The Science Behind Pullman’s Golden Compass

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Photo copyright: Knopf

When I was in fifth or sixth grade, I was addicted to the His Dark Materials trilogy. For those of you who haven’t heard of this, it is the collection, which includes the novel The Golden Compass (known as Northern Lights in the UK). This first book won the Carnegie Medal in 1996 and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Award. When I was home last Christmas break, I decided to reread The Golden Compass before I saw the movie (which, by the way, I never ended up doing because I heard it was pretty lame). However, I was entranced: I finished the book in two days, devouring it greedily. I remembered really liking the book as a kid, but this time was different. This time I got the depth (having now actually read Paradise Lost), and applied to it my own terminology. You have to understand that as a chemistry major, if I read a book that uses science to portray any greater themes I get pretty excited. Pullman was a genius, combining religion and science in a mystical, fictional dimension that draws from contemporary views of our modern world.

The book calls upon the long-standing enemies of Religion and Science, and puts them head-to-head. Through Pullman’s invention of these nano-particles called “dust”, he creates this world in which people have animal counterparts called demons. The main character, Lyra, is a little girl growing up in Oxford who is thrust into the middle of a battle over the power of dust. Lyra is special in that she can control the dust with her mind, which allows her to read the golden “compass” and predict the future.

Now without going into crazy depth with the plot, I’ll get to my point. Whether Pullman knows it or not, he is reflecting the recent trend in quantum mechanics, called “dark matter”. This theory basically states that for the amount of gravitational force in the universe, there must be a ton more mass than we have accounted for, even in our solar system alone. This implies the presence of what scientist call dark matter, or matter detected through interference in electromagnetic radiation (just like Pullman’s dust). This has some basis in the reasoning that for a long time, scientists thought the atom was the smallest particle we could get. Then we broke that down into electrons. Then physicists blew that up and discovered quarks, which string theory implies have more dimensions than four, try eleven.

Pullman has many references to the properties of nano-particles, which we don’t yet understand in the book as well as real life. For example, he draws upon their relation to radiation, their effect on light, their wave-particle duality, and their ability to change their path depending on how we observe them. OK, so you got to take a leap here to see the connection.

This is all well and good, nano-particles are weird, but Pullman took it a step further. When Lyra reads the compass she must ask it a question, but at the same time relax her mind. She changes the path of the particle with the question (sounds like Heisenberg uncertainty principle), but can’t let her own thoughts interfere with it. Furthermore, the demons are held to the humans with a bond created by this dust. The church performs experiments to rip demons from their people. In Pullman’s world, the demons represent this idea of dark matter in all of us, which if pulled from us releases such a tremendous energy it can open a whole new dimension.

Now throw the whole religion thing into the mix. It is as though Pullman is posing the outlandish but fascinating question: is dark matter our consciousness, our soul, that strange connection to some higher being? Are there dimensions around us we just can’t see? And if so, will this completely destroy religion’s basis of creation?

These are all very interesting scientific and theological questions. Pullman poses them all in one suspenseful, action-packed novel that is cherished in the hearts of millions, and demonstrates that though religion, art, and science may all be opposing forces, they all have the same goal in mind: to explain our existence.

Clarissa Keen

Clarissa Keen (CAS '11) is a literature writer for the Quad.

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