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Tech Q&A

Stuart Clark

Describe your latest project.
The Sun Kings pivots on an apocalyptic event that took place on September 2nd, 1859. The telegraph system across the Earth was blacked out by phantom electricity surging along the wires. Offices burst into flame; operators were stunned unconscious and two thirds of the Earth's skies lit up with bright aurorae. Yet no one knew what caused this spectacular show. The only clue was from an amateur astronomer in England, Richard Carrington, who had seen a violent explosion on the Sun the day before: could the two be linked?

For some reason, these true events have been all but forgotten. The more I looked into the newspaper and eyewitness accounts, the more I knew I had to bring this story back to life. How the astronomers of the day investigated and proved that the Sun was responsible forms the narrative thrust of the book. In to this, I weave the lives of the scientists involved and the culture of science during the 1800s.

  1. The Sun Kings: The Unexpected Tragedy of Richard Carrington and the Tale of How Modern Astronomy Began "[W]ell-researched and very well-written....[A] fascinating work for both casual stargazers and serious astronomy buffs." Publishers Weekly
What inspires you to sit down and write?
I love astronomy and its constant stream of new ideas and discoveries. Whenever I hear about them, I want to share my enthusiasm with others, so I sit and write. I also love stories. So, I try to blend the two, recounting factual events in a storytelling style, rather than some kind of dry, educational tract. Nowadays, my work has no educational agenda; I simply seek to entertain people with science. When I say this to academics, they look at me as if I've stepped off another planet.

Also, the older I become the more interested I find myself in the history of astronomy, hence my reason for writing The Sun Kings. By looking at those amazing Victorian astronomers, I can clearly see why astronomy is the way it is today. The echo of their efforts is all around us.

Describe your favourite childhood teacher and how that teacher influenced you.
I recently spoke at the memorial service for my secondary school headmaster. He allowed me to pursue my passions for astronomy and science fiction within the school environment, even though they did not fit comfortably into the school curriculum. He encouraged me to give lectures to the other pupils in assemblies and science lessons about astronomy. It was not just him who gave me the support. I can now look back at many of my teachers and appreciate their efforts.

Have you ever taken the Geek Test? How did you rate?
I'd never heard of them before so I went Googling and took one just for this question. I didn't do very well — much to the surprise of my wife who was waiting for me to score a straight 100%. I only scored 10.25641%, which means I have Geekish Tendencies, apparently. Actually, on second thought perhaps it's a good thing that I didn't score too highly.

Chess or video games?
Well, neither, really. Chess is too much like hard work and video games just seem pointless. I spend so much time thinking whilst I'm writing that in my time off I just want to have fun.

What do you do for relaxation?
I indulge my passion for music. I love rock music and spend my time playing my ever-growing collection of guitars. I've been a fan of Canadian rock group Rush for thirty years now. My dream would be to write a book telling the story of a Rush tour. As for my own musical appearances, I recently appeared at the Minack Theatre in Cornwall, England, playing mandolin. It was a sublime experience and I am booked to play lead guitar in Jeff Wayne's The War of the Worlds back there next year. I cannot wait!

Beyond music, I enjoy travelling, spending time with friends, watching films and reading books. However, my favourite waste of time is with my wife. I use the word 'waste' deliberately to mean that we have no expectations of our time together, we just enjoy being in each other's company.

What's your favourite Blog right now?
Shallow as it may sound, my own at It's nothing ground-breaking or controversial, I just try to fill it with links to my articles and other astronomical things so that my readers can feel they are constantly getting something new from me.

Douglas Adams or Scott Adams?
Douglas Adams because of the way he used words. His work was finely crafted and I respond to that attention to detail.

What was your favourite book as a kid?
I loved the Rev. W Audrey's railway books but the first adult book that really stands out for me was Dune by Frank Herbert. I read it when I was 16 and was totally blown away by the power of the words. It was a revelation to me that printed marks on a page could transport you to a desert planet far, far away and into the amazing culture of the fictional Fremen.

What new technology do you think may actually have the potential for making people's lives better?
Gosh, I don't know. I don't believe in technology as our saviour. I believe in knowledge and tolerance, and I think that comes with exposure to different people and things. So, I'll say any form of technology that encourages free communication.

If you could be reincarnated for one day to live the life of any scientist or writer, who would you choose and why?
Choice overwhelms me but probably Edmond Halley, in 1684, on the day he received 'De motu' from Isaac Newton. In that nine page document was the proof that all orbital motion derived from a single law of gravity and that Earthly motion followed from gravity too. Halley understood the enormity of the task that Newton had undertaken and instantly recognised the genius of the piece. It must have been dizzying to be the fulcrum around which that took place.

Mind you, being HG Wells as he was crafting The War of The Worlds would be astounding as well. Victorian erudition leaves me in awe; they seemed to do it so effortlessly, and so a day in that mindset would be a revelation.

What was your best subject in high school? Your worst?
Mostly science and maths, but I never grew tired of drama. I loved the camaraderie of putting a show together. Interestingly, I never really got on with English because despite being desperate to write stories I could muster little enthusiasm for Jane Austen. In the early days I was interested more in ideas, rather than the beauty of the words. Looking back now, I can see that it took me a long time to develop as a writer — but I'm still not keen on Jane Austen.

What are some of the things you'd like your computer to do that it cannot now do?
The best thing that my computer could do is not go out of date the moment I walk it out of the computer store. That's never going to happen, is it?

Describe the best museum of science and/or industry you've ever visited and what made it great.
The great museums in South Kensington, London; I loved the school visits to the Science Museum and have enjoyed visiting as an adult. Now I think that the Natural History Museum is one of the most inspiring places in Britain, even before you ever get through the gargantuan front door. The architecture is so beautiful, especially when you walk past it at night and see it lit up. It represents a cathedral to human investigation of the natural world.

By the end of your life, where do you think humankind will be in terms of new science and technological advancement?
As a child I hoped to witness astronauts on Mars, now I have just one hope for astronomical science. It is not a small one but I think it is achievable. I hope that physicists will take the next step in our understanding of gravity. By that I mean that they will either detect the mysterious dark matter that is supposed to provide all the extra gravitational pull in the Universe, or they will modify our understanding of gravity so that dark matter becomes unnecessary. There is also dark energy, the latest mystery substance to be explained. I hope to see that explained as well because however they explain it, they will truly revolutionise our view of the Universe. Wouldn't it be great to live through — and write about — such a fundamental shift in our knowledge?

Which country do you believe currently leads the world in science and technology? In ten years?
I think the balance of astronomical science and technology is evenly split across the Atlantic at the moment, with Europe possibly a nose in front. I think the spirit of cooperation and friendly competition between the two continents is healthy and will spur each side to greater things. As for the emerging space technologies of China, Japan and India, they will certainly continue to grow in the next decade. I don't know what to think about Russia at the moment. It is going to be an interesting time.

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