Can Einstein make you afraid of heights?

Published on Sunday 22nd November 2009 by DJ Kirkby

Can Einstein make you afraid of heights? The answer is yes. Maybe. Well actually it’s ageing that may make you suddenly develop a fear of heights and with good reason. Marcus Chown explains it much better than I can in this video clip:

So yeah, anyway, as I was saying; Einstein (channeled through Marcus) can explain fear of heights ‘in women of a certain age’ (me).

Don’t tell me you didn’t find that video interesting! I don’t believe yoooouuuu….

Marcus also says that we are great big greedy space hogs spreading ourselves out over the planet when we could actually all fit into a space the size of a sugar cube. No really. Watch this video if you don’t believe me.

As fascinating as Marcus’s insights are you may be wondering why I am suddenly sharing them with you. The reason is because Marcus has written a new book called We Need to Talk About Kelvin (ha, ha, geddit? Of course you do, I’m just excited because I actually ‘got’ the joke for a change.), and I’ve got a copy to give away (you lucky, lucky people).

If you would like to read an excerpt from We Need to Talk About Kelvin click here. All you have to do to win a copy of the book is to be the first person to get the most of the following questions correct (yes, you can cheat by watching his videos on YouTube).

1) If all the empty space were squeezed out of matter, the human race could fit in:

a) Wembley Stadium?

b) The area of the Isle of Wight?

c) The volume of a sugar cube?

2) The faster you travel:

a) The taller you get

b) The slimmer you get

c) The lighter you get

3) Einstein’s mathematics professor called him a:

a) lazy possum

b) lazy dingo

c) lazy dog

4) Today’s sunlight was made:

a) 30,000 years ago

b) 300 minutes ago

c) 3 seconds ago

5) The scientists who won the Nobel prize for detecting the faint “afterglow” of the big bang thought they had found:

a) the glow of pigeon droppings

b) the glow of street lights

c) the glow of glow worms

I’ll post the answers and winner on Tuesday evening. Good luck!

If you want more of Marcus challenging theories then you can watch him mess about with the theory of gravity on BBC4’s “It’s only a theory” (with Andy Hamilton and Reg D.Hunter) on Tuesday 24th November at 10pm. Here is a sneak preview for you:

Marcus is published by Faber & Faber. He has two websites, one for his adult books and one for his young readers. He also has an extensive presence on YouTube. If you aren’t lucky enough to win a copy then you can buy your own here, or here.

If you have any questions for Marcus (keep them clean please, I don’t want to have to wash my brain out with soap again), leave them in the comment box and he’ll answer them for you.

Marcus’s next stop on his blog tour will be at Sue Guiney’s blog on the 6th December.

67 comments so far

  • Ooh, eck – a test! And on a Sunday morning. Sorry, DJ but my brain isn't working yet. I'll have to pop back later and see how everyone else has done!

  • So what exactly is this multi-million hadron collider supposed to prove (apart from the fact that we can't make anything to last and by the way who provided the 12 month guarantee)?

  • I'll go with c, c, c, a, c. And I'll console myself with the belief that at least in one of the many parellel universes that I'll have won the book.
    My other self says Hi from New York!

  • Hi Tim
    I expect you'll get most, if not all, the answers correct.

    Hi Caroline
    You make me laugh. And, you ARE my 'best'. So there. xo

    Hi Debs,
    Good mornign to you my dear friend. I don't have a clue what you're talking about but I expect Marcus will!

    Hi Chopper,
    As always, my magnificent husband, you make me laugh. I sort of am half dreading Marcus's answer to your question though because if he rubbishes the 'world is round' theory then I will need to go lie down for a decade or two.

    Hi Troy,
    Thanks for playing along! Hello to your other self. I would have expected your other self to be in Hong Kong but what do I know?I'll le tyou know the answers on Tuesday evening.

  • I'm not going to try to answer the questions but I do have a question about gravity. OK, given the maggots-on-the-trampoline view of it, the maggots are 'attracted' to the bowling ball not because it has it's own gravitational field per se (although doesn't everything to a certain extent?) but because it has caused a dip. Now, without gravity, the maggots wouldn't roll down the dip to the bowling ball, surely? They would just percieve the dip as extra distance because the ball has stretched the fabric of the trampoline – without gravity there would be no falling/rolling… so what then makes them roll down the dip / makes the earth feel a 'pull' from the sun?

    I remain confused…

    by the way, your character identification is 'swinesm' – a bit inappropriate given your recent illness!!!

  • I'm going for c c c b b.

    How did I do???

    I have no intelligent questions this morning (it may be 12.30 but it's still morning to me). I'll be back if my pregnancy brain will let me think of anything clever 🙂

  • Troy Junior's answers are c,c,a,a,b (he hasn't got his own google sign-in). Mrs Troy goes with c,c,b,a,b.
    (Of course a cynic might assume I'm having 3 goes at winning the book).

    PS-are you all still there? I just ask because I've just given a horse a sugar lump without checking it first!

  • Hi Sparxs,
    You ARE a clever woman. Can't wait to see what Marcus has to say, wish I could think of a possible answer. I'm feeling a bit stupid here. As for the word veri well it is a bit spooky how frequently it picks up on the recent posts and comments and creates a similar verification.

    Hi B
    I'll le tyou know hwo you did on Tuesday eve, good luck to you! I meant to say that it would an interesting project for you to make note of your pregnancy dreams as they would provide excellent writting fodder for the future.

    Hi Troy
    A cynic? Me? Your PS is v v v v funny by the way!

  • Bugger the test… that bastard drowned the rest of the human race just to put some sweetness in his cuppa!!!!

    He should be made to watch John Best's videos for the next 20 years!!!!


  • Hi Sue
    I know and I think that Marcus would enjoy your novel 'Tangled Roots'!

    Hi David
    Now that did make me laugh! Not sure who John Best is though. Must go find out.

  • Still not remembering any dreams at all! I only rarely remember dreams and haven't been aware of dreaming at all since finding out I was pregnant. I wonder if that will change as I go through my second and third trimesters?

    It's funny – I've gone really insular since being pregnant and have little or no interest in documenting anything at all – which is a shame I know! I'm going to try and make myself 🙂

    Anyway, I'll be back Tuesday if not before to see how I've done 🙂

  • Hi Debs
    You and me both! Good luck.

    Hi Maddy,
    It'll keep him busy thinking, that's for sure.

    Hi B,
    I became even more insular when pregnant, yes such a thing is possible. My dreams surfaced mostly in the 3rd trimester when the quality of sleep changes dramatically. Less sleep periods then but very deeply restful nontheless.

  • hello, I've returned – I don't know why I've not been here for so long. You're now clamped to my sidebar so I can make a better job of staying in touch (as if FB and Twitter weren't enough – you'll be sick of me soon)

    I can't do science stuff

  • Dear David,

    Sorry about drowning the whole human race! Don't you think it's amazing that 99.9999999999999 per cent of the volume of ordinary matter is empty space, so that, if you could squeeze all the empty space out of the matter that makes up the human race, it would literally fill the volume of a sugar cube? We are all ghosts – yet, oddly, it doesn't feel like it at all!

    Best wishes,

    Oddly enough it was exactly 100 years ago in 1909 that Ernest Rutherford discovered the incredible emptiness of atoms.

  • "Now that did make me laugh!"

    Good 😉

    "Not sure who John Best is though."

    Keep it that way … it's harmful to mental health!

    "Must go find out."


    Oh well… make sure your mental health insurance is up to date 😉

  • Dear Chopper (Hope that isn't your real name!),

    I think we can be pretty sure the Earth is round! Ships dip over the horizon at sea long before they dwindle to a speck; the shadow of the Earth cast on the Moon during a lunar eclipse is curved; you can fly or sail around the world; and of course we've seen pics of the Earth from space and it looks round!

    Best wishes,

  • David
    John Best the orchestra percussionist? Which? G'wan throw your John Best at me, I can take it. And another thing; are you on twitter yet?

  • There's a problem here . . .you do not have a "none of the above" box.

    For example, in Question 4:
    4) Today’s sunlight was made:

    a) 30,000 years ago

    b) 300 minutes ago

    c) 3 seconds ago

    The sun is 93,000,000 miles from us. Sunlight moves toward earth at the rate of 186,000 miles per second. Therefore, the journey takes roughly 500 seconds, which is not one of your choices.

  • Dear Debbie,

    In order to get the funding to build the LHC, the physicists said it might find 2 main things.

    1) Is the Higgs particle. This is a hypothetical subatomic particle that endows matter with "mass". The idea is that unseen Higgses crowd all of space and, just like a crowd at a football match, impede motion through them. So, when you try and push your fridge and it's hard to budge, it's because of all the Higgses you're pushing it through – they act a bit like treacle!

    2) Concerns the mysterious "dark matter" that appears to outweigh the visible stars and galaxies by about a factor of 6. It gives out no light but we know it's there because it's tugging on the visible stars and galaxies. One idea is it is made of hitherto undiscovered subatomic particles. The lightest one is called the "neutralino".

    So the LHC is hoping to find the neutralino and the Higgs. But the most exciting thing is that it will discover something that nobody expects, which is what these kind of experiments have done historically.

    Best wishes,

  • @Marcus:
    "Sorry about drowning the whole human race!"

    I'll overlook it this time… don't be letting it happen again! Well… having said that… wouldn't it be good to have some people turning into small dimensionless pieces of condensed matter?!

    "Don't you think it's amazing that 99.9999999999999 per cent of the volume of ordinary matter is empty space, so that, if you could squeeze all the empty space out of the matter that makes up the human race, it would literally fill the volume of a sugar cube?"

    I find it both amazing and bloody scary! This was one of the lovely things about physics that I loved, actually (my major was in applicable psychology, but I have a minor in mathematical sciences – which includes physics, of course!). There's a lot of things in physics that is not only amazing but … well, gives most folk vertigo! 😉

    "We are all ghosts – yet, oddly, it doesn't feel like it at all!"

    Indeed. What always used to enthrall me was that, with all that space between the elementary particles in atoms, the very act of sitting on a chair could lead to unfortunate consequences but for the fact that the bonds between them – all these lovely forces – have such phenomenal intensities when considered in aggregation. Physics… the most fun you can have with your clothes still on!

    "Best wishes,

    You too, man!

  • Dear John,

    You are right that sunlight takes just over 8 minutes to travel from the Sun to the Earth. But the question is asking "when was it made" not when did it leave the "surface" of the sun. It was made in the core of the sun. So it had to 1) work it's way from the core to the surface, then 2) fly from the surface to the Earth. You've overlooked 1). I assure the answer is one of those 3!

    Best wishes,

  • @DJK:
    "Lol again! Went to find John Best and the first hit is horse racing? WTF?"

    That would probably be him. He's addicted to gambling on horse races. He hates autistic people, and wishes we did not exist. Why? Because we fuck up his chances of stiffing a major pharmaceuticals company who – according to him – "invented autism in 1931"!

    You might want to, along with DJK here, check out the 'scientific writings' of this John Best Jr… here!

    It's called "john Best's Greatest Hits" but I can't help thinking there's an 's' missing from that title somewhere…

  • @DJK:
    "John Best the orchestra percussionist? Which? G'wan throw your John Best at me, I can take it. And another thing; are you on twitter yet?"

    JBJr's a cranial percussionist – a head-banger. I've posted a link to JBJr's greatest… whatevers…

    Twitter… nah … I'm totally clueless on most of these modern IT things… I like simplicity as I understand it. Fewer migraines 😉

  • @DJK:
    "I went and read the post. Meh…I keep forgetting people like him still exist."

    Yeh… maybe if we ask Marcus nicely, he'll organise an all expenses paid trip for JBJr to the LHC in Switzerland… and then have the bastard shoved into the fuckin' thing!

    We're asking… really nice and stuff! 😉

  • David
    I think he's pretty much an unstoppable force, sort of nuclear only much less harmful and easier to ignore. I'm going to do just that and also be very thankful that he is not my father.

  • @DJK:
    "I think JBJr's pretty much an unstoppable force, sort of nuclear only much less harmful and easier to ignore. I'm going to do just that and also be very thankful that he is not my father."

    I'm of the same opinion. Especially on the issue of attitudes towards him as a dad.

    Excellent slogan! I dare you to post it on the turd's own blog 😉

  • I am having a hard time getting my comment in here. It keeps giving me error messages. So if you get it more than once well then blame it on cyber space. One of the clips I cannot view. Says not available in my country. Does that mean we are out of the sugar cube realm. This stuff confueses me and makes me feel so unbright.

  • OMG….that made my head hurt!!! I've asked Chris and he reckons

    2.c. (Sod the diet….I'm going to travel by high speed train!! What do you mean that won't work?? *sigh*)

    C x

  • Hi Aunt Nenny
    I don't know why you can't view one fo the clips in Canada. Which one? The last one? That's about a TV show over here that Marcus is going to be on next week.

    Hi Carol (and Chris)
    Thanks for joining in and good luck! I'll post the answers on Tuesday eve.

  • Dear Deej,

    I believe the BBC has blocked i-player from working in the US and Canada (and possibly outside the UK). That's probably why some can't see the BBC "It's Only A Theory" video clip.

    Best wishes,

  • I'm going with c,b,c,a,b. I dunno, I'm no scientist.

    Best has been banned from most decent Lists, blogs, and organizations, even Generation Rescue, Age of Autism, and Evidence of Harm. He's such an arse even they won't have him!

    You're lucky if he hasn't come to pester you with his "poisoning our babies!" nonsense.

    Interesting verification here – whatard.

  • Marcus – thanks for the answer but waaaahh! I don't UNDERSTAND!!!

    OK, yes I know that gravity is a warp in space time – or at least, I've seen it written before and attempted to ingest it into my limited-capacity brain pan.

    So, this warp, this dip in space time – logically the fabric is simply stretched. Without some sort of force there is no attraction, no falling, no speeding up of the rate at which one body falls towards another…

    I mean, I know I ought to believe it because lots of intelligent people understand it but I have to say I don't understand what it is that makes that warp appear to cause an attraction.

    Just be glad you're not trapped next to me at a dinner party…!

  • Hi Clay,
    Good luck results will be posted on Tuesday evening. i fear that the man who should not be mentioned will be round pestering me soon-ish now that his name has been splashed recklessly over the comments on this post. Eeeek.

    Hi lane,
    Thanks for joining in and good luck. Results will be posted Tuesday eve. You've never had a science elsson? Science was the one thing that made me realise that High school could be an interesting place to be! Science classes lit up my life.

    Hi JJ
    So glad I could be of help. How is your husband now? Must get round your blog for an update as the last I'd read he had come home sick.

    Hi Angelia
    Enjoy! And then get back to writing!

  • (Wow, interesting! Thanks DJ for having Marcus.)

    Thanks Angelia! (And Thanks DJ!)

    BTW, I write my books for my wife, who is a nurse and has no science background (apart from medical, of course!). If her eyes glaze over and she starts yawning when I'm trying to describe something, I throw away the explanation and start again. Although all kinds of people read my books, I particularly aim my books at people who DON'T have a science background – but are just interested in the world around them.

    Best wishes,

  • Here are my theories which considering I failed science at school (much to my science degreed father's dismay) will probably be wrong but here goes. I have shown my workings out too 🙂

    1c) because you mentioned it earlier

    2b)I dont really get this question but I figure no one gets taller past 18 they just start shrinking and my boyfriend is training for a marathon and he is getting heavier through muscle but he is getting thinner by running!!

    3)c) the other 2 sound australian and so i kinda cheated by looking to see if his teacher was australian lol

    4)a its quite far away isnt it so must take a while to get to us unless it has some saved up in which case it could be the other 2.

    5)C) gotta go with the glow worms. i dont know why but it just sounds better than the other 2 and is probably the weirder of the 2 theories and well science is weird innit!!!

    Great post and thanks for the reminder on my blog 🙂

    I hope I win this and I can prove to my dad im not a thicky at science and what not and that all the work i copied off my friend in science class actually went in my brains!!

  • Dear LilyS,

    Thanks for entering.

    Sorry about the Aussie references! I have no Australian connection (though I went there this year to a Literary festival – and loved it). However, over the past year or so, publishers have asked me to set quizzes for dfferent countries. I have tailored them to South Africa, NZ, Canada etc. It just so happens I left in some Australian references from an Australian quiz. Well spotted!

    Best wishes,

  • @Marcus:
    "I write my books for my wife, who is a nurse and has no science background (apart from medical, of course!). If her eyes glaze over and she starts yawning when I'm trying to describe something, I throw away the explanation and start again."

    An excellent position to write from! This is what I do as well, in my writing. After more than ten years of living in Finland and using English as my main language (authorities never provided me with a language training course, and a great many Finns like to speak English with me!), I've mastered the art of making complex ideas fairly simple, and it is not an easy thing to do, so… well done on being able to do that!

  • cacaa I think, though the age of sunlight is a new one on me. I initially thought, as have others, that it was 8 minutes, which isn't available as an option, but I've seen the responses to that.

    And I haven't stooped so low as to do any actual research!

  • Hi Lily
    Thanks for joining in and good luck! Answers tomorrow evening.

    Hi Maureen,
    Lol! Yes, good thing 🙂 but, do you feel older since you did?

    Hi Rob,
    Nice to see you here. Thanks for entering your answers and good luck!

  • Clue: Sunlight has a very hard time working its way out from the centre of the Sun to the surface. If it was unhindered it would travel in a straigt line and take only 2 seconds. However, it is tremendously hindered by the matter of the Sun which gets in its way. Think of having to fight your way through a dense crowd of people. You'd have to zig-zag your way and it would be very hard going. That's the way it is for sunlight trying to get out of the sun. There are so many obstacles it has to zig-zag all over the place before finally emerging and flying that last 8 minutes across space to the Earth.

    Best wishes,

  • Hiya DJ,
    my answers are cbcaa and if I'm wrong I'm prepared to argue! 🙂 As a physicist, I never could work out why lecturers insisted there was a big bang. They just told me I was wrong.

    I keep meaning to make time to keep in touch, but the publisher Wiley wants me to write a book about AS, so I've got no time, again. Will try harder,

    the Goth

  • Hello and what an honour to have The Goth here on my blog! That's really made me grin. Hurry up and write that book, I'm looking forward to buying a copy. I'll post the comp answers up tonight, god luck 🙂

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