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Thank You, Brian Cox

Updated: Aug 18, 2023

Professor Brian Cox as a friendly ghost

I’ve had a good day’s writing. I’m making dinner while listening to Professor Brian Cox and Robin Ince on the always excellent The Infinite Monkey Cage. It’s series 4, and the episode is Science vs The Supernatural: Does Science Kill the Magic?

Although the title sounds promising in the context of the novel I’m writing – it features ghosts – I’m listening mostly just because I like the show. As usual, it is admirably pulling off the difficult trick of being fascinating and funny at the same time.

And then something unexpected: 25 minutes and 46 seconds in, Brian explains concisely and convincingly why ghosts are impossible. I am crestfallen. Brian had laid it out, a powerful argument for the physical impossibility of ghosts – they are perpetual motion machines, their existence would violate the second law of thermodynamics. I recall the principles from my A-level physics and chemistry, how time moves everything towards disorder, without exception, how living things (more ordered than dead things) only get around this by constantly taking in energy. And you don’t see ghosts chowing down at Burger King; you don’t see them out photosynthesising on sunny days. Worse still, the second law is the daddy, hard as a depleted-uranium-tipped coffin nail and as near as science comes to infallibility.

Everything falls apart. How can I now write about ghosts when they are impossible?

A quarter of a second later a rational voice inside my head reminds me, with some exasperation, that a) I already don’t believe in ghosts, and b) I am writing fiction. The stupidity of that sequence is hard to admit – that the rational voice had to intervene; the embarrassment and incredulity it must have felt in having to do so. The best defence I can muster is that this is how imagination works best, when it is unedited, unconstrained by reason, at least in the moment. Of course, beyond the moment you probably don’t want to let it get much of a hold.

But back to Brian. As soon as I remembered that you can do anything in fiction, I thought further about the argument he’d put forward. It is said that in every problem there lies an opportunity. I’m sure this is true in many situations, at least some of the time. But in fiction, it is always true all of the time. So... how would someone who knows and understands the second law of thermodynamics react to waking up dead? What if they really understood its profound implications with a conviction far superior to anything held on mere faith? What if they were a former eminent professor of theoretical physics? How would their ghost react to the complete and irrefutable impossibility of their own existence? “I think therefore I am, …yet I know I am not.” I could not answer this question, so I created someone who could. Find out what happened in Thirty Things To Do After You Die.



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