Katie Mack has made two unexpected hits with her new book, The end of everything (In terms of astrophysics). At first, she writes about the end of the universe with glee that doesn’t really depress it. And second, she learned concepts of cosmology, string theory, and quantum mechanics and made them accessible. This gift of frank talk will be familiar to Mack̵7;s 360,000 followers of Mack’s Twitter feed – @AstroKatie – through which the 39-year-old cosmologist and assistant professor at North Carolina State University has has become one of the most popular voices in science.
Why would you want to write about the end of the universe?
There are many books about the beginning. I’ve read some of those books, and I’m fascinated by the question of where do we come from. But there are very few books about the ending. So I want to explore the other side. And I like the idea of studying the ultimate destruction of reality; I just think it’s a great thing to be able to learn.
The book presents five theories about how it might happen – and you think the most likely of these is heat death. Can you explain what will entail?
Heat death… well, in some ways it would be the saddest ending possible. I find people really sad when you talk about it. Our universe is currently expanding and the way the expansion takes place is that the space between structures like galaxies and clusters of galaxies becomes larger. And in about 100 billion years, other galaxies will be so far away from us, moving away from us so fast that we won’t be able to see them anymore.
That is the first stage. And over time, the universe became more and more empty. So you’ll end up in this cold, empty universe, in which the only thing around is a small amount of background radiation, which is essentially the waste heat of the universe. That’s why it’s called thermal death, because everything has been so much decomposed and all that’s left is this turbulent radiation and that’s actually the waste heat of all processes. of the universe.
You’re right, that’s bleak.
It really is like that. I’ve had sessions where I have to talk about dying from the heat, and I’ve seen people holding their heads in their arms in the front row and looking as if they’ve lost all hope in the world. I did a few podcasts for kids and one time I was explaining about heat death and the host stopped me and she said, “I don’t think this is suitable for children.” . And I said, “Oh no!”
Your lecture inspired a song – No plan – by the Irish musician Hozier. Was that an unexpected development for you?
Oh yes. I never thought I would be named in a pop song. It is not one turn out song, but yes, that’s not what I predicted when I started learning physics in school. So we’ve been following each other on Twitter for a while now and I guess that’s how he found my video online. And when he sings that song on stage – people sent me the video – he sometimes introduces two minutes of cosmology and actually explains the process of thermal death and how it works. it. It is very strange.
So, isn’t he worried about saddening his audience?
Well, if you get used to his lyrics, he writes about a lot of very, very tragic, heartbreaking things. So that’s a bit of his wheelhouse, I’d say.
Why do you think you’re famous on Twitter?
It happens gradually: I’ve been on Twitter for 10 years, and over time I’ve discovered it’s actually a really good means to talk about physics in a very compact and accessible way. And a few times I’ve had a viral tweet, and that, of course, a lot. So I had a talk with a climate denier at some point ending up on this list of mansplainer crashes. I didn’t intend to, but it got a lot of attention.
For those of you who haven’t seen it, your tweet is an answer to someone who suggested you learn some “practical SCIENCE” and read: “I don’t know, man, I went and got my degree. It seems that more than that will be overkill at this point. ”Didn’t JK Rowling write that it“ validates forever ”Twitter’s existence?
Well, that’s certainly a huge boost to my following: I think that week I went from 40,000 to 80,000.
In the book you mention that Stephen Hawking was very influential. What about his work resonated with you?
I found that when I was 10 years old and it resonated because it was all weird, amazing stuff. The idea of black holes and space and time travel, big bang … these are all topics that make your brain a headache when thinking about them. After that, I met him a lot because I was at Caltech [California Institute of Technology] is a college student and he will visit Caltech quite often. Then when I was in Cambridge [University]I have an office near him, so I’ll see him every time. He went to a talk that I once said, which is a myth.
Is that scary?
Yes, because he poked me! So, technically, he didn’t mean to. I’ve only been in Cambridge for a month, and I was nervous because I was giving a presentation about primitive black holes, which is the idea that Stephen Hawking was one of the first to give birth to it. And when I started my talk, I came up with this slide of title and this mechanical voice saying, “Thank you.” I think maybe he was joking about how he came up with this idea and everyone laughed and I continued. Then during the conversation, sometimes, he just interjects something like “Yes!” Or not! “Or” I don’t think so. “And I just looked at him and he said nothing.
So at the end of my talk, I asked someone what was going on. And it’s a lunchtime seminar and the way his voice synthesizer works is that it has this little thing looking at his cheeks and he will choose words by winking. And it seemed to be malfunctioning when he ate. So his cheeks are on the move and it is picking random words from this Quick Select menu: thanks; It’s correct; Is not; maybe. No one warned me and I was a grad student and I was scared. This is my hero in the audience and he is celebrating my seminar. So “discouraged” is a good word for that.
There’s been an eight-way bid war between publishers in the US for your book. Does this indicate a desire to read science books on complex topics?
Yes, I think it’s great that people read physics books for fun. I’m glad that’s what we do. Humans are a curious species, we want to understand everything. And I like that about us.
What’s next? How do you track the end of the universe?
That’s the problem, I chose the wrong topic. Do I write the prequel? Reboot?
• The end of everything (In terms of astrophysics) by Katie Mack published by Allen Lane (£ 20). To order a copy, visit Guardianbookshop.com. Free p & p in UK over £ 15