”!

One arm of the time machine goes to the future, the other to the past.”! (LIGO is amazing but not THAT amazing)

In an instant, 3 times the mass of the Sun vanished and reappeared as a tsunami of tortured space-time, spreading outwards at the speed of light

For some reason we do not understand, there is a “supermassive” black hole in the heart of EVERY galaxy. The race is on to detect gravitational waves from their mergers.

The skin of a bongos, here played by American physicist, are easy to vibrate. But space-time is a billion billion billion times stiffer than steel. That’s why it’s so hard to vibrate and create gravitational waves.

Wave your hand in the air. You have just created gravitational waves (though they are very weak)

Before they passed through the Earth on 14 September 2015, the gravitational waves had been spreading through space for 1.3 billion years

 

 

 

 

I have stood in Trafalgar Square with a solitary pigeon as a man in a yellow high-vis jacket, a Harris Harrier on his arm, patrolled between the sparkling fountains, scaring away birds from non-existent tourists… Read on

The article can also be read at https://www.rlf.org.uk/showcase/miracle-of-the-plague-year/

King Street, Covent Garden

At the finish line on what would have been 2020 London Marathon

At Paddington as ghost trains slide in and out

 

London Zoo

Bond Street

Some shops are frozen in and eternal Easter

Regents Street

Man with Harris Harrier, Trafalgar Square

At Oxford Circus, the traffic lights cycle pointlessly though red, amber and green

Everywhere in Hyde park there are crows, no longer able to take advantage of the street larder of discarded chips and half-eaten burgers

Hyde Park

 

Gerrard Street

Paddington Basin

The National Theatre

The South Bank

St Martin’s Lane

Piccadilly Circus is as empty as the Atacama Desert

Leicester Square

 

 

In Trafalgar Square with a solitary pigeon

My friend Steve Hedges zoologist, BBC producer of Pop Science and one of the two best interviewers I have known.

Fab launch of The Magicians at Daunt Books, Holland Park, London on 20 February. It’s always great to have party when a book is published. You invite hundreds in the hope you won’t be there on your own! Some people RSVP to say they are coming and for various reasons don’t come and others don’t RSVP to say they are coming and turn up. So the mix of people you get is always an amazing surprise!

With Laura, who had faith in, and commissioned, my book!

With my friend Manjit, to whom my book is dedicated. Manjit wrote the brilliant Quantum: Einstein, Bohr, and the Great Debate About the Nature of Reality.

Nettie Baker & Zara Lewis: Always supportive – and always colourful!

The F-Team: Mo, Connor & Laura. Faber is more like a family than a publisher. Where else can you walk into a reception and chat to someone who’s been there 17 years (Michelle) and someone who’s been there 27 years (Lee)?

Linda Bolton’s mum taught me when I was… 6!

Why is it so much more nerve-racking to give a speech to your friends than to an audience of 300 strangers?! (My energetic & enthusiastic agent, Felicity, is raising a glass at the front)

Spectacular flowers sent to me by the Felicity Bryan Agency!

 

 

 

 

 

With Alastair Fischer, co-leader of @NHAparty, and John Lloyd, creator of QI and midwife of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

My mate, Andy Coghlan, from New Scientist