Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Cosmology in Science Fiction

Almost everyone loves to hear about cosmology. Public lectures on the subject pack in large and enthusiastic audiences.  And what's not to like?  Cosmology deals with the deepest questions in science: the beginning of the universe, the end of the universe, and everything in between. Recent years have seen numerous breakthroughs in our understanding of the universe, and yet the remaining mysteries, like dark matter and dark energy, provide tantalizing clues that much remains to be discovered.

So cosmology ought to figure prominently in science fiction, right? Actually, not so much. And I think there's a very good reason for this.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Physics of Popes

In honor of the visit of Pope Francis to the United States, I want to talk a bit about popes and antipopes. But what, you may ask, is an antipope? An antipope is anyone who falsely claims to be the pope. For instance, the papal claimants residing at Avignon during the Great Schism of the 14th century are considered to be antipopes. This leads to a further question: what happens when a pope meets an antipope?

The answer: they annihilate and produce two Protestants. Because you have to conserve Anglican momentum.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Why I Never Liked Ray Bradbury When I Was Growing Up

I grew up in the 1960s.  We were the last generation who could run loose in the neighborhood from Saturday morning until dinner time. Our summers were aimless affairs, devoid of any parental organization, as long as we showed up for school in September. But what does all of this have to do with Ray Bradbury?

Monday, September 21, 2015

Shakespeare and Science Fiction

In class last week, one of the students wanted to know if there were any works of science fiction based on Shakespeare's plays. Only one obvious example came to mind.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Neanderthals, Genetics, and Intelligence: Were our Ancestors Smarter than Us?

You know the stereotype:  the Neanderthals were primitive knuckle draggers -- they might have been stronger than us, but we used our superior intellect to outcompete them and drive them to extinction. Ted Kosmatka, in his short story, "N-words," neatly turns this picture on its head.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Vanderbilt Course on Science and Science Fiction

The semester here is well underway, and I am teaching (with my colleague Jay Clayton from the English Department) an honors seminar on science and science fiction. Each week is based around a different theme (time travel, quantum mechanics, prediction of the future), with corresponding stories assigned. Then we discuss both the scientific issues (Does physics rule out time travel?  Why can't you travel faster than light, and what are the implications for interstellar travel? And what's deal with Schrodinger's cat?) and the stories themselves.  It's a unique blend of hard-core science and literature (as the name of the course suggests).  This is the third time we've taught this course, and I think we're finally starting to get it right.  You can look at the class blog at https://vusf.wordpress.com/.  There's a link there to the class syllabus, if you'd like to see what we are reading.  All in all, it's the most fun class I've ever taught. And of course, this blog itself grew out of my teaching that course.