Wednesday, December 25, 2019

The Science of Sci-Fi: From Warp Speed to Interstellar Travel (The Great Courses), by Erin Macdonald (author, narrator)

Audible Original, November 2019

This is an entertaining, informative set of ten lectures on the physics used, whether accurately or creatively, in science fiction. Erin Macdonald is a physicist--and an enthusiastic and knowledgeable science fiction fan. She wants the interested fans to be familiar with the science behind their favorite movies, games, and books, but for the purpose of greater enjoyment and more fun, not for the purpose of telling us, "But that can't work and you shouldn't be enjoying it."

She starts off with an introduction to the science of space, time, and space-time, including the history of how we arrived at our current understanding. We also get an overview of some really cool ideas, like string theory, that aren't as prominent as they were just  a few years ago, not because they've been proven wrong, but because, on the contrary, no one has come up with any effective ideas on how to test these theories.  If you can't come up with a way to test a hypothesis on whether it's true or false, it might be a cool idea, but it's not science. At least not yet.

In subsequent lectures, she talks about how science fiction uses science to create stories and to make the stories work. Hyperspace, subspace, wormholes, and various ways of generating artificial gravity all get their turns in these lectures. Macdonald relates them directly to popular science fiction franchises, including Star Trek, Mass Effect, Galaxy Quest, and Star Wars. Ursula Le Guin's Ansible, the instantaneous communication device originally developed for her Hainish cycle and then spread to other sf by other writers, gets its share of attention.

The Star Trek transporter stands out as something that really can't work, but which she particularly loves because they quietly acknowledge that: a "Heisenberg compensater" is necessary to make it work properly and safely. I.e., the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which states that you can't know both the location and the velocity of any give particle at the same time, means the transporter, which needs to track many, many particles exactly, in both location and velocity, at the same time, means we'll never have a transporter, but we really, really need it to make this tv show work... (Really. It's only on screen that you need this. Plus, it makes for really pretty special effects, a bonus. In print, it's much easier to work around the time needed to get to and from the surface of a planet, whether by landing your ship, or using shuttles.)

As I said at the beginning, it's interesting and a lot of fun, and Erin Macdonald gives really good lecture. Enjoy!

I bought this audiobook.

No comments:

Post a Comment