In my day job I teach history to teenagers. On one side of my classroom Buzz Aldrin stands sentinel like on the surface moon, flanked by Darwin and the Solar System. On the other, Georgians rub shoulders with Romans and maps of long dead empires compete for space with D-Day. It’s a reflection of my mind and so it has been since I took up my binoculars almost three decades ago. History and Astronomy. Time and Space.
The history of astronomy (and indeed science) is one of the great, inspirational stories of humanity. The long road to rational explanations, the search for our place in the universe, the discovery of laws to direct human endeavours. Now it is a story you can follow through a compelling and beautiful series of books – Dr Stuart Clark’s The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth Trilogy. If the name alone does not make you want to rush off to pick it up, then read on as I talk to the author about his work and tell you a little about each book.
Book one, ‘The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth’, opens in a Europe tumbling out of the deep superstition of the medieval into the turmoil of the 17th Century. Here we meet Kepler and Galileo about to do battle with Aristotelian physics, the church and even those closest to them in their pursuit of the Sky’s secrets.
What was your original inspiration for tackling this project?
These astronomers’ lives were so dramatic, set as they all were against backgrounds of great social change and turmoil that to write about them in story form would do them better justice than purely factual biographies. By dramatising, I could really show the impact of their work on society and the forces acting on them as individuals.
How did you decide on the great astronomers and eras that the three books focus on?
I consider the men in my books to have the greatest brains that thought around the accepted knowledge of their time and overturned it. Essentially, I looked at the development of gravitational theory: so, Kepler, Galileo, Newton and Einstein.
I considered all the names that people know and perhaps would be curious to learn more about.
Some of the great names you wrote about had various unsavoury traits or habits, did you find that difficult to include at times or were you keen for it to be warts and all?
I wanted to convey how human all these people were so I gravitated towards the second, ‘warts and all’. However I did not want the story telling to be lurid or exploitative so whenever there was historical doubt I erred on the side of caution. My aim was to paint plausible characters.
Do you feel that the great leaps in astronomy the books describe required great minds such as Kepler, Newton and Einstein to make them or were these discoveries inevitable?
I think the route science has taken has been driven by great minds. Without these exceptional astronomers, our understanding of the universe would have been arrested. Hopefully, we would have got there in the end but certainly less quickly.
Book two moves the reader to the end of the 17th Century and to England where a more rational and scientific world is being born in the aftermath of Civil War and Restoration, we join Halley, Newton and Hooke as Kepler and Galileo’s legacy begins to bare fruit.
Which of the ‘turning points’ in the astronomy story that you explore do you feel was the most important?
I think each and every one was equally important and none would have happened without its predecessor. But, if you press me then I would have to choose Newton’s work. The man was truly a genius in that he seemed to pluck his inspiration from the air. It still astonishes me that he did what he did on his own.
You explain that some events, people and conversations were inventions of your pen to help the stories along, what do you feel was your biggest fiction?
The spymaster Winslow in the second book: The Sensorium of God. I needed someone to represent authority and the throne changed hands so many times during Newton’s life that I couldn’t use the monarchy. So I Invented Wilnslow to work for each of the kings and queen in turn, in the same way a present day civil servant works for successive governments. Winslow provided continuity.
If you could choose to visit a character or event from your books where would you tell the time machine to go?
I would love to have known both Tycho Brahe and Edmund Halley. I imagine spending an evening with Halley over a glass of good red wine would be an entertaining few hours well spent.
What were the biggest surprises that came up in your research?
So many! A proper understanding of Galileo’s trial; Halley acting as a spy for the monarchy; and the extent of the work achieved by the relatively unsung Belgian cosmologist, Georges Lemaître. And the suffering they endured.
Book three, ‘The Day without Yesterday’, brings us into the more familiar territory of the early 20th century and the dark days of the Great War. Here we meet Einstein and Lemaître puzzling over the Universe, a place that appears at odds with what general relativity is trying to tell them. We are swept from Berlin to the hills above Los Angeles as the sky appears to be revealing the labyrinth and presenting a puzzle far deeper and complex than imagined.
Throughout the trilogy science and religion’s relationship is never far from the surface, did you feel that the religious view of the protagonists became more or less important to their view of the universe as you worked through to the 20th century?
My first three main characters: Kepler, Galileo, and Newton were devoutly religious men, albeit with different ways of interpreting the Bible. Halley I felt was more of a free thinker, less accepting of the doctrine of the time, but not overtly against it either. In many ways he was the model Anglican. When I came to Einstein, he clearly had atheistic tendencies but then Lemaître was not just devout but also a priest. Their religious views, for and against, shaped the way they studied the universe. I had to include all this and, when I did, I found I could perceive their individual motivations more clearly.
Were the similarities between the observatories of Tycho Brahe and Edwin Hubble a pleasing coincidence or one that you always had in mind?
Do you mean the way they were run as a ‘dictatorship’, with everyone eating together in the afternoon? I was always on the lookout for such similarities to help the trilogy to work as a whole. To have noticed such a subtle point conveys what a careful reader you are, Paul!
Which of the characters did you sympathise with the most?
In each book I found myself drawn to one character in particular. In the first it was Kepler, Halley in the second and Lemaître in the third. Each man seemed to embody an essential humanity as well as being a great scientist. I liked them all, but one always finished up being my favourite.
Where next for Dr Stuart Clark the author?
I think I will be revisiting non-fiction for my next couple of projects but I have a couple of ideas banging around in my head for more fiction based on science. I really enjoyed writing the trilogy and it has been warmly accepted. So I would like to continue but I don’t want to jump into the first idea I have. I would like to be convinced that it is something I can really do well. I’m keen to maintain the quality of everything I write. (Dr Stuart Clark March 2013)
My thanks to Dr Stuart Clark for taking part in this interview. He is an astronomer, author and journalist with an extensive catalogue of work to enjoy, both fiction and non-fiction and his website can be found here http://www.stuartclark.com/. He also writes about the cosmos for The guardian which can be seen here http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/across-the-universe.