Monday, May 3, 2010

Splicing Science from Fiction

Welcome back. It's me again, David Siegel Bernstein, and this month (the trumpeter's fanfare begins) I want to write about science (the trumpet falls silent). Come on… science is cool. If you want a more exciting introduction to this month's theme, I suggest you listen to the They May Be Giants album Here Comes Science. Here is a track where they describe science.

Now back to your regularly scheduled post.

Within the genre of Science Fiction, science asks "What if?" and fiction speculates on what happens to people or societies when that thorny question is answered. I pretty sure anyone reading this already knows all about fiction—but what makes science so mysterious and wondrous that we connoisseurs of Science Fiction fixate on it? Broadly speaking, science is a way of knowing, getting to the truth of the physical world around us. Of course, there are other ways of knowing such as art (personal truth), religion (revealed truth), and so on.

So how does science get our fiction where we want it to go? Let's start by defining how science gets to a truth. To me science has two distinct meanings. First it is a method—a set of steps questioning the natural world by using reproducible observations and controlled experiments. Scientists use the answers gleaned from this method to explain phenomena or to make predictions. BUT WAIT that isn't all. Because (second meaning) science is also a collective term for the accumulation of what was learned from this method. For example there is "doing" Chemistry and there is Chemistry (itself). Errr, I just used self reference (SR), the curse of using a term to describe itself—a logician's nightmare.

Time out:
I'd like to thank Gödel for his (damned) incompleteness theorem that left us with the SR classic: This sentence is false. And jokes such as: 73.2% of all statistics are made up—and—anyone who sees a psychiatrist should get their head examined.

Okay, back to the coolness of science. Its language is math (don't zone out, math is awesome, and it pays my rent), but as with English it's fraught with tongue twisters that scientists sometimes take too seriously, leading them astray from science. Consider String Theory. Intuitively it is wibbly wobbly timey wimey, but mathematically it is internally consistent and it may theoretically explain phenomena that can't otherwise be explained. HOWEVER, it isn't observable and there are no direct experiments to test it. So for now it dwells more in the realm of philosophy than it does science. For writers, who cares? Because whatever else can be said of String Theory, it is a great plot generator for Science Fiction.

I'd like to posit a question to the readers of AT. What would Science Fiction be without science? Fantasy? Maybe, maybe not. I concede they are related. Science Fiction began as Fantasy of the Industrial Revolution. So SF is Fantasy's child. Cool. But the baby has grown up and moved on. Think about it and feel free to post comments on how you think it may have grown. (As food for thought, is the Singularity, a la Charles Stross, more SF or more fantasy? What about a space opera?)

Before parting, I'll leave you with Arthur C. Clarke's three laws of prediction. Popular Science Fiction from Dr. Who to Star Trek has cited his third law ad nauseum. I encourage you to embrace all of them, but for fun—try living the second.

1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

So long for now, thanks for the fish, and above all else remember: Science tells us what is, not what we want. Science Fiction has no such restriction. See you next month.

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