Category Archives: Science

WHY DO SO MANY PHYSICISTS WRITE CRIME NOVELS?

Mystery Weekly

Over at CrimeReads, Lee Randall has this to say about two interrelated realms many think have little in common:

“All complex narratives are networks,” writes Jane Alison in Meander, Spiral, Explode. “Any literary narrative of depth asks your brain to pull threads across the whole . . . your experience moving through them is never purely linear, but volumetric or spatial as your thoughts bounce across passages.”

That sounds like physics to me. This branch of science encompasses everything from mechanics, heat, light, radiation, sound, astronomy, atomic structure, electricity and magnetism. It demands elasticity of thought and an ability to think in metaphors. Physicists strive to describe the universe and understand the relationships between all its components.

That’s what novelists do, too!

(And short story writers!) There’s nothing like the feeling of linking together seemingly disparate elements into a unified whole. When it works, you feel it — and if you don’t feel it, neither will the reader. If plot arises from character, then the other elements of a story, including the objective, theme, scenes, twists, etc, should work in harmony to create a single, emotionally satisfying effect on the reader.

Nothing prepares you for such a challenge like reading widely and deeply. The resulting cross-pollination of ideas not only helps you see the interrelatedness of things, but keeps your sense of wonder alive. And that motivates you to create more stories.

My story “The Calculus of Karma” is a combination science fiction and mystery tale. A big chunk of the fun in writing it was creating a puzzle for the protagonist to solve. And what a puzzle — our rookie detective has a dead space miner on his hands, but no murder weapon, no suspects, and he has to solve the case before the death sparks an escalation between warring factions of miners. Inspiration finally arrives from Sir Isaac Newton and Al Capone.

That’s the challenge of science fiction — you have to create believable plot and character arcs, craft an entertaining story, produce flowing, sparkling prose, and — get the science right.

Bury my heart at Radio Shack

photo by Windell Oskay

Once widely available, electronic kits and chemistry sets made science fun and approachable

It happens every time.

On our way to the beach, my wife and I pass through Marshville, thirty-five miles outside Charlotte on Highway 74. Not long after I see the sign proclaiming we’re speeding past the birthplace of its most famous son, Randy Travis, we pass a rusted Radio Shack sign.

I can’t help but gaze at it. Like Mr. Bojangles, I still grieve after all these years.

When I was in high school in the early 70s, nothing compared with a trip to Radio Shack. It was a science nerd’s dream. The kits they sold promised high-tech adventure, and making them gave a sense of accomplishment. Build your own AM radio transmitter! How about a treasure finder? Make your own shortwave receiver and listen to the US armed forces, or NASA, or ships at sea. There was nothing quite like soldering that last connection, powering up your project, and hearing it work.

And it wasn’t just Radio Shack. Kits for any skill level, as well as more serious electronic gear, could be found at Heathkit and Lafayette stores. Retail and drug stores offered chemistry sets, lab gear, and a dazzling (and potentially dangerous) variety of chemicals.

From the 1950s up to the early 90s, kids were encouraged to explore the sciences, and not just for entertainment value. After all, we had to compete with the Soviets. It was the age of Sputnik, of Lyndon Johnson growling that he did not want to look up at the moon and see a damn Russian flag. Mastering science and technology wasn’t just for the sheer fun of it; it was a patriotic duty.

My parents did their part. I had a microscope in the third grade, and received chemistry and electronic learning labs as presents for many birthdays and Christmases. One set included a formula for what the manual called “Dehydrated Fire,” a harmless-looking powder that would burst into flames when you sprinkled water on it. Who says science is boring?

In the eighth grade, my parents bought me a reflecting telescope from Sears. The night sky in the backyard of our rural home was unpolluted with city lights, ideal for squinting at distant craters, ice rings, and glowing stellar nurseries.

In the late 70s, the personal computer put even more technology into the hands of ordinary people. Hard-core hobbyists made their own computers from kits, but even off-the-shelf computers gave owners the ability to create and store their own programs. Learning to program no longer required access to a big-ticket, room-sized mainframe. I learned BASIC on the Commodore 64, and thought I was Mr. Spock himself.

From the end of WWII to the early 90s, science and technology were domesticated and made understandable. Little wonder that this period saw such a creative outpouring of intelligent and optimistic science fiction, with visionaries such as Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, Card, and Le Guin dazzling and enchanting us with tales of wonder, exploration, and adventure.

And then something happened.

Today’s computers do not come with built-in programming capabilities. You can buy an interpreter or compiler, but why bother? Whatever you want to do, there’s an app for that already. Yes, computers can be customized, but they only allow you to choose features designed by others. The mini-computers in our cell phones are not springboards for creativity, but instruments that transfix and numb their owners.

Technology today is designed for consumers, not collaborators.

I believe the age of hands-on, empowering technology started dying the same year Radio Shack peaked, 1999. The number of stores dwindled until the parent corporation declared bankruptcy in 2015. Since then, electronics morphed from interactive to anesthetizing. With the Cold War won, and no real challenges before us, we lost that sense of purpose that pushed us to learn and explore and dare.

And yes, a few stores do offer science kits today, but these kits are feeble substitutes for the magnificent and daring science adventures we enjoyed. Have you seen the “fossil dig kit” available in craft stores? For $19.99, a kid can brush away dirt from a fake rock and “discover” real shark’s teeth and bones. Yes, it’s boring, but it’s safe. It’s what kids are allowed to do in a timid, complacent, and aimless age.

It’s a Dark World, After All …

Dark World

The Fermi Paradox asks a simple but unsettling question: With so many worlds spinning through space, each potentially breeding countless, unknown forms of life, why haven’t any of them paid us a visit? After all, the Drake equation predicts 20 civilizations in our neck of the cosmic woods. Yet the Active Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence program has transmitted a number of “Y’all come!” messages into space without receiving one lousy response.

So where is everyone? If our neighbors are too busy to drop by, why don’t they at least text us?

One explanation is the Dark Forest theory. It speculates that any species capable of beaming messages through space could be both formidable and hungry, so the wise strategy is to do what John Krasinski and Emily Blunt did in A Quiet Place — don’t make a sound, and hope the monsters don’t hear you.

But wait! That could work both ways. We’ve been telegraphing our presence for over a hundred years with radio and TV communications, completely oblivious to who or what may be listening in the dark corners of outer space. Have we doomed ourselves by giving away our position to megapredators? If so, why haven’t they landed in the middle of the Super Bowl with their bibs and eating utensils?

Here’s my explanation: Any aliens who receive our transmissions of “I Love Lucy” and “Friends,” or find our naked pictures in their inboxes, will surely conclude that only the baddest of bad-ass species would be so brazen. After all, what is a lion proclaiming when he shakes the trees with his blood-curdling roar? He’s letting everything within earshot know that the king of beasts is on the move. Get in my way at your own risk.

Feel safe now? That happy thought is my Christmas present. You’re welcome.

Happy 230th Birthday, Enceladus, Our Solar System’s Greatest Hope For Life Beyond Earth

Metaphorosis April 2018 The latest issue of Forbes Magazine features this article commemorating the 230th anniversary of William Herschel’s discovery of Saturn’s most intriguing moon, Enceladus. Astrophysicist Ethan Siegel explains why this mysterious and beautiful body fascinates scientists:

Given that we know of 62 moons around Saturn, and that one of them (Titan) is enormous and has a thick atmosphere with liquid hydrocarbons on its surface, it hardly seems like Enceladus would be the place to look for life. It has no thick atmosphere like Titan; it has no lava-rich volcanoes like Io or cryovolcanoes like Triton. But still, Enceladus might be the most habitable place in our Solar System beyond Earth.

Its ultra-reflective, lifeless surface simply provides cover for a complex, possibly life-rich liquid ocean that begins just ~20 kilometers (12 miles) beneath the icy crust. A series of pale blue stripes cuts across its surface, telling the tale of deep fissures that go down into the interior of the world. But what’s perhaps most remarkable is that we can actually see water-ice being spewed from these fissures into space, extending upwards for hundreds of miles (or kilometers) with every eruption.

With water, energy, and organic molecules, some new, alien form of life could very well be waiting here to be discovered. And just to deepen the allure of this remarkable little moon, Siegel reminds us that we once believed the sunless bottom of our own oceans could not support life, and yet we now know creatures do indeed live around hydrothermal vents. And those vents, with their rich interplay of chemical and thermal processes, may well explain the origin of life itself.

Nature has frequently exploded our notions of the possibilities of life, a truth that inspires both science and science fiction. Enceladus reminds us just how vast, beautiful, and awe-inspiring the universe truly is.

UPDATE: From the comments section:

Great read as usual and one I will look into more. Curious? Is there any works of science-fiction that feature this Moon.

MCT: Oh, here’s one:

https://magazine.metaphorosis.com/story/2018/cathedra-m-c-tuggle/

Quote of the day

Spiritual science

“Science is not only compatible with spirituality, it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light‐years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual.”

Carl Sagan

Where science and story meet

The spirit of C. P. Snow lives on. Robert A. Burton, a neurologist and novelist, shares his insights into just how closely science and literature dovetail in the human psyche:

Science is in the business of making up stories called hypotheses and testing them, then trying its best to make up better ones. Thought-experiments can be compared to storytelling exercises using well-known characters. What would Sherlock Holmes do if he found a body suspended in a tree with a note strapped to its ankle? What would a light ray being bounced between two mirrors look like to an observer sitting on a train? Once done with their story, scientists go to the lab to test it; writers call editors to see if they will buy it.

Of course. Both disciplines aim to shed light on some aspect of reality. And when we make connections between events that deepen our understanding of related events, we feel that sweet twinge of discovery, whether in the role of author or reader. In fact, science now informs us that when we successfully recognize patterns, we get a dopamine reward. And we really, really like our dopamine, so much, in fact, that we tend to cling to reassuring stories long after science has superseded them with better, more robust stories. As Dr. Burton explains:

People and science are like bread and butter. We are hardwired to need stories; science has storytelling buried deep in its nature. But there is also a problem. We can get our dopamine reward, and walk away with a story in hand, before science has finished testing it. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the brain, hungry for its pattern-matching dopamine reward, overlooks contradictory or conflicting information whenever possible.

After all, what is religion other than the insightful blending of science and literature? As science uncovers more truths about ourselves and the universe, the storyteller’s job is to imagine new stories that make sense of new information, turning mere data into insight and wisdom.

Stephen Hawking predicted race of ‘superhumans’

Here’s a troubling insight from one of history’s great scientists, via The Guardian:

The late physicist and author Prof Stephen Hawking has caused controversy by suggesting a new race of superhumans could develop from wealthy people choosing to edit their and their children’s DNA.

Hawking, the author of A Brief History of Time, who died in March, made the predictions in a collection of articles and essays.

The scientist presented the possibility that genetic engineering could create a new species of superhuman that could destroy the rest of humanity. The essays, published in the Sunday Times, were written in preparation for a book that will be published on Tuesday.

Can’t help but remember this episode from Star Trek TOS:

Who can forget this blistering exchange between Spock and McCoy:

SPOCK: Hull surface is pitted with meteor scars. However, scanners make out a name. SS Botany Bay.
KIRK: Then you can check the registry.
SPOCK: No such vessel listed. Records of that period are fragmentary, however. The mid=1990s was the era of your last so-called World War.
MCCOY: The Eugenics Wars.
SPOCK: Of course. Your attempt to improve the race through selective breeding.
MCCOY: Now, wait a minute. Not our attempt, Mister Spock. A group of ambitious scientists. I’m sure you know the type. Devoted to logic, completely unemotional

The problem with selective breeding, as Spock later points out, is that “superior ability breeds superior ambition.” Instead of Ghandis and Einsteins, you get Hitlers and Napoleons.

Indeed, that’s the problem with all utopian schemes, from eugenics to communism — those pesky unforeseen consequences. Our minds evolved to adapt and survive in small social groups facing a harsh, unforgiving environment. The complex processes underlying the universe are beyond our grasp, just as our muscles are incapable of tossing boulders into orbit. Our muscles and our minds are not only useful, but extraordinary, but each have their limitations. True wisdom is the recognition and acceptance of those limitations.

That’s why we should heed Hawking’s last words.

Total Eclipse a once in a lifetime experience

Total Eclipse

My wife and I went to Congaree National Park just south of Columbia, South Carolina, to view the Totality. It was an experience I’ll never forget.

The park’s eclipse program began with a hike down a nature trail to the Congaree River. But we saw some gorgeous things along the way, including stunning wildflowers and General Greene’s tree.

General Greene's Tree

General Nathaniel Greene commanded the colonies’ Southern forces during the Revolutionary War, and crossed the Congaree near this spot on his way to confront the British in Charleston. This tree is over a thousand years old.

Here are two Golden Orb spiders we stumbled upon during our hike. The large female is just visible against the trees in the background. The hopeful, tiny male is clinging to the web just above her, waiting for the right moment. He probably doesn’t know what happens after the blessed event. We didn’t stick around to witness it.

Golden Orb spider

We reached the viewing area on the eastern bank of the Congaree River. Even though we had ISO-approved solar viewing glasses, I relied mostly on my pinhole camera to watch the Moon’s progress. The camera worked great. The big advantage is that you can look at the image as long as you want. Even with the glasses, you should only gaze at the sun less than a minute at a time.

Pinhole camera

And you can always create your own hand-made crescents!

Make your own crescents

The light slowly dimmed, casting an eerie glow on the river and surrounding forests. Then, finally, the moon crossed directly in front of the sun, and we were enveloped in Totality. The air turned cool, and crickets began chirping.

Totality

That’s Venus emerging from the sudden darkness to the right of the Sun, now blocked off by the Moon.

Ten Minutes to Totality!

What a show! It was a thrilling, mysterious sight to behold, completely different from the partial eclipses I’ve seen. I’m glad we went.