Thursday, December 31, 2015

Puzzling Expressions from Science

Many expressions from science have entered our everyday vocabulary, but sometimes in ways that are puzzling. Here are a few that I have wondered about -- perhaps some of you can explain them:

1.  Guinea pig. This is now a colloquial expression for any experimental subject. But biomedical research is performed mostly with rats and mice. So instead of saying, "Can you be my guinea pig for this recipe?" why don't we say, "Can you be my rat for this recipe?" Were guinea pigs much more important in research fifty or a hundred years ago? If so, it certainly wasn't for ease of breeding. We used to own a guinea pig, and they do not "breed like rabbits" -- more like pandas. I should note that the term "lab rat" seems to be entering the popular vocabulary, so maybe it will eventually displace "guinea pig."

Monday, December 28, 2015


So I finally got to see Star Wars VII. (Why is it that only Star Wars movies and Super Bowls rate Roman numerals?) Of course, Star Wars isn't really science fiction -- it's a fantasy set it space -- but I really enjoyed the first three Star Wars movies (or as my children would say, the second three movies).  I would rank the newest Star Wars offering well below the first three (i.e., the second three), but much better than the second three movies (i.e., the first three). At first I enjoyed the constant references to the first (fourth) movie, but after a while it became apparent that the entire film was just that -- a remix of the original Star Wars, which made it all too predictable. And why did the bad guy come across as an unpleasant Star Wars fan-boy who looked and sounded like he had just stepped out of a Jane Austen film?


Wednesday, December 16, 2015

New Names Announced for Exoplanets and Stars

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) has just announced the official new names for a large number of exoplanets (i.e., planets orbiting other stars). You can read the full list here. (Thanks to my colleague Susan Stewart of the US Naval Observatory for pointing this out). The IAU is the organization that has the authority to confer official names on extraterrestrial objects. That place you paid to name a star after your girlfriend does not have this authority. The IAU had some sort of competition involving nominations from the public, which you can read about on their website.

This list will be of particular interest to science fiction writers out there -- it gives a whole bunch of new names for nearby planets. (For fictional planet names, you really can't beat Larry Niven's Known Space series.  His planets include We Made It, Jinx, Plateau, Home, and Down). But I do have one problem with the IAU list -- they also renamed a bunch of stars! For some stars, it's a clear improvement.  HD 149026 has been named "Ogma" (much easier to remember), while PSR 1257+12 (not an easy name to remember) is now called "Lich." But they renamed some fairly well-known stars as well. The prime example is epsilon Eridani, which is now supposed to be called "Ran." But epsilon Eridani is a famous star, visible to the naked eye. Maybe I'm just annoyed because I used it in a story that I sent off a few weeks ago. But I'm sure it's been used in countless other SF stories as well. And frankly, Ran just doesn't sound as good.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Class Blog for Science/Science Fiction Seminar

Yesterday was the last day of classes at Vanderbilt, and so the last day of our seminar on science and science fiction. We had a great group of students this year, and the class was a joy to teach. As part of their class assignments, the students were required to write blog posts periodically. The result was an eclectic mix of reflections on the readings for the course, discussion of general issues in science fiction, and original science fiction from the students. I encourage you to take a look at it; the URL is

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Historical Fiction vs. Historical Science Fiction

Although I enjoy reading about history, and I've been an inveterate board wargamer for 40 years, I've never enjoyed historical fiction. On the other hand, I'm an avid fan of historical science fiction (which probably includes about half of all time travel stories ever written -- I particularly like the works of Poul Anderson), and I also enjoy historical fantasy, especially the books by Tim Powers (more about him later). But I think I finally understand this apparent disconnect.

I was recently persuaded by this laudatory article at The Atlantic to take a crack at Herman Wouk's massive two-volume series on World War II, The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. Wouk is often compared to Tolstoy, and since I never read War and Peace, I figured Wouk's books would make an acceptable substitute.  Plus I find World War II much more interesting than the Napoleonic era -- it's easier to sort out the good guys and the bad guys. Herman Wouk, by the way, is still alive, at the age of 100.

Now I am going to explain my issues with historical fiction, but before I do so, I have to summarize part of the plot of The Winds of War. Warning: there are spoilers after the break.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Why is the Universe Mathematical?

Why is our scientific description of the universe based on mathematics? If you've taken physics or chemistry classes, it might seem obvious that the laws of nature are mathematical, but in fact it's a very deep mystery. I should admit right from the start that I am not a particular expert on this subject, but since this is a blog, I am entitled to spout off about all sorts of things that I know nothing about. Caveat emptor. By the way, I also don't speak Latin. I just use it to make myself appear smarter than I really am.

Eugene Wigner, who was one of the great figures in quantum mechanics, was one of the first people to think about this problem. He wrote a famous article on it:  "The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences," which you can read here.  But why is this even a mystery? The way we learn mathematics in school obscures the true nature of math. In grade school and high school, math is firmly embedded in physical reality -- it's a way of solving real-world problems. We learn arithmetic in order to balance our check books (does anyone besides me do that anymore?) and we learn algebra in order to determine the age of our friends, like Suzy, who is twice as old as Jim was when Jim was as old as Suzy is now.  But "real" mathematics, as practiced by professional mathematicians, is nothing like that. Mathematics involves the construction of increasingly complex mathematical structures, which seem to have no basis in physical reality. If you doubt my view, take a look at a random entry at the Mathworld website.  And yet abstract mathematical structures frequently turn up in physical theories, often decades after they were first invented. Differential geometry, which examines curved spaces that seem to have no relation to the physical universe, turns out to be the basis of general relativity (whose centenary we are celebrating this month). Abstract algebra (not the algebra you learned in high school, but things like group theory and linear algebra) lies at the foundation of quantum mechanics. So why do these inventions of mathematicians turn up so reliably in physical theories?