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Friday, June 17, 2016

Science Fiction Can Make You Dumber

Kill the Moon is hands down the worst new series
Doctor Who episode in terms of science.

Last year I wrote a post called “Science Fiction can Make You Smarter,” where I discussed how, as a side-effect of its speculative nature, science fiction can introduce concepts and ideas, making it easier to understand scientific topics. But fiction usually only implements, rather than explains, the concepts, ignoring their scientific context. For story purposes this is fine, because lengthy explanations can interrupt the flow and cause readers to lose interest. But, as in all cases when knowledge is presented without sufficient explanation, it allows ideas to get mixed up. When one story gets something wrong, another follows, and then another, and soon the misconceptions have spread though the culture like weeds. Once a false idea has taken root in a reader’s mind, it can be difficult to learn about the actual phenomenon, because they must first let go of the understanding they already have. With that in mind, here are my top four science myths ignorantly perpetuated by science fiction culture.

4: Alternate dimensions.
Sometimes when writers take the characters out of their world and into another, they call the new place another dimension. But a dimension is not a place, it is a pair of directions. You may have to leave our 3D space by moving through another dimension to get to the new 3D space, just like you have to move through the three dimensions we are all familiar with to get to the house next door. Instead, the new place should be called an alternate reality, another universe, or if you want to go string theory, a parallel 3-brane.

You're not in another dimension, Daniel, you've shifted through one.
3: Energy is a substance.
Somewhere along the line there came a notion of something called “pure energy,” represented in the movies as an amorphous substance that floats in midair and glows. Alas, the scientific community can be just as guilty of perpetuating this myth as science fiction. Energy is not a thing in itself, but a quality that things can have and give to each other. There are many kind of energy—motion, heat, light, mass, stored, and even vacuum—but none is any more or less “pure” than any other.

2: Parallel realities branch off whenever we make choices.
Parallel realities are used in science fiction to bring up “what if” scenarios. They are worlds just like ours, but with some things different. The characters can meet themselves and see what would have happened if things had turned out differently. But the way it is usually explained is that a new reality is made every time someone makes a decision, which is simply wrong.

Reality-splitting is actually a hypothetical interpretation of quantum wave function collapse.When quantum mechanics was being developed in the 1920s, experiments showed that a subatomic particle can be in multiple places at once, until it is measured. When something interacts with it, the wave “collapses” and the particle is found to be in one place. But why that place and not somewhere else, if it had the same probability to end up in multiple places? The many-worlds hypothesis tried to solve this question by saying that the interaction with the electron caused the universe to split. In one universe the electron was in one place, while in the other universe the electron was in the other. Few scientists subscribe to the many-worlds view these days, but if science fiction wants to use it to explain parallel realities, then they should understand that the splitting happens because of particle interactions, not because of human choices.

The other option would be if such an inconceivable number of universes exist that, by sheer probability, duplicates form. Though how you would ever be able to find these to travel to them is anyone’s guess.

1: Quantum physics is the science of how perception influences reality.
This may be the most widely spread and abused scientific myth of them all. It is commonly said that the aforementioned quantum collapse is caused by "measurement", an unfortunate choice of wording that can imply that a human is needed to observe it. The science fiction community pounced on this, making the logic leap that quantum physics means that perception influences reality, and the myth has been growing further out of proportion ever since.

“Quantum” roughly means “smallest bit,” and quantum physics models matter at the fundamental level as indivisible waves. Particles can only have discrete values, or quanta, of their properties, such as spin and angular momentum. This leads to many interesting and counterintuitive phenomena, but it has nothing to do with perception.

Sorry, Doctor, but quantum physics has nothing to do with it.
They're just shy, like a deer in the headlights.

Differentiating between science fact and myth is a skill that needs to be built up. To do this, you could take college-level science classes with math and labs, read scientific journals (not to be confused with news articles), or watch YouTube channels run by experts, like Fermilab, Scishow, PBS Space Time, or Deep Astronomy. A working knowledge of statistics helps too. Look out for when scientists use words like “could,” and “might,” which mean you should take that bit of information with a grain of salt. And when you hear about something new, even if it’s from me, remember to look it up and verify that it is indeed true.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Blank Worlds

As an aspiring writer, I have naturally read a lot of stories. Many of these were published works, but I have also had the chance to read plenty of amateur stories, some from friends, some from the internet, and some that I wrote myself. Among these, I noticed that description was often forgone to get to the action quickly. As a teenager, I wrote my stories as I would watch a movie, focused on what the characters were doing, leaving everything else ignored in my peripheral vision. When I read similar works of others, though, I learned the truth: this style of writing presents an amorphous, blank world.

Consider the following opening to a story:
        I woke up in a strange, unfamiliar place. Looking around, I saw a man approaching me.
        “Are you all right?” He asked.
        I nodded.
        “I’m Graham Horner,” the man said, holding out his hand, “Nice to meet you.”
        “I . . .” my mind was blanking. “Christian Horst.”
        Graham smiled. “We don’t see many strangers around here. Come inside. There’s a phone, if you want to call someone.”
        “No cell?” I asked, following him.
        “We don’t get reception out here in the middle of nowhere,” he replied.
        He led me into a building, and gave me a drink.
This interaction is unpleasant to read, and provides no incentive to continue. It was merely light gray text on a dark background, so you may have imagined it taking place at night, or in an underground complex, or perhaps even in a sort of cloudy limbo dimension. No matter which, unless you have a particularly active imagination, it was a blank canvas waiting for a picture that was never painted.

Stories are almost always presented as black words on a white background,
 so worlds without sufficient description usually look like
 a white expanse with black outlines.
Now consider another version of the same introduction, but with description added.
        I awoke to feel the prickling of stiff grass beneath my back. Warm sunlight pressed against my face, and my vision was a gray-tinged red under my closed eyelids. The air smelled of mown grass on a summer afternoon. I opened my eyes and my hands instinctively snapped over them, triggered by the sudden intensity of the sun burning into my head. I sat up, making sure I was pointed toward the ground instead of the sky before trying again.
        This time, when I opened my eyes, I found myself on a wide lawn hemmed by tall trees in the distance. I thought there might be a gravel road near them, though it was hard to tell from this angle. All this I saw through the bluish filter your eyes get when you stare at the bright red insides of your eyelids for too long.
        A shadow appeared next to me and spoke in a man’s voice. “Are you all right?” I turned to see a slim man in a faded blue button-down shirt and a wide-brimmed hat. His leathery tan skin showed a few faint wrinkles around his eyes, and he sported a brown mustache with wisps of gray in it.
        I shook my head. “Where am I?” I said.
        “Oak Valley Community,” the man replied, holding out a hand to me. I took it, and he hauled me to my feet with a strong grip. He was almost as tall as I. “My name’s Horner. Graham Horner.”
        “Christian Horst,” I said. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Horner.”
        The man waved his hand, gesturing me to follow him. “Why don’t we go inside. There’s a phone, if you want to call someone.”
        “No cell?” The grass crunched softly under my shoes as we walked across the meadow.
        “We don’t get reception out here in the middle of nowhere, Iowa,” Mr. Horner said, “but we have phones in our homes and the Common Building.”
        Between us and the treeline stood a wood-sided single-story building with a steep roof. The Common Building, I assumed. It reminded me of a small school, or maybe a church. For all I knew, the community used it as both. In front of it ran a dirt road. I guess I was right about that after all. We climbed a set of concrete stairs to a screen door, on the other side of which was a wooden door for when it was cold out.
        I passed into the large room with small windows and a floor covered in beige tiling. The walls were lined with wooden benches and a few stacks of chairs. To my right, a counter was cut into the wall, behind which was a kitchen.
        As I looked around, clouds suddenly covered my eyes in a haze of lightheadedness. Mr. Horner must have noticed, because by the time my vision had cleared, he was holding a cup of water toward me, which I accepted with thanks. It felt refreshingly cool on my lips, and tasted slightly of minerals. It must have come from a well.
Though it took much longer to get to the action, this version was immeasurably better than the first. Right off the bat, it opened with a variety of sensations, taking the empty canvas and painting across it in multiple layers. Each step added new colors as the scene evolved. Even if it does not look like the kind of story you would be interested in, you might be motivated to keep reading for the immersion experience alone.

There is one other way to give color to a world, and that is to provide a picture along with the text, perhaps cover art. But that does not solve the problem, only one of the symptoms. When writing books, the whole purpose is for the authors to share their imagined experiences richly and fully with their readers, and that can be done immeasurably better with a strong descriptive verbiage.