Putting the Science in Science Fiction – a guest post by Sabrina Chase

*By the time I went to bed last night, I was over this… I thought.  I had dinner with no ill effects.  Except I spent the whole night feeling as though I were either seasick or drunk — a disconcerting sensation when neither of those conditions apply.  I am also running a fever.  So, having managed to crawl off my bed to put this up, I’m going to crawl back into it.  Meanwhile, the incomparable Sabrina Chase is your guide for the day.*

Hi, I’m Sabrina and I’ll be your Science Guide today. I am a gen-u-wine Mad Scientist with a PhD in experimental physics.  I’ve only electrocuted myself a few times and the scars have healed over nicely.  For your own safety, please keep your manipulative appendages inside the tram at all times and do not touch the blinkenlights.

 

OK, Science Fiction. There are a few crucial categories, and I’ve set up my own view and how to write about each of them. I love science, and science fiction is lots of fun to read–but can be intimidating to the non-specialist when it comes to writing. Not to worry! There is hope.

 

1) “Diamond-hard” sf (Andy Weir’s The Martian, Asimov, etc) OK, maybe this one you should worry about. You do need a really thorough grounding in whatever field you want to base your story on. This type is very rare, and even more rare if you insist on a good story too. Scientists who know their stuff may not be able to write themselves out of a wet paper bag. (A non-fiction example of someone who can is Ignition!. Hilariously funny history of rockets and the guys who blew them up.) Also, the things scientists think are fascinating tend to bore nonspecialists to tears. (“They found five-fold symmetry in a real crystal! Woohoo!”) Now if you *do* have specialized technical knowledge, *and* a good story idea that makes central use of this knowledge, knock yourself out. Just make sure your mother/mailman/parole officer can understand it too.

 

2) “Soup of the Day”.  It’s not cheating, it’s specializing! Pick *one* topic to specialize in accurately, and wave hands in an artistic frenzy for everything else. (SA Corey’s Leviathan Wakes features heavy emphasis on correct sublight intrastellar ship mechanics, effects of thrust and momentum, and a truly spectacular accident when a ship’s rotational gravity stops rotating, but goes completely to town with quasi-sentient proteins and vomit zombies). Or try solar physics, and a ship that could possibly enter the outer surface of the sun (David Brin’s Sundiver). Again, focus on *one bit of science*. Then add some handwavium, talking silicon trees, and hot monkey sex and nobody notices the duct tape. Read up on your chosen topic, and if you feel that is still not enough, contact researchers in that topic with specific questions. Especially if you have done your homework and ask reasonable questions (don’t mention chemtrails…) researchers will at the least point you to some useful papers or books. They may even indulge their own speculative fancy to your benefit, if you are lucky. Scientists love sharing information about the things that fascinate them–but remember this is their day job and they might not have a lot of spare time.

 

3) “Turn the Volume down”. Science is everywhere in this kind of SF, but as a nice background hum rather than the main stirring soundtrack (this is what I try to do in my books). Understand basics like conservation of momentum. Human survival in a vacuum. Basics of radiation. Basics of thermodynamics. The big thing is you DON’T need math. This is not about calculating orbital trajectories–you just need a good feel for what is rational. The rest of your made-up science in the book should be like magic in fantasy–internally consistent, and with some sort of cost. My faster-than-light drive in the Sequoyah series is totally made up. It depends on artificial gravity (which can fail in a badly maintained ship, providing Drama) and is affected by anomalies (I was inspired by supermassive strings speculated to exist in interstellar space) that function much like reefs for sailing ships. Navigation is important, and so is the relative motion of stars in the galaxy (you did know everything is moving around like stirred cake batter, right?) That gave me ways to demonstrate my main character’s skill, problems to overcome, ways to fix them, and so on. Note that I am NOT an expert on superstrings, or galactic dynamics, or gravitational theory. I read a general-level article somewhere, or read Kip Thorne’s book (see sources below).

 

Recommendations:

Read around in some science topics and note down things that make you say “ooh, that’s neat!” Don’t worry about jamming it all in one story–you are developing a Junk Pile of useful stuff for later. I probably don’t have to mention it to hard core Human Wave types, but try and be aware of agendas. We all know about Global Warming, and anti-vaccination nutbars, but there can be some esoteric food fights lurking in the shadows as well. (Herschel senior thought people lived on the surface of the sun, Einstein was famously allergic to probability theory, Pons & Fleischman thought they had created fusion events in a pyrex beaker.) Not that you can’t have fun with controversy, just be aware that There Be Dragons and you will get irate emails.

 

Sources:

-Cartoon guide to physics for the basics http://www.amazon.com/Cartoon-Guide-Physics-Larry-Gonick/dp/0062731009 (they also have chemistry and genetics and statistics, but I haven’t read those)

-Feynman lectures for more details, but they do contain scary math and greek letters. (free online http://www.openculture.com/2013/09/the-famous-feynman-lectures-on-physics-now-online-in-html5.html )

-sites that have the latest cool stuff for general inspiration http://phys.org/ , http://www.livephysics.com/ , http://www.foresight.org/nanodot/

-Kip Thorne’s highly entertaining book on gravity and black holes http://www.amazon.com/Black-Holes-Time-Warps-Commonwealth/dp/0393312763

119 responses to “Putting the Science in Science Fiction – a guest post by Sabrina Chase

  1. I find that what I’m learning tends to influence my writing. Because oooh! Weird, and cool, and… Yes, I really do need to figure out how to put more microbiology in my science fiction and fantasy. It’s neat to occasionally read a SF book and see something ‘real’ in there, not just handwavium.

  2. Actual mad science can be pretty tricky to make believable. So rather than get too tied up in the theoretical mechanisms behind the Heat Ray (Dammit! I blew the Schmidlap Junction! It’s always the Schmidlap Junction!) It’s a little more fun to concentrate on the bizarre society that supports Evil Geniuses and the Forces of Justice all the while keeping their heads down to avoid the crossfire.

    I mean, if you’re going to posit a Steampunk level of technology where a guy can build a rig out of batteries, brass, and rheostats, that will let him disintegrate walls, the more you try to explain it, the more difficult it is to suspend disbelief. If you get too far into trying to justify your blaster, you’re only going to invite some Rules lawyer to invoke the laws of physics and tell you why it’s impossible to fit the power needed to cut a oil tanker in half in a pistol-sized device.

    It gives me fits, really, because I have such an urge to try to make it plausible, but it gets in the way of some of the fun and gives me plot headaches. It gives Dr. Mauser headaches too, because he learned real science and now all this stuff that shouldn’t work, does, and he has to re-learn things, but that’s also to his advantage.

    I guess that puts me in category 3.

    • It really is possible to “do strange tings by accident.” In “Tales From The White Hart,” is a good one. Loosely, a “fake” disintegrater actually works.

    • One thing that struck me when reading HG Well’s War of the Worlds: He describes some of the workings of the Martian heat rays. He gives enough description of the device – parabolic main reflector, soundless invisible light producing the heating effect, etc to make it seem like a very believable laser weapon of the sort we are familiar with today.

      The thing he didn’t describe was the gain medium that produced the idealized coherent beam – something that was “magic” in his time, though theoretically possible, which we only know how to do today.

  3. Taking the science seriously can slow a writer down. Getting the mathy bits right is a very annoying distraction when a) you know you can do such things, b) it’s been decades since you took an astrodynamics class, and c) writing is one of many obligations demanding time. Happily, there are resources available to assist. Ferinstance, I wrote a story wherein a circular tunnel is dug within an asteroid and a train runs on it to generate artificial gravity. How big should that circle be? How fast should the train run? Mathy stuff! Should i write, or should i derive formulae? Dr. Google is quite helpful. So is my friend Martin Shoemaker who pointed me to an online calculator.

    • If taking science seriously slows a writer down, then perhaps the writer should try fantasy. That shouldn’t be difficult since more than half the sci-fi novels and stories should be categorized as fantasy. Faster-than-light travel and communication, time travel, powerful lasers in handguns, teleportation, telepathy and telekinesis, universal translators that work almost instantaneously with non-hominid species, handheld medical scanners that can assess every aspect of a person’s health in ten seconds, midichlorions allowing one to access a ‘force’, etc. essentially are magic and should be treated as such.

      • re: laser in handguns:
        Handgun size weapons grade lasers have existed since the 70s.
        Of course, the power supply weighs 400 kilos, but anyway…
        You’re saying that we’ll never ever ever come up with higher density power storage? Must be news to the electric car manufacturers.

      • At one point not too long ago fantasy also included heavier-than-air flight, weapons capable of delivering a slug to a target accurately at distances of a kilometer or more, instantaneous communication, hand-held data storage capable of holding multiple novels, accurate missile targeting at intercontinental distances and atomic explosions.

        • and flying faster than the speed of sound… and a global communications network that people use for daily work as well as play… etc

    • My problem is I always come up with scenarios that I can’t find a preset formula for. Blah.

  4. Christopher M. Chupik

    I’m usually a Category 2. Science is fine, math gives me hives.

  5. Fortunately, there are enough unknown (to the lay person anyway) areas of science that you can have a Tau Anti-Neutrino collector that breaks Time, accidentally of course. Nothing Treky about it if you don’t try to explain HOW.

    That’s where the Treknobabble breaks down, because they have to connect all the bits with rules and their own invented laws of physics, and it trips them up, and next thing you know they have to impose speed limits on warp drives because some Fanboy told them that they’d be damaging Subspace with all that zipping around.

    • Christopher M. Chupik

      What amuses me is that some real life technobabble sounds made-up. Example: magnetohydrodynamics.

  6. Ich bin konfuzed. How does this relate to literature based on societal stresses induced by scientific advances — Science Friction?

  7. I’m a 3. I had an FTL in my first book, and I’m still regretting the deuterium reference, but I needed something just for sound.
    I used Wayne Lee’s To Rise from Earth for orbital mechanics for my next book, which is about bringing down orbital debris. Lee’s books has diagrams and explains lingo at a high school level. I kind of love it. Also, I gave the final draft to someone who knows orbital mechanics and can tell me what I screwed up.

    Sabrina, you had some lovely internal consistency on your drive in the Sequoyah books. I completely bought into all of it. Loved the story, too.

    • There’s a brilliant little game out there in public development called Kerbal Space Program, where your goal is to get these big-headed, adorably goofy green guys to their moon (er, Mün) and later to the other planets, building rockets and piloting them mostly by hand. It’s a great education on Orbital mechanics without math.

      • Rob Crawford

        Read through a few KSP tutorials, watch some of the better “let’s play” guys (Scott Manley has not only the PERFECT name for a pulps hero, he has a Scottish accent and can explain orbital mechanics) and play around with the game and you’ll have a better grasp of orbital maneuvers than 90% of the public. I recommend an add-on to the game called “MechJeb” that automates away some of the things that might feel like twitch-game features, like turning the engines on at just the right time for just the right duration, pointing the ship precisely the right way, etc. Anything other than King David’s Spaceship will have hardware to handle that for you, anyway.

      • I love that game! It is truly educational too on several levels.

    • Yay! I fooled another one! *cough* I mean, thank you, I worked so hard getting the equations right… (bounds off, waving hands)

      Seriously, I did fool a reader into thinking I was a pilot/former Air Force because of Moire. Apparently I got the crazy pilot mindset *just* right :-D

      • I liked your offhand reference to ‘bendy decks’. No I couldn’t tell you exactly how they worked, but it left the impression that you could, except it would bore us to tears, so you skipped it. And of course that’s old technology, Nobody uses them anymore! ;)

  8. “Science is everywhere in this kind of SF, but as a nice background hum rather than the main stirring soundtrack.”

    The sort of background hum that its inhabitants can be prone to tuning out.

    Wash: “Psychic, though? That sounds like something out of science fiction.”
    Zoe: “We live in a spaceship, dear.”
    Wash: “So?”

  9. Dammit, I’m in Category 1 – with that shiny (though not used for a while) PhD in nuclear engineering (fusion).

    I always intended to get back to writing SF – will do some when I finish the novel-in-progress.

    Too many good ideas, too little time, too slow writer.

    Math is easy. It makes sense, anyway.

    • You DO realize you just made a number of people irritated with that statement (probably fewer here than most places, but still), right? :-)

      Just to be clear – I agree with you. Math is easy. In my opinion, it’s people who are hard.

      • Once I figured out my transposing digits was a brain issue and had come up with workarounds, math was a ton of fun. Still is, though I rarely have time. So I taught the workarounds to the boys who both inherited my issue. They both love math.

      • It is much harder to make the people in a story believable than it is to get the math acceptable. Besides, I (and most others) can enjoy a story even if the math pushes the envelope, whereas if the people are not credible …

      • Aargh, this is why I want to be a writer….

        I just had a glimpse, for a moment, of how math is both hard and easy….

        Think of it like this:1+1 is simple, yes? And so is 1+1+1, which is just 1×3. And 3×3 is just that, stacked. And 3^3…..

        Math is easy, but there’s so very much of it…..

        • Math is easy, unless you’re one of those people for whom it’s not. I struggled with this concept for many years; that there could be people who truly could not do basic math with any degree of competency, but I have met many, many people who simply cannot comprehend such simple things as fractions. I myself have coached someone in Algebra over and over again, and he could not remember how to do things we had worked for a half hour on, till he could solve the problems (I made sure, after he had gotten each one, that he could do multiple problems of the same type). Whenever I stopped and had him go back to a problem of one of the types he had done earlier, he was lost.

          • There’s another part of this. Dan the math genius can teach younger son. Older son and I though hear fonk fonk fonk. This is because Dan and younger son are INTENSELY visual. Robert and I are auditory. It doesn’t mean we can’t learn, but it needs to be explained a different way. (In fact older son has completed calc 3 and would like to go further “for fun” so part of the gifts this year was a couple of discounted math courses from Great Courses.)

            • Yes, one of the grand failures of warehouse schooling is missing the variations in content processing. Mathematics is a big one. Initial failures to conceptualize are compounded as courses progress. And rather than correct original misunderstandings, we shuffle people off into “non-math” categories.

              I was in college before algebra made any intuitive sense for me, and it was solely as a result of a statistics course. The purpose behind the processes tied it all together. And then I was really pissed.

              • I only had math through precalc, but I mean, Robert couldn’t understand LONG DIVISION taught by his father. So he came running to me, and I taught him in ten minutes. This was enough to figure out “I’m not stupid, I have a different way to learn.”
                So, he found his way to learning things. BUT if both Dan and I had processed the same way and the kid hadn’t, it would have baffled us.

                • Oh, yes. Count my parents among the baffled. For which I do not blame them. They aren’t the professional *bile rising* educators. Not fond memories.

                • I didn’t learn long division until a few years ago, and I went through calculus in high school. I always did basic math in my head and never learned the complicated slow processes like long division. Never affected me any in higher math, but used to drive teachers nuts in grade school when they wanted you to show your work and I handed in a sheet of paper with just the answers written on it. Used to drive me nuts too, when they kept insisting I show my work, and I would insist that I did… 162 / 9 is 18, what else is there to show? ;)

                  • That was younger kid…

                  • Or: “turn fractions into decimals using long division” and some of us (especially those simultaneously taking technical drawing) had memorized the most common ones.

                  • I used to do long division and huge multiplications for fun in 5th grade. I’d make up some 15 or 20 digit number and divide it out or multiply it with something with 1 or 2 digits. It’d march all the way down the page. The only problem was keeping the columns straight so nothing got transposed.

          • It’s like multitasking– I can’t grasp how my husband CAN’T notice when the girls are being too quiet, but I recognize it’s true.

            • Oh, that’s mommy-senses. I had to move the office downstairs because the attic was too quiet and I COULDN’T follow what the guys were doing (and younger boy was 8)

          • I can see how percents, decimals and algebra can be difficult. But fractions? That’s just pieces of a pie. I guess reducing could be hard. I suppose some people just can’t deal with fractions. How does he go shopping if he can’t understand fractions?

            • Sorry, I mixed examples. I don’t know the ones I have met who can’t do fractions well enough to know that kind of thing. The guy I was referring to with the algebra is, I think, ok with basic math, including fractions, but anything with abstractions seems to be beyond his capacity to hold onto on a long-term basis.

              • I met a woman who had that problem and was training to be a teacher. I may be doing her a disservice and she could do it. She was definitely anti-algebra. She had left school after middle school to get married, and was now some years later, divorced and training to be a teacher. This was in Montgomery, AL. People like her are the reason no one who could possibly avoid it went to public school in Montgomery, AL.

  10. One problem with getting the science both right and detailed is that some bloody researcher comes along a goes even further. Your bright and shiny just turned into ho-hum, old hat, been there and done that. Right now computers and genetics are changing so fast . . . I really need to get back to space operas, where I can just hand wave FTL. My genetic engineering is going to get swamped by reality so _fast_.

    • Yeah, oh yeah. I did some genetic handwavium with the Azdhagi and “silent genes” that will probably get me laughed at five years from now (if not three years from now). FTL travel is easy compared to genetics and computers.

    • I know what you mean. By the time I’d given up shipping my first one around to agents and slush piles, my communications tech was out of date with now, never mind over a hundred years into the future.

      • :: Hangs head in shame :: I’ve been reduced to “After several nuclear wars they were just about to where they’d started, tech-wise . . . “

        • You’re in good company. David Weber, Taylor Anderson, several other authors whose names escape my notice at the moment, they’ve all “cheated” that way at one time or other. Doesn’t make the story any less readable to me, provided it isn’t handled clumsily (like I would if I wrote it…).

          Good story covers many, many faults. Give me handwavium, unobtanium, phlebotinum, or out-and-out made up stuff. But make the story one that keeps me turning the pages late into the night and cursing the lying clock that tells me morn has come. That’s what readers want, greedy things that we are. *grin*

  11. Any suggestions on a primer for intrastellar orbital mechanics and navigation? (I’ve noted Laura M’s recommendation above.)

    • Sierra Madre Games actually publishes a neat game on exploration of our Solar System which includes a neat map of the solar system by specific impulse or delta V to reach planets. High Frontier.
      http://sierra-madre-games.eu/index_high_frontier_2nd_edition.html

      • *Cought* $400 on Amazon…

        Granted, that’s better than the titch under $4000 for the import version of Wayne Lee’s book, but there are other options on the book.

        And now I really want to play that game. :(

        • Yeah, thinking at first it was a video game I told my kids they could give it to me for my birthday if they would play it with me from college. Still looks like a good game.
          I did not pay $4000 for Wayne Lee’s book! Less than $20.
          Now I have to go look up the Kerbal Space Program for mathless mechanics.

        • That’s not a real price. That’s an auto bot pricing artifact. Although the game is hard to find at the moment due to being out of print. They show up on game sites and eBay.

          • Hm. Okay, I’ll go scrounging. Bits and pieces I’ve dug up look interesting. And fun.

            • I saw it set up at a gaming convention in Tempe Arizona last May. It certainly looks great. And its impressive how Phil has compiled and expressed the info on the various orbital options.

            • Board Game Geek is another place to look. They list an Italian shop selling it for 65 eu.

      • There is another way, but it takes a little while — raise two kids. Send them each into STEM degrees. Make them the kind of nut who MUST babble at you about the latest discoveries/developments and who spends hours every day keeping up with those. Assimilate the low-level sciency stuff, then bug them in the middle of the night to check the handwavium you just wrote. (All this keeping in mind I aim for later Heinlein sf. The characters are more important. Try not to have glaring errors in your handwavium and make it sound plausible, but do not bother with hard-hard science because you don’t even READ that. Younger son does.)

  12. Question: Now that we know you made up your FTL drive, I was wondering if you ever tweaked it to make your plot work? Or, did you make it up and then strictly adhere to it? Also, did the fact Sequoyah was a series make you wish you had the power to change the drive when you were on the second or third book? (Also, will there be more? Pretty please?)

    • Hmm, good question. I wrote those books several years ago so my memory is hazy (and whoever pointed out technology has a way of catching up with your fiction, *totally true*. I have a running total of things I “made up” in that series that now exist and some you can buy on Amazon.) As near as I can recall, I came up with the Big Main Bits of the drive (artificial gravity on the ship, webspace bubble, gravitational alignment with mass points like stars) and then carefully did not get too specific about how it worked. Partly to retain freedom of motion, partly because that wasn’t the focus of the story.

      Then I came up with things like the Sargasso, and my own internal critic wondered how it had come about–and then the Salmon of Inspiration slapped me upside the head and I realized I could connect the dots with tech I already mentioned and the aliens I wanted to bring onstage. In the third book I knew I needed to make Moire’s ship drop out in the middle of a battle, and given the vast emptiness of space it would HAVE to be something connected to the drive getting wibbly and caused by the aliens…and I backfilled from there, discovering a handy way to up the stakes and put the heroes in more danger as a side benefit. A big plus was I had all three books written before indie publishing was even a thing, so I *could* have retconned if I needed to–but I don’t recall needing to.

      I am thinking there will be at least one more full book in the Sequoyah world with Moire and the gang, and possibly a short story collection and a novella. Further work will depend on the Salmon of Inspiration intersecting my orbit again ;-)

      • “I am thinking there will be at least one more full book in the Sequoyah world with Moire and the gang, and possibly a short story collection and a novella. Further work will depend on the Salmon of Inspiration intersecting my orbit again ;-)

        /lays a chum trail neatly through Sabrina’s orbit/

      • I think you just need the right inclination. (Runs)

  13. Surprised that no one in the august company has mentioned Tedd Roberts and his articles…

    • I was avoiding mentioning them/him, because for Darkships I pretty much put on a miner’s hat and go into his brain for interesting chunks of knowledge/research.

    • FTW.

    • And if you ever use more than 10% of that… then its all on you. Some of the stuff there, while ‘scientifically correct’ to ‘the best of our knowledge’-

      1. demonstrates an astonishing lack of faith that any advancements will be made in many areas, including ignoring the current bleeding edge research

      2. demonstrates ignorance of how military weapons work even today, and assumes that no advancement will be made, once again ignoring current bleeding-edge research. Or even research completed recently. Or even research done ten years ago.

      3. Has little or no bearing on ‘good sf’.

      *refers you to stuff he wrote for WW fifteen years ago

      • And if you ever use more than 10% of that…

        I’m not terribly worried about that, I’m just looking for jumping off points. In the post lexicon, I’m thinking a blend of 2 & 3. The blue collar space stuff this would inform is going to be a tech-level mix, so I just need info to inform the playground.

        And, much as our venerable host has said, I’m a character story guy. The (assuredly) fictional science is supporting cast.

        That being said, I’d like to avoid stepping on my crank too terribly hard. Being a generalist means having a better than average understanding of how much I don’t know. :P

    • I found that site when I was in undergrad, and loved it.

  14. Also, for the orbital debris book, I, ahem, “modeled” some of the zombies on real dead satellites. That way I knew I wasn’t making up goofy mass, locations or failures modes. I have a subscription to Space News at work, and would carefully tear out any stories about satellite failures or the locations of spent upper stages. I had a little stack from which to mix and match. It’s nice that reality can also be a useful research tool.

    • I just finished watching an Anime series called “Planetes” which is about a crew in 2075 who work for the poorly regarded Debris collection section at one of the big orbital space corporations.

      • That was a good show, though the political sub-plots were weird and not well explored.

      • Have read of it, what was your take?

      • That was fun. I watched that with my kids when they were little. They thought it a little odd, but I liked it.

      • Wonderful show and worth the disks. Except for the politics which make little sense, though I can understand a little of what might happen in the middle east without oil. Think Syria and things don’t seem to far fetched. Now I need to find one of those toybox model kits. I kick for passing it up on the shelf when I was in Japan.

  15. Christopher M. Chupik

    One of the things I do is collect bits and pieces of scientific knowledge, like reading articles in Scientific American and whatnot. Eventually, I can find ways to use them in stories.

  16. Hal Clement, that master of hard SF, admitted that in his works, the translator device he used between aliens and humans were pure magic.

    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

      Chuckle Chuckle

      In one defunct SF universe that I tried to write in, I had a way around the “translation” problem. A mysterious super-species had left Information platforms at the edges of star systems that developed intelligent life. One of the bits of information the AI controlling the information platform gave out was a special trading language. Any species who left their star system had this language available for them to use in speaking with other species who had left their star systems.

      Although, I don’t remember how I dealt with translation problems between star travelers and planet bound species. I may have had the platform AI knowing the major languages of the inhabited planet.

      Of course, that could be said to “push the magic” upwards to the platform AI but in many ways it was the product of “sufficiently advanced technology” being similar to magic. None of the known species could match the technology used by information platforms. [Grin]

    • Yeah, well, given the demonstrated inability of people who grew up using the same language (heck, grew up in the same household) to communicate clearly, any device purporting to translate between human and alien would have to be pure magic. Frankly, any device translating between husbands and wives would be darn near magical!

      • As a translator, it is almost impossible to create a GOOD mechanical translation. You can do the Google level, but for GOOD translation you need artificial intelligence.

        • Quibble: Having dealt with translations from committees, I would argue that to get a decent translation that works (as opposed to one that is accurate) you need an AI that is also a bit of a poet.

          • How about one from one person who is fluent in both languages?

            • That would not be a mechanical translation. By definition.
              There are a lot of ways to get a correct translation. What is difficult is getting one that sounds good

            • And I’m unclear at times. Sarah was talking about needing and artificial intelligence to get a good computer type translation. I meant to say that to get a good translation you need an artificial translator that is also a poet of sorts.

              • Hrm. I can see possibilities. A *very* advanced heuristic, just short of actual self-awareness with near-human parallel processing and access to a library the size of the internet with learning capability to correct errors in translation could come *close.*

                Given that language operates on multiple levels- see information exchanged in-person vs. text- an anthropomorphic robot connected to a quantum computer with a *truly* immense, learning code for software and an ever expanding, library the size of the internet could possibly give a useful translation…

                Or be snagged by various government agencies that recognized the potential security breach implied, and put it to work in cryptography. Or might as well produce an unending string of cute cat pictures instead of translation. *grin*

                • A *very* advanced heuristic, just short of actual self-awareness with near-human parallel processing and access to a library the size of the internet with learning capability to correct errors in translation could come *close.*

                  *sigh* Maybe I can just get y’all to write my stuff for me?

                  Here’s part of my description (I have a glossary of characters for my WIP – this is not in the text) of one of the things by which one of my characters made his fortune: “…his original software that provided order-of-magnitude better language translation by learning colloquialisms regionally to the speaker, and identified the speaker’s region by their speech patterns, and kept up-to-date by continually monitoring as many sources of speech as possible.”

                  • My Dad, a graduate of the Vacuum-tube and Relay era of computing used to tell a story about an early attempt at a English-Russian translation program. Given the English text, “Out of sight, out of mind” it was translated into Russian, and then back to English to validate the system.

                    The Resulting translation: “Invisible Idiot.”

              • Yes. And I meant for a mechanical translation, of course. You also need a poet of sorts to translate fiction. What I’m trying to say, as someone who worked as a multilingual translator for years is that it’s not as most people imagine “Word x means y” in the other language. There is never an exact correspondence. (Okay, sometimes. Fork means fork. Usually.) People also tell me “English is so difficult because we have so many words that mean roughly the same thing with shaded meanings.” Pfui. EVERY language does. And some beat English hands down. This is why it’s so difficult to become fluent in a language learned as an adult (not impossible though — takes a bow) and why mechanical translation is almost impossible.

                • And then there are idioms and phrases that are essentially shared cultural references, if you know what I mean and I think you do, wink-wink, nudge-nudge. When translating, nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.

    • That’s why I decided to go with a lingua franca (Trader) and to have “translator boxes” appear only when absolutely necessary. And the True-dragons use telepathy to get the meaning of the other speaker’s words (most of the time), so they understand the main concepts, even if they don’t get a literal translation of an unfamiliar language. Aaaand I borrowed D. Drake’s idea about mental conditioning, so Cdr. Ni Drako learns languages much faster than most people do, although it still gives her headaches. In short, lots of handwavium, winks, and nods. :)

    • Rob Crawford

      Don’t forget the Babelfish. It, too, was a cop-out, but one weaved into the story in such a brilliant way.

    • And it was Hal Clement who pointed out the problems of using telepathy as a shortcut. (Impediment)

  17. Inhate to burst a bubble but “cold fusion” seems to be real. Tere was a *functioning” model in Italy. The size of a refrigerator, and only a couple hundred watts, but *functioning.* As to “strange events in physics,” I offer myself as an example. In College Chem, I destroyed mass, and later _increase_ radioactivity. Instance 1) Simple zinc and HCL -> H2 and ZnCl. Supposedly, you can “predict” the final weight of ZnCl. First time, mass loss 50% too high. Second time, 200% too high. Third time, 300% too high. Second time another student watched process, and verified it. Third time, prof weighed input, and output. (He was a retied Industrial Chemist.)
    Second anomaly, was “Half life” demonstration. *Supposed* to become less radioactive, over chart able time. The sample my lab partner and I had, became MORE radioactive. (Lab partner was engineering on Nuclear Sub, and couldn’t understand it, either.) If you think for even a SECOND that I will go NEAR a functioning Nuclear plant, you ARE crazy.

    • Obviously your lab partner had been over-exposed on a deployment. If you’d turned the lights off in the lab, you would have seen that he glows…just like Rudolph’s nose. I’m surprised your hair didn’t fall out just from standing next to him. :)

  18. My apologies for not being present for questions until now–I was off being a dutiful daughter and fixing a raft of things electrical and mechanical for my mother and thus Not On Internet. But feel free to ask more questions! The Mad Scientist is In!

  19. Karl Sandwell-Weiss

    Let me put in another plug for Ignition. You don’t need a chemistry background to understand it and it’s a delightful read for anyone with a passing interest in science, especially in space flight.

  20. Thanks for the pointer to Ignition, it was a wonderful read

  21. I’m not sure why having FTL in your space opera is so embarrassing. Sure, these days we know that you can’t get there from here by smoothly accelerating. (Unless your setting is in some sort of alternative Gallilean universe where light does propagate relative to an “ether background”)

    It is also said that you can have only two of 1) FTL 2) Relativity 3) Causality, but why is 3 so important? If your (as of yet speculative, or we would be doing it) ability to end up outside your original light-cone means you can travel backwards in time, then its an excuse to have time-travel shenanigans appended to your space opera. Special Relativity consistent FTL would be interesting.

    New Captain: “Wait! We can time travel?”
    Annoyed Engineer: “What part of commanding an FTL starship didn’t you understand? Of course we can time travel, among other things!”

  22. I’ve been toying with the idea of putting together a high-school or middle-school level class “teaching science through what science fiction authors get wrong”. And I’m not thinking of things like Venus that used to be a tropical jungle or Mars that used to have canals with water flowing in them. I’m thinking more of things like:
    Real gyroscopes don’t work as described in “The Number of the Beast”.
    Gravity won’t hold objects against the inner surface of a Dyson sphere.
    Lower gravity does not allow for steeper ramps.
    Pointing a rocket ship in a particular direction does not cause it to change its direction of movement.
    “A heat engine that needs to be cooled” is not an absurdity, but an inevitable fact of thermodynamics.
    The setting of Larry Niven’s “Integral Trees” is physically impossible, at least it is without unobtanium and doubletalk generators.
    I imagine reading excerpts of the stories containing the critical parts, and then explaining what they got wrong and how we get the right answer.
    Maybe I should put it together and run it past some fellow LASFS members.

    • Ask Warren James if you see him around LASFS, he taught a similar college course.

    • If everyone had a car, the cities would be carnage. CARNAGE. I just ran into this in Heinlein’s The Roads Must Roll, and it amused me because it’s what I grew up with in Portugal too. You have to be exceptionally talented/coordinated to drive. Okay fine, but…now everyone in Portugal has cars, and drives on horrible roads, and even there it’s not CARNAGE.

      • My husband came back from India a few years back with interesting stories about their traffic. (Lots of interesting stories generally.)

        On Tue, Jan 7, 2014 at 4:29 PM, According To Hoyt wrote:

        > accordingtohoyt commented: “If everyone had a car, the cities would be > carnage. CARNAGE. I just ran into this in Heinlein’s The Roads Must Roll, > and it amused me because it’s what I grew up with in Portugal too. You have > to be exceptionally talented/coordinated to drive. Okay fi” >

        • To slow is to falter
          To brake is to fail
          To stop is utter defeat
          –The Indian Driver’s Mantra

          My brother spent a couple of years in New Delhi. Boy howdy, I *might* want to visit, but dwelling is right out.