Don's diary: taking the quantum world to taxi drivers

June 13, 2003

Week 1: Friday
Today is the official launch day of my new book, Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed , a layman's guide to the mysterious quantum world.

To mark the occasion I am invited to give a lecture at the Royal Institution. I love the tradition of these Friday Evening Discourses, started in the early 19th century by Michael Faraday.

My lecture runs over the strict one-hour duration by 43 seconds. I am told this is very good. The event is slightly daunting for my wife, Julie, as I forgot to warn her that she would have to lead a procession into the lecture theatre and sit on a "throne" at the front throughout.

All 40 copies of my book are sold after the lecture. Things are going well.

Having stayed the night in a hotel close to the Royal Institution, we decide to make a day of it in London. Spend half the day shopping on Oxford Street. No sign of my book on the shelves. Maybe they have all sold out in a matter of hours.

Week 2: Thursday
My university bookshop agrees to do a window display for the book. It is good that I know the manager; he bumps whatever was scheduled for that window to a later date. Now all I have to do is convince all my students to buy a copy.

I agree to give a live interview on Talk Sport Radio about the book and all things quantum. I am told the audience on a Saturday evening is about a quarter of a million, comprising students and taxi drivers. I am clearly going to have to dumb down what I say to an amoebic level, although I am sure the taxi drivers will be able to follow it just fine.

The interview goes surprisingly well. Although this is not Radio 4, the two hosts of the show are keen to listen. I tell them quantum theory began 100 years ago with an idea by the German physicist Max Planck.

They think I am joking. I have never thought of his name as funny, but I see their point.

Glad I did not describe the well-known Focker-Planck equation (I remember thinking as student that it sounded quite painful). Anyway, I manage to get in a good plug for the book.

Keen to look up my book on Amazon today to see if a quarter of a million taxi drivers (and students) have rushed to buy a copy. Alas, it is still languishing just outsidethe top 25,000. Never mind, it's early days yet.

Week 3: Wednesday
With the book breaking into Amazon's vertiginous top 2,000, my publishers have arranged for me to give a talk at the Hay-on-Wye Book Festival. It goes well. Afterwards, I give my first official autograph to a lad who promises to buy the book, but would like me to sign his programme nevertheless. My own kids are harder to impress however - they point out Terry Pratchett's mile-long book-signing queue.

Sitting in on other talks, I note that every speaker is unashamedly flogging his or her latest book by waving it around on stage like some Wild West quack with a wonder cure. I am clearly not yet wise in the ways of authorship.

Back to work and reality: research grant applications and board of examiners' meetings. It may not be glamorous, but I am among friends.

Jim Al-Khalili is a theoretical physicist and senior lecturer, University of Surrey, Guildford.

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