Mark Brake was born and bred in Mountain Ash and continues to live here. Mark has led a successful career as an author of children’s books and communicator of science, doing various roadshows up and down the country. I came to know Mark as he was my tutor for maths during my two gruelling years of GCSE Examinations, and he steadied me through it, with some brilliant laughs along the way.
The purpose of the interview is to hopefully inspire the younger, budding generation of scientists and writers to follow their hearts in the subject that motivates them
Disclaimer: the views and opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect WICID.tv or any of its affiliations, and are expressed solely by the subject of this interview.
Mark, firstly, can I ask what you currently do for a living?
“I write popular science books, and I do them mostly for kids, and if I am honest with you the reason I do them for kids is because in my experience parents buy more books for kids than they do for themselves, it seems to me. My main thing is the relationship between space, science and culture, I guess, so I write about science and science fiction.”
What first interested you about science?
“I was interested into stargazing early on, and for me there’s a captivating thing about science. What I was interested in was the evolution of ideas and I find there’s a wow factor about science, compared to anything else.”
You are a science communicator, what does that exactly mean, Mark?
“Well, Brad, scientists decided that it would be a good democratic idea to communicate their ideas with the public, as much as they could. One of the reasons for this is to increase the publics critical awareness and try to encourage the public to think critically.”
So, Mark, you’re born and bred and educated in Mountain Ash, what are you doing for the local community?
“What an excellent question, Brad! I hope I’m putting something back into the community by giving GCSE and A level maths and science tutor lessons to local students. And prospective students can get in touch with me through my website, which is http://www.markbrake.com/.”
What books have you published and what are your plans looking ahead?
“Science of Star Wars published last year, science of Harry Potter which is coming out next year. I am currently writing science of superheroes which includes the idea of ‘would you let Spiderman join your baseball team, that sort of thing.”
You were just explaining about Spiderman in the baseball team etc, is it all to capture children’s imagination and to place them in that position?
“Well yes that’s right, and it’s to teach them something about science – that’s the main thing and to focus on where these ideas come from and evolve. And I can tell you for example, as an idea that I am hoping to put in the book, this is an exclusive for you Brad, I saw on QI recently that there’s a species of spider called a house spider, now the thing is about house spiders is that whenever they leave the house, they die, so I immediately thought what if Spiderman was bitten by a house spider, he wouldn’t be able to leave the house (laughing) – he would have to solve all the crimes through the windows. So, I thought, I have to put that in!
What school did you go to, Mark?
“Brad, I went to Mountain Ash Comprehensive School, and of course it was very different then as to what it is like now! But it was a great place, I really enjoyed it.”
So, following school, where did you study at University?
“I was a student at the formally named University of Glamorgan, now renamed as University of South Wales and I studied Chemistry and Physics”.
What was your experience of the University?
“Well, I was a bit odd, Brad! I didn’t talk to anybody for the first year, but the model of the degree suited me, so I did well.”
You have featured on or have been in contact with many prestigious media organisations such as the BBC and ITV, as well as overseas. How did they become aware of your works?
“They became aware of me Brad because I was exploring the relationship between science and fiction in my works and that I am not a typical scientist who picks up a clock and tries to see how it functions. I got a lot of press in 1998 when I developed a course at the University of South Wales, called ‘Life of the Universe’ where I deliberately wrote a press release which said that I would be telling my students how to communicate with aliens, and you know that is quite mainstream in science, but I deliberately done it because I knew it would draw attention. So, I was then doing media interviews for a solid fortnight in September 1998, so going back to 1998, I have always had a relationship with the press because of these fictional elements in the science that I teach, it’s very palatable for media outlets to do the science fiction thing, and I have always engaged in it because I believe it is very important for getting kids interested in science, because a lot of them are interested in science because of the Hulk, for example. I used to work with a biologist at the University of South Wales, who said that the greatest influence for him getting into science was Superman, because he was obsessed with Superman as a kid.”
So, linking onto the aforementioned, as a child, were you influenced or intrigued by any particular TV Programme or big scientific event?
“On a personal note, I was a working-class boy from Mountain Ash, and we used to go on holidays to Butlins every year, and in 1969, when I was about 10, rather than playing in the pool with all the other kids, I was in the television suit watching the Moon Landing, and my mother called me a: ‘weirdo’. You know, so that was a big influence on me, Brad.”
When you were growing up in Mountain Ash, were the mines still open and what were conditions like in the Valley’s as a subsequent?
“Well when I was born in 1958, the mining was still ongoing. The conditions, well they were mucky, it was a lot muckier, I got this vague memory of wooden frames on windows because of course we had the Phurnacite, in Abercwmboi, as well as the coal mines and that was quite a major polluter in the Valley. I am sure I remember holding an ice cream out, after buying one from the ice cream van, and after a few seconds black spots started to appear on the ice cream, due to the intensity of the pollution, I don’t know how accurate that memory is of what life was like, generally, but the Phurnacite was the worst polluter. I remember being a paper boy, going to the news agents early in the morning and seeing all the miners finishing their shifts, even though they showered at the pit head, they still looked as if they had eye liner on. And obviously that is why the town existed, I remember someone telling me that in 1842 Mountain Ash was a hamlet and nobody lived here.”
On the matter of the Valley’s, Mark, do you think government schemes such as the South Wales Metro and the Cynon Valley Cross link will ensure that businesses will be attracted to the region and will therefore create a more prosperous place to live?
“To be honest, Brad, I think we are moving towards a post-industrial society, where I was wondering actually that concern about the position of what the valleys is like now, should jump our recent memory of what working practices are like and think ahead. And on that note, I make a living in Mountain Ash, by not going anywhere because I write books and also do tutoring, my wife writes books and my daughter is home educated. So, I think, of course improving transport links will benefit the area, however I feel that we are witnessing a change, in terms of more and more people are starting to work from home, and are self-employed. So, if anything I think we will start to see a decline in industries as we are moving into a post-industrial society.”
I would like to turn our attention to international politics, Mark. Do you think Brexit was a good or bad idea?
“I can understand why people voted to leave, however I personally voted to stay in because I am an internationalist who has always believed that I have more in common with Spanish people than I do with the English ruling class. But I understand why people voted out for a number of reasons and not just immigration, because immigration figures have been going down by 81,000, which you might have seen, Brad. I think there is some element of little Englander thing regarding the Brexit vote, this idea of we want to be a great country which is somewhat, I think mistaken. But some people wanted to drop out because I think they felt that it was distant, remote and undemocratic. But one thing I want to add, Brad is that one good thing that was introduced by Tony Blair was the devolution to Scotland and Wales, although we haven’t got as much power that we should have but that I think is generally the way we should be going, the right of a nation to self-determination; we should decide what we are going to do.”
What are your thoughts then on public services cuts, here in Wales?
“I think it’s a disgrace, and austerity has been shown to be a lie, people are sick of it and I think one of the reasons why they were surprised at the votes of Coryn is because he is actually saying austerity is a choice, a political choice and it doesn’t have to be done, as we are one of the richest countries in the world we shouldn’t be cutting back on public spending, and I think it is time for a change.”
And finally, Mark, what would your advice be to the younger population in Rhondda Cynon Taf and beyond, who may be thinking of breaking into a career in Science or Writing?
“It is going to sound cliché, Brad but I would say follow your heart, and your passion and do what motivates you.”
I would like to add a final word, and that is, I found the interview with Mark, to be incredibly interesting to have been able to ask so many different questions about his life and have an in depth look at his fantastically successful career. I would like to wish Mark and his family all the very best, indeed and would like to thank him once again for his time. – Brad Williams, Interviewer.
You can view all the books that Mark has published and is currently working on, by visiting his website at http://www.markbrake.com/books/.