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What Everyday Objects Tell Us About the Universe

Why your reflection is a matter of chance, or how to fit everything that ever existed on a USB stick.

We recently raved about an excellent article about the early history of the universe, quantum reality and the origins of information. Turns out its author, California Institute of Technology astronomer and New Scientist cosmology consultant Marcus Chown, didn’t stop there.

His new book, The Matchbox That Ate a Forty-Ton Truck, offers a fascinating anthology of wisdom bites about the universe gleaned from everyday objects.

Today, we sit down with Marcus to probe into some of the book’s peculiar contentions and quench our curiosity about just how one comes to see quantum theory in bananas.

If the Sun were made of bananas it wouldn’t make much difference


How did the inspiration for the book come? Was it a single “a-ha!” moment, an encounter with a particular mundane object that gleaned surprising revelation about something much larger, or was it more of a buildup of insights?

Marcus Chown: While doing publicity, I tend to latch onto everyday observations and relate them to deep physics. Recently, I wanted to highlight the paradox that spawned quantum theory. So I drew people’s attention to a light bulb and pointed out the light waves coming out are about 5000 times bigger than the atoms. “Say, I opened this matchbox”, I said, “and out drove a 40-tonne truck. That’s what it’s like for light streaming out of that light bulb.” And one day, a light bulb did go on in my head. I thought, why don’t I write a book about what everyday things tell us about the Universe?

Tea cups break rather than unbreak because the universe is expanding in the aftermath of the big bang


What’s your favorite mundane-object-turned-quantum-oracle?

MC: It still amazes me that something as mundane and everyday as your face reflected in a window tells you about the most shocking discovery in the history of science — that the universe is founded on random chance, the roll of a quantum dice, that ultimately things happen for no reason at all. Einstein was so appalled by this that he famously declared “God does not play dice with the Universe”.

The irony is that not only does God play dice but, if He did not, there would be no universe of the beauty and complexity we find ourselves in.

Reflection in a window shows that universe based on random chance
Marcus Chown, Serpentine, London, January 2007. Image by Jorn Tomter


Historically, humanity’s beliefs about the universe have regularly turned out to be tragicomically misguided. With what degree of certainty do you foresee the ideas outlined in your book surviving the test of time and scientific evolution?

MC: Well, of course, science is provisional. It is the best description we have of the world at this moment in time. Scientists are always looking for observations that will falsify their theories in their quest to lay bare ever deeper layers of reality. But, even though we know Einstein’s theory of gravity, for instance, is not the last word – because it breaks down inside black holes and in the big bang — we know it contains profound truth. And that’s what I think about the ideas in my book. Most are likely to be modified and extended in the fullness of time but they nevertheless contain a large amount of truth.

You could fit the information for a million universes on a 1Gb flash memory


Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences is a favorite here at Brain Pickings, and a recent New York Times article outlined a similar theory of differences in creative capacity. Do you think this associative ability to look at the mundane and extrapolate the omnipotent is a unique kind of mental wiring, a mark of scientific genius shared necessary for groundbreaking discovery and shared by history’s most iconic scientists? Or is it something we can learn to do?

MC: Of course, this is what scientists do. They try to tease out the general, unifying principles which underlie as wide a range of phenomena as possible. Darwin, for instance, in one of the greatest strokes of genius in history, saw the driving principle — evolution by natural selection – that was generating the bewildering complexity of the natural world. This kind of thing – extrapolating from the specific to the general — is very hard. But I don’t believe it is special to geniuses (I don’t think much is special to geniuses!). Anyone can learn. It’s just that most of us don’t practice much!

The iron in your blood was created in stellar explosions like this one, NASA

To test yourself against some of the surprising factoids and curiosities in The Matchbox That Ate a Forty-Ton Truck, take a stab at this quiz, answers below. For more about the how’s and why’s of the answers, do grab a copy of the book — we guarnatee you won’t be disappointed.

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

  1. Wembley Stadium?
  2. The area of the Isle of Wight?
  3. The volume of a sugar cube?

2. Einstein famously said:

  1. God does not play roulette with the Universe
  2. God does not play dice with the Universe
  3. God does not play poker with the Universe

3. The faster you travel:

  1. The taller you get
  2. The slimmer you get
  3. The lighter you get

4. The best place to look for evidence of the big bang in which the Universe was born is:

  1. On your TV
  2. In your washing machine
  3. At the Greenwich Meridian

5. Most of the Universe gives is currently invisible to our telescopes – but how much?

  1. 1%
  2. 50%
  3. 98%

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

  1. the glow of pigeon droppings
  2. the glow of street lights
  3. the glow of glow worms

7. Einstein’s mathematics professor called him a:

  1. lazy possum
  2. lazy dingo
  3. lazy dog

8. Today’s sunlight was made:

  1. 30,000 years ago
  2. 300 minutes ago
  3. 3 seconds ago

9. Aged 16, Einstein came up with the idea of relativity after wondering what it might be like to travel on a:

  1. sound wave
  2. light wave
  3. steam train

9. The first time anyone eve saw an atom was in:

  1. 1980
  2. 1880
  3. 5 BC

Answers: 1C, 2B, 3B, 4A, 5C, 6A, 7C, 8A, 9B, 10A


authors & contributors

Founder and editor Maria Popova has gotten occasional contribution from these fine guest writers.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

Dan Colman edits Open Culture, which brings you the best free educational media available on the web — free online courses, free audio books, free movies and more. By day, he directs the Continuing Studies Program at Stanford University, and you can also find him on Twitter.

Kirstin Butler currently lives in Cambridge, MA but still identifies as a Brooklynite. She’s writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs, but when not working spends far, far too much time Twitter.

Brian W. Jones is a designer, etc. who moves often to embrace the inspiration found in new places. Last year Brian helped open PieLab, a pie shop and community space in rural Alabama, and now lives in coastal Maine helping organize Project M sessions, riding his bike, and writing about his love of coffee.

Len Kendall is the cofounder of the3six5 project. (Featured on Brain Pickings here.) He enjoys being clever, quippy, and constructively grumpy.

Filip Matous hosts a pop-philosophy video show at He currently lives in London and is always seeking to find the next interesting person to interview.

Meghan Walsh has a degree in Anglo-Irish Literature from Trinity College, Dublin and is finishing her thesis on J.P. Donleavy at NYU. She is currently working on two art exhibitions in New York City. For more of her writing check out her cooking blog.

Spaceweaver is a thinker, futurist and writer living in future tense, mostly on the web. Check out his blogs at Space Collective and K21st, and follow him on Friendfeed and Twitter.

Simon Mainwaring is a former Nike creative, worldwide creative director for Ogilvy, author, speaker and general idea junkie. For more of and about him, check out his blog and follow him on Twitter.

Julian Dominic carries a pocket notebook and 0.3 pen everywhere; continuing to record, research and repeat almost everything he sees, hears and tastes on the road.

Teddy Zareva is a young filmmaker and photographer currently located in Sofia, Bulgaria. She is prone to excessive dancing and impulsive traveling. Her favorite activities are eating chocolate, hunting for music, and shooting humans.

Mark Armstrong is a digital strategist, writer and founder of Longreads, a community and Twitter service highlighting the best long-form stories on the web. His thoughts about the future of publishing and content can be found here.

Max Linsky is a journalist, the co-founder of, and an enthusiastic supporter of Jewish professional athletes.

Vikas Shah writes Thought Economics, where he interviews some of the world’s most influential thinkers, from CEO’s to astronauts to artists and more. By day, Vikas is founder and CEO of strategy consultancy Thought Strategy. You can follow him on Twitter.

Mell Perling is a community manager at Behance where she writes about creative work at the Behance team blog and @TheServed on Twitter. She currently lives in Brooklyn.

Lexi Lewtan is an avid reader, writer, and technology nerd. You can find her on geeking out on Twitter and Quora.


Urban Hackscapes: Augmented Reality 1.0

iPhone vs. pencil, or what the Library of Congress has to do with cartoon dinosaurs.

If you think augmented reality is a recent fascination woven from the fabric of the camera phone age, think again — artists, photographers and casual creative pranksters have long been using camera tricks to hack urban landscape by layering additional fascination over the naked eye’s view of the city. Here are three of our favorite photographic hackscapes.


You recall Michael Hughes‘ wonderful Souvenirs collection from pickings past. The British photographer travels the world and “replaces” some of its most iconic landmarks with their cheap touristy souvenir replicas — miniatures, snow globes, plates, postcards — by holding them in front of the camera at just the right angle.

The result is a playful take on tourism which, depending on how philosophically inclined you are, even exudes subtle commentary on the artificiality of souvenir collecting in the context of the actual experience and our often excessive propensity for sentimentality.

Prints from the project are available on Hughes’ website.


Because we love the cross-pollination of ideas and the transference of creative inspiration, we love Jason Powell‘s Looking Into The Past project (which you may remember from one of our most popular features of all time, Photographic Time Machine), inspired by Hughes’ Souvenirs.

Powell prints out historical photographs from The Library of Congress digital archive (remember that, too?) and holds them up against the physical locations depicted in them, offering an absolutely fascinating glimpse of how urban landscape, dress and transportation have evolved over the past couple of centuries.

To contribute to this fold in the space-time continuum, submit your own photographic time capsules to the eponymous Flickr pool Powell set up for the project.


After object-in-photo and photo-in-photo, it’s only fitting that someone comes up with drawing-in-photo. Artist Benjamin Heine did — his series Pencil vs. Camera adds an element of playful fantasy to the already innovative cross-medium technique.

We imagine being trampled by cartoon Godzilla while staring at a four-eyed cat is among the eeriest yet most amusing of deaths.


The Art of Money

Gangsta Abe, Russian plagiarism, and how to pay for food with your art.

Previously, we’ve looked at how artists use ordinary materials to transform them into incredible art creations — from paper to cardboard to toilet paper rolls to whole books. Today, we turn to the one “material” that makes the world go ’round: Money. Here are five of our favorites.


After our recent obsession with surgical book sculptures, we’re turning to tattoo artist Scott Campbell‘s incredible carved currency sculptures. Beyond the indisputable aesthetic merit of his work, there also seems to be a subtle undercurrent of political commentary, which we quite enjoy.

There’s an excellent recent New York Times story about Campbell and his work — worth the read.


You may recall these Japanese moneygami from pickings past — the delightfully irreverent origami portraits of world leaders gracing various bank notes, outfitted with entertainingly incongruous hats and head attire.

Explore the rest of these bad boys for some comic relief at the expense of expenses.


Art Money is a curious project that seeks to offer a global alternative currency — a barter object to use instead of money that is both an exposure vehicle for participating artists worldwide and a financial crutch that allows them to support themselves while focusing on their art.

The idea is simple — artists create an original art money “bank note” measuring 12x18cm, which becomes the equivalent of 200 Danish Kroner (roughly $34), growing in value by five Euro per year for seven years. This money can be used as currency within the Art Money ecosystem, which includes various registered shops and businesses, as well as Art Money hosts who accept this payment for accommodation for traveling artists.

We love the idea of “paying” for necessities with original art — we’ve seen it before with Wants For Sale, and this recent news of the world’s biggest taxi tip offers another delightful example of art as a transactional alternative. Intrigued? Join the project and create your own art money or register your business to accept it.

Thanks, @haverholm


For his senior thesis project, Cuban design student Yordan Silvera embarked upon an ambitious exploration of the aesthetic qualities of money. The result was The Art of Money — a design analysis of the typography, iconography, color and techniques used on different currencies from around the world.

The resulting book is absolutely stunning — we just wish Silvera would make the content available online and/or offer physical copies of the book for sale.


Brooklyn-based artist Mark Wagner is a master of the X-acto knife. His intricate currency collages look laser-cut but are all meticulously hand-carved to a remarkable effect.

The one dollar bill is the most ubiquitous piece of paper in America. Collage asks the question: what might be done to make it something else? It is a ripe material: intaglio printed on sturdy linen stock, covered in decorative filigree, and steeped in symbolism and concept. Blade and glue transform it — reproducing the effects of tapestries, paints, engravings, mosaics, and computers-striving for something bizarre, beautiful, or unbelievable… the foreign in the familiar.” ~ Mark Wagner

So brilliant are his collages that they’ve incited the highest form of flattery — shameless plagiarism by Russian design getup Art Money. Case in point.


If you find yourself fascinated by the design and art direction of currency, we highly recommend checking out Currency Museum — an incredibly rich, albeit tedious to navigate, collection of banknote designs from 155 countries, which is just 40 short of all the world’s recognized political states.

*** UPDATE 04.29 ***

Thanks to commenter C.K. Wilde, who pointed us to some of his incredible money art on Alternating Currency — arguably the most ambitious and, we imagine, painstakingly crafted of the bunch.

See more of Wilde’s work here — it’s absolutely amazing.


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