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Tech Q&A

Brian Clegg

Describe your latest project.
It's a book called The God Effect, and it explores the weirdest phenomenon in all of science, quantum entanglement. This is an amazing connection that can be set up between two particles. Once they are entangled you can take them to opposite sides of the universe, and a change in one particle will be instantly reflected in the other. It's so strange that when Einstein realized it should be possible, he tried to use it to prove that quantum theory was flawed, as he couldn't believe in such a "spooky connection." For once, Einstein was wrong.

It's not just that entanglement is unexpected that makes it fascinating. This is no interesting but pointless theory. Over the last few years, scientists have developed amazing applications of entanglement. It can be used to generate a totally unbreakable code, it's essential to build the ultimate computer, which would be able to solve otherwise impossible problems that make finding a needle in a haystack trivial, and has even been used to teleport particles across a room, Star Trek fashion. And that's just the beginning. Scientists have speculated that entanglement could be responsible for telepathy, may be essential for the formation of life and could be the mechanism of a strange particle called the Higgs boson, often dubbed "the God particle" which is thought to give everything mass. If entanglement could ever be used to communicate instantly, it could even send messages backwards in time.

I wanted to write about entanglement because it is just so strange and wonderful — there really is nothing else like it — and because the ways it will be used are going to impact all our lives.

What inspires you to sit down and write?
I can't resist it. I've been writing just for the sake of writing since I was a child — you maybe need to ask what stops me sitting down and writing.

Specifically what inspires me to write about science is a sense of wonder. It has always seemed so sad that many people are turned off by science, because it ought to be thrilling — after all, it's about how the universe works. Popular science does a superb job in giving science back to the people. I did a talk based on one of my books a while ago, and a guy came up to me afterwards and said "I've never been to a lecture before. I didn't go to university or anything. I was just looking for something to do this evening and I spotted it in a listings magazine. It's really inspired me, and I'm going to start coming to these lectures regularly." That's the sort of response that makes science writing worthwhile.

Describe your favorite childhood teacher and how that teacher influenced you.
It was a math teacher in high school. He was young — not that much older than us, really — and he had so much enthusiasm. For him math was all about challenge and puzzle-solving and fun, not dull calculations. And he was prepared to go out of his way to help. If you didn't understand something, and really wanted to know, he would bring in different books, would look for different ways to explain it until it became clear. I guess he showed me just how much difference it can make if you have enthusiasm for a subject, and can turn it into something enjoyable.

Have you ever taken the Geek Test? How did you rate?
I hadn't until you asked, but now I have, and I came out as basic no frills geek with 17.15976%. The fact I had to go and try it implies a certain geekiness, as it shows curiosity, and that seems to be a strong geek concept. Also, I confess that my favorite character in Buffy the Vampire Slayer was Willow — that probably says it all.

Chess or video games?
Video games every time. (I don't play them much any more, but in the early days of X-Wing and the like I played for hours.) I just don't have the patience for chess. I want more action, without having to think so far ahead. I suspect that's why I went into writing about science, rather than doing it!

What do you do for relaxation?
Sing. I love singing sixteenth/seventeenth century church music — it might sound dull, but it's anything but. It somehow manages to be both exciting and relaxing at the same time. One of the great things about this music is that, though the composers knew the musical rules, they didn't always take much notice. So you get amazing "gasp moments" where you think "he can't do that!" But he can, and does, and gets away with it, sending tingles down your spine. That wouldn't happen again in music until people like Stravinsky came along.

What's your favorite blog right now?
I'm not a great follower of blogs, just as I tend not to read published diaries. It just doesn't appeal. I like more polish in the finished results. I'd say it was similar to preferring professional TV (drama or documentary) to reality TV.

Douglas Adams or Scott Adams?
Pretty well evenly matched. Douglas Adams was brilliantly imaginative, and when the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy first met the light of day as a radio show, I remember I was recording it to listen again using a microphone, and had to stuff a cushion into my mouth to stop my laughing from drowning it out. Having worked in a large company for a good while before I launched into writing books, it's impossible not to delight in Scott Adams' accuracy — his barbs hit home every time. I think he loses focus when he tries to do philosophy, but Dilbert is essential reading.

What was your favorite book as a kid?
Do I have to have just one? When I was young it was Tom's Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce: it's spellbinding. Later on I'd have to go 50/50 between Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes and Alan Garner's The Owl Service — very different, but both utterly brilliant works of fantasy.

What new technology do you think may actually have the potential for making people's lives better? The obvious answer is in medical science, but one area that doesn't get anywhere near as much attention as it deserves is battery technology. It's the weakness of today's batteries that restrict what you can do with practically any device, whether it's a cell phone, a laptop or an electric car. A new generation of batteries could transform everyday lives.

What was your best subject in high school? Your worst?
I enjoyed physics most, but was probably better at chemistry. English I enjoyed too, which at the time didn't fit too well with the science, but it's the combination I've ended up working in. My worst subject, as far as results went, was history, which is odd because I loved it. History fascinates me, and popular science almost always has a historical element. The trouble I had at school is that I'm hopeless at remembering dates and all the other trivia that you have to regurgitate to do well in the tests.

What are some of the things you'd like your computer to do that it cannot now do?
Never keep me waiting, find things when I want them and the way I want them and to have an immense screen, the size of a real desk, that I can fling my electronic documents around on.

Describe the best museum of science and/or industry you've ever visited and what made it great.
It has to be the Natural History Museum in London. Forget what's in it (though I do remember being awed by the dinosaur skeletons when I was young), it's just the most incredible building.

Which country do you believe currently leads the world in science and technology? In ten years?
At the moment it's the United States. The US has superb facilities and great talent. But there's a danger of not spending enough on research, and restricting the directions science is allowed to go in. If that continues, then in ten years' time it could just as easily be China.

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