AN INTERVIEW AT MIT

Published by Gregory Benford on May 23rd, 2015
GB at the Verne conference UTOPIALES 2008

http://web.mit.edu/m-i-t/science_fiction/

Henry Jenkins Gregory Benford (1941- )


“Science is … like literature, a continuing dialogue among diverse and conflicting voices, no one ever wholly right or wholly wrong, but a steady conversation forever provisional and personal and living.”

— Gregory Benford

 The critic Susan Stone-Blackburn has described Gregory Benford’s Nebula-Award winning novel,Timescape (1980) as “a genuine marriage of science and literature.” On the surface, this claim sounds fatuous. After all, the whole point of science fiction as a genre is to merge science and literature. On the other hand, what Stone-Blackburn means is that Benford’s novel offers a profoundly original way of thinking about the relationship between the two terms.

Hugo Gernsbeck, John Campbell and many of the early promoters of science fiction thought one purpose of the new genre was to popularize scientific fact and scientific theory. They made scientists and inventors into protagonists driven by a quest for knowledge and a desire to uncover the universe’s secrets. However, they rarely explored the cultural realm of science, the working methods of scientists, or the historical conditions which shaped the priorities of scientific research.

One of Benford’s most important contributions has been to expand the way science fiction represents the contexts out of which scientific understanding emerges, the competing priorities and paradigms that govern which secrets are uncovered and what insights are ignored.

Benford, who teaches Plasma Physics and Astrophysics at the University of California-Irvine, knows those contexts intimately. He describes Timescape as a partially autobiographical novel. He and his twin brother appear as minor characters in several scenes, depicted as precocious and vaguely annoying students who are encountered by the novel’s protagonist, Gordon Bernstein, a harried junior faculty member.

Benford’s protagonist does not live in a hermetically sealed world, where he can focus on the problems which carry the book’s plot; he must struggle with senior faculty members who are gunning for his star student during his Ph.D. examinations; he must juggle the demands of teaching and grading papers and meaningless committee work and reviewing graduate applications; he must maneuver through the land-mines of departmental colloquia, jockeying for position and trying not to be blind sided by others who want to make good on their ambitions at his expense. His protagonist is someone who must risk his chances at tenure and promotion in order to explore a intriguing but unorthodox scientific hypothesis. Benford recognizes that scientists spend only a small portion of their lives doing meaningful scientific research (the stuff traditional science fiction is made of) and a lot of their time doing things that pay the bills and keep the grant money flowing.

The novel is autobiographical in another sense as well, drawing on Benford’s experiences as a graduate student at the University of California-San Diego in the 1960s and his experiences as an American on sabbatical at Cambridge University. His novel depicts two different scientific communities which must work together — across time and against the odds — to solve a vexing problem upon which rides, nothing less than, the survival of the planet. (Here, at least, he remains true to the pulp origins of his genre!)

One subplot takes shape in the context of La Jolla, California, in the early 1960s, the peak of the Kennedy era: “It was the continuing heady rush of the Sputnik phenomenon. Gordon was riding that wave himself, and he knew it; these were ripe times for science.”

The other plot shows us Britain in the near future (1998, to be exact), as the planet suffers ecological disasters which may destroy the potential for human life and as funds for scientific research are directed toward immediate utilitarian applications: “This year research was a puppet whose strings led to the World Council itself. The western nations had pooled their research efforts in a gesture towards economy. The World Council was a political animal. To Renfrew it seemed the Council’s policies boiled down to supporting highly visible efforts and little else.”

Benford is fascinated by the differences in how science operates in America and England, in times of plenty and times of scarcity. The two worlds are set equidistance from 1980, the year in which Benford wrote the novel, thus allowing him to look back on the recent history of his discipline and forward to the not so distant future.

As its title suggests, Timescape is a time travel story of sorts — not containing glistening time machines and hairy-chested morlocks, but rather grounded in more or less plausible extrapolations drawn from contemporary theoretical physics. In 1998, a team of scientists specializing in tachyon particles struggle to send a message back in time, warning the past about the causes of their contemporary environmental crisis. Tachyons are faster-than-light particles which therefore defy much of what we think we know about how time operates. In 1962, Gordon Bernstein tries to make sense of irregular patterns of interference that are disrupting his lab experiments, and gradually finds a way to decipher the signals being sent from the future.

Timescape is a novel about scientific problem solving, as both sides must overcome a succession of obstacles blocking their communication. Given our still primitive grasp of tachyons, the channels of communication between past and future are narrow and rudimentary — the simple dots and dashes of Morse code. The problems Benford’s scientists confront — issues of signal and noise, the need for redundancy of expression — are problems that shaped the early history of the telegraph and radio. Ironically, only when the precise, technical language of science gives way in the story to a more broadly human language — when a bureaucrat devises a simple test to see if the messages have gotten through, requesting that a note be left in a bank safe deposit box, or when a tired researcher starts babbling about his desperation and frustration — does real communication across time and space occur.

Benford has no belief in science as a universal language; its terms, concepts, and basic materials shift dramatically in the forty years which separate the two groups of protagonists in his story. The future scientists take for granted things that scientists in the 1960s did not yet know, and so there is confusion and misinterpretation.

For Benford, science is founded in human experience, human knowledge, human perspectives, and human biases. His scientists struggle to focus on technical problems amid complex personal relationships, try to isolate the challenges of the laboratory from the difficulties of the bedroom or from the tensions between mothers and sons, and yet, often, the insights which generate their scientific discoveries come to them from spaces far removed from their experimental apparatus.

As one of the book’s scientists explains, “theories are based on pictures of the world — human pictures.” Benford is interested in the way scientists think — and his characters approach their various tasks with wildly different methods. In one passage, Benford contrasts different approaches to their work of a theoretical and a experimental physicist:

His [John, the experimental scientist] emotions were bottled up in an obsession with machinery and some inner turbulence, almost a defiant anger at the universe for withholding its secrets. Perhaps that was the difference between merely thinking about experiments, as Greg did, and actually having to do them. It must be harder to believe in serene mathematical beauties when you have dirty hands.

In Benford’s fiction, we learn how characters’ minds work by watching how they calculate equations. In doing this, Benford blurs the boundaries between science and literature, making science the vehicle for exploring character. In one of the book’s most moving passages, a scientist works through some highly complex calculations as he sits on a transatlantic flight, searching not only for a technical truth but for a cosmic beauty.

There was more than remorseless crank-turning to be done here. The work had to have the right deft feel, to glide forward on its own momentum. Beyond the logical standards there were aesthetic questions…. There was no choice between beauty and truth, really. You had to wind up with both. In art, elegance was a whore of a word, bent a different way by each generation of critics. In physics, though, there was some fragile lesson to be learned from past millennia.

Benford can trace the processing of the individual human mind across page after page, circling through the complexities of theoretical physics and spreading outward to touch other parts of his characters’ lives.

At the same time, he recognizes that scientific research is at heart collaborative, building upon what has come before, drawing insights through uneasy and unstable alliances, making headway as much through the help of critics as allies, and making intuitive links that cut across fields of specialization. Benford implicitly rejects the cornerstone cliche of science fiction — the autonomous scholar whose knowledge is unlimited and genius unbounded.

Instead, his protagonists are all dependent upon others in their work group, yet each in his own way is brilliant, each makes a vital contribution to solving problems. Science remains heroic in Benford’s novel, all the more so, because no individual can find all the answers independently.

Timescape is also preoccupied with the ways in which the media reports scientific discoveries, examining how all levels of media, from Junior Scholastic to Life, from the network news to tabloid scandal sheets, represent and misrepresent scientific discoveries, sometimes damaging reputations, but sometimes helping to insure that resources are properly directed towards urgent problems. Benford’s protagonists must make their cases in venues other than scientific journals, must meet standards of proof and credibility far removed from the nuances of scientific method. In a throw-away passage early in the novel, Benford recounts a BBC debate between a rational U.S. ambassador and a passionate Argentinean:

The triviality of this point [the U.S. Ambassador’ argument] in the face of an avalanche of psychic energy from the Argentinean had put the ambassador far down in total points by the time the viewers phoned in their opinions of the discussion. Why, the ambassador fellow had scarcely smiled or mugged at the camera or smacked a fist on the table before him. How could he expect to have any media impact whatever?

The rational discourse of science fares no better than politics in this realm of media controversy.

Among the book’s more intriguing secondary characters is a media-savvy astronomer, clearly modeled loosely on Carl Sagan, who opportunistically exploits Bernstein’s research to help make the case for life on other planets, a much more attractive subject for the media to cover than our protagonist’s nuclear resonance experiments. Benford notes at one point, “It was odd how celebrity invaded science these days so that appearing on the Johnny Carson Show was more effective with the NSF than publishing a brilliant series of papers in Physical Review.”

Benford questions the values of such a culture, recognizing that some of the core questions physics must confront defy common-sensical understandings of the universe. He discusses, for example, how the theory of tachyons seems to defy our grasp of temporal relations: “Human language did not fit the physics. There was no tense of the verb to be that reflected the looping sense of time. No way to turn the language on the pivot of physics, to apply a torque that would make the paradoxes dissolve into an ordered circle, endlessly turning.”

To find answers, his protagonists must move beyond ideas easily grasped within their culture, even beyond the constraints of their era’s dominant scientific paradigms, and this ground-breaking makes it difficult to translate pure research into a language that wins grants and secures bureaucratic support.

Yet, Benford is also critical of the ways in which the language of science has shut out the general public and has encouraged its resignation and indifference: “For decades now the picture of the world painted by the scientists had become strange, distant, unbelievable. Far easier, then, to ignore it than to try to understand it. Things were too complicated. Why bother? Turn on the telly, Luv. Right.”

Science fiction is, after all, a genre committed to popularizing science, making its insights and conclusions accessible to a broader public. More people will understand time paradoxes and tachyons by reading his Benford’s novel than by reading his reports on “Coherent Radiation from Energetic Electron Streams via Collisionless Bremmstrahlung in Electrical Plasma Turbulence” in Astrophysics Journal. Yet, Benford is also aware that science fiction appeals to a narrow, self-selecting community interested in exploring a literature of ideas: “Science fiction can and does teach people things because after all, it is an elite literature and talks about arcane things sometimes. It’s programming is to blow your mind, occasionally, to open your horizons, to tell you things you didn’t know.”

Benford writes what is known as “hard science fiction” — which is to say, his novels are grounded in physic and astronomy, rather than in the social sciences. The trio of Benford, Greg Bear, and David Brin, known as the “killer B’s”, helped to revitalize “hard science fiction” as a subgenre in the 1980s. When I speak with MIT students and faculty who are enthusiasts of “hard science fiction,” they are quick to note that Benford really knows his science. Benford consults for NASA, was elected to the Royal Astronomical Society, and writes broadly about scientific questions for both Reason and Fantasy and Science Fiction (“A Scientist’s Notebook”). He has gained recognition as a practicing full-time physicist and as a widely published and prolific science fiction writer, best known for his Galactic Center Saga. Benford respects the earlier traditions of the genre, having collaborated on projects which extend the work of Arthur C. Clarke (Beyond the Fall of Night) and Isaac Asimov (Foundation’s Fear) as well as collaborating with Poul Anderson (Murasaki). He has edited many significant anthologies, often in collaboration with Martin Greenberg, centering on issues of alternative history, including Hitler Victorious and the What Might Have Been series.

In the end, however, Benford’s contributions to the genre aren’t the scientific facts and theories he teaches his readers, but his ability to open the culture of science to of those of us who don’t know a Bunsen burner from a test tube. Benford opens the poetry of higher mathematics to readers who struggled through Algebra II. To do that, he has had to fuse science and literature in a way few have done before.

Selected Works
The Galactic Center Saga:
1977 In the Ocean of the Night
1984 Across the Sea of Suns
1989 Tides of Light
1994 Furious Gulf
1995 Sailing Bright Eternity
Other Works:
1974 Threads of Time
1979 The Stars in Shroud
1980 Timescape
1983 Artifact
1984 Jupiter Project
1985 Deeper Than Darkness
1987 In the Ocean of Night
1987 Under the Wheel
1987 Hitler Victorious (ed. with Martin Greenberg)
1987 Great Sky River
1987 Heart of the Comet (with David Brin)
1988 In Alien Flesh (short stories)
1988 Nuclear War (ed. With Greenberg)
1989 Alternative Heroes (ed. with Greenberg)
1989 Alternative Empires (ed. with Greenberg)
1991 Beyond the Fall of Night (with Arthur C. Clarke)
1992 Alternative Americas (ed. with Greenberg)
1992 Murasaki (with Poul Anderson)
1995 Far Futures (ed.)
1995 Matter’s End
1996 A Darker Geometry (with Mark O. Martin)
1996 Shiva Descending (with William Rotsler)
1997 Foundation’s Fear
1998 Cosm
1998 If Stars Are Gods

–H.J.

 



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