How Do I Get There (Another Star?) — Let Me Count the Ways

April 17th, 2013

I am inspired today by Starship Century, a symposium at UCSD May 21-22, involving Gregory Benford, David Brin, Geoffrey Landis, Joe Haldeman, Neal Stephenson, Alan Steele, etc., almost everyone you might think of from the science fiction side, and a lot of folks involved from the science side (Freeman Dyson, Robert Zubrin, John Cramer, etc.).  I’m tempted to go, and will look into it.

What are the plausible ways to get to another star?

There are a number of them with a number of strategies.

The parameter space is something like this:

1. Speed of spacecraft.  We know how to get some speed here, from ion propulsion, solar sails, nuclear propulsion, even if things like Bussard ramjets have technical issues.

2. Relativity bonus (subjective time onboard reduced).

3. Warping of space (literally or via wormhole, hyperspace, etc.).

4. Hibernation/suspended animation.

5. Generation ships.

6. Sending/seeding life to be born en route or on location.

7. Becoming biologically immortal.

8. Becoming mechanically immortal.

9. Sending robots of whatever AI level.

10. Unforeseen tech/magic.

There are a lot of ways to get to another star in some fashion.  The scientists who claim that the energy/time considerations are too great are myopic and silly.  An advanced technological species can solve the problem by finding some corner in the above multi-variable parameter space, and humans can do it this century if sufficiently inspired and willing to invest.  While Mars is challenging, and stars are orders of magnitude more challenging, there’s a solution or two.

Let me suggest two nice books on this topic: The Starflight Handbook and Interstellar Travel and Mutli-Generational Space Ships.

Any other parameters I missed?  I mean, it’s a matter of time and energy and traveler lifetime.  All can be adjusted within limits, even if we never manage to warp space or open worm holes.


Educational Videos for Science Fiction Writers and Critical Fans

April 2nd, 2013

What’s wrong with giant bugs?  Or human bodies exploding in the vacuum of space?  Or the answers to any of a bunch of other questions science fiction writers need to know to craft their story?

I’ve written blog posts about some of these in the past, but started noticing videos with similar explanations and thought it would be fun and useful to compile some of these.  Enjoy and learn.

Space exposure:

Giant Bugs:

Fall into a black hole:

What’s the temperature of space (not simply answered — depends if you’re in the inner solar system or deep space, and what you’re measuring). Two videos:

This one is really cool. The physics of space battles and artificial gravity. (And this poster, BTW, seems to have a lot of great videos about the science of science fiction scenarios e.g. cloaking devices, phasers, etc.. I’ve subscribed.)

Let me stop there for today. The discovery of this last series of videos is going to take me a while to go through, and I’m interested in watching most of them. I know most of this stuff, but I always learn something new, if only about better ways of presenting it.


Science and Fiction from Springer

March 22nd, 2013

I’m on the editorial board, and an acquiring editor for, a new series by the European academic publisher Springer. I’m busy but agreed to participate because I love the intersection of science and fiction and am the target audience for these type of books, and I bet many of you are, too I have some good company on the advisory board from the science fiction side (e.g., Geoffrey Landis, Gregory Benford, Rudy Rucker). I’m trying to get the word out to see what kind of books you might be interested in seeing from the series, and to solicit proposals. Anyway, here’s what it’s all about!

Science and Fiction
A unique new book series

In many respects the intellectual challenges of discovering new science and creating plausible new fictional worlds are two sides of the same coin. They both demand an understanding of the way the world is and, based on this, an ability to imagine how it might be. The titles in this new series will take various approaches to exploring and exploiting the narrow and often ill- defined frontier between science and science fiction, in particular seeking to discover mutual influences and to promote fruitful interaction.

Main pillars of the series will be concise works that:
► Indulge in science speculation – describing, in accessible manner, interesting, plausible yet unproven ideas
► Exploit science fiction for teaching purposes and as a means of promoting critical thinking
► Analyze the interplay of science and science fiction – throughout the history of the genre and looking ahead
► Publish essays on related topics, probably with a philosophical tenor
► Publish short works of fiction where (i) the scientific content is a major component and (ii) the text is supplemented by a substantial summary of the science underlying the plot

The published works in this series will be largely nontechnical; they will inform, entertain and stimulate. The series as a whole will promote the interaction and cross-fertilization of science and science fiction. In this way it will be a reaction vessel for inspired new scientific ideas – whether fiction, fact, or forever undecidable. Science and Fiction intends to go where no one has gone before!

Editorial and Advisory Board
Mark Alpert, Philip Ball, Gregory Benford, Michael Brotherton, Victor Callaghan, Amnon Eden, Geoffrey Landis, Rudy Rucker, Dirk Schulze-Makuch, Rudy Vaas, Ulrich Walter, Stephen Webb

Potential topics include:
Time travel, superluminal travel, wormholes, teleportation, extraterrestrial intelligence and alien civilizations, artificial intelligence, planetary brains, the universe as a computer, non-anthropocentric viewpoints, synthetic biology, genetic engineering, developing nanotechnologies, eco/infrastructure/meteorite-impact disaster scenarios, future scenarios, transhumanism, posthumanism, intelligence explosion, virtual worlds, cyberspace dramas, consciousness and mind manipulation, simulated worlds

We look forward to receiving your book proposal for Science and Fiction

All proposals will be refereed for their suitability in reaching the goals of the series while retaining a high level of scientific (and narrative) credibility. Proposals are approved at the discretion of the editorial board and publisher. Authors will be encouraged to keep their manuscripts to a maximum of 80.000 words.

Join forces with the STM publisher of choice
When you publish with Springer, your work will be made available as :

►Printed book: always available thanks to print-on-demand
►eBook: accessible 24/7 worldwide
►MyCopy: printed eBook for 24.99 EUR/USD, exclusively available to patrons whose library offers Springer’s eBook Collection

Get a greater readership for your book
Springer’s leading eBook Collection is widely used in academic, governmental and corporate libraries. Your book will gain visibility and usage from cross-linking with other content on our online platform SpringerLink. SpringerLink attracts over 30 million users at more than 35,000 institutions worldwide. In addition, your book will be available in print and as eBook from online bookstores including Amazon, Google and Apple and of course The Springer Shop

Focus on your research and leave the rest to us

With Springer you can expect:
► Support from a team of dedicated professionals
► The reach, tools and experience to ensure maximum readership for your work

Let us help you find your audience and your audience find you
Our services are constantly adapting to the latest developments and include:
►Chapter previews and semantic linking
►Full indexing and enhanced Search Engine Optimization
►Social Media support
►Mobile app for convenient access from mobile devices

Get insights into the usage of your book
With you can see how often your book is downloaded, live and in real-time. This free analytics tool provides a variety of visualizations and shows you e.g. which chapters of your book are downloaded most.

More information and services for authors:

Please contact me or your Springer Editors:
Christian Caron, Angela Lahee,

What kind of books would you like to see in such a series? We’ve had one round of proposals so far, and I’ve probably got one book in the pipeline I’ve acquired, but there’s going to be a lot more.


Ten Totally Illogical Science Fiction Premises on Amazing Stories Blog

February 22nd, 2013

This is a repeat of a post that just went up earlier today at Amazing Stories.  I encourage you to check out the link and join the conversation over there.  Feel free to comment here, too, of course!  Onward…

Recently I wrote about eight science fiction tropes of convenience, mainly about unlikely or impossible technology or assumptions that are made not because they make sense, but because they’re convenient for readers or viewers. Things like artificial gravity on ships, universal translators, super-powered sensors that can detect a sparrow falling light-years away when necessary for the plot. Usually the story doesn’t hinge on these points and they’re conveniences and could be written around if necessary, although perhaps awkwardly.

It made me think of some movies and TV shows that had elements so illogical that the whole story, or a major part of it, falls apart if you think about it too hard. A few of this attempted retcons in sequels or later episodes to fix the premise, but too late for my tastes.

Here are some of my favorite silly science fiction premises. Warning: some SPOILIERS below.

1. Aliens travel across light-years of interstellar space to conquer a planet totally deadly to them by skulking about in the dark. Signs of course. Normally we consider water a necessary element for life, not deadly to life. Well, duh, aliens, right? So even if we allow for some bizarre chemistry and evolution where this makes the slightest sense, why would such an alien race go to the trouble of interstellar travel to conquer a planet covered in the deadly stuff and where it rains? And where the native children are armed with water guns? And they can’t even be bothered to wear raincoats? And they want to settle down in cornfields rather than the Sahara desert where they could coexist with us water-loving beings?

© Johanna Goodyear | © Johanna Goodyear |

2. Aliens travel across light-years of interstellar space to steal our water. The original V mini-series was guilty of this. It makes a lot more sense than water being a deadly acid, I guess, but is still illogical. There are lots of other ways to get water that are easier than traveling to another star system and creating an elaborate plan to dupe an entire civilization. Europa has as much or more water than Earth, and you can also just harvest a few comets present in your own star system. Hell, given the energy requirements of interstellar travel, why not just make your own water from energy? That’s about as plausible.

3. Aliens travel across light-years of interstellar space to harvest us as food. The original V mini-series was guilty of this, too. There are lots of other ways to get food that are easier than traveling to another star system. Heard of farming and ranching? Well, I guess if you want food AND water this suddenly makes a lot more sense? Nah…. And anyway, I don’t think it’s very likely, and do believe it’s impossible to predict in advance, that humans would be nutritious and tasty and not poisonous to aliens. Although “To Serve Man” does deserve it’s place in legendary Twilight Zone episodes.

4. Aliens travel across light-years of interstellar space to conquer Earth but have computer systems so simple they can be hacked in minutes using a Mac Powerbook. Independence Day here, of course. I was on a panel at Dragoncon last year and actually had a well-known science fiction writer defend this as being very plausible, with which I could not disagree with more. Let me give you a Mac Powerbook and a computer system in an alien language at least generations different (even if our tech is derived from the tech of their Roswell era flying saucers) and you hack the entire thing in minutes. They could have at least gotten the Chinese military to do it rather than Jeff Goldblum if we wanted more plausibility… He didn’t seem to understand chaos theory very well in Jurassic Park, either.

5. Aliens who created us leave directions to their secret weapons facility and want to kill us when we follow them there thousands of years later and wake one up to have a chat. Prometheus. A more recent entry, and one in which the logical inconsistencies drive me crazy. If you treat it as a horror movie that makes no sense but has scary scenes, it’s okay. If you treat it like science fiction, well, you can’t with a straight face. The apparently competent guy who maps the alien complex gets lost, for starters. But just looking at the premise, it’s a non-starter. The constellations wouldn’t be stable over the time periods shown to give us the map without doing a lot of computational tricks, and…hell. Just check out my list of criticisms and this video.

Proper motion of stars in Ursa Major.  (Richard W. Pogge, Ohio State) Proper motion of stars in Ursa Major. (Richard W. Pogge, Ohio State)

6. Robots keep humans around for energy and create a simulation to keep their minds occupied. The Matrix was guilty of this. First, I don’t know why you can’t just drug the humans — you can still feed them and get their waste heat for power. Or keep them chained up. Why make the matrix at all? And even if you think that makes sense, if you can produce the food to feed them, or any other animal that can produce heat and electricity when fed, you can just create your own fuel. Feeding dead humans to the living humans doesn’t solve the energy equation. Granted, the movie allows for “a form of fusion” in the voice over in the key scene, which leads me to believe they don’t need the humans at all. Maybe they’re just cruel or sentimental, or following a grand argument to be made in the sequels, but as a stand alone, the explanation makes no logical sense.

7. Enemies of humanity have time travel capability and somehow fail to win before the movie starts. Terminator 2 and Star Trek: First Contact, among others, are guilty here. In the sequel to The Terminator, why does Skynet not send an assassin even farther into the past? By sending one later into the future, Linda Hamilton has time to become a total badass and train her son to boot. It would have been easier with a little girl Sarah Conner. And in the case of the Star Trek movie, we see that the Borg can casually go into the past and assimilate an entire planet essentially instantly. Why isn’t the whole freaking galaxy already Borg? Look, I think time travel is really hard to handle logically as a scientist or a writer, and there are some who manage to do it well, but far too few. And there are a lot of ways to screw it up.

8. A time travel movie invokes the Butterfly Effect and then violates it completely. OK, huge spoiler here, but the last movie I saw that did this was Hot Tub Time Machine. I’m going to forgive this surprisingly funny comedy, but this idea makes the suspension of disbelief hard to hold in slightly more serious movies like Back to the Future. Look, here’s how the Butterfly Effect works. You go into the past and any single tiny change at all changes the entire frakking future. It’s totally different! Not a little different. Totally different! Invoking the Butterfly Effect and trying not to change the past are inconsistent ideas. The past (and hence the future) is changed once you’re there and do the slightest little thing differently.

9. A comet hits an asteroid the size of Texas and knocks it into a collision course with Earth. I must mention Armageddon. The idea that objects in space can collide is okay. The idea that asteroids can hit the Earth is okay. But there’s only one asteroid (Ceres, now classified as a dwarf planet) out there close to the size of Texas and it sure doesn’t look like the weird thing in the movie. Moreover it takes a lot of energy to change the orbit of what is properly a dwarf planet, and I’m not sure there have every been any comets seen capable of doing this. In the movie we’re also told that only a handful of telescopes are capable of seeing the threat when any pair of binoculars could do it, and the collision itself would likely be visible in daylight. Then there’s the bit about splitting the asteroid in two with some nuclear weapons exactly 800 feet deep — but remember we’re talking an object “the size of Texas.” Can you split Texas by blowing up some nuclear bombs just inside the state’s border? No, you can’t. Others have gotten more quantitative, but this just fails the bullshit test from word one.


10. The Earth’s core stops spinning, we lose our magnetic field, and deadly microwaves wreck havoc. Let’s finish with the other ridiculous stinker, The Core. Again, energy is a concern, and I don’t see humans anywhere close to doing anything capable of stopping the Earth’s core from spinning. And even if we did, nuclear weapons don’t have the energy to spin it back up again. And then there’s the thing with the magnetic fields and microwaves…microwaves are just a form of light and well absorbed by water and water vapor (which is why there’s a greenhouse effect and your microwave oven works). They go right through magnetic fields! There’s a lot of dumb in this movie and it started my head spinning, which generated a magnetic field to protect me from melting, thankfully.

There are other illogical premises out there, like human and aliens being able to mate and have children without technological assistance (I’m looking at you Mr. Spock, and the Next Generation retcon doesn’t make sense either). I like some of these movies and hate some of these movies, but I can smile at all the premises and shake my head. What are your favorites to snicker at?


Eight Science Fiction Tropes of Convenience

February 19th, 2013

There are a number of tropes that I see popping up over and over in science fiction, even though they are not very scientifically plausible and border on the impossible given our current understanding.  They are used and will continue to be used, especially in movies and tv, because they’re very convenient.  I find it more interesting not to adopt them usually, and maybe that’s why none of my work will be adapted into a screenplay (well, one of the reasons).  Star Trek uses the majority of these, and is still popular today in its many manifestations, so what do I know?

Faster Than Light (FTL).  Space is big, really big, as they say, and it takes a long time to get around at sublight speeds.  Much more convenient to have short duration but not instantaneous travel.  Personally I think relativistic effects are really cool, as are realistic starship technologies.  You can also do interesting stories with generation ships, hibernation, etc., and certainly there has been a lot of good science fiction playing with those ideas.

Artificial Gravity.  It’s inconvenient and expensive to shoot every scene in space in zero gee, and complicated to design ships with rotating sections.  There are some nice instances of spin gravity in science fiction movies (e.g. 2001, Red Planet) or even magnetic boots (Destination Moon), but viewers are really comfortable seeing people walking around.  Lots of science fiction just shows people walking around and it’s assumed there’s artificial gravity even though it’s an incredible technology and could be used in much more creative ways.

Humanoid Aliens.  It’s challenging to create and film non-human aliens.  Also hard to relate to them.  I understand that in Avatar, a movie that tried hard to get the science right, original plans for non-human aliens were scrapped in the interest of audiences being not so likely to understand falling in love with a weird-looking critter.  Much more convenient to slap on some forehead make-up or a mask and call it a wrap.

Universal Translator.  Imagine if you had to invent an alien language for every new movie?  And train actors to speak it.  And add subtitles.  Star Trek has a universal translator for convenience, although Vulcan, Klingon, and other languages were invented anyway because it’s fun.  In Stargate SG-I, nearly everyone just spoke English for reasons I never understood (convenience!) and I’m not sure they ever explained…and they even had a linguist on the team when reading alien languages was required.  In your face, logical consistency!

Force Fields.  Why use steel bars or strong glass when you can have a magic force field?  They also make great shields for space ships, apparently.  I think they get used so much because the idea sounds cool and it’s easier to just have shields fail in a predictable way than to actually have to tear up your model spaceships or create realistic damage with CGI.  How they work exactly was never clear to me, even when sometimes it’s clear it’s just supposed to be an electric field or something.

Mental Telepathy.   I can only imagine this got grandfathered into science fiction since there were times in the past century ESP was taken seriously and studied, as well as a lot of charlatans running around claiming psychic powers.  Okay, too many people still take it seriously today.  Anyway, lots of mind reading and mind control going back to forever in science fiction.  It has been used so much that little to no explanation is ever used.  Audiences swallow it without much critical thought, and I almost never see it justified.  Star Trek has Spock and Troi.  Star Wars has the Force.  Babylon 5 had telepaths.  It’s harder to think of science fiction shows that didn’t go this route.

Super Sensors.  Finding things in space, even though there’s not really anywhere to hide (despite Star Trek II‘s Motarin Nebula), is a pretty hard problem.  As an astronomer, I know how hard it is to see every faint, small thing in the sky.  It’s also hard to see everything on the surface of a planet from orbit.  Sure, you can always see individual things you know where to find and focus on, but scanning the entire sky (or surface) deeply and at high resolution isn’t easy.  Again, maybe this is an engineering problem we can solve with sufficient time, but I still find scanning for individual isotopes or lifeforms miles underground a pretty implausible problem.

Ray Guns.  Conventional firearms are actually very efficient.  Modern ammunition carries a lot of energy that can be quickly converted into kinetic energy and deposited where you want it to go.  Lasers have the advantage of being faster (but when did the shot from a phaser or blaster ever appear to travel at light-speed?), but I have a hard time imagining a portable power source efficient enough and high energy enough to work for a laser gun.  Maybe my imagination falls short here, since this is in principle engineering and not something at all theoretically impossible.  In any event, it’s convenient to have portable weapons that don’t need ammunition and look cooler than conventional guns and can be set to ‘stun.’

I’ll stop here, wondering if I should include teleporters, time travel, or a few other things.  I won’t include things like robots/androids, since they seem entirely reasonable extrapolations of current technology, and my list is about common things in science fiction that just don’t seem all that likely to me.  Personally I think that using these is as lazy and often as boring as using for elves, dragons, and wizards in fantasy.  Sure, you can do it, and audiences seem to love it, but why not do something a little more innovative?

What do you think?

Ten Classic Hard SF Novels over at the SFWA Blog

November 13th, 2012

I did a list for SFWA, all of which feature physics and/or astronomy.  Without all the introductions and discussion, here’s the list:

1. Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement

2. The Fountains of Paradise by Arthur C. Clarke

3. Ringworld by Larry Niven

4. Dragon’s Egg by Robert Forward

5. Timescape by Gregory Benford

6. The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle

7. Tau Zero by Poul Anderson

8. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein

9. Contact by Carl Sagan

10. The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

Do check out the link and comments over there.  Have some suggestions of your own?

Science Fiction in the Age of Exoplanet Discovery

October 17th, 2012

From discovering the new planet in the Alpha Centauri system, to the “diamond planet,” to “Tatooine,” this is an exiting time in astronomy.  We’re finding planets orbiting stars beyond our own solar system in ever increasing numbers and with ever increasing diversity.  When I started graduate school to get my PhD, we didn’t know of any so-called exoplanets at all, and it was still an outstanding question if other star systems were even commonplace.  We thought it likely, but we didn’t know it was likely…

Now we do.

This is an age of opportunity and peril for science fiction creators.

The opportunities are obvious.  You can pick a star and pick a planet and look up their properties and write away with some confidence your speculation is based on solid ground.  You can know that some planets really do have very elliptical orbits, unlike Earth’s orbit.  You can know that some gas giants live in the inner parts of their solar system and that their moons can exist inside the Goldilock’s zone where liquid water can exist on their surfaces.  You can know a lot of things for the first time when it comes to worlds beyond the local neighborhood.

What are the perils?

Well, due to the limitations of our current technology, we’re only finding a fraction of the systems out there, and some stories may require worlds around stars where we haven’t found anything…yet.  The yet is the problem.  You write about planets around a specific star now, and in a few years we may have shown that they’re there, but totally different than written about.

Let me provide some guidelines that may be of use.

If you don’t need to, don’t be specific about your star system.  Let the colonists or aliens there have their own name for a star that is different from the name 21st century astronomers use (likely an ugly catalog name anyway).  You’ll never get called out.

If you do pick a specific star, check an online catalog (here’s one of many) to see if we already know whether or not planets exist there and what their properties are.  Being specific means research is needed.

Keep in mind that the planets discovered around other stars may not be the only ones in those systems.  More may be found in the future.  We generally need to observe for several orbital periods to be sure we have something, and Neptune has only recently made a single orbit since it was discovered over a century ago.  You can also invent planets to add to existing systems as long as you conform to the laws of physics (and a few other issues — see below).

If a system is found to have a “hot Jupiter” — a gas giant in a very close orbit to it’s sun, that planet has likely migrated there and consumed any smaller terrestrial worlds in the inner system already.  Probably not a system for inhabitable worlds.

Binary stars are fair game, as we’ve found planets in orbit around both close pairs and orbiting single stars that are part of widely separated binary systems.

There are literally billions and billions of stars out there, with no shortage to choose from, and no way we’re going to be anywhere close to knowing what their planetary systems are like any time soon.  We’re only managing to find things around about 1000 stars so far, which is quite far short of a billion.

If you do pick a relatively nearby, older F, G, or K star that could plausibly have an Earth-like planet in an Earth-like orbit with time enough to have evolved life and an alien civilization (e.g. popular candidates are Alpha Centauri, Epsilon Eridani, Tau Ceti, etc.), know that they are being scrutinized astronomers and are risky in some ways.  I’d be surprised if they didn’t all have planetary systems, but damned if I’d put my money on what they’re like.

Be cautious when you hear wild, crazy, and detailed things about specific exoplanets.  That “diamond planet” isn’t a single giant diamond, and while it might have a lot of diamonds, it might not.  There’s a lot of speculation (even “science fiction”) going on in astronomical journals under the name “theory” that should be taken with a grain of salt (or a very small diamond) until verified with observation.  It may be a cool launch point for a story, but could also be overturned by future observations or competing theories win out over old ones.

Finally, sometimes you just got to write the stories you got to write.  Science fiction stories involving the future and speculation are always risky.  Plenty of great ones about Mars (War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells) and Venus (“All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury) that remain great stories despite science removing their plausibility.  That’s sure to be the case with planets in other star systems, too.

Still, if we had failed to find planets around any binary stars whatsoever and had come to the conclusion that they didn’t exist, part of me does suspect that George Lucas would erase one of the stars in the sky in that scene in Star Wars.

What If Science Fiction Actually Involved Science?

September 20th, 2012

The reason we’ve probably never seen a dramatic TV series involving scientists in the tradition of ER or CSI or Newsroom is that the actual work is usual tedious, boring to most non-experts, with low stakes most of the time (cancer doesn’t get cured every week, or even nearly cured).  This is also the reason that the science and engineering on shows like Star Trek and Stargate usually resorts to quick technobabble followed by 30 seconds of fiddling to solve problems.  Realistic pondering, testing, failure, and more pondering in real time is kind of exciting to do, but boring to watch, especially when many viewers cannot be expected to have deep scientific backgrounds.

Still, I’d like to see more attempts to pull it off.  Science can be powerful and exciting and there are a lot of talented writers who could pull off more realistic stories without cheating the subject matter or their audiences.

A couple of great movies where the realities of science and technology were handled well and realistically were October Sky and Apollo 13.  I wish there were a lot more I could think of, and movies that were science fiction rather than historical dramas.  One that tried and had some partial success was Enemy Mine, dealing with language differences and meteor strikes (although the latter was not that realistic, it did display rational problem solving).  Others I’m not thinking of?

Anyway, I think I’m struggling with science fiction as speculation/entertainment, vs. the idea that science fiction can actually productively exploit the process of science itself and make it an interesting element on its own merits, instead of just enabling a world we can escape to.  I always loved novels where the characters found themselves on alien worlds and had to experiment with their environment or alien technology to figure out how to survive.  I’ve rarely seen that in the forefront of TV shows or movies.


What are the Best Science Fiction Mysteries?

September 14th, 2012

I’ve read and watched some good ones, but I’m sure I don’t know this interesting subfield as well as I should to be able to come up with a comprehensive list.  Let me list some that I think are good to great, and solicit input from others about some that I may have missed.  I’ve got a science-oriented mystery short story I’ve promised for an anthology and so have been thinking about this topic.  Now, a lot of good books have “mysteries” scattered throughout them to pull the reader forward, but I’m thinking of “Whodunnit” kind of stories that feature formal detectives or folks thrust into that role tackling puzzles so profound they’d fit into the mystery genre.

Here’s some examples from my own reading that I really enjoyed and can recommend:

Altered Carbon by Robert Morgan.  Awesome cyberpunk detective noir.

The Prestige by Christopher Priest.  I confess I’ve only seen the movie, but I imagine the book is as good.  Just how are they pulling off their tricks?

Marooned in Realtime by Vernor Vinge.  A murder mystery with a science fictional bent.

Caves of Steel by Issac Asimov.  Classic murder mystery…with robots!  The sequels were also mysteries if I recall, but it’s been a long time since I’ve read these.

The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester. Yet another murder mystery…with telepaths!

Kiln People by David Brin.  Another science fiction detective story…with golems!

When Gravity Fails by George Alec Effinger was really super, cyberpunk with a middle eastern spin.

While Blade Runner sort of fits in, it’s more of a violent missing persons story to me.  We know who Deckard is looking for.  I recall Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick, the novel Blade Runner was based on, as being a pretty straightforward science fiction detective story, however.  It’s in.

Let me keep in Watchmen as well, even though it’s comic books.  There’s a murder mystery…with superheroes!

Well, that’s nine that I think are pretty great!  I have a few others I can’t quite remember the titles of, so I guess that they’re not that great, and a few I’ve heard of but not read myself.

Hmmm…after working on my list for a while I found this one, with a lot of overlap.  Maybe I’m not missing as many classics as I think I am?  Any other really good ones to add?


10 More Classic Mistakes in Science Fiction Movies

August 13th, 2012

I came across a kindred spirit today, finding an article titled 10 Classic Mistakes in Sci-Fi Movies.

His list takes some well deserved but easy potshots at some large targets, and perhaps more tv shows than movies.

1. Aliens Speak English, often without evidence of translators or any previous interaction with modern English-speaking humans.  Let’s keep it easy on the audience who will go along with it, I guess.

2-4.  Various complaints about weapons, some of which I agree with, and some of which might be solved by assuming unknown technology.

5. Noise in outer space, yeah, because in space no one can hear you scream, which is a memorable tagline that should have helped solve this issue.  Thank you Star Wars.

6. Spaceship designs, which need not be aerodynamic given the relative vacuum of space.  There are a lot of possible objections here, which could get very specific.

7. Ships always meet each other face to face, yeah, unlikely.

8. Aliens are always humanoids.  Thank you small budgets and audiences who want to relate to human actors.

9. Too many LEDs.  Maybe, but I like blinking lights, personally.

10. Retro-futuristic cultures.  I blame low budgets again, and the desire to reuse all the left-over western sets, from when John Wayne was here.

So, I could quibble with a few items on the list here or there, or elaborate on his points, but I decided that there were a lot more classic mistakes to point out.  If enough people do this often enough, maybe some of the writers and directors will pay attention and avoid them.  Of course, I could be dreaming here…

OK, ten more:

1.  Space is too small.  Even with the use of cryosleep, travel is way too fast.  Vipers flit through solar systems, landing on worlds and lifting off again, in a few hours at most.  The Enterprise gets places in days at most, under most circumstances.  Remember Hitchhiker’s Guide, “Space is big.  Really big…”

2. Relativity is ignored.  Sometimes there’s lip service to the need to go into hyperspace or warp, or to open a worm hole, but these craft under impulse power and in normal space never or rarely seem to experience relativistic issues.  Causality issues involving faster than light travel are ignored.

3. A lot of alien planets have breathable atmospheres.  This seems unlikely, especially when the landscapes look weird and unearthlike, without vegetation, and rarely ecosystems.  Even if the atmosphere is technically breathable, are there poisons or dangerous microbes in the environment to be avoided at all costs?  Avatar was a notable exception here, and to be praised in this respect.  I blame budgets and the desire to have actors’ faces visible.

4. Exposure to space is badly portrayed.  Sometimes people without space suits just explode, as in Outland.  Sometimes they freeze immediately, as in Mission to Mars (as do liquids — from decompression/expansive cooling — into crystals not icecycles as in that ridiculous movie).

5.  Not only are aliens humanoid, they’re often sexy and we can successfully mate with them.  Star Trek is a big offender this way.  Star Wars might be, but who can tell?  Avatar skirts the line here…not sure how the Avatars mix human DNA with alien DNA.  I read that the original plan was for the aliens to be more alien, but that was scrapped as too difficult to pull off for human viewers.

6. Alien food is edible…and either delicious or disgusting.  I’d call this an unlikely and convenient assumption rather than an outright mistake.

7.  Aliens are too human not just in appearance, but in their cultures and views.  While I praised Avatar before, that movies aliens sure felt like Native Americans to me.  The Klingons are Mongols, the Romulans are Romans, etc.  In Star Wars, so many of the aliens in the prequels were bad, racist stereotypes.  I know it’s hard to pull off, but how about some more aliens like Solaris?

8.  Our heroes can always master alien technology, when necessary to the plot, in mere minutes.  I don’t care how smart you are, try operating a Boeing 737, let alone a space shuttle, human-tech, with no training and I’ll count the days before you get them to do anything, or until you kill yourself.  Remember learning to drive safely in mere minutes after the first time you sat down in a car?  I don’t either.  Independence Day is one stinker in regard to this problem, along with a Mac powerbook bringing down the alien enemy.

9. Clones are not clones, but copies with memories that grow to adulthood in days, and are usually spies.  I hope I’ll never see another movie with a clone that turns out to be a copy, but I’m sure I will.

10.  Energy sources (AKA batteries or generators) are small, safe, and run indefinitely, except when the plot demands otherwise.  The Six-Million Dollar Man’s nuclear power source was rarely taxed, and never gave him cancer.  Ray guns blast forever.  The dilithium crystals and antimatter (which is the power source exactly?) let you go faster than light in Star Trek, or the beryllium sphere, except when they run out at strange intervals.  I don’t know what the frak powers the ships in Star Wars.  Robots go forever without eating, and are rarely seen plugging in.  The energy needs for so much in science fiction are usually glossed over.

OK, that’s my list of extras.  I’m sure there are more to go around (e.g. TV Tropes), aren’t there?  Which ones bug you?


Matt Ridley is a Biased Hypocrite

August 8th, 2012

In the past I would have called him a “stupid smart person,” but I’m moving away from that term, I think, as it’s too prejudicial, in favor of being more specific.

Ridley is primarily a writer doing various sorts of science journalism, and definitely a smart guy, but also something of a provocateur.  Controversy brings attention…and book sales.  Wonder if that could bias a person?

Now, he’s generally covered biological and social topics, areas in which there are strong biases and things can be very complicated to definitively pin down.  But he’s started taking unfair and biased potshots at science as an institution, something which probably plays well with readers of his essays in the Wall Street Journal.  Here’s the opening paragraph of a recent example:

Scientists, it’s said, behave more like lawyers than philosophers. They do not so much test their theories as prosecute their cases, seeking supportive evidence and ignoring data that do not fit-a failing known as confirmation bias. They then accuse their opponents of doing the same thing. This is what makes debates over nature and nurture, dietary fat and climate change so polarized.

He goes on to say that sometimes the “because the prosecutor is biased in favor of his case does not mean the defendant is innocent.”  So the scientists are always biased but sometimes right anyway, as if the methodologies of science don’t matter.

This guy is just a biased hypocrite when it comes down to it, falling into the fallacy many social scientists have fallen into: science is conducted by humans, subject to human biases, and operates independently (or nearly so) of evidence and reality.

Scientific thinking is not like legal thinking and scientists are not like lawyers arguing their case, it’s said.  By me and and every day by millions of scientists publishing peer-reviewed journals and issuing errata (correcting their mistakes publicly) and sending critical comments to their co-authors  I live this experience every day and we are hard critics of ourselves, usually more eager to get to the right answer than to be right, at least in the vast majority of my own experience.  Ridley uses his “it’s said” to justify his position, but by whom?  Him?  His anti-science sociology buddies?  He’s making up a position and not justifying it.  That’s suffering from confirmation bias that he’s claiming others have, but doesn’t seem to question himself.

Let me be specific and rip him the new one he deserves.  It’s really shocking how ridiculously biased he is supporting his thesis that scientists and entire fields of science are biased.  Let’s see…his latest blog series on confirmation bias among scientists starts with:

There’s a myth out there that has gained the status of a cliché: that scientists love proving themselves wrong, that the first thing they do after constructing a hypothesis is to try to falsify it. Professors tell students that this is the essence of science.

Yet most scientists behave very differently in practice. They not only become strongly attached to their own theories; they perpetually look for evidence that supports rather than challenges their theories. Like defense attorneys building a case, they collect confirming evidence.

Again, like a biased lawyer, he’s building a case against scientists.  He seems pretty biased against science.  I’d be the first to agree that scientists are humans subject to bias, but as a group and institution they work more like the entire court rather than lawyers. We might have some biased lawyers with their own positions to advocate, but we also have scientists as the jury and judge, weighing the arguments, but not to “a reasonable doubt” but significance levels measured mathematically by people who understand quantitative analysis.

Ridley’s starting off saying that my daily experience is mythological, and that “most scientists” (which means more than a majority, maybe 80%+ to me) are not trying to falsify their hypothesis, that they only collect confirming evidence.  Is he going to justify his condemnation of an entire enterprise that has led to quantitative understanding of gravity, put men on the moon, and allowed him to spread his biased message to the masses in an instant?  In the peer-reviewed pages of the Wall Street Journal?  Of course not…he’s making an argument like a lawyer, not actually trying to do the science he does not seem to respect.  And I’ll demonstrate it.

Ridley’s final essay in his “confirmation bias” series is about climatologists and their failure to be objective, how they’re biased to see CO2 as the cause of global warming.  He seems ignorant of the fact that before the turn of the 19th century, scientists had recognized both the greenhouse effect of CO2 and predicted that man-made contributions could cause warming.  Call that the hypothesis with a clearly falsifiable prediction.

Let’s see his own words:

For constructive critics, this is the problem with modern climate science. They don’t think it’s a conspiracy theory, but a monopoly that clings to one hypothesis (that carbon dioxide will cause dangerous global warming) and brooks less and less dissent. Again and again, climate skeptics are told they should respect the consensus, an admonition wholly against the tradition of science.

Last month saw two media announcements of preliminary new papers on climate. One, by a team led by physicist Richard Muller of the University of California, Berkeley, concluded “the carbon dioxide curve gives a better match than anything else we’ve tried” for the (modest) 0.8 Celsius-degree rise in global average temperatures over land during the past half-century-less, if ocean is included. He may be right, but such curve-fitting reasoning is an example of confirmation bias. The other, by a team led by the meteorologist Anthony Watts, a skeptical gadfly, confirmed its view that the Muller team’s numbers are too high-because “reported 1979-2008 U.S. temperature trends are spuriously doubled” by bad thermometer siting and unjustified “adjustments.”

Less and less dissent is warranted given the data and the studies.  More and more dissent would be occurring if there were serious competing hypothesis that weren’t failing experimental tests (e.g. one that has).  But let me get at the heart of Matt Ridley’s idiocy:

Richard Muller was a climate change skeptic funded by Koch Industries who thought the climatologists were biased and thought he could show it!  He was biased against the C02 explanation.  Fitting curves for many different models and saying which one or ones may have explanatory power isn’t being biased!  That’s doing good science!  Pointing out a skeptic with confirmation bias against his result, who agrees with climatologists, is evidence that the climatologists may have reached their conclusions fairly and doesn’t at all support Ridley’s thesis unless he mistakenly assumed Muller was a pro-C02 biased climatologist.

Dude was a skeptical physicist.  Now he thinks the climatologists were doing good science after all and not just confirming their own biases.  Great example.

And Anthony Watts is a meteorologist and not a climate scientist.  “Skeptical gadlfy” is a Wall Street Journal friendly term for obtuse denier.  The guy said he was prepared to accept Muller’s work, given his anti-C02 bias, until he didn’t get the answer Watts wanted to hear.  He’s been paid by the Heartland Institute, a conservative organization with a political (not scientific) position to oppose climate science.  Paid shill, not a scientist.

Ridley is picking on the climate scientists as biased?  The ones who will get more fortune and fame if they can overturn the C02 paradigm?  Scientists have always sought to, and been rewarded by, making NEW discoveries, not by supporting the prevailing winds.  They’ve been castigated for believing crap in opposition to overwhelming evidence, however.

Where does Ridley get this stuff?  He’s not reading primary science.  He’s reading media releases with very little understanding and heaps of bias, picking out fringe players who do not represent “most scientists.”

The essay devolves into amateur high school work that might deserve the grade of a C from a pro-Ridley biased teacher.  He goes on to quote anti-science biased Michael Crichton, non-scientist with only the credentials of a science fiction writer (and I know what those are worth):

The late novelist Michael Crichton, in his prescient 2003 lecture criticizing climate research, said: “To an outsider, the most significant innovation in the global-warming controversy is the overt reliance that is being placed on models…. No longer are models judged by how well they reproduce data from the real world-increasingly, models provide the data. As if they were themselves a reality.”

Crichton, with another anti-science book to promote, handpicked by biased politicians to whistle blow on a field he isn’t part of and failed to get right.  Wow, convincing, Ridley!  You’re hand-picking a very biased non-expert to support your position.  I guess you think that’s what everyone does, so you’ll do it, too, and not see the irony?

It gets better.  To support his biased belief that scientists fall in line and support the status quo, he doesn’t quote any scientific studies.  They could be biased, so opinion from an anonymous individual on the internet is just as good:

As one practicing scientist wrote anonymously to a blog in 2009: “honestly, if you know anything about my generation, we will do or say whatever it is we think we’re supposed to do or say. There is no conspiracy, just a slightly cozy, unthinking myopia. Don’t rock the boat.”

I’d be embarrassed if that anonymous scientist was one of my students.  I’d set them on the right path or fail them.  And I’d be more embarrassed if one of my students quoted an anonymous blog comment featuring a colossal  and unsupportable generalization to support their point.  Jesus Christ that’s weak!

What Matt Ridley doesn’t get is that the institution of science is different from individual scientists.  While he fails to make the case that “most” scientists operate like lawyers, he also fails to see the institutions of science that correct the mistakes from bias over time.  He just gives credit to the rival lawyer, without crediting the system that makes this possible and how it differs from the court system.  The goal is not to win, from the system’s perspective, or to close the books on a case.  It’s to get the right answer.  It isn’t just a bunch of squabbling people.  He seems to want to make his readers discount scientific expertise, and expertise in general, and to be able to dismiss the findings of science when it’s convenient to do so.

What I do get about Matt Ridley from his final essay in his confirmation bias series is that he lacks the expertise and acumen to evaluate science and his own personal biases.

Still, there’s a chance he’s actually ironically brilliant and wrote a badly biased essay as a joke to himself, to see if anyone else would laugh.  That might make his a smart stupid smart person…but I doubt it.  He’s just a weak, biased thinker failing to make full use of his own reasoning.  A shame.

There are things in his essays that betray his ignorance of climate science and science more generally, and the purpose of them does seem to be to enable the dismissal of science he doesn’t like because of his own biases.

OK, let’s call him a stupid smart person.  Maybe I need to keep the term active.  Just amazingly blind and stupid arguments here from someone falling into the own trap I think he’s (likely falsely) accusing others of.  In my personal experience, his general thesis is wrong, and his argument was unbelievably awful.  He could have done a better job just finding some cases of individual scientists who were clearly biased in spite of overwhelming scientific consensus against them (I know enough examples), but then he’d have to credit the general institution of science and admit it works.  His bias wouldn’t let him.

Addendum: Another similar criticism of Ridley fleshing out a point I only touched on.

What Happens When a True Climate Skeptic Does the Science Himself

July 31st, 2012

Richard Muller should have known better, but he’s a physicist, and I know enough physicists to know that some don’t respect other disciplines as much as they should.  This is old news, but with a recent NYT op-ed, he’s laying it out much more clearly than last year:

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