Science in Fiction

Nate's recent blog post about scientific literacy reminded me of something I'd wanted to write about since reading Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang. I'd call it, for lack of a better term, "science in literature."

Not science fiction - though some of the books I want to mention could be shelved in that section. To vastly generalize the genre, sci-fi often takes a concept (or several) in science or technology and explores it, or explores a world that contains it. Which amounts to using science to create a narrative. What I want to talk about is books that use narrative to explain science.

An old hyrdraulic-engineering PhD-candidate friend of mine once told me about a story featuring a man falling asleep during physics lectures, and then having dreams about the lecture topic. I later discovered he was talking about George Gamow's series "Mr. Tompkins", featuring the titular character, a decidedly non-scientific fellow. In one story, attending a talk on relativity, Tompkins finds the topic beyond comprehension and falls asleep into a dream where lightspeed is actually only 10 mph, relative to himself. A physicist might be able to understand the speed of light through the mathematical formulas they're familiar with, but the rest of us have to imagine the implications of Mr. Tompkins's dream world - how would you see a cyclist if they moved faster than the light that reached your eyes? Or anything that moved quickly, for that matter?

The most famous progenitor of Relativity is of course Einstein, who put forward his theories both with advanced mathematical proofs and with what he called "thought experiments". He, too, wondered about the speed of light and its relativity - if he were traveling as fast as a beam of light, and he held a mirror in front of him, would the light bounce off the mirror and back to his eyes? Or, since he and the light were travelling at the same speed, would the mirror show him nothing? Author Alan Lightman took the musings of the famous scientist and likewise explored them in dreamscapes, in the book Einstein's Dreams. In his story, a pre-success young patent clerk Einstein drudges during the day and dreams of his scientific discoveries at night. In one dream, he sees a world where time is infinite, and so is human life. Half the world scurries madly, trying to do everything, everything! For there is so much time nothing can be missed. The other half dawdles and procrastinates, convinced that there will always be time in an endless later.

Both these books use narrative to explain a concept in the scientific world, but do so by presenting them as dreams. Chiang's short story collection stole my heart with its realism. His are stories that could have happened - or still might yet.

The nominal story, "The Story of Your Life", was the basis for the 2016 film "Arrival" (I'd say spoiler alert but I haven't seen the movie yet and can't tell if I'm giving anything away. Sorry in advance!). The narrator relates the time she was recruited to decipher the language of recently arrived extraterrestrials, alternating with memories of her daughter. Or what seem like memories, because she begins those thoughts with "I remember..." and then continues in the future tense. Is it possible that language affects the way we think, and perceive? Could an alien language change our brain? And if it did, could we see into the future as easily as we remember the past, and could it be said as offhandly as "I remember when you will be 8..."? (And isn't this all so much more compelling than simply discussing the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis?)

In another part of the collection, a genius mathematician explores how math is a bit like the core of the earth: we have reason to believe we know what's at our core, and the earth acts as though we are correct in our assumption, but in fact no one knows for certain. And without that certainty, how can we be sure that mathematics as we know it actually exists? And in another that recalls Black Mirror, a cast of characters across campus give interviews on their experiences with the widely distributed option to either activate or turn off the parts of their brains that judge physical beauty.

What draws me to books like these is that I come out understanding more of my world. The significance, in physics, of the path that light takes when it hits water. The strange void in mathematics. The possibility of recursion in space. To explain this science in the usual way would result in Mr. Tompkins's doze - it is through our imagination, through story, that these narratives explain how our world works.

-Katelynne Shimkus

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