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Scientific writing as entertaining as a novel

Update: January, 02/2012 - 16:52

 

Vietnamese-American professor Trinh Xuan Thuan has just concluded a three-week lecture tour nationwide on the launch of the Vietnamese edition of his book The Dictionary of the Lover of the Sky and Stars. Le Quynh Anh spoke to the scientist, who won UNESCO's Kalinga Prize for the popularisation of science in 2009, during his visit to Ha Noi.

Inner Sanctum: Let's talk about the book, which is obviously the main reason for your current visit. How long did it take to write and what is it about?

It actually took me two years to finish this book. It covers various aspects of astrophysics that I love and work on such as the evolution of galaxies, the Big Bang theory, strange and exotic celestial objects. It is written in a way that the general public can easily understand.

The book is organised in the form of a dictionary. If you, as a reader, are interested in the subject "Black Hole", you can go straight to the page about it. You need only to spend about five to ten minutes to know the fundamental facts on a given subject.

The dictionary also talks about the scientists who have made great discoveries in astronomy and whom I admire. For example, I wrote about Albert Einstein, who inspired me to go into science after I read his writings when I was young, and Edwin Hubble, who discovered the expansion of the universe, which forms the basis of the Big Bang theory.

In any case, this is not a book that you need to read from beginning to end, but given your mood and inspiration at a moment, you pick and choose the subject that interests you.

Inner Sanctum: You are fluent in English and French but most of your books are written in French. Is it more comfortable writing in French?

I grew up with the French language. As an adolescent, I studied in the French lycee Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Sai Gon. It is during that period that I developed my philosophical thought by reading such French philosophers as Blaise Pascal and Rene Descartes as well as my literary style by reading great French authors such as Victor Hugo or Alexandre Dumas.

When I write popular books about science, I pay a lot of attention to style. I never use equations. I just describe things in words, and attempt to use metaphors without sacrificing scientific accuracy. I want to write in such a way that a reader thinks he is reading a mystery novel, and not a book about science. I would like him not to want to leave the book until he finds out who is responsible for the crime. After all, scientific investigation is like a detective story. Sherlock Holmes arrives on the scene after the crime has happened, and attempts to gather clues to discover the culprit, just like certain astronomical events happened a long time ago, and the astronomer has to gather clues to reconstruct the past history of the universe.

The sciences are often deemed to be hard and dry but that's not true. You can write scientific concepts in a literary and poetic way and that's what I am trying to do.

Inner Sanctum: One of the topics in the book evolves around the question: What is the place of human beings in the universe? What is your view on this?

I pay a lot of attention to the place of mankind in the universe because after all, it's man who observes the universe and makes theories about it. People used to think that we were at the centre of the solar system but now we know that we are indeed very, very tiny in this huge universe. There are hundreds of billions of galaxies in the observable universe, the Milky Way is just one of them, and each galaxy containing hundreds of billions of stars. So we are certainly not at the centre of the universe. Do we have any role to play at all? I think we have, a fundamental role, that of understanding the universe and comprehending its harmony and appreciating its beauty. The universe has no meaning if there's no observer.

Inner Sanctum: An unexpected high number of students show up at your lectures. Are you surprised by the increasing interest in astronomy?

Well, a little bit but not too much. Even though astrophysics is not taught in Viet Nam and there is no astronomical research institute I think people are always curious, particularly the young, about modern scientific discoveries. Thanks to the internet, young people can now easily access information on astronomy. So I think the reason they attend my lectures is because they want to interact with someone who is an astrophysicist, someone to whom they can directly ask questions about the topics that interest them which they have learned through the internet or media. Furthermore, I think they may view me as a role model because I started my scientific path from Viet Nam.

Inner Sanctum: Do you have plans to write another book?

My latest book The Cosmos and the Lotus was published in Paris in September 2011 and it's actually among the best-sellers in France now. It's the most personal book I've written so far. It describes who I am, what I do and what I believe.

Inner Sanctum: The ‘Cosmos and the Lotus' attempts to create a link between the universe and belief systems, particularly Buddhism. Why did you decide to do this?

Well, because science can't tell us how to lead our life, how to think and to behave in a just manner. It is like a hand that can kill but can also save a life. Whether science is beneficial or harmful to humanity depends on the person who is using it. Science by itself doesn't give us any sense of ethics or morality – that's where belief systems come in. Certainly in my case, Buddhism helps me to distinguish right from wrong, to act and think in a just manner and that in turn helps me to do my scientific work better.

Inner Sanctum: You are not only an astrophysicist, you are also a philosopher. Which school of philosophy do you follow?

I do not follow any particular school of philosophy. I just read and think about philosophy. One of my favourite philosophers is Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza who thought that the harmony of the universe is reflected in the physical laws of nature. I share the same pantheist view. Another favourite of mine is Blaise Pascal, who was a great scientist, yet thought also deeply about religion.

Inner Sanctum: You are fond of art. Who is your favourite artist?

French painter Claude Monet – "the father of impressionism". He spent most of his life exploring the effect of light on landscapes. The way he thought light captured the beauty of nature is close to the way I look at light to get a better understanding of the universe.

Inner Sanctum: You have lived abroad for a long time. When people ask you about Viet Nam, what is the first thing that pops into your mind?

Definitely my childhood, the culture I grew up in and of course the food. My favourite Vietnamese food is cha gio (fried spring rolls), banh com (green riceflake cake) and pho (beef noodle). This trip back to Viet Nam is a good opportunity for me to sample again the vast variety of dishes that Vietnamese cuisine — which I consider one of the best in the world — offers.

Inner Sanctum: Have you ever considered coming back to Viet Nam to work permanently?

I really want to but I am afraid now is not the right time because astronomy in Viet Nam is still non-existent. We don't have a single big telescope. My work necessitates the use of state-of-the-art astronomical instruments, both on the ground and in space. — VNS

* Trinh Xuan Thuan has been a professor of astronomy at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville since 1976 and divides his time between the United States and France. His English-language books include ‘The Quantum and the Lotus: A Journey to the Frontiers Where Science and Buddhism Meet', ‘The Secret Melody', ‘Chaos and Harmony: Perspectives on Scientific Revolutions of the Twentieth Century' and ‘The Birth of the Universe: the Big Bang and after'.

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