Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Speed of Light in Science Fiction: When Less is More

A science fiction writer can often produce a more interesting story by strictly obeying the known laws of science than by blithely ignoring them.  An obvious example is the speed limit imposed by relativity, which I discussed in an earlier post.  It might seem easier for a writer to just ignore the cosmic speed limit (“jump into hyperspace, Jimmy!”), but one can often construct a more interesting story by adhering to the cosmic speed limit and following where this leads.

The most plausible way to evade the speed of light is to exploit relativity itself, specifically, the time dilation effect.  Time slows down for passengers on a spaceship approaching the speed of light.  So a trip that appears from the outside to take thousands of years might seem to the passengers to take only a few months.  Of course, when they returned back home, the space travelers would find their friends and family turned to dust, making this a not entirely satisfactory means of space travel.  The latter problem figures prominently in the conclusion of Joe Haldeman’s Forever War, in which a soldier on an interstellar combat mission is separated from his girlfriend, and only a few years pass for him, while thousands of years pass back on Earth.  (Haldeman employs a few additional tricks from relativity to ensure a happy ending).  And the ultimate time-dilation tale is Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero.  In Anderson’s novel, a colonization vessel begins to accelerate out of control.  The time dilation becomes so extreme that the crew eventually witnesses (and survives!) the end of the universe itself.

A particularly heartrending exploitation of this idea is "The Old Equations," by Jake Kerr.  (Do you know where the title of the story comes from?)  Before I spoil it for you, you can read the story at Lightspeed magazine.  Kerr's story actually pulls a clever swindle on the reader -- while it adheres slavishly to the laws of relativity, it introduces an idea that is just as implausible (in my mind) as violating the speed of light. But like a good magician, Kerr distracts your attention so that you don't even notice it.

Friday, June 26, 2015

More on the Fermi Paradox

I have a guest blog post on the Fermi paradox here.  This is more science fiction oriented than my earlier discussion -- I examine some of the unusual ideas that science fiction writers have explored (and, in many cases, invented) to explain our lack of alien contact.  Extra credit if you can spot the reference to Veggie Tales.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Article on Intelligent Life in the Universe

How common is intelligent life in the universe? And if it's common, why haven't we seen it yet? I discuss these questions in an article at The Conversation.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Computer Nostalgia: the Birth of the Internet

Yes, like Al Gore, I was there at the birth of the Internet.  OK, maybe not the birth of the Internet, but I was there when the Internet was still in diapers and not playing nicely with other children.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Quantum Immortality

I have to admit that I had never heard of quantum immortality until I read Robert Charles Wilson's short story, "Divided by Infinity." (That's the same Wilson who wrote Spin, which I recommended in a previous post). You can read "Divided by Infinity" online at this site. Take a look at it before I spoil the story for you in the rest of my post.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Quantum Mechanics in Science Fiction

Quantum mechanics is the wacky, spooky carnival funhouse of physics.  Nothing is exactly what it seems to be.  Objects no longer occupy a definite location in space, particles act like waves and waves act like particles, and the act of observing an experiment changes the experimental outcome.  So what happens when science fiction writers try to explore a theory that is so weird that it seems like science fiction itself?

Monday, June 1, 2015

I’ll Give up Fortran when they Pry it from my Cold, Dead Hands

Yes, I still program in Fortran.  And I’m proud of it.  Every so often I tell my colleagues that it’s finally time for me to pick up a new programming language.  Maybe C++.  Or Java.  Lately, Python.  But then I sit down in a quiet place and the urge passes.  You just can’t beat Fortran, and here’s why: