The Science of His Dark Materials

In Philip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials, Lyra and Will go on a fantastical adventure. Many of the weird and wonderful things that they encounter, including the subtle knife, the amber spyglass and parallel universes, have a basis in real science. His Dark Materials is all about discovering hidden truths, which is exactly what science is.

In The Science of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials award-winning science writers Mary and John Gribbin reveal that, far from simply being the product of Pullman’s vivid imagination, the action throughout the trilogy can be explained by current science. Rather than spoiling the sense of mystery and other-worldliness created throughout the story, these revelations increase our wonder at the natural world. Dust in Lyra’s world is the same as dark matter in ours; the ghostly northern lights are the result of charged particles interacting with the Earth’s atmosphere; quantum entanglement could hold the key to developing an earthly lodestone resonator; and every time you make a decision, you could be creating another world.

Even if you haven’t read the trilogy, the parallels between the story and cutting edge science are drawn with great clarity and Lyra and Will’s adventures are used as starting points for exploring how our world works. Throughout the book, the Gribbins prove that fact is weirder than fiction.

The Science of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials by Mary and John Gribbin (ISBN 0375831460) is published by Laurel-Leaf Books.

More books to read

His Dark Materials trilogy: Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass Philip Pullman. Scholastic.

Uncle Albert and the Quantum Quest by Russell Stannard. ISBN 0571226809. Faber and Faber.

It's True! Space Turns You into Spaghetti by Heather Catchpole and Vanessa Woods. ISBN 1741146259. Allen & Unwin

Activities to try at home

The northern lights are generated by charged particles in the atmosphere. You can see for yourself the effect that charged particles can have by going to the Marvin and Milo page and reading the September 2004 trick (select September 2004 from the drop down box). It shows how you can use electrons to bend a stream water.

Light is affected by all materials it travels through, not just Iceland Spar. Have a go at making a sunset in a jar with Marvin and Milo ( select 'September 2007' from the drop-down list).

Fascinating Physics Facts
Some of the amazing facts in The Science of His Dark Materials.

- We’re all made out of stardust.

- About 90% of the Universe is missing – we can’t detect it but we know it must be there.

- If every star in the Milky Way was a grain of salt they would fill an Olympic sized swimming pool.

- Oxygen molecules in the air move at about 500 metres per second – 50 times faster than the fastest 100 metre sprinters.

- Light travels at 300,000,000 metres a second. This means it can travel a huge 9.5 million million kilometres in a year. The distance light can travel in a year is called a ‘light year’. The nearest star to the Earth, apart from the Sun, is just over 4 light years away.

- The Earth is a big magnet and its influence, or field, extends out into space.

- Pi is an irrational number – if you write it as a decimal, it has no end. The current record for calculating the decimal digits of pi stands at over 1 trillion digits. But this level of accuracy isn’t needed in everyday life. Calculating the Earth’s radius using pi with just 10 decimal places gives an error of less than 0.2 mm.

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