Published by Gregory Benford on January 16th, 2012

Getting Started

Mustering the fantastic in the cause of the real, or the reverse, can be useful teaching strategies. Illuminating physical law through science fictional thought experiments can awaken students’ inventive, playful side. Physics constrains action in ways that call up further study of the underlying physical laws.

Both David Theison (U. of Maryland) and Gibor Basri (U.C. Berkeley) and I have focused physics/astronomy seminars on science examined through SF. The reverse works just as well. I have found the best approach is to begin by trying to talk about physics as a life. Alas, it’s hard to find images of the scientist in fiction that hold up. Conventional” fiction has C. P. Snow’s novel The Search, and in SF, Fred Hoyle’s novel The Black Cloud is heavily laced with science and also gives a picture of the way scientists think and work — the way it’s really done, as opposed to the lab-smock image of commercial television.

You can even use non-SF to make this point, as with The Double Helix by James Watson, with his solve-it-at-whatever-cost approach. That kind of bath of cold water right at the beginning is very useful to show students that science is not a monolith as it’s lived, or as it’s often described.

You may have to justify such approaches, or indeed the scientific worldview, and curiosity itself. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in a Sherlock Holmes tale, touched on this. Dr. Watson is astonished to learn that his friend Holmes, who can infer so much from cat hairs or heel prints, does not know that the Earth moves around the sun. Holmes is ignorant of “the entire Copernican theory of the solar system.” Holmes counters that while cat hairs, heel prints, etc., affect his present life and livelihood, it makes absolutely no difference to him at all whether the Earth moves around the sun or the sun moves around the Earth. Therefore, he doesn’t have to know such facts, and what’s more, even though Dr. Watson has informed him of the truth of the matter, he intends to forget it as quickly as he can. This is utterly opposite from the hard SF culture Perhaps those not shocked by Holmes should not be in a physics class, or an SF one.


My own principal teaching difficulty lies in finding the right approach. A motley class — people who think it’s a gut course, engineers who want to argue with about Larry Niven, humanities majors who want to find out what LeGuin really meant, and so on—require special effort. Stories that focus on problems that sharpen intuition work best.

The Wrong Stuff


Jean Piaget’s ideas are useful here. Learn by doing, since people absorb much faster and better if they can manipulate, physically or mentally.
To approach scientific habits of mind, Tom Godwin’s endlessly controversial “The Cold Equations,” uses a set-piece problem story but with no solution. Instead, it displays society’s institutionalized delusions, set against the overwhelmingly, absolutely neutral point of the view of the universe. Scientists often assume this view unconsciously.

Students should begin with their natural impulse to propose answers, until the point dawns. Count on disagreement!


The next stage might be that of literary analysis, to see what makes the stories work. Engineering students particularly like discussing an author’s tricks and ingenuity and factual errors, and in a good discussion of this sort one part of the class can educate the other. Some notice that Larry Niven’s Ringworld, for example, is actually unstable, and won’t work the way it’s described.

That can kick off a discussion involving the basics of mechanics and of literary credibility. The same can be done with Poul Anderson stories about low-gravity planets; how does biology change? This shows how solved problems in a fictional matrix motivate students to learn physics a lot better than taking the canonical introductory textbook course. Integrating physics with biology stimulates the intuition. In Heinlein’s “The Menace from Earth,” people can fly in domes on the moon at ordinary atmospheric pressures, a startling application of straightforward mechanics.

Reading Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero, reveals some clear, clever cheats. Notably, if you run a spaceship into a star you cannot simply transform to another reference frame, à la Einstein, and show that it’s the star that gets gobbled up instead of the spaceship. Mass seems to increase as a body approaches the speed of light; Anderson knew this, but finessed it by supposing that the star’s rest frame is the right one to see the problem, and the starship’s mass trumps the star’s. Not so; consider the viewpoint of the ship, and the star is even more (relativistically) massive. Students can use this to understand that a relativistic reference frame doesn’t mean that you can wipe out real physical effects.


It also leads to a discussion of the important general aesthetic question of how much you can cheat on the facts in fiction. There are few cheat-free stories, including my own, and playing the game of finding the error in a story seems to motivate a lot of students to engage in physics, who otherwise sit there and stare. Some students take malicious glee by nailing big-name writers on details like this. It’s an introduction to criticism, and to physics, too.

I highly recommend this and the other methods I’ve mentioned as ways of students to respond with the proper spirit to physics, and to science in general. SF story creation, bending things a little bit to make your story hold together, is the same way scientists create a new theory. The act of creating a new axiom in science, says Jacob Bronowski, is the same as creating a poem or a novel or a painting. The product may be different, but the act of creation is the same. (It even feels the same, to me.) SF can be used to get across this idea, which is startling to most literature students, and to most science students, too.


An example clarifies. As commonplace as tides are, for example, few understand them. They become deadly when considering flight near a compact mass, the key idea in Larry Niven’s “Neutron Star. “ Such stars pack a stellar mass into ten kilometers, and Niven’s entrepreneur hero zooms by within a few hundred kilometers. The steeper gravitational potential well of a compact star means that tidal stresses can be large over distances of meters. The hapless human must then understand nature in a new way to survive. The stress is proportional to the different distances his head and his feet are from the star. This may be the only case in fiction where the right answer to a plot problem is to curl up into the fetal position, lessening the tug at head and feet.

Niven knew this (I asked) and finessed his ending. When I taught this story at UC Irvine, I checked his work and found the fetus effect wasn’t big enough; the character gets shredded anyway. But the ideas animate the story and can educate. And some students may make the same calculation, giving them a sense of participation in a story quite unusual in the classroom.


Generating a plot problem through applying physics takes the reader out of a human-centered narrative and into the realm of imagination, where nature provides a worthy opponent—maybe the only one worth our time, as Hal Clement once remarked. (Indeed, in most of our species’ history nature was the obstacle, a view sf can recapture.) Such strategies can both teach science and reflect on the nature of narrative itself. Science fiction abounds in such examples, one of its charms.

The science doesn’t have to be right to be useful. In Jerome Bixby’s “The Holes Around Mars” (1954), explorers keep hearing odd whizzing noises and notice that the mountains have holes in them. Then a near-disaster reveals the awful truth—Mars has several moons at very low altitude, so they keep plowing through mountains. This is so implausible even the most benighted humanities major will begin to have doubts. What happens to the moon’s kinetic energy, after all? How come it keeps boring holes and never crashes into the planet? Asking questions like these leads to some highly motivated learning of physics. Any student who can’t see the hole in this thrilling idea hasn’t learned to think with a hint of a scientific attitude.

Similarly, in “The Big Bounce” by Walter Tevis, a ball rises higher on each bounce, a clear violation of the second law of thermodynamics. Such stories encourage students to use common sense first, then to see that careful scientific argument can illuminate the underlying logic, and to learn something about science’s style and content as well.

A far better classic story, with a more subtle, illuminating scientific error, is “The Light Of Other Days” by Bob Shaw. Suppose the speed of light through different media could be made very slow, leading to windows made of “slow glass.” This 1966 short story explores the human implications of a seemingly minor physical fact. A special glass slows light so much that it takes months to move a centimeter, that is, reducing its speed by at least 17 orders of magnitude. Then a viewer outside a house can see his wife and child, inside the house, happy in the days before they died. The story skillfully builds to an emotional conclusion, using this implication of the physics.

But slow glass would also be a very dangerous explosive. Sunlight deposits about a kilowatt of power per square meter at high noon, so light slowed down in glass would carry that power, accumulated over months or years and stacked into a thin pane. Simple calculations a student can do (energy stored=sunlight power multiplied by time duration) show that a window has far more energy stored in it than is in a hand grenade. Drop the windowpane, or break it with a rock…

Bob Shaw hadn’t thought of this (I asked him) but for me his image of a captured past, with it artfully played implication, trumps such technical cards—a good example of the play between scientific fact and literary utility.


Looking Large
Beyond small-scale science lie grand visions the genre uniquely makes possible.


Hal Clement’s landmark Mission of Gravity began this with its detailed descriptions of a high-gravity planet and its insectlike natives, meticulous and well argued. Rich in physics and chemistry, with a Clement essay (“Whirligig World”) on how he built up his ideas, this novel may mark the true beginning of hard SF as a recognized subgenre, though the term itself doesn’t seem to have come into use until the middle 1960s, perhaps in reaction to the New Wave literary movement. (Though the New Wave was important in opening the field to wider influences, its greatest effect may have been to make hard SF into a recognized opposite.) Clement’s bizarre but scientifically plausible world is a raw setting in which the protagonists struggle upward against great weight, a reflection of the sometimes grim but usually hopeful tone of hard SF.


Much of the charm of Frank Herbert’s hugely successful Dune, written a dozen years after Mission of Gravity, lies in its working out of the implications of life on a desert planet. Herbert used massive research to buttress his imagination, and the book compels us because the consequences of the rigorous environment, as the plot unveils them, seem logical and right.

This was the first major ecological work in the field. His world has no obvious source of the oxygen his characters breathe (most of Earth’s comes from sea plankton), but this does not damage the story.


Except for some super-strong materials to wire it all together, Larry Niven’s Ringworld mostly conforms to physics as we know it now. It follows a band of explorers who trek across an immense ring which circles a star, spinning to create centrifugal “gravity”. The ring is so immense it can harbor life across a surface many times larger than the area of the Earth. Making this all work is great fun, with ideas unveiled by plot turns at a smooth pace. The sheer size of everything overwhelms the reader, but the game is played straight and true, no cards up the sleeve. Fred Pohl’s Gateway, for example — a New Wave-influenced novel with futuristic psychotherapy and angst as a frame — uses stellar astronomy, scrupulously rendered.
Getting the voice right is essential. Fred Pohl’s “Day Million” is a frustrated rant, expressing the author’s despair at ever conveying to his reader how wondrously different the far future will be–yet it tries anyway, with compact expository lumps like grumpy professorial lectures. This is one of the voices of hard SF itself, trying to punch through humanist complacency about the supposed centrality of human perspectives and comforts. Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations” also hammers relentlessly and melodramatically, invoking the constraints of gravity, orbital mechanics, and fuel levels—the conservation laws of physics.

These two stories talk across the rapid social evolution between Godwin’s era (1954) and Pohl’s (1966). Godwin uses the indifference of the universe to frame a morality tale in which a woman dies because her innocence does not matter to an indifferent universe. Pohl, though, doesn’t personify human insularity in a woman, but in the reader –and ends by directly addressing that reader, assumed to be a callow young man (first published in Rogue).

Perhaps the best SF short story ever written, it is a virtuoso performance, a story set in a future so distant and different that we can only glimpse it in mysterious reflections and intriguing images. It’s also an exercise in the application of an unconventional style to the solution of a science fiction problem. What’s so hard about it? The attitude is right, giving it the texture and feel of hard SF.
Both Arthur Clarke’s “Transit of Earth” and Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations” profit from not attempting a pleasant finish, remorselessly sticking with the assumptions of the story. The impersonality of the universe ultimately stands for its authority. Then match the Godwin against James Patrick Kelly’s 1996 Hugo winner, “Think Like A Dinosaur.”

Smart Speculation
Students enjoy stretching their intellectual muscles, especially with speculations. Some ideas open wide windows.
The Singularity envisioned by Vernor Vinge can be a useful classroom device to fuel discussion and reading. Many recent stories deal with various human augmentations, from the angelic to the horrible. The Singularity describes the black hole in history, created when human intelligence can be digitized and integrated with technologies, taking some of us beyond the comprehensible envelope of current concepts. It challenges the very idea of progress this way, a how much can you take? dare.

When the speed and scope of our cognition gets wedded to the price-performance curve of microprocessors, our progress will double every eighteen months, and then every twelve months, and then every ten, and eventually, every five seconds.
No wonder that the Singularity occupies so much of the SF narrative now. Using Vinge’s novels can well illustrate this. Whether students respond best to science or to spirituality, you could hardly ask for a subject better tailored to technological speculation and drama.


Centering science raises questions about conventional literary methods, as well. Of course, more literary SF works have plenty of space for pretty sentences and deep character, especially since they don’t do much thinking about anything else. Science-centered SF has to contend with many demands in the same story.

There’s a larger reason to foreground science: our culture has uplifted much of humanity with technology, but needs to think about the ever-faster pace of change. One of SF’s aims is to bring along into the culture those who may well react against change, even if it proves beneficial though unsettling. Genomics, climate change, biotechs that bring techno-augmented bodies and electronically assisted brains, etc –all need realistic treatment in what-if? scenarios.

Just depicting today’s science won’t do that. Thinking forward is far tougher, compared with realistic present day stories.

Subject Index of Science Fiction Stories with Good Astronomy, quite extensive, with comments: http://www.astrosociety.org/education/resources/scifi.html

Gibor Basri’s Seminar at Berkeley: http://astron.berkeley.edu/~basri/astro39/

“The Light Of Other Days” by Bob Shaw is available:


NO LIMITS: Developing Scientific Literacy Using Science Fiction, by Julie H. Czerneda, published by Trifolium Press
(http://www.czerneda.com Biologist and textbook author, she published a manual called No Limits which gives many hints about using science fiction in the classroom

http://itsf.spaceart.net/resources/itsf-biblio.html -
Innovative Technologies In Science Fiction A list of publications about the science in speculative fiction. Comprehensive.

http:/ /web.calstatela.edu/academic/builders/index.html Documents a course at California State University teaching science through the process of World Building. Includes a guide to world-building and student responses to that challenge.

http://www.davidbrin.com/teachingSF.html David Brin’s Science Fiction That Teaches site

Writer-authored curricula by Greg Egan, using his own stories:
http://w ww.netspace.net.au/~gregegan/index.html

http://www2.kenyon.edu/depts/biology/slonc/bio3/bio03syl.htm – Documents Dr. Joan Slonczewski’s “Biology in Science Fiction”(Biology 103) course at Kenyon College. This page contains a list of recommended books, and the results of student projects. This can be a model for how to use physics similarly.

http://www.guysread.com addresses the needs of boys. Many reading lists, such as those of Accelerated Reader and California Reads, show an unmistakable and profound bias toward the interests and inclinations of girls. This web site tries to counter that, stressing physics.

“Close Encounters? Science and Science Fiction”, Robert Lambourne et.al. Volume 59, Issue 9, pp. 861-862 1991

Stanley Schmidt American Journal of Physics Vol. 41 (1973): 1052ff

“Teaching modern physics through science fiction”, Roger A. Freedman, W.A. Little. American Association of Physics Teachers (http://www.aapt.org/ ) and American Journal of Physics: Vol. 48, Issue 7, pp. 548-551 1980

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5 Responses

  1. Shouldn’t be too hard to do SF, since that’s what much of modern physics is anyway. The universe exploding out of nothing! Four dimensions! Go for it!

  2. Gary Farber says:

    Greg, I wonder how much you’ve followed any of the, um, extremely vigorous debates, particularly online, particularly since the ’90s, over The Cold Equations.

    It’s rather a problematic story in several ways. Example argument.