Interview with Piers Francis Horner
Author of Short Stories of Space
Piers Horner has been obsessed by space since he was a small child. He delivered his first public talk on astronomy at the age of 14 and studied astrophysics in Cardiff University.
After gaining a PhD in 2010, Piers moved from South Wales to London and worked in the UK Civil Service for the next eight years. Astronomy has always however, been his passion. Over time he became interested in promoting lesser-known research and providing refreshing views on some of the astronomy and space stories that make the mainstream headlines.
His first book, 'Short Stories of Space', was published at the start of 2021 and explores seven topics in astronomy based on the latest research carried out in 2020. Themes include the implications of private space exploration on humanity's future in space; a 'crisis' in cosmology, and the threats posed to modern society by the violent weather of our Sun. The writing style aims to offer a richer narrative than is typically found in scientific essays, remaining accessible without compromising on the underlying science. It also mixes each story with broader themes of history, politics, ethics and humanity's wonder at the Universe.
Piers is currently writing the follow-up to his debut and has plans for several more books about astronomy and space. He also enjoys creative writing, in particular short stories, and photography.
Piers currently lives in Amsterdam with his fiancée.
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How would you describe Short Stories of Space to a new reader in a single sentence?
- Seven short stories exploring a selection of the most interesting and important real-life topics in space and astronomy from the past year!
What was the inspiration behind the book?
- After completing my PhD in astrophysics I left the field because I felt jobs in academia were not secure and, to be honest, because I had lost faith slightly in the realities of doing science (which is another story entirely). My original passion for astronomy and space never went away, though, and over time I began researching new updates in the field once more.
It quickly became clear to me however that there were so many incredible discoveries and advances being made that never made it anywhere near the news headlines. Even when they did, the most interesting parts of the stories and much of the background quickly got lost as a result of needing to be condensed into a short slot. There are, of course, plenty of really good magazines and online science sites that provide better coverage and more detail, but you have to be very proactive to keep up with everything and even the longer scientific articles still don't afford the luxury to really explore the context and background to a topic in a way that is really accessible to all.
As a result, I initially felt there was an opportunity to write a book that acted as a review of the year for space and astronomy, summarising important topics - not all of which had made it into the headlines - in a format that would appeal to everyone without compromising on the science. As I began working on it, however, the writing quickly took on a life of its own and much broader or personal subjects began emerging in the drafting as well. In the end, Short Stories of Space not only summarises the topics I've chosen, but also touches on more abstract themes such as the way in which we develop knowledge of the Universe; the nature of human wonder, and the environmental crisis we're currently facing on Earth.
Which authors do you admire? How have they influenced your writing style?
- I read a lot of books by Patrick Moore when I was younger. He was of course a really monumental figure in popularising astronomy. I actually used to write letters to him and he always replied with messages hand-typed on plain postcards. I understand he got a lot of fan-mail and would reply to every bit of post he received individually on his old type-writer. To me that really demonstrates the dedication he had to his followers. There was a real magic to those notes, including the places where he had accidentally hit the wrong key and typed over it to correct his spelling.
I also loved science fiction, in particular Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. 'A Fall of Moondust' and 'The Fountains of Paradise' were favourites. In terms of other fiction, I generally love anything that is dark, fantastical or slightly depressing: from George Orwell to Neil Gaiman and Han Kang. While growing up, I was also a big fan of graphic novels. I think the mix of factual and imaginative with visual storytelling is something I try to capture in my writing - there are sections of the book where I try to make the reader really feel as though they are floating in space, or witnessing the most fantastic auroral light-shows, or skimming over the surface of the Sun. While I'm ashamed to admit that I've never read 'Cosmos' by Carl Sagan, I've heard a lot about the book and I'd say that the lyrical style he's famous for is something I'm trying to aspire to, albeit in a much smaller way.
Do you have a favourite story in the book?
- That's a really tricky question. 'On the Right Shoulder of Orion' is quite personal to me and was the first story that I wrote for the book, but I love each of the stories in different ways. The biggest surprise to me was the final story: 'The Path of No Return', which examines the implications of SpaceX's launch of astronauts to the international space station for human space exploration. I wasn't so excited about this one to begin with, but the more I explored the subject, the more I realised that we're totally unprepared for the practical and societal realities of a big expansion of human presence to the Moon and Mars, as well as the issues around mining asteroids and other objects in space for their resources. It's a huge topic and one which promises a really exciting vision of the future, but I think there are really important reasons why we should also be cautious before committing to it fully. History is littered with examples of humanity rushing to take advantage of new discoveries or opportunities, then paying the price for doing so later. We get so seduced by the excitement that we pay little or no attention to its potential consequences. The environmental impact of the Industrial Revolution is an obvious and sadly current example of this.
It feels to me as though we are on the verge of a tipping point with space exploration which could have similar unforeseen consequences, yet the voices of caution seem to be missing from the discussion and should be given more attention. That's something I now feel quite strongly about as a result of writing the book. It's not a call to abandon the dreams of space exploration, but it is an appeal that we should learn lessons from our own past to be more responsible as we enter the next stage of our expansion beyond the Earth.
Were there any topics you didn't get to include?
- Yes, many! There was one in particular about the discovery of the smallest 'rogue planet' detected to date. These are planets that aren't bound to stars, so they wander homeless about the galaxy. As you'd expect they are incredibly difficult to find and current methods rely on rogue planets happening to pass along the line of sight to a background star. When this happens, they change the brightness of the star very slightly in a characteristic way that allows you to identify what's going on. The random nature of these detections means that they're never likely to be repeated, and the thought of this tiny planet being so lonely among the gulfs of space that exist between the stars really got to me! It's a subject I'd like to return to at some point, but I'm not quite sure how or when.
What hot topics are you keeping an eye on for this year?
- Well, the most obvious topic so far has of course been the successful landing of the Perseverance rover on Mars. I'm still playing around with this one though; in keeping with the general philosophy of Short Stories of Space I want to present a different take on the mission to the one we've been treated to so far, exciting though that is. If I can't find a different angle, I won't be including it as a subject.
The other themes I'm hoping will bear fruit include attempts to find a hypothetical particle called an 'axion', which could end up being one of the constituents of so-called 'dark matter'. Dark matter is a mysterious component of the Universe which astronomers believe makes up almost a quarter of its mass but whose composition remains unknown. There were tantalising hints in 2020 of signals found in Earth-based experiments that might have been attributable to the presence of axions, but the scientists are not sure yet.
The nice thing, however, is that I can't exactly plan for what will come up and that makes it exciting! So I'm hoping for some really nice research to come out in 2021 that manages to fly just under the radar of news outlets.
How have readers responded to Short Stories of Space so far?
- This has been one of the most rewarding aspects of publishing the book. When people you don't know reach out to let you know how much they enjoyed your writing, it's a huge boost. So far I've had nothing but positive feedback, which is lovely. One of the messages I received recently compared reading the book to taking a walk through a curated gallery, which was such a nice compliment. Reviews are of course a really important aspect of marketing for online books, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed that the good reviews will keep coming!
What has been the hardest part of publishing your first book?
- Probably just the learning curve and the pain of figuring out about all the things I could have done better. In truth however finishing off the book was also a bit of an opportunistic thing after I became unemployed. I also really wanted to turn the book around quite quickly to make sure it was ready for the beginning of 2021. As a result, I wasn't as organised as I could and should have been. I'm consoling myself however that this will only help me in planning the next edition.
Where next? What are you working on now?
- Writing Short Stories of Space, Volume II! My grand plan is that I'll write a book each year. I like the idea that one day the Short Stories of Space series will provide a record of big themes in space and astronomy over the course of a decade, and how these themes have fit in with changes in society as a whole. There's also plenty of work to be done building some kind of community around the books - I'm hoping to start doing public talks at some point and have plans for YouTube, but they need to fit in with the demands of the rest of my life too! That is, of course, one of the really big challenges facing independent authors.
I'd also love to be able to write some single-subject books. There's a lovely book I have in mind about the factors affecting the likelihood that so-called intelligent life like ours has arisen elsewhere in the Universe, and why we might actually be alone in the Universe after all despite all the stars that exist out there. There's also an ambitious idea about telling the story of cosmology as it happened, without any reference to present-day physics or the way in which our understanding of the Universe's history has developed through observation. If that doesn't immediately sound ambitious, well... just wait and see.
These are, of course, long term ambitions. For the time being I need to keep a bit grounded and focus on the next volume. It's hard not to get carried away with plans sometimes though.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
- Make sure you have a message you care about, or make sure you love what you're doing. Don't expect success or recognition quickly. If you want to make any kind of living out of being a self-published author do your homework and, for the love of all that's good, make sure you commit serious attention to marketing as early as possible before your book launch.
"Elegant, heartfelt, academic, and profound, Short Stories of Space by Piers Horner is an entrancing and contemporary journey through the cosmos" ★★★★½ - Self-Publishing Review
Short Stories of Space takes readers on a fascinating, reflective journey into seven essential, real-life space and astronomy events of the past year.
- Could ancient life still exist in the atmosphere of Venus?
- Does our understanding of the Universe's history need to be revised?
- What are the implications of private spaceflight for our future in space?
Each story delves into the science, politics and history behind the news headlines, while bringing to life the space research you may have missed. Trained astrophysicist Piers Horner provides fresh perspectives on what these exciting topics mean for our society; for science, and for the nature of human wonder, making them suitable for both a general audience and seasoned enthusiasts alike.
"Like a friendly science teacher telling you about their favorite parts of the subject, Horner’s writing is friendly and approachable … Even though the content is thorough, the writing does not intimidate nor bewilder the reader … Each discovery that Horner narrates incites excitement and awe, just the same as it did with the scientists credited with the discoveries. Short Stories of Space brings out the inner child in all of us" ★★★★★ - The Book Review Directory