Nick Cook – A Ramble Through an Oxford Author's Imagination and Inspiration

In the Universe's Shadow

In the Universe's Shadow
“It turns out that an eerie type of chaos can lurk just behind a facade of order - and yet, deep inside the chaos lurks an even eerier type of order”
– Douglas Hostadter 

In the TED video above, George Smoot talks about the design of the universe. What becomes clear is that for all the appearance of randomness from our perspective here on Earth, when computer modelling is thrown into the mix, an underlying order is quickly revealed. 

This is particularly clearly illustrated by Smoot's image of dark matter. This is the hidden ingredient in the cake recipe for the universe. We know this "thing" exists and can indeed see its effect around distant galaxies where light is bent around their edges (forming a gravitational lens to view even more distant galaxies). There is not enough matter in a galaxy to bend light as much as observed, and we’ve labelled this missing mass dark matter.

The mapped image of dark matter is breathtaking. It shows that the design for the universe is far from chaotic and has a very ordered underlying filament-like structure. This is a recurring fractal pattern seen in nature, from the branches of a tree, to the bronchioles of lungs. However, to see this in our universe you need to zoom right out. Quantum physics deals with the very small. The scale we're talking here is exactly the opposite, the physics of the very, very large. When you consider the measurements that George Smoot is talking about, the scale of the universe alone is jaw-dropping. Each tiny node in his image are entire galaxies (there hundreds of billions in our universe).
It seems that the data is telling us that the empty stuff out there, the void between galaxies is filled with order. I personally find that an inspiring thought.

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Life in the Fast Lane!

Life in the Fast Lane!
“There are two kinds of light - the glow that illumines, and the glare that obscures.”  
– James Thurber

A neutrino walks into a bar and sees himself already sipping a beer at a table – huh? 
Well if the results from a recent experiment at the Cern labs are correct, that’s what could happen sometimes. The door to time travel being possible has just been opened a crack wider, all because some neutrinos fired from the particle accelerator in Geneva, Switzerland, arrived over the border in Gran Sasso, Italy, 0.00000006 seconds faster than they should have. 
Now I know that doesn’t sound very significant, but if not the result of some experimental error, then these particles may have just punched through the speed of light barrier. This should be impossible and Einstein may be well getting ready to spin in his grave!
This is big news, very big, because if true not only does he undermine Einstein’s long standing theory of relativity, a cornerstone of all modern physics, but it also means that time travel might actually be possible after all. 
Theories are beginning to circulate and one that seems to be gaining the most attention, is that these mischievous particles took a short cut through another dimension. The parallel reality theorists are rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect – this could be their smoking gun helping to prove their ideas.
Now the waiting game begins as the experts pour over the data. I mean it has to be an error surely? But if it isn’t we could well be the brink of a whole new chapter in our understanding of physics, even if it means we’re going have to throw away all these texts book we’ve been studying. Only time will tell! 
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Life in the Slow Lane

Life in the Slow Lane
"It is not down in any map; true places never are."  
– Herman Melville

I’ve just got back from a wonderful barge holiday along the leafy Oxford section of the River Thames. A holiday like this is all about slowing down from the normal hectic rhythm of life, where travel along the canals is based at walking speed, and the landscape transforms itself slowly. Fields slide past and approaching cities announce themselves with the peak of church spires over the tree line.  

Entering Oxford, we slipped under its bridges to moor on the towpath at the heart of the city. At once memories of Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights novel (renamed The Golden Compass), flooded back to me and it was easy to see where his inspiration for the Gypsums came from. A quick visit to the Pitts Rivers museum and of course the obligatory viewing of the shrunken heads (which also features in Pullman’s work), matched up to my startling memories of when I’d first seen them as a child.
Leaving Oxford behind, we travelled along a river filled with wildlife. Flocks of geese called to us out as we manoeuvred between them, the electric blue sparks of Kingfishers sped overhead, and Sand Martins swooped down for flies over the water in an aerial ballet. But it wasn't just nature that made it such a special experience, it was also the people on the waterways. From the lock keepers to other boat owners, everyone was so friendly. In a world where people often don’t talk to their neighbours, river and canal life seems to bring out the best in human nature. It feels a bit like stepping back in time to a simpler age, where people took the time to chat with total strangers.
Having returned home I’ve found myself seriously considering buying what’s known as a live aboard barge – a boat sufficiently equipped to stay the whole year round on. Being able to travel and write certainly has an appeal. My brief experience in the slow lane has made me think about lifestyle choices and the alternatives available. Heading up to London by boat for agent meetings, etc, would also be very cool.  
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Now You See Me, Now You Don’t

Now You See Me, Now You Don’t

"Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one."  
– Albert Einstein
The world is real isn’t it? You're in it so of course it must be, but have you ever wondered what happens to the universe when you turn your back on it? 

Some quantum physicists believe that electrons and even the nucleus of the atoms all around us, exist everywhere at the same time. This is called super positioning, where matter exist as waves, that is at least until we get involved. The moment it is observed and the spotlight of our senses sweep across, it stops being a wave and locks into position as a particle in our reality.

It’s a bit like that child’s game Statues, in which the curator turns their back on the other players. They then have to try to sneak up and tag the curator, but the moment the curator turns they have to freeze into statues, Now imagine the children could be everywhere at once and you have a reasonable metaphor for how reality may actually work. The curator, the observer, you, turns and the world becomes solid. In other words we create the world as we experience it! 

Makes you wonder what would happen if you turned your head quickly enough, what you might catch from the corner of your eye.
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Cloud Riders – Blurb

Cloud Riders – Blurb
"I am a being of Heaven and Earth, of thunder and lightning, of rain and wind, of the galaxies." 
– Eden Ahbez
Dom lives with his mum bang in the middle of Tornado Alley, where twisters used to be a way of life. But the storms have vanished and a yearlong drought has wrecked the family business. On the verge of losing everything, with only his best friend Jules to turn to, Dom feels torn between supporting his mother and his desire to escape. But his destiny is changed forever, when a massive twister appears from nowhere and a bizarre airship emerges from the spout. It’s an event that will impact everything and everyone he has ever known. 
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Reality is Full of Holes

Reality is Full of Holes
"Reality leaves a lot to the imagination."  
– John Lennon

So you think the world is solid do you? When we look at the world around us we see something that is there and real – after all we can touch it. 
Well here’s an interesting fact; remember those diagrams of atoms, the ones with electrons closely spinning around the nucleus. It’s a familiar image – a comforting one, and we’re brought up with this easy to visualise structure in our heads.
So great, where’s the problem then? The world is full of matter so it must be densely packed together – right? Actually it turns out that being far from being solid our world, our reality, is full of empty space. “Huh?” you may ask. 
How far apart do you think the distance between a nucleus and an electron is? Remember that diagram of the simple atom? If we scale up the nucleus to the size a grape seed, a typical electron would be orbiting it at a similar distance to the width of a football stadium. 
This means the world we see isn’t solid at all – it’s actually full of holes, and enormous ones at that. Just think about this as your hand moves over that solid computer mouse over an equally solid desk as you read this article – most of it's just empty space.
So do you still believe everything your senses tell you about the world around us?
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A Land of Fire and Ice

A Land of Fire and Ice
"Volcanoes are one way Earth gives birth to itself."
– Robert Gross

Together with my son, I recently completed a research trip to Iceland, the planned setting for my sequel to Cloud Riders. 
From the moment the plane began its descent, I was immediately struck by the island’s rock glowing in the amber storm light. Then I began to notice the lack of trees and realised it was going to be like nowhere I’d ever visited before. 
Iceland is a new born geologically speaking. This was highlighted as we left the airport and drove past endless frozen lava fields, so rough that you’d have a hard time walking them without twisting an ankle. 
However, far from being a desolate landscape there’s a primordial beauty to the island that quickly works its way under your skin. This is a land of myth and legend, of long winter nights illuminated by the shimmering aurora, midsummers of a never setting sun, and two tectonic plates pulling the island apart. With all this and more, it wasn’t long before its rugged beauty had me hooked.
Iceland is very unique and as you might expect this is reflected in the people who live there. Apparently over fifty percent of the islanders believe in the existence of elves; planned roads have even been altered to avoid the fairy folk’s homes. Now that’s something I can’t quite see happening in other countries. But when in Iceland these ideas don’t feel strange or alien, but a human way of expressing somewhere very unique about the island.
Iceland is strewn with inactive volcanoes, but geysers regularly venting are testament to the fact the island is still geologically very active. This was underlined last year when the unpronounceable volcano – at least if you’re not Icelandic – Eyjafjallajökull blew its top in a storm of fire and ash. The eruption subsequently grounded air traffic right across Europe, reminding us all that despite all our modern technology that mother earth is still the boss and we’d better not forget it.
With half an eye on those imposing volcanic stacks, my son and I took part in an organised super-truck expedition – the Icelandic take their off-roading very seriously – and were soon far from the beaten track experiencing memories to last a lifetime: towering glacier fields; the hissing cry of geysers; swimming through aquamarine geothermally heated lagoons; standing at the foot of Eyjafjallajökull and throwing snowballs at each other...
But as an author I had gone to Iceland for a reason – preparing the groundwork for a new book – and I wasn’t disappointed. From the moment I’d stepped off the aircraft, I felt my imagination going into a feeding frenzy and knew it was one of the best things I could have done in preparing the groundwork for my new project.
Since returning, ideas have been spinning through my head in a constant swarm and complete scenes have painted themselves across the snowy backdrop of Iceland. This is why I believe travel is so important to a writer… yes of course you can imagine anywhere and anything, but it’s the unexpected inspiration that comes from an actual visit that can be so rewarding. There are simply ideas that would never have occurred to me unless I’d actually been there.
Now safely ensconced back at my desk, I’m preparing to embark on a different sort of journey – one into my imagination – and I can’t wait to see where ideas seeded by a land of fire and ice, will take me.

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The Hedgehog

The Hedgehog
“Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.”  
– E.L. Doctorow

Writing is a funny old business. For months at a time, you live with your characters and wander through the landscape of your imagination. Blogs don’t get updated, friends neglected, and the world outside can be reduced to the view from your window. And then you get to the conclusion of the latest draft and it ends. I guess it must be a bit like how a hedgehog feels as it wakes from hibernation and emerges blinking back into the world.
Creating a novel of course doesn’t end with the writing process. It’s only part of bringing a story to the market place. At this particular stage of my fledging career, there are additional challenges ahead, most pressing of which is securing an agent. Hopefully, this will be quickly followed by a publishing deal, but even then there is probably another good eighteen months before my book hits the shelves… then the fun really starts for an introspective author. From the solitary existence of writing, one is suddenly thrust into PR circuit, an essential part of any book launch, to really raise awareness and market your work. Personally, I can’t wait. The idea of giving readings etc, although somewhat daunting, is also a very exciting prospect. 
Cloud Riders has now gone into the manuscript agency I work with. Hopefully, spring for this hedgehog author, is just around the corner.

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Books I’m Reading – Monsters of Men – Patrick Ness

Books I’m Reading – Monsters of Men – Patrick Ness
“I think it could be the way forward for all of us,”… If we can all learn to speak this way, then there won’t be any more division… That’s the secret of this planet, Todd. Communication, real and open, so we can finally understand each other.
– Extract from Monsters of Men, by Patrick Ness
I’ve just finished the remarkable finale to the Chaos Walking trilogy, Monsters of Men. I have to say that Patrick’s work is some of the most original fiction I’ve read in a long time. His main characters,  Todd and Viola, are so well drawn that you feel you actually know them by the end. 

Todd’s world is one where men’s noise, their thoughts, can be heard by everyone else. Just think about that for a moment what that would be like, a life where nothing is really ever private. The women by contrast, are silent, their inner dialogue locked safely away inside their heads. But this noise isn’t restricted to just the men and on this world you can hear the thoughts of the creatures around you. Some of Patrick’s most heart wrenching moments deals with this bond with the animals, such as Todd’s dog Manchee in the first book, The Knife of Never Letting Go, and in subsequent books, with his horse Angharrad. Their is a clarity of emotion there that sometimes bites deeper than any human dialogue could ever hope to. 
Another excellent innovation, is to use different fonts in different sizes to convey thoughts. You really need to pick up a copy to see how this approach really helps to convey the idea of telepathy. In terms of presentation of a concept, it just works.
Monsters of Men throws the characters into a world descending into war, and in the struggle to maintain their humanity in the face of brutality, they must ultimately remember who they really are. A tale for our times.
If you haven’t read this series, I strongly suggest that you do so. Highly recommended.
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When Inspiration Strikes

When Inspiration Strikes
"Stung by the Splendor of sudden thought."
– Robert Browning
As many authors will tell you, even when they’re not physically writing, they’re still doing so in their heads and are thinking about plot-lines, characters and searching for that next great story. 
During my trek along the Macmillan Way West, I came across this small caravan in the middle of nowhere by a stream. Immediately ideas began whizzing through my head: who lived there, what happened to them, and why did they live miles from anywhere? Before I knew it I had the concept for a full blown story coming together. If nothing else, it’s a good example of why as a writer it’s a good idea to get away from my desk sometimes. Just remember, you never know where you may find the inspiration for that next great story.
Now where’s my pen?
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