Saturday, November 15, 2014

Science and Magic

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." - Arthur C. Clarke


I discovered science fiction when I was quite young. I remember the exact day, although not the date. I was in elementary school, fourth grade if I remember correctly, and the librarian had rolled the wooden cart--an oak color and possibly even made of real oak in those days--into our classroom. A cart because the school library, due to the first wave of baby boomers, was being used as a classroom. We got called up by rows, and I impatiently waited my turn. Even then I was a voracious reader, and I might have been afraid that all the good books would be gone by the time I got to the cart.

Finally I was allowed to go look at the choices and saw a book called "The Rolling Stones." I opened it and saw that it was about a family named Stone (my name!) who traveled around the solar system. I was hooked. I'm pretty sure I read all of Robert A. Heinlein's juveniles by the time I graduated from elementary school.


It was the time of science fiction. When the Russians launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, in 1957, it triggered the space race. The country was in love with space and astronauts and going to the moon and beyond. I was certain that we would have a colony on the moon in my lifetime and, possibly, the beginnings of one on Mars.

I briefly toyed with the idea of becoming an astronaut, possibly being eligible for the Mars colony. Science fiction was full of exciting stories about the colonization of the planets, dangerous, yes, but most of the time the resourceful colonists survived. Reality set in before I got too hooked on the idea. I'd been on diets since I was five, and physical prowess is not a characteristic that could be said of me. I knew it would take a lot more dedication than I had to pass the physicals and stay in shape to qualify as an astronaut. If I even could. I'm not very coordinated. I've been known to trip over my own feet.

Still, science fiction was a big influence in my life. I learned a lot of astronomy and physics from it, including the order of the planets. It seemed like a critical piece of information to me and to this day I'll add Pluto at the end, even though astronomers have decided it's too small to qualify as a planet. I'm half convinced the reason I eventually wound up as a computer programmer was the desire to find Mike, the self-aware computer from "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress."

About half-way through college I stopped reading science fiction. Most of what was being written during that timeframe was not the "hard" science fiction I loved, but what I called "psychological" science fiction. In retrospect, I think the genre became more character driven than plot driven and I wasn't into that kind of fiction. I also missed the original airing of Star Trek since that coincided with my college years. I think I watched television once in all the time I was there. I later made up for this and I have every episode on VHS tape. I also own the Firefly and Serenity DVDs.

Meanwhile, science and space fell out of favor. We'd won the race by landing on the moon first. The Russians never did land a man--or woman--there. Congress decided we had better places to spend our money than fulfilling science fiction dreams. Never mind how numerous the ancillary benefits had been.

I wasn't terribly upset over this. I was more interested in the Viet Nam War and folk music and deciding on a major and getting a job and marrying and having a family. Yes, I was disappointed when the real space program was abandoned and replaced with the shuttle, which I never considered a real space ship. I liked the pictures sent back by the Hubble Telescope well enough. But by this time I was into reading--and writing--mysteries, not science fiction.

Recently my interest in science and science fiction has been renewed. I'm not exactly sure why. Maybe it's because I read "Dark Side of the Moon" by Terri Main. I know the author and she promotes this book as a cozy mystery set on the moon. Naturally, I was curious. While the book does have its problems, it made me realize how much I'd missed reading old-style science fiction, and that there was the possibility that kind of science fiction was still being written today.

I've also subscribed to Discover and Astronomy magazines. Discover, in particular, with its broad coverage of scientific topics has proved interesting. And I'm following the progress of the Orion spacecraft via Facebook and Twitter. This one really has me excited because it's the first NASA venture in a long time with the hope of reaching another planet. Once again, science fiction is coming true.

And now I'm reading Physics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku. I stumbled across it because somehow the same author's The Future of the Mind wound up as an Amazon recommendation. Since the description looked intriguing, and science fiction also used to tell stories about parapsychology (telekinesis, precognition, etc.) I explored further and discovered Kaku had written a great many books on scientific topics. Physics of the Impossible's subtitle is "A Scientific Exploration into the World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation, and Time Travel." How could I resist?

Well, I did, sort of. Over the past few decades, I've occasionally dipped into other science books for pleasure reading. My experience was most of them quickly switched from straight prose to mathematical equations. Although I was good at math in high school, high school was a long time ago, and I never did study higher mathematics, stalling out at the second term of Calculus in college. At this point in my life, reading equations makes me cross-eyed. So I borrowed the book from the library.

If you have any interest in science or science fiction, I would highly recommend reading this book. Kaku explores the current status of each of the subtitle topics in language a layman can understand. He has mastered bringing the excitement back to science. He's the first science writer I've found since Isaac Asimov who can do that. There's a good possibility that I will buy this book, along with several others written by the same author. Because he's just that good.

Photo Credits:
Magician: Image courtesy of nirots at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Sputnik: By U.S. Air Force photo (http://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil; exact source) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Orion: Courtesy of NASA
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