Gribbin, John & Mary: The Science of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials

Intriguing rather than debunking

For someone without scientific aptitude, I have a surprising number of Science Of books on my shelves, mostly to do with TV series, films and superheroes. What they have in common is a dedication to showing how things couldn’t really be done. Which is valuable in its way, but is still rather like cutting open a tennis ball to show there’s no bounce hidden inside. This book by Mary and John Gribbin is wholly and refreshingly different, as it uses Philip Pullman’s series as the starting point for introducing children (and hopefully many adults) to a plethora of important scientific concepts.

The introduction by Philip Pullman rings very true for me. As a child he was fascinated by trips to the Science Museum and by science features in the Eagle, along side Dan Dare’s struggles with the Mekon. But science at school was another world, not least because mathematics was a horrible struggle. Philip Pullman concludes that as a story teller, he loves science for the stories that can be told about it. A genuine scientist loves the subject for itself. So while he has always striven to get his science right, for the sake of the story, he is happy to turn this book over to Mary and John Gribbin, whom he rightly identifies as among the very best writers currently making science accessible to the non-scientist.

They begin with a quote showing that Lyra’s knowledge of science, like that of most of the rest of us, is very patchy.

She knew about atoms and elementary particles, and anbaromagnetic charges and the four fundamental forces and other bits and pieces of experimental theology, but nothing about the solar system.

Which does not bother the Gribbins in the least, as they cheerfully declare “science is explainable magic”. And yes, we do get the famous Arthur C Clarke quote, along with other less well known and equally valid comments by Sir Arthur and various scientists and writers.

What the Gribbins do with this book is follow Will and Lyra’s journey in uncovering the mysteries of Dust and their own universe, explaining along the way the mysteries of our own universe. And as Dust is a particle that cannot be seen with the naked eye, we start with the atom, how atoms stick together to make molecules, how they radiate light in a sodium street lamp among other places, and how analysing light from distant stars enables us to tell what they are made of. In a few short pages, they clear up several confusions I’ve been left with since I abandoned chemistry lessons at the age of the 13, and some things about cosmology that I’ve encountered in news items and magazines without ever fully understanding them.

Such clarification continues as I read on, facilitated by the clear and smoothly flowing writing, as well as the carefully crafted scheme as the book follows the Pullman trilogy. From the stuff of light, we move on to Dark Matter: how and why scientists know it is there and why it’s important, in the same way that Dust is important to Lord Asriel. As the book proceeds, the Gribbins are always quite clear on the distinctions between fact and fiction, and quite happy to enjoy the fiction without feeling the science is in any sense cheapened. I find this is another welcome distinction between this and some other Science of books I’ve encountered.

With consummate smoothness, we move from Dust to the Northern Lights, both in the scheme of the trilogy and in an accessible explanation of the aurorae, which leads naturally and easily into a discussion of magnetism and its associated science. Now I’m clear on some things that have been a puzzle since abandoning physics at 13. Not that this is all ‘hard’ science. With the book Northern Lights being renamed The Golden Compass for the USA, the Gribbins have an ideal lead into a discussion of Lyra’s alethiometer and how it relates to the unconscious mind, with a nod to Sherlock Holmes, and the I Ching (which makes an appearance in The Subtle Knife) and thence to Jung and Freud.

Having already mentioned The Subtle Knife the move to the second book of the trilogy and the concept of many worlds is straightforward. But I do experience a familiar sinking feeling as I encounter the word “quantum”. However, as we move through concepts like radioactive half-life and electrons behaving as both waves and particles, I am immeasurably relieved to learn that Richard Feynman, Nobel prize winner for quantum physics, has declared “nobody understands quantum theory”. By the end of this chapter, with Schroedinger’s Cat making its inevitable appearance I am at least clearer on what I don’t understand, and now feel I am allowed to not understand it, rather than thinking it must just be me being dim. And I feel positively intelligent as I find the next chapters discussing subatomic particles, string theory and chaos theory are wholly intelligible. Naturally, this is down to the Gribbins’ skill as communicators of ideas.

As we’ve covered the “what if” concepts of quantum physics, the move to the world of the mulefa, as visited by Mary Malone inThe Amber Spyglass is another logical, unforced step. In considering how such creatures could arise, we move to evolution and things like the carbon cycle and ecological feedback that I am more familiar with, having done Biology as my compulsory science “O” level. Then the amber spyglass itself facilitates a discussion of polarisation and the manipulation of light. Fascinating stuff.

We return to quantum physics for the final chapter that deals with quantum entanglement and for me, we truly enter the realms of science as magic with talk of real experiments now manipulating photons enabling scientists to teleport information across a couple of kilometres. Wow! But we have not left the world of His Dark Materials behind. The book concludes with a discussion of how entangled the characters of the trilogy have become, across their different worlds. The scientific facts of entanglement finally offer those of us who have revelled in the fiction, the promise that Lyra and Will, as they sit on the same bench, at noon on Midsummer’s Day, in their now separated worlds, will, on one level, always be together.

As a fan of the Philip Pullman trilogy, I find this book an entertaining adjunct to the series. As an adult who took the ‘Arts’ route at school but who has always remained curious about science, I find it an excellent read. As a parent, I encounter all too many laments about the difficulties of interesting kids in science: I reckon this book should get the most reluctant reader intrigued. If I find the secondary school my elder son is going to in September hasn’t got a copy in their library, I shall be buying them one.

This review originally appeared in The Alien Online.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *