Friday, July 31, 2015

As You Know, Bob: Conveying Information in Science Fiction Stories

One of the fun things about venturing into a completely new field is learning all of the jargon. Physics, of course, has lots of it, but so does science fiction writing. And one of the first phrases that a neophyte writer discovers is "As You Know, Bob."  What's that all about?

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Classical Mechanics: an Experiment You Can Try at Home

Classical mechanics is the branch of physics that deals with bodies in motion: velocity, momentum, forces, acceleration. And it can be pretty boring. Let's face it --  none of us went into physics because we fell in love with blocks sliding down inclined planes, with or without friction. We went into physics to learn about black holes, quantum mechanics, or the fate of the universe. But classical mechanics is the basis of all of the rest of physics, so it's what everyone studies first. And, unfortunately, for many people it ends up being their only formal contact with physics.

But even in classical mechanics there are interesting byways and surprising results that most people are unaware of.  Here's a cute experiment you can easily do at home that illustrates one of these unexpected results.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Scientists who Write Science Fiction

Gregory Benford, the science fiction writer and physicist from UC Irvine, will be presenting our physics colloquium at Vanderbilt in October -- the talk is free and open to the public, so drop in if you are in the area. Benford belongs to that rare breed of active research scientists who have also carved out a career in science fiction. "But wait!" you say, "What about Isaac Asimov -- he had a Ph.D. in chemistry. And Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke both had technical backgrounds." All true, but all of these guys, and many others like them, left science to pursue a writing career. In fact, the most famous of these is probably Michael Crichton, who is actually "Dr. Crichton" (with an M.D.) He was conducting postdoctoral biomedical research while launching his writing career. The fact that many people don't think of him as a scientist turned science fiction writer is probably because many SF purists would not consider his work to be "true" science fiction (and some physical scientists would not consider biomedical research to be true science!)

Conversely, many scientists have dabbled in science fiction, writing a few short stories or one or two novels, without ever intending to make a career out of it.  I would certainly put myself in that category. In my own field of astrophysics, there's Don Clayton, who's famous for his work on nuclear reactions in stars, and Craig Wheeler, who works on supernovae.

All of which makes Benford's parallel career as a scientist and science fiction writer all the more remarkable. In fact, I know of only one "Nobel-Prize class" scientist who also had a major science fiction writing career. Can you guess who? The answer is after the break.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Science of Time Travel

Let me preface this post by saying that I absolutely, positively believe that time travel is impossible.

Having said that, I must now admit that our current laws of physics do not absolutely, positively prove that time travel is impossible, and a variety of eminent scientists over the years have tried to construct models in which time travel is allowed.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Friday, July 17, 2015

Time Travel: A Story

As promised in my previous post, here's a short story of mine about time travel.  It appeared in the December, 2009, issue of Analog.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Time Travel: What if You Could Change the Past?

Time travel shares a dubious distinction with faster-than-light travel: they are two of the most popular ideas in all of science fiction, but also two of the most implausible from a scientific point of view. And both of them have become so ingrained in the culture of science fiction that they no longer require detailed justification when introduced into a story. As I noted earlier, the very first time travel novel, The Time Machine, begins with a lengthy explanation of the workings of time travel, while in a modern story Ann and Bob would just jump into their time machine and take off for the 13th century.

Anyone writing about time travel must choose one of two very different possibilities:

1.  Allow the past to be changed
2.  Assume the past is frozen and cannot be altered

This choice produces starkly different types of stories.  Today I want to talk about the first possibility -- I'll save the second for a later post.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Time as the 4th Dimension: a Curious Fact

I'm going to devote my next few blog posts to the ever-popular subject of time travel. In fact, my future self will be writing these posts and emailing them back in time to me, so I won't have to do the actual work of writing them myself.

Before getting started, I wanted to mention a curious fact that most people don't know about (or at least I didn't).

Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Golden Age of Fantasy on Television

When was the Golden Age for fantasy-themed shows on TV? Was it the 1990s, with the debut of The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Or possibly now, with Game of Thrones? Forget about it! There was once a brief time when fantasy shows sprouted on television like weeds in an abandoned shopping-mall parking lot.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Pluto (the Planet, not Mickey's Dog)

With the New Horizons probe reaching Pluto in just a few more days, it seems like a good time to address a couple of questions:

1.  Is Pluto a planet?

I say YES! My opinion has no basis in science -- it arises strictly from a combination of irrational prejudice and childhood nostalgia. And I think if we're going to kick Pluto out of the society of planets, there a few other pieces of debris that should also be expelled, namely Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars. After all, the Solar System basically consists of four enormous planets -- Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune -- and a bunch of rocks. My colleague David Weintraub informs me that I won't get very far with a definition of "planet" that excludes the Earth, but I think we should be more open-minded.

2.  What's the best science fiction story about Pluto?

Thursday, July 2, 2015

A Sticky Universe and the Big Rip

Some research I did with Marcelo Disconzi and Tom Kephart at Vanderbilt University on viscosity in the Universe leading to a future "big rip" has recently gotten some publicity.  Here's a story in the New Statesmen.   See, I do occasionally do science.

Update:  article in the Guardian.