Posts Tagged ‘physics’

INTERVIEW at Lucky Bat, publisher

Published by Gregory Benford on July 3rd, 2012

1. What are you working on now? Books? Short stories? Any upcoming projects you want to let us know about?

Reissued!

I’m systematically getting my older books reverted from Harper Collins (done!), Bantam (now done!–Heart of the Comer is out), Ace (working!) etc. Then I have Lucky Bat reissue them in e-editions and sometimes Print on Demand, as with my 1992 novel Chiller, reissued in 2011. I often include a new introduction, making them true second editions.
Beyond that, I have a new novel coming Fall 2012 from Tor, co-written with Larry Niven, Bowl of Heaven. More novels to follow that, including the Bowl sequel, to be called Shipstar. Many of my books remain in hard editions (“p-books” I’ve heard them called; printed) like Timescape and continue to sell well. But I spent five years starting and running some biotech companies and did little writing. That blows you out of the stores. I had half a dozen paperbacks in Barnes and Noble in 2005; now there are few. Time to get back in, on new terms.
I always write a half dozen or so shorter works per year, usually commissioned, to stay in the game. In science fiction (sf) you can get new readers with your short fiction, the traditional path. It’s nice being included in Best Of Year collections—good advertising. To drive this further, Lucky Bat has brought out my 5th short story collection, Anomalies.

2. What about topics? You’ve broken ground in your novels about time/space and even about cryonics. What science are you tackling now?
Bowl of Heaven is about what Larry & I call a Big Smart Object. His Ringworld is a Big Dumb Object since it’s passively stable, as we are when we stand still. A Smart Object is dynamically stable, as we are when we walk. There’ve been several Big Dumb Object s in sf by John Varley, Bob Shaw, George Zebrowski and others.. Our Big Smart Object is larger than Ringworld and is going somewhere, using an entire star as its engine. But why? Fun!
As well, Lucky Bat brings out further titles like my novel Cosm this year, which did well at Harper. They reverted my books, so now it’s my turn. Publishers just can’t get their backlist into e-formats fast enough to avoid having authors like me get them back. It’s a rought & ready era!

3. You’ve mentioned — and you’ve proven — that you’re intrigued by the new world of publishing. Why? What is the magnet for you?
Of all genres, sf should look to the future. The digital transition can liberate authors and readers as never before, with publishers playing not the single pipeline but one of several paths. Plus, digital carries the scent of permanence, liberating prose from matter so it can transcend time.
Want to be read in a century? Go digital. I have dozens of books and hundreds of stories that need moving to e-formats.

4. All but your book, Chiller, recently published by Lucky Bat Books after rights reverted to you, have been published by traditional publishers. How does that model differ for you from the experience of publishing through a house like Lucky Bat Books.
After 47 years publishing, I know enough to shape my own books – art, especially. So getting to commission new art, arrange formatting and not dealing with %$@#*! art directors is a gift. Where else in the arts does a creator get so little say in how his work gets presented?
(I had arranged for a jacket illustration of an anthology I coedited: a lovely 1948 Bonestell painting showing the US east coast from orbit…and an art director flipped it because he thought it looked better mirror reversed…for the jacket of Skylife, from Harcourt. So the coast was unrecognizable. Aaargh!)
Plus, publicity (what little remains) can be contracted out. Distribution through Amazon is potent, and one can arrange placement with Barnes & Noble, etc. Piecemeal publishing, distribution and advertising can be quite effective. Look at the newbie authors who’ve sold a million e-books! These are methods in their infancy, a brave new whirl.
5. Are you planning to be on the road or at any conventions this year where your readers can see you?
No plans as yet…last year I hit worldcon, World Fantasy Con, Condor & Loscon—plenty of fun. I’m Guest of Honor at VCon in Vancouver late Sept and I’ll be at Loscon the day after Thanksgiving. In October Larry & I will do a west coast book tour—Mysterious Galaxy in LA & San Diego, Books Inc in Palo Alto, Dark Carnival in Berkeley, Borderlands in San Francisco, University Bookstore in Seattle, Powell’s in Portland, maybe more.

6. As a professor of physics at the University of California Irvine, you’re conversing with students every day. Do they ever challenge the physics in your science fiction? Or make it a part of the classroom discussion?
I use sf examples especially in mechanics classes—is the ringworld stable, etc.. I’ve been a lifelong researcher, with hundreds of scientific papers published, and several books—so I truly care about communicating science to people.
A fun part of Physics Through SF, a course I taught at UC Irvine, is seeing where you should tweak the physics to make the story work better. Hal Clement called it “the game” and it’s mostly played these days at Analog. I posted a long piece about this on my blog, gregorybenford.com.

7. What lies ahead?
A whole new landscape in publishing. I suspect that within this decade fully half of all new books will appear in e-formats and stay available forever. An enormous backlist will reside there. Many editors will be as freelance as writers are now. (A fine senior editor I worked with many times has gone freelance already, http://betsymitchelleditorial.com/.)
This is more than an opportunity; it’s a revolution. Join it!


REMEMBERING SID

Published by Gregory Benford on February 10th, 2012

 This essay was written before Sid Coleman’s untimely death in 2007.

(First published in Trapdoor 25. Art by Dan Steffan.)

 Gregory Benford

In January 2007 Sid Coleman’s wife, Diana, sent a letter to their friends about his decline. It was troubling; Sid was one of those I most admired in fandom—indeed, in life. But now his particular sort of Parkinson’s had advanced until he could not live at home any more.

Diana had placed him in a living facility, where she visited him daily. He went long times now without speaking, she said, but at times a glint of the old Sydney would flicker. His roommate, a cook, remarked that Sid seemed to be a nice man. “Appearances are deceiving,” Sid said, with a sly smile.

The Fan

Her letter set me to remembering. Sid was so much—physicist, raconteur, world traveler—and he gave much to science fiction. His teenage toils for Advent Publishers supported a scrupulous, ambitious role for fans in holding the field to its standards.

In 1960 he said in Earl Kemp’s Who Killed SF?, “I am not in science fiction for money; I am in it for joy. Formally, I am a publisher (actually, 14% of a publisher). This is useful: it gets me on the mailing list of PITFCS; it is a handy topic of conversation at parties; it is a means whereby I meet some interesting people; it is a better hobby than stamp-collecting any day.  From an economic standpoint, it plays a lesser role in my life than returning Coke bottles for refunds.”

Earl Kemp, Ed Wood, Sid and some others created a fannish publishing house, Advent Publishers, in 1956. He was a teenager when he helped publish Advent’s first book, Damon Knight’s In Search of Wonder. Week after week the fans gathered at Earl Kemp’s apartment in Chicago, catching typos in the photo offset text. Ed Wood, a very large fan with a very large voice, and Sid, maintained an unrelenting dialog about the purpose of science fiction fandom—Ed loudly proclaiming that fandom should “spread the science fiction faith,” while Sid insisted on a smaller purpose, like fun.

Earl Kemp recalled that Sid was at his very best when criticizing someone for what he thought was a shortcoming. Sid’s inimitable trick was to do it with charm and wit that left the target injured but somehow happy about the whole thing and anxious to tell others about it.

Fandom was for him a larger family, an audience for a swift, subtle sense of humor. At a Halloween party in Chicago, he appeared costumed as “Judas Iscariot as Sidney Coleman with thirty pieces of silver,” carrying three dollars in dimes.  In a letter of comment he remarked, “The interstate highway now passes through Indiana and Illinois, traversing some of the flattest territory in the nation. It has been said of this geography, ‘You could see a hundred miles in every direction, if only there was something worth looking at.’”

From a fanzine piece: “Did I ever tell you about my great-grandfather, Stephen Rich, the stingiest man in Slonim? When the local stonecutter went out of business, he had him make up a tombstone for him, cheap, with everything on it but the date of great-grandfather’s death. He kept it in his front yard and tethered his goat to it. At least that’s what my mother has always told me, but she’s quite capable of having stolen the whole incident from an Erskine Caldwell novel.”

Jim Caughran recalled, “He could make a story of what he’d done today into a hilarious adventure. He could seize the moment, improvising.” A faculty couple at Caltech owned a gentle German shepherd. While he was a grad student Sid would occasionally do dog-sitting duties. The doorbell to the apartment rang. Sidney opened the door with the dog close behind. “Ha! A stranger!” Sidney said, “Kill, Fang!”

And he had an incredible repertory of Jewish jokes. Terry Carr once asked him, “How many jokes can you tell that start, ‘One day in the garment district…’?”  He was speechless, then said he couldn’t put a number to them.”

Martha Beck was at a science fiction function and got into a conversation with a man who was a physicist. She casually mentioned Sid, and the man said in awed tones, “You know Sidney Coleman!?”

After all, Sid attended high school and university simultaneously, getting his bachelor’s degree when he graduated from high school, a feat I’ve never known to be equaled. Sid went to Caltech for his doctorate with Murray Gell-Mann in 1962, age 25. He attended LASFS meetings and swiftly became a major theoretical physicist.  Many fans never quite knew his prominence.

“I’m at the top of the second rank,” Carol Carr remembers him saying.

Sid the Physicist

I first met him in the 1960s, introduced by Terry Carr, who explained with a wry smile, “You’re both in physics and write for Innuendo [Terry’s fanzine], so you should probably know each other.” Sid was already both a better physicist and wit, of course. He was far more subtle and powerful in his mathematics than I.

In the late 1980s he caught the attention of the entire physics world with a calculation, using a “wormhole calculus” he invented for the purpose. It carried the characteristically witty title, “Why there is nothing rather than something: a theory of the cosmological constant.” [Nucl. Phys. B 310: 643 (1988)] In it he concluded that through complex dynamics in the first moments of the universe, it was later able to sustain life forms that could perhaps “know joy.”

He showed how the cosmological constant could be forced to be zero in the early universe. This fit the prevailing prejudice among theorists that the constant, first introduced by Einstein to make the universe static, neither expanding nor contracting. When Hubble found in the late 1920s that the universe is expanding, Einstein said imposing the constant was a blunder, not because it was a bad idea, but because Einstein didn’t see that the resulting equilibrium was unstable. Any minor jiggle would destroy the static state, starting motion. Even with the constant, he should have foreseen that Hubble would either see a universe growing or shrinking.

Sidney had no prejudice either way on the value of the constant, but he did see a pretty way to use quantum mechanical ideas to propose a sweet model—the sort of confection theorists hold dear. I was startled by the intricate audacity of his calculation, as were many others.

At the time I had been working on some wormhole calculations myself, much more prosaically trying to find a way to see if we had any wormholes nearby and if they could be found out through their refracting ability. Some wormholes might develop one end that looked as though it had negative mass, since its other end had funneled a lot of mass out through its mouth. These would yield a unique refracting signature, two peaks, if a star passed behind it, along our line of sight. Find the two peaks (rather than one for ordinary wormhole mouths, or any ordinary mass) and—presto, a gateway to the stars, maybe. It was a clear longshot.

Sid had no illusions about his model—it was a longshot, too, that just might be right. Worth a chance. I felt the same.

Everybody liked the “wormhole calculus” because they liked the result, a zero constant. That seemed clean, neat, a theorist’s delight. Sid basked in the attention, though he didn’t think this was his best work. My work, done with several others, got a lot of citation and wasn’t my best, either; wormholes just get good press. Sid quoted Einstein wryly that “If my theory of relativity is proven successful, Germany will claim me as a German and the Swiss will declare that I am their citizen. If it fails, Switzerland will say I’m a German and the Germans will say I am a Jew.”

It turned out that the cosmological constant isn’t zero at all. In fact, it represents the highest energy density in the universe, far more important in dynamics than mere matter like us. In fact, it’s close to the value that will eventually give us the Big Rip that will tear everything apart at the End of Time, even atoms. When I mentioned in 1996 the recent discovery that the constant was large, not zero, Sid shrugged. “Win some, lose some in the old cosmology game.”

We haven’t found any refracting wormholes, either. That’s just how science goes.

The Sidneyfest

When Sid’s decline became evident, the Harvard physics department put on a Sidneyfest that ran over a weekend. Some reports on this event, with pictures, are at  HYPERLINK http://www.physics.harvard.edu/QFT/sidneyfest.htmhttp://www.physics.harvard.edu/QFT/sidneyfest.htm.

Then-president of Harvard Larry Summers opened the Fest before a large crowd with, “There has not been so much talent gathered around the snack table since Einstein snacked alone.” Nobelist Steven Weinberg gave the next talk, discussing how to calculate Feynman diagrams for quantized general relativity. He talked about work in progress, and at the end said, “I don’t know what to do now.  Does anybody else?”  This was the place to ask! He added, “In happier times, I would have gone straight to Sidney Coleman.”

Though Weinberg is now at the University of Texas, he shared the 1979 Nobel Prize in Physics with Shelly Glashow and Abdus Salam for work done down the hall from Sid. “Sidney is a theorist’s theorist,” Weinberg said. “He has not been so much concerned with accounting for the latest data from experiments as with understanding deeply what our theories really mean. I can say I learned more about physics from Sidney than from anyone else. I also learned more good jokes from him than from anyone else.”

The noted particle theorist Howard Georgi said, “In his prime, which lasted for a very long time, from the mid ‘60s to the late ‘80s, Sidney was such a towering figure in theoretical physics that even his close colleagues (Nobel prize winners, etc.) were somewhat in awe of him. In fact, we had to be careful about talking to Sidney too soon about new ideas, because he was so smart and had such encyclopedic knowledge that he could kill nascent ideas before they really got started.”

Sidney was a beloved teacher of graduate students, and many of them attended the Sidneyfest. Sid referred to the community as i fratelli fisici, by which he meant the brotherhood of physicists. (Most physicists speak at least a bit of broken Italian, a legacy of the grand and highly influential summer schools organized by Nino Zichichi in Erice, Sicily.) In a physics career one often arrives by train or plane, anywhere in the world, on the way to a conference or academic visit. One of the fondest reflections of being a scientist is to then be greeted by a total stranger, who immediately treated one like an old friend. Erice was like that; the brotherhood of science. With good food.

The town likes the NATO-backed workshops because they bring an elevated form of tourism to the ancient town on a granite spire, perched a kilometer above a beautiful beach. One year a noted German physicist drove down in his brand new Mercedes and parked it outside the workshop buildings, which were once a convent. He emerged an hour later to find the Mercedes stolen along with his luggage and all his lecture notes. The German panicked, and Director Zichichi led him back inside to give him a glass or two of good Sicilian wine. Emerging an hour later, there sat the Mercedes. Zichichi had ties everywhere. The local Mafia had found the thieves. Then they kindly returned the car, washed, waxed and fully fueled—an impressively offhand way to show real power. Sid always loved telling this tale.

I had given a lecture series there in astrophysics, suspecting that the true appeal of Erice was the meal chits they gave out for attendees. Good in many of the best restaurants, these allowed for wine with the meal, no questions asked. This single gesture made the afternoon sessions either lively or dead, depending on the quality and quantity of the wine. But Sidney avoided the wine, focusing on clarifying his own lectures right up to the last minute. His careful, insightful summaries of the state of knowledge in field theory became famous and appeared as a book devoted solely to them.

One of the Sidneyfest attendees who got his doctorate at Harvard remarked, “How do you do physics at Harvard? You go to Witten to give you a problem to work on. You go to Coleman to tell you how to solve it. Then you go to Weinberg to write you a reference letter.” Ed Witten is the Einstein figure of string theory and much else. Weinberg won the Nobel for what we now call the Standard Model.

Though I’ve never met Weinberg, I learned a lot of physics just working through a Weinberg calculation he did as a toss-off for a classified project I worked on in the late 1960s, given the problem by Edward Teller, who had hired me in 1967. Weinberg’s footprint in the calculations was impressive. He came a decade ahead of me in the profession and I rather regretted showing that the method he studied would not work in reality. But physics isn’t just about getting everything to work; it’s about the truth. Weinberg was no sharper than Sid, but he happened upon an insight that proved out true quite swiftly. There is a lot of luck in science; many of the brilliant just don’t hit quite the right problem. Sid won prizes, several Sidneyfest attendees remarked, but not the big ones.

There were many Sid stories. One was about being at a physics meeting where Stephen Hawking spoke up from his wheelchair. This was around 1976, when Stephen could barely control his throat, and struggled to make his points in his semi-unintelligible way. His comment contained a detailed, abstruse mathematical argument and went on for minutes. Sid said that he was tempted to reply, “That’s easy for you to say,” but held his tongue.

Another Sid story: A mathematician and an engineer are sitting in on a string theory lecture. The engineer is struggling, while the mathematician is swimming along with no problem. Finally the engineer asks, “How do you do it? How do you visualize these 11-dimensional spaces?” The mathematician says, “It’s easy: first I visualize an n-dimensional space, then I set n equal to 11.”

At the fest Sidney could not deal with the crowd, so he watched the proceedings on TV in a small room off to the side. At the end he appeared before the crowd but declined to comment, saying later, “At my age you tend to emit a lot of gas, and I’d rather not.”

Wit

Rather than his physics, I remember best Sid’s brilliant wit. He once remarked about dopey plot twists, “The one good thing about stupidity is that it leads to adventure.”  I’ve often thought that applies to life as a whole, too.

Bob Silverberg recalled in a fanzine, “While traveling in France in the early 1970s, Sidney unexpectedly contracted a case of what turned out to be crabs. ‘Unexpectedly’ because this is customarily a venereal disease, and he had been a model of chastity throughout his trip. The offending organisms must have been concealed in the bedding of his hotel room, he decided, and so he had suffered a case of punishment without the crime. But during the trip he had not, however, remained true to the dietary restrictions imposed by the religious doctrines of his forefathers; and, he said, after visiting a French doctor and having his ailment diagnosed for what it was, he was granted a vision of his Orthodox grandfather rising up in wrath before him and thundering, ‘Thou hast eaten crustaceans, child, and now thou shalt be devoured by crustaceans thyself!’”

Carol Carr remembers that Sid’s French was limited, and that a literal translation of what he told the doctor was, “Small animals are eating my penis.”

In the fevered height of the 1970s, when even theoretical physicists had gotten the hip message of the 1960s, Sid had a tailored purple suit. He wore it with stylish aplomb, smiling his owlish smiles below twinkling eyes, pretending to not notice the flagrant color. Once, walking across Harvard Yard, we encountered a student who had a question about a career in physics. I wondered how Sid would reply, since I usually gave a long, windy answer. Sid simply swept a hand grandly down his tailored flanks and said, “Study hard, have original ideas, and someday you, too, may wear a purple suit.”

Carol Carr also recalls:  “Sid made the expression ‘enjoying oneself’ a concrete, observable act, and he would sometimes be caught shamelessly indulging in it.  Once, at a party, he had just said something funny to a bunch of people.  After the punchline he walked out of the room, leaving them all in mid-grin.  Several minutes later I happened to notice him, alone in a corner, still chortling to himself.  What he’d said to those people had a long half-life, and Sid was a bonafide, dyed-in-the-wool appreciator.  If a good joke happened to be his own, he wasn’t about to apply the doctrine of false modesty and let it die before its time.”

When his physics department suddenly needed someone to fill in for an ill colleague, they asked Sid if he could teach a field theory class that the energetic colleague had scheduled for 8 a.m. Sid was a notorious night owl who often had to rouse his dinner guests to go home at a mere 3 a.m. He relished the pleasures of watching the sun come up while putting on pajamas and others stirred. Still, he considered. He felt that he did have an obligation to his department. “I’m sorry,” he finally said, “I just don’t think I could stay up that late.”

He wrote a great sendup of the space program:

“Once I gained access to Pioneer 10, it was the work of a moment to substitute for NASA’s plaque my own, which read, “Make ten exact copies of this plaque with your name at the bottom of the list and send them to ten intelligent races of your acquaintance. At the end of four billion years, your name will reach the top of the list and you will rule the galaxy.”

If only A. E. van Vogt had thought of this economical idea!

Of course, Sid had his oddities. He was the worst driver I ever knew, distracted by conversation with his passengers, oblivious to the screech and shouts of near-accidents. Marta Randall remarked on how when she was the lead car on the several-car trip to  a restaurant, she always saw Sid in her rear view mirror in profile, attentive to his passengers.

But then, Feynman considered dental hygiene to be a superstition, despite his rotten teeth. Einstein hated socks.  We have our foibles.

Sid did indeed look a lot like Einstein, but he loved SF whereas Einstein deplored it. Lest SF distort pure science and give people the false illusion of scientific understanding, Einstein recommended complete abstinence from any type of science fiction. “I never think of the future. It comes soon enough,” he said.

Now, though, Sid can’t concentrate enough to read SF. For decades he took SF seriously but not solemnly, and his insights led to his role as a book reviewer for F&SF—the only non-literary person ever to serve. His F&SF book reviews skewered the second rate and revealed the excellences of the able. In a review of a novel that did not make the grade in a nonetheless ambitious area, he simply remarked, “This book fills a much needed vacancy in our field.”

Sid is just the opposite. As he fades from us, his departure from our midst leaves a vacancy that echoes, unfillable.

—Greg Benford


TEACHING SF THROUGH PHYSICS…OR THE OTHER WAY AROUND

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.

Sources
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:
http://www.scifi.com/scifiction/classics/classics_archive/shaw/

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