Archive for January, 2013

Scientists Gone Wild

“He had the greatest mind since Einstein, but it didn’t work quickly. He admitted his slowness often. Maybe it was because he had so great a mind that it didn’t work quickly… I watched him hit that ball. I watched it bounce of the edge of the table and move into the zero-gravity volume, heading in one particular direction. For when Priss sent that ball toward the zero-gravity volume – and the tri-di films bear me out – it was already aimed directly at Bloom’s heart! Accident? Coincidence? …Murder?” The Billiard Ball – Isaac Asimov

In “The Billiard Ball”, first published in the March 1967 issue of If, Asimov presents a story in which scientific competition rises to the level of murder. Maybe.  Asimov understood that scientists are human beings, and can be arrogant, petty, cruel, and filled with hatred. These traits, in turn, can make for a compelling science fiction story. And if you’re looking for inspiration, there’s plenty to be found.

Lord Kelvin, a brilliant mathematician and physicist, accused Wilhelm Roentgen, who announced the discovery of X-rays in 1895, of fraud. He argued that the cathode-ray tube, which Roentgen had used in his discovery, had been in use for a decade, and therefore if X-rays actually existed, someone would have already discovered them. True, he eventually came around and apologized, but calling a fellow scientist a fraud is pretty serious.

But Kelvin was actually the least of Roentgen’s attackers. Roentgen had borrowed a cathode-ray tube from physicist Philipp Lenard, who had been exploring fluorescence using cathode-ray tubes before Roentgen, although he failed to pursue its origins or photographically document his findings. Lenard became angry that Roentgen hadn’t acknowledged his work in developing some of the technology that lead to Roentgen’s discovery, and for years he both demanded credit for the discovery of X-rays while simultaneously (and wrongly) arguing that they were just a kind of cathode ray with new properties instead of a different phenomenon. Lenard’s attacks on Roentgen lasted until Lenard died in 1947, and because of the attacks, Roentgen left orders for all his papers concerning X-rays prior to 1900 burned, unopened, upon his death. Lenard went on to be an early member of the Nazi party, an advisor to Adolf Hitler, Chief of Aryan physics, and a fierce opponent of Albert Einstein and “the Jewish fraud” of relativity.

Then there’s English inventor and scientist Robert Hooke. Hooke was a polymath, and is often referred to as the English Leonardo Da Vinci. He discovered Hooke’s Law (the extension of a spring is proportional to the applied force), contributed to knowledge of respiration, insect flight and the properties of gases, coined the term “cell” to describe the individual units making up larger organisms, invented the universal joint and the anchor escapement in clocks and numerous other mechanical devices, his work on gravitation preceded Newton’s, his Micrographia was the first book on microscopy, his astronomical observations were some of the best seen at the time, and he was an architect of distinction and a Surveyor for the City of London after the Great Fire.

But he was also an ass, especially when it came to Isaac Newton.

Hooke and Newton were involved in a dispute over the idea of the force of gravity following an inverse square relationship to define the elliptical orbits of planets, as well as Newton’s theory of light and colors. In 1672, Newton was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of London, and his first letter on Light and Colors was read to the Society. Hooke, at the time a respected senior scientist and Curator of Experiments for the Royal Society, attacked Newton’s theory, and also claimed that he had invented a reflecting telescope before Newton (Newton had actually invented it in 1668). Newton fought back, and won, but in In January 1676, Hooke again attacked Newton, alleging that Newton had plagiarized Hooke’s Micrographia, which contained Hooke’s own theory of light.

Despite the attacks, Hooke and Newton corresponded and in private correspondence, Newton had shared calculations that, he believed, showed that the path of a body falling to Earth would be a spiral. Unfortunately, Hooke realized that Newton’s argument only held true if the body were precisely on the equator, and in the more general case the path would be an ellipse. In 1679, just after Newton’s mother had died, Hooke exposed the error to the Royal Society, and after briefly responding to Hooke, he stopped writing anyone for over a year.

In 1686, when the first book of Newton’s ‘Principia’ was presented to the Royal Society, Hooke claimed that Newton had obtained from him the “notion” of “the rule of the decrease of Gravity, being reciprocally as the squares of the distances from the Center”. Only the diplomatic intervention of Edmund Halley persuaded Newton to allow the publication of the final volume of the Principia trilogy, with Halley telling Newton that Hooke was merely making a public fool of himself, and Newton removing every reference to Hooke in the volume.

But before you feel too bad for Newton, don’t, because Newton could be just as much of an ass as Hooke was.

John Flamsteed may not be a name that’s familiar to you, but was Astronomer Royal, and over 30 years had measured the positions of thousands of stars with a precision far exceeding anything undertaken before him. When Newton needed observations on the ‘double’ comet of 1680, he turned to Flamsteed, who provided him with the observations. There were some small errors in the data Flamsteed sent to Newton, and Flamsteed attempted to make amends by carrying out some of the calculations that Newton needed for himself. Newton, however, Newton caustically informed Flamsteed that he needed his observations, not his calculations. Feeling mistreated Flamsteed threatened to withhold his data.

Newton needed these calculations for a new section he was planning for the second edition of the Principia, around 1703, on a “Theory of the Moon”, so using his courtly influence, he persuaded Queen Anne’s husband, George, to commission a royal star catalogue, to be printed by the Royal Society. Flamsteed could hardly refuse this commission from his direct employer; but the moment he handed his draft data over to the Royal Society it was certain to go straight to Newton, who now dominated there. Flamsteed stalled, publishing the data as slowly as possible, and making certain it wasn’t the data that Newton needed. When Flamsteed argued with Newton over an error in Newton’s measurement of the size of stars in Opticks, Newton deliberately excluded Flamsteed from the discussions about the publication of his catalogue, and his request for a £2,000 grant to purchase a new telescope was rejected under Newton’s influence. In 1708, Prince George died, and the star catalogue project died with him. In retaliation, when Flamsteed’s membership of the Royal Society lapsed in 1709, Newton refused to renew it, effectively expelling Flamsteed.

But Newton wasn’t through with Flamsteed. He needed Flamsteed’s data, and by 1711, had persuaded Queen Anne to take up the mantle of sponsor of her late husband’s project. In a  note to Flamsteed in 1711, Newton threatened that “[If you] make any excuses or unnecessary delays it will be taken for an indirect refusal to comply with Her Majesty’s order.”

The matter came to a head with the eclipse of 4 July, 1711. Observations of the eclipse would be invaluable to Newton’s calculations, but Flamsteed refused a direct order to observe it. He was ordered to explain himself before a panel of the Royal Society, and the council that was to stand judgment over Flamsteed was selected by the President of the Royal Society (Newton) and consisted of Newton and two of his most loyal supporters. The council, to no one’s surprise, ordered the immediate publication of all Flamsteed’s hard-won data.

Flamsteed’s masterwork, Historia Coelestis, was finally published in 1712, against Flamsteed’s wishes and without his involvement. The following year, Newton issued the second edition of his Principia, compete with a lunar theory based on Flamsteed’s data.

Scientists gone wild, indeed.


1. Asimov, Isaac, 1986. The Edge of Tomorrow. New York, NY: Tom Doherty Assoc Llc

2. Kevles, Bettyann H., 1998. Naked to the Bone: Medical Imaging in the Twentieth Century. New York, NY: Basic Books.

3. Chapman, Allan, 2004. England’s Leonardo: Robert Hooke and the Seventeenth-Century Scientific Revolution. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis.

4. Clark, David H. and Clark, Stephen H. P., 2001. Newton’s Tyranny: The Suppressed Scientific Discoveries of Stephen Gray and John Flamsteed. New York, NY: W. H. Freeman

5. Grant, John, 2007. Corrupted Science: Fraud, Ideology and Politics in Science. Wisley, Surrey, England: Facts, Figures & Fun

Under the Ice

As I’ve discussed here before, writers who want to ground their fiction in science have a limited amount of biology to draw from. We only have one planet with life to study, and have yet to meet an alien. Still, a fair bit of biology is grounded in physics and chemistry. Any extraterrestrial life is almost certainly going to be made of the same elements we are, and will likely have both genetic material and some way to exchange that material between individuals when reproducing.

But beyond biology to ecology it gets harder to extrapolate, right? Not necessarily: the Earth has all kinds of weird corners, and scientists are discovering more of them all the time.

One of the latest such efforts is taking samples from Antarctic lakes that have been covered with ice for thousands of years, like Lake Vida. This lake is salty, and is deeply buried under ice. It has been isolated for nearly 3,000 years. And yet, it is full of bacteria. They’re still being studied, but these bacteria probably live on hydrogen: they’re completely isolated from the things that most living things get their energy from (sunlight, especially).

And then there’s Lake Vostok. This Antarctic lake is sealed under 4,000 m of ice, and has been cut off from the rest of the world for 15 to 25 million years. Drilling through that much ice safely and without contaminating the lake is a huge undertaking, and has taken years. The Russian scientists aren’t just looking for life: bubbles trapped in the ice provide invaluable information about past atmospheric composition, for instance. It’s a good thing that they’re producing all sorts of data, since no life has been found yet.

Conditions in these cold Antarctic lakes help us extrapolate to elsewhere in the solar system. Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus may both have liquid water sealed under layers of ice.

We don’t know the less-hospitable corners of our own planet all that well (Mars is better mapped than Earth, because we don’t know a whole lot about the deep ocean). Exploring at home will help us better understand what we find as we get out into the rest of the solar system, and will let us add some science to our fiction.

Alien Landscapes

What would we see if we stood on an alien world?

As the word ‘alien‘ originally meant ‘foreigner, stranger, one who is not a naturalized citizen of the country in which they are living,‘ we naturally expect everything alien to be different, and perhaps it will be, but the laws of physics are universal so we should expect some similarities.

The classic science fiction interpretation of an alien world is often as though Earth were pictured through a blue/purple/black or blood red filter had been placed over the lens of a camera just for the sake of it. And although there is some scientific basis to this assumption, as different stars will emit a different light spectrum, it is an overly simplistic way of coming up with something ‘different‘ for the sake of being different. We have black plants here on Earth, as an example, making them not-quite-as-alien as we thought.

The danger is that science fiction may be trying too hard to come up with something radically different just so it seems alien, with alien being synonymous for jaw-dropping and unexpected. Reality may be stranger than fiction in that the laws of physics and chemistry are what determine biology, and as the laws of physics and chemistry are universal, astrobiology too may be much more similar than we’d expect.

Theoretically, life could arise in a multitude of places we wouldn’t anticipate, using chemistry we haven’t seen exploited on Earth (like silicon-based lifeforms), but as a university professor recently pointed out to me, the odds on favorite has to be carbon from a purely chemical perspective. Carbon is the most versatile atom for forming complex molecules.

So what would alien landscapes look like? Well, they’re going to be bound by the same laws of physics and chemistry we have on Earth, although probably in different proportions, as it’s unlikely there will be the same gravitational strength, or atmospheric mix, etc.

I’d venture to say with the astounding diversity of environments we see on Earth, there’s enough versatility to give us a good idea about alien landscapes.

These are snow covered trees in lapland. With temperatures dropping as low as -40c in winter, these hardy trees survive encased in ice.

Just a couple of hours from where I was born you can find boiling mud in the thermal wonderland of Rotorua. As a kid, I’d marvel when we’d stop by the side of the road to watch mud bubbling away in the forest.

If you ever get to Sydney, Australia, you should take a trip to the Blue Mountains to the Jenolan Caves. It takes several hours to walk through these caves, but the stalactites and stalagmites are magnificent. They’re reminiscent of the surreal artwork of H.R. Giger, made famous by Ridley Scott in the Alien movies.

No, it’s not Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. These giant selenite crystals have grown beneath the ground in Mexico’s Cueva de los Cristales. With temperatures reaching 58 °C (136 °F) and up to 99% humidity, these caves are largely unexplored, but crystals have been found almost 40 feet long, weighing up to 55 tons.

Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone is an example of how “alien” life on Earth can be. The deep blue color is the natural result of water clarity and depth, but the greens, yellows and ocre-reds are all the result of bacterial life. In particular, this spring hosts chemotrophs, microbes that use chemicals rather than photosynthesis as their energy source, but its the cyanobacteria, photosynthesizing bacteria, that give off the green, yellow and ruddy colours. Chemotrophs and cyanobacteria are among the oldest forms of life on Earth.

Geology is one thing that’s likely to be highly similar between planets, especially those within the Goldilocks Zone that are roughly the same size and composition as Earth. This image, showing the erosion of sedimentary layers within the Arizona desert is particularly striking.

These limestone structures in the White Desert of Egypt have withstood considerable weathering over the ages, leaving a jarring impression on the landscape.

If you were to visit Socotra island, off the coast of Africa, you’d be greeted with a host of plant life that seems out-of-this-world. This island has been isolated from the mainland of Africa for millions of years and so life has evolved in an isolated niche, producing trees that wouldn’t be out of place in the latest Star Trek movie.

The Richat structure in Africa, visible from outer space, is not the result of a meteorite impact, but rather is the result of geological processes.

There really is such an astounding degree of diversity here on Earth that science fiction writers can draw upon in so many ways.

These geysers from the Black Rock National Park in the US are spectacular.

What will we see on alien worlds? What would an alien landscape appear like? Well, there’s a good chance it could look very much like the unusual “alien” panoramas we have here on Earth.

Any alien world will undoubtedly have volcanoes, but, as we have seen within our own solar system, not all volcanoes seeth with boiling magma. The moons of Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune have all displayed cryovolcanoes, erupting with cold/frozen gases and liquids such as water, methane and ammonia. Volcanoes like these may well be the chemical mixing pot for life on other worlds.

Here on Earth we see a variety of life arising around volcanic hydrothermal vents where sunlight can never penetrate.

Although it might look like something from the Alien franchise of movies, this microscopic worm was discovered around a deep sea thermal vent.

With nematodes being discovered up to a mile beneath the Earth’s surface, the extreme boundaries at which live can thrive continues to be redefined. Life is far more remarkable and surprising, resilient and prolific than we dared to imagine even just a decade ago, raising hopes of life being able to etch out an existence in the far-flung corners of our own solar system on planets and moons like Mars, Enceladus and Europa.


Peter Cawdron is the best selling author of Monsters, a dystopian look at the importance of reading

Science Friction

Contrary to the common misconception perpetuated on Amazon, science fiction is not fantasy. Sometimes fantasy slips into the genre, but science fiction is about science in fiction.

Science fiction is hypothetical. It’s conjecture about how science could, in one form or another, shape the world of the future, and in that regard it is forward thinking and thought provoking.

It’s fiction in that it’s not real and doesn’t pretend to foretell the future, and yet there’s an element of exploration in science fiction, not of stars and planets, of future people and evolving cultures.

Science fiction looks to preempt and predict how mankind will adapt to the challenges of the future, however wild they may be.

Some of the science fiction classics could loosely be termed science friction in that they agitate and challenge preconceptions. Throughout its brief history, the best loved science fiction stories have been those that dared to challenge the status quo.

IMHO George Orwell’s 1984 is, arguably, the greatest science fiction novel ever written.

Half a century before Skype video chats and Google hangouts, George Orwell saw the danger of our seemingly innocuous video screens with their built-in cameras, speakers and microphones.

Thought-policenewspeak and Big Brother became the clarion called that allowed the West to avoid the Stalinist-style abuse of technology portrayed in 1984.

If you’ve read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago you’ll understand this was no idle, misplaced phobia on Orwell’s part. Had Stalin, Hitler or Mao had access to such instruments of surveillance, their repressive, murderous regimes might still be with us.

And yet, a book review in 1949 noted

This may mean that [1984's] greatness is only immediate, its power for us alone, now, in this generation, this decade, this year, that [1984] is doomed to be the pawn of time. Nevertheless it is probable that no other work of this generation has made us desire freedom more earnestly or loathe tyranny with such fulness.”

Far from being limited to its day, 1984 stands as a dire warning about the dangers of authoritarian rule for countless generations to come.

Slaughterhouse-Five is a reactionary tale, written by Kurt Vonnegut, capturing the trauma and senseless waste of war as he experienced it personally during the Allied fire bombing of Dresden.

The book is fictional, but it is also allegorical and somewhat biographical, capturing the heart-rending futility of death and violence as epitomized by destruction of Dresden. It’s hard to do the history of Dresden justice, needless to say, it was an Allied war crime. This excerpt from a survivor of the bombing conveys the horror Vonnegut witnessed.

Explosion after explosion. It was beyond belief, worse than the blackest nightmare. So many people were horribly burnt and injured. It became more and more difficult to breathe. It was dark and all of us tried to leave this cellar with inconceivable panic. Dead and dying people were trampled upon…
We saw the burning street, the falling ruins and the terrible firestorm. My mother covered us with wet blankets and coats she found in a water tub.
We saw terrible things: cremated adults shrunk to the size of small children, pieces of arms and legs, dead people, whole families burnt to death, burning people ran to and fro, burnt coaches filled with civilian refugees, dead rescuers and soldiers… and fire everywhere, everywhere fire, and all the time the hot wind of the firestorm [sucked] people back into the burning houses they were trying to escape from.

As a writer, Vonnegut could not ignore the devastation he’d witness in World War II. His protagonist is propelled around in time, chaotically flashing back and forth, capturing the emotional trauma of survivors in an allegorical fashion.

In Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut wrote, “It is, in the imagination of combat’s fans, the divinely listless loveplay that follows the orgasm of victory. It is called ‘mopping up.’” In this way, Vonnegut sought to arrest our attention, to ensure the past was not buried and forgotten, to make sure that the lessons were learned, not ignored in the future.

In the words of George Santayana, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Vonnegut was determined we should not forget.

Science friction is fiction that wakes us from our lethargy, stirring us to action.

Robert Heinlein wrote several notable stories in this regard. But his classic, Starship Troopers, became a cautionary tale in a way Heinlein never intended.

In Starship Troopers, Heinlein sets out his arguments against communism, the Cold War, and the need for duty to reinforce civic responsibility, all set against the backdrop of an interstellar conflict with alien bugs.

Somewhat ironically, the extremist right-wing views he promoted as future social values backfired on him. Throughout the book his characters debate the weakness of democracy and the need for military service and loyalty to the state, but the book was published just a few years before the Vietnam war escalated out of control. Starship Troopers became a parody of reality, a dire warning against such extremism.

The book’s description of society happily accepting life on a war footing became a stark contrast to the socially traumatic events of the 60s. If anything, Heinlein’s vision highlights a fascist extreme the US narrowly avoided.

In 1962, Heinlein wrote Stranger in a Strange Land. With its focus on the formation of a new religion comprised of celebrities, one wonders if he intended his “all worlds religion” as a mockery of scientology.

In stark contrast to Starship Troopers, Heinlein unveils a world of free love, drugs and promiscuity. With themes such as homosexuality, hippies and a fascination with psychic powers, the book pre-empted the radical movements of the 60s and 70s.

The US Congressional Library named Stranger in a Strange Land as one of a hundred books that helped shape modern America. The stark contrast between Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land captures the contradiction that was America in the 1960s.

Perhaps the most radical work of science fiction friction is Planet of the Apes.

Although the motivation for the book was originally to highlight cruelty to animals and to challenge the presumption of man’s position at the head of creation, the movie version became a social statement on US racial tensions.

The racial overtones in both the movie and the book are overt, and clearly not intended just as an analogy for animal cruelty. African-American slavery, segregation and discrimination are subject to a role reversal within the movie, with Charlton Heston appearing as a white European slave held in chains. This switch was intended to shock audiences into the realization that racism is unjust.

White supremacist groups like the KKK didn’t miss the point. In supremacist rallies in the late 1960s, bigots displayed racist placards decrying what they saw as America descending toward a “Planet of Apes” as the result of the dissolution of segregation.

In much the same manner, during some of the later movies in the series, black audiences cheered for Caesar, drowning out the movie’s dialogue as they cheered for his rebellion against oppression.

The point of all this is simple: We need mirrors. We need mirrors to take a good look at ourselves, and science fiction does that like no other genre.

We need to see ourselves in a mirror, to see who we really are and where we are going in life, and science fiction does that, but not with flashy light-sabres and green muppets, with stories that provoke some depth of thought. Science fiction shows like Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica are legendary not because they fired photon torpedoes or travelled faster than light, they pre-empted social change. It’s no surprise the first interracial kiss on TV occurred in Star Trek.

Science fiction can easily address topics we would not otherwise talk about in society. Often, these are the topics we needed to be talking about.

In the words of Rod Serling, creator of The Twilight Zone, “I knew I could get away with Martians saying things Republicans and Democrats couldn’t.

Science fiction should cause friction, but not to be obnoxious or sensational, to provoke critical thinking.



Peter Cawdron is the best selling author of Monsters, a dystopian look at the importance of reading