What is Science Fiction: Part 4, Science Fiction and Fantasy

In my previous installment of ‘What is Science Fiction’ I completed our survey of what I like to call the six ‘Great Themes of Science Fiction’. Now what I’d like to do in this last post is to carry out an examination of the differences between Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Most of the time it’s rather easy to tell one from the other. We know that Andy Weir’s ‘The Martian’ is Science Fiction because it deals realistically with the conditions both on Mars, the rarefied air and extreme cold, and in outer space, zero gravity. Also, the technology in ‘The Martian’, whether it be the spaceship’s ion engines or the living habitats on Mars are solidly based on the technology we presently have.

Realistic Science Fiction: The Martian

On the other hand, in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ by J. R. R. Tolkein the way a ring of invisibility or a sword that glows when bad guys are near work is never explained or even discussed, they’re just magic.

Magic just works because it’s magic

To me that’s the cardinal difference: In Science Fiction the assumption is that we, and by we I mean both the reader and the characters in the story, are intelligent enough that with time and effort we can understand whatever mysteries or powerful objects there are in the story. Sometimes this assumption is even emphasized by relating the main character’s education. Remember in the original ‘Star Trek’ series how Kirk went to Star Fleet Academy while Spock went to the Vulcan Science Academy, that’s where they learned how to control their advanced technology. (And remember how Victor Frankenstein learned science at Ingolstadt University)

In Science Fiction characters acquire their powers through education

This expectation of understandability limits the kind of plot twists and deus ex machina that the author can get away with in Science Fiction because everything has to feel natural, understandable.

In Fantasy however, the assumption is on the supernatural element, Gandalf and Sauron have magical powers because they are themselves magical. We never learn where Gandalf learned his magic, he just is magic.

Frodo can never understand how the one ring works simply because he is natural and it is supernatural. This means that in Fantasy the author has fewer restrictions on how to get his characters into and out of danger. Just have a Balrog appear and only later reveal that Gandalf was of course stronger than the Balrog was anyway, it’s all magic after all.

Gandalf and the Balrog

But now let’s a moment and consider ‘Star Wars’ for example. Certainly it has elements that are straight out of Science Fiction, spaceships, robots (O’k they’re called droits, so what?) and laser weapons. However it also has an all pervasive ‘Force’ that gives certain characters power that the others don’t have for no obvious reason and at the same time it seems like every planet has a breathable atmosphere and normal, that is Earth gravity.

Stars Wars. Science Fiction or Fantasy, or both?

This is intentional, when George Lukas first conceived of his epic he wanted a smooth blend of realism and mythology and that has certainly been one of the prime reasons for the saga’s enduring popularity.

It seems obvious therefore that any attempt to draw a hard line between Science Fiction and Fantasy would just be a waste of time. Instead let’s just take pleasure in both genres while promoting the best Science Fiction.

This brings to an end my little seminar on Science Fiction; I hope you all enjoyed it. Let me know what you thought and I look forward to reading your comments.

Trump’s Science Budget, or lack thereof.

I’d like to take a bit of a break from my series ‘What is Science Fiction’ to talk a little about the impact of the recently announced White House budget for 2018 on science. (Don’t worry, the final installment of “What is Science Fiction” will be posted this week.)

This is Donald Trump’s first budget and shows very clearly his intent for the future of such agencies as NASA, NOAA, NSF and the Department of Energy. We already knew that the EPA and National Institute for Health were going to take a big hit and boy did they! The EPA’s budget is cut by almost a third while the NIH losses 18% of it’s funding. I guess Donald Trump doesn’t want us to know how sick we’re getting from all the pollutants industry is dumping into the environment. Still, as I said we knew those cuts were coming.

Trump Budget cuts to Science

The cuts at the Department of Energy were a bit more of a surprise. While the overall reduction is only 5% the cutback in scientific research controlled by the DOE is 20%. Not many people know that the DOE runs America’s high energy physics programs and other basic research installations like the Laser Interferometer Gravity wave Observatory (LIGO) which just last year announced the first detection of gravity waves.

These cuts not only threaten America’s leadership in almost every field of scientific research but will cause many of our most brilliant and gifted young students to abandon careers in basic science. From the building of the very first atom smasher by E. O. Lawrence back in 1934 America has always led the world in physics experiments but no more! Europe has the Large Hadron Collider at CERN and the Chinese are building dozens of scientific centers while we just let them take the lead. I guess Physics is a little too complicated for Donald Trump to understand.

One complete omission from the White house budget is the funding for the National Science Foundation (NSF), it’s just simply not mentioned at all. However republicans over the last few years have begun to criticize the NSF for funding programs related to the environment and social sciences so you can bet on the NSF loosing some of it’s funding.

The one piece of good news in the budget is the fact that NASA’s funding is only cut by 0.8%. Even that silver lining has a cloud around it however as the funding for Earth research from Space is drastically cut. At the same time Trump has issued an executive order directing NASA to focus on a manned journey to Mars in the 2030s. I guess even Donald Trump is able to understand that a trip to Mars is something to brag about.

If you’d like to read more about the exact figures for Donald Trump’s science budget click the link below to read an article from ‘Nature’.


And what’s the reasoning behind all these cutbacks in the very programs that make the United States the most technically advanced nation in the world. Is it to assure health care for all Americans, please don’t make me laugh. Is it to lower the deficit, nah republicans only care about deficit spending when it’s the democrats doing the spending. It’s so that we can spend more money on a military that already costs more than the next five nations spend on their military.

Hopefully Donald Trump will have the same success with his budget that he just had with his healthcare repeal and replace. Hopefully we can force the congress to put some of the science funding back into the budget. Neil deGrasse Tyson has called the Trump budget the “Make America Weak, Sick and Stupid Budget”. I certainly agree.


What is Science Fiction: Part 3, The Great Themes of Science Fiction (Cont.)

This time I intend to complete our discussion of the ‘Great Themes’ of Science Fiction as well as discuss Science Fiction stories that try to avoid using any of the themes, it’s not as easy as you might think.

As a reminder last time I proposed six themes that were central to the genre of Science Fiction:

  1. The exploration of space and/or time
  2. The effects of new technology, invention on human society
  3. Contact with alien life, alien intelligence
  4. The creation of artificial life, artificial intelligence
  5. The long term future, purpose (if there is one) of humanity
  6. The nature and purpose (if there is one) of the Universe itself

In my previous post we talked a bit about the first three themes so with out further ado here’s number four.

The Creation of Artificial Life, Artificial Intelligence and the novel I’ll use as an example will be ‘Frankenstein’ by Mary Shelly which was first published in 1818. Of all the novels I’ve mentioned so far I think undoubtedly ‘Frankenstein’ is the most famous but just in case there’s someone who’s never heard of it here’s the story.

Frankenstein, First Edition Cover

The story concerns a scientist named Victor Frankenstein who as a child read about the old alchemists and their search for the philosopher’s stone and the secret of immortality. As a student at the University of Ingolstadt he gains the knowledge of the then brand new sciences of chemistry and electricity. Using this knowledge he manufactures and brings life to an artificial man constructed from materials he obtained in “The dissecting room and the slaughter-house”.

The very instant the creature is brought to life Frankenstein is horrified by what he has accomplished and flees not only from his creation but from his responsibility to it. This is certainly the first moral of the novel, that scientists must be willing to take responsibility for their discoveries, a moral that rings even stronger today in our world of nuclear weapons, electronic surveillance, gene modification and you know I could go on and on.

The rest of the story continues the morality play with the creature, who is both intelligent and humane, being tormented for it’s ugliness and finally taking a brutal revenge on it’s maker for having abandoned it.

The plot of a scientist creating an intelligent being and then being destroyed by their creation has now become the most overdone cliché in all of Science Fiction. Whether the creature is portrayed as a robot or a trained ape (‘The Planet of the Apes’ has a strong trace of Frankenstein in it) doesn’t matter, Frankenstein’s monster is as alive today as it ever was.


Moving on to our next Great Theme ‘The Future and Purpose (if there is one) of Humanity. Finding a novel that only displayed this theme turned out to be quite difficult so in the end I decided to cheat and go with H. G. Wells’ ‘The Time Machine’ published in 1895. Now obviously The Time Machine also includes our first theme of Exploration of Space / Time but because it also demonstrates our present theme so clearly I hope you’ll forgive me.

The Time Machine, first edition cover

In The Time Machine a scientist invents a means of traveling back and forth through time and uses his device to travel forward to the year 802,701 A.D. Arriving in the far future the Time Traveler, his name is never given in the story, finds that the human race has continued to evolve, indeed it had split into two species, the Eloi and the Morlocks. The Time Traveler conjectures that the split into two species happened when the rich aristocrats of his own time had forced the labouring poor to live underground (H. G. Wells was a socialist who got the idea from the building of the first London underground subway).

Without any need to struggle the Eloi have become both beautiful and graceful but at the same time they are small, weak and ineffectual. On the other hand the Morlocks are brutish troglodytes, unable to stand the bright light of the daytime. Also, because there are no large animals remaining on Earth (Because of mankind’s destruction of the environment?) the Eloi have become vegetarians while the Morlocks have turned the tables on their former masters and now eat the Eloi!

Not a pretty picture of our future perhaps but certainly one that illustrates our theme of ‘The Future and Purpose of Mankind’. Science Fiction stories that make use of the future of mankind theme do have a tendency to be either bleak or preachy, or both. Sometimes the author’s vision of the way ‘things ought to be’ can get in the way of telling the story but in my mind at least ‘The Time Machine’ avoids this problem.

We now come to our last theme ‘The Nature and Purpose (if there is one) of the Universe Itself’. If you think about it this theme really borders on religion, another way of stating it could be ‘Why did God create the Universe’ or even “Was there a recognizable “GOD” who created the Universe’. In keeping with the otherworldly aspects of this theme the novel I shall use as an example is H. G. Wells’ “Men Like Gods” first published in 1923.

Men Like Gods, first edition cover

Another thing to keep in mind is that in this theme, even more than our previous one, the author can easily find himself telling his readers how he things things ought to be instead of allowing them to imagine how things could be. In ‘Men like Gods’ Wells falls into this trap, making the story more sermon than Science Fiction.

In ‘Men like Gods’ the main character, a Mr. Barnstaple, is involved in a traffic accident that inexplicably transports him to a parallel world called Utopia. The fact that Wells has now resorted to magic when in his earlier stories he would have extrapolated from science is a symptom of how he’s become more interested in describing how the people living in a utopia would behave than in providing a realistic basis for that world.

And Wells’ utopia is based upon ideas originated by the French philosopher Henri Bergson and promoted by Wells’ fellow socialist G. Bernard Shaw. The basic idea of Bergson and Shaw is that the entire Universe is permeated by a ‘Force of Life’. (And if that reminds you of ‘The Force’ in Star Wars, yes that is a variation of the idea). This Life Force is what causes evolution as it experiments with living creatures with the goal of creating more complex, more intelligent life.

The Utopia in ‘Men like Gods’ is simply a world that is further along in this process, about 3000 years in the story and as Mr. Barnstaple returns to our Earth with all its troubles he resolves to dedicate the rest of his life to bringing utopia to our world.


Before I finish for today I’d like to take just a brief moment to discuss those Science Fiction stories that don’t actually make any real use of our Great Themes. You may recall a review I wrote in my post of 1Mar17 about the novel ‘Luna: New Moon’ by Ian McDonald. In that review I made the point that even though the story takes place on the Moon, and there’s Hi-Tech wizardry on every page the plot would fit just as well during the time of the emperors of Rome.

So is ‘Luna: New Moon’ a Science Fiction story? Of course each of us will have to decide for ourselves but I’m always willing to be inclusive. The important thing for me is that a Science Fiction story should make me think. I have found that most of the time it will be about one of the six themes I’ve discussed, but thinking is the important thing.

Next time I’d like to finish my discussion of Science Fiction by considering the difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy, at least as I see it. Till then.

What is Science Fiction – Part 2: The Great Themes of Science Fiction

Today I’d like to begin talking about great themes or big questions that Science Fiction allows us to think about and discuss in clearer, more precise ways than any other form of writing. It is true that some of these themes can be written about in other genres, some were in fact first written about in other literary genres. However I hope to make a case that they are best treated as Science Fiction.

As I mentioned in the first part of this series I intend to examine these themes or questions using the novels and stories of the first two acknowledged masters of Science Fiction, Jules Verne and H. G. Wells.

Without any further ado the six themes or questions are:

  1. The exploration of space and/or time
  2. The effects of new technology, invention on human society
  3. Contact with alien life, alien intelligence
  4. The creation of artificial life, artificial intelligence
  5. The long term future, purpose (if there is one) of humanity
  6. The nature and purpose (if there is one) of the Universe itself

Now obviously many, probably most Science Fiction stories combine more than one of these ideas in them. However I’m going to try to find examples that fit only into the single category I’m discussing at that time.

Let’s Start with ‘The Exploration of Space and / or Time and the novel I will use as an example is Jules Verne’s ‘From the Earth to the Moon and a Trip around it’. The title is pretty much the plot. In 1865, right after the American Civil War union engineers who had developed Ironclad warships, repeating rifles, railroad mounted artillery and etc. are now looking for new challenges to tackle so they decide to build a cannon large enough to fire a projectile at the Moon.

Illustration to ‘From the Earth to The Moon’

When a daring Frenchman volunteers to be a passenger on the projectile two of the American engineers decide to join him and the three-man crew are off on a journey very reminiscent of the voyage of Apollo 8 nearly a hundred years later.

Now Verne’s novel is a pretty simple story, it’s really about nothing more than using science and the technology it provides to travel someplace that no one has ever been. But isn’t that simple idea built into our human DNA. Ever since the first humans left Africa we have always used our knowledge and our tools (science and technology) to journey over that next hill and the hill after that. That makes ‘The Exploration of Space and / or Time’ almost certainly the first of the great themes of Science Fiction.

Our second great theme is “The Effect of new technology or invention on Human Society’ and our example will be ‘The Invisible Man’ written by H. G. Wells in 1897. Once again the title is the plot; a chemist discovers a formula that makes living flesh transparent, invisible. Now there’s an important point to be made here. Wells takes a page or two to discuss how invisibility might actually be possible, just how the optics of transparency works rather than just giving the power of invisibility to a ring or a cloak. This is science fiction taking knowledge we actually have and extrapolating beyond it in a way that is distinctly different a fantasy novel just saying ‘it’s magic’.

Poster for ‘The Invisible Man’

The chemist, Jack Griffin uses the formula on himself and becomes invisible. Now we get the moral of the story, science fiction is a great platform for illustrating morals, just as fables are. Anyway, the power that Griffin now has goes to his head. He can steal anything he wants, spy on anyone he wants, murder anyone he wants and no one can stop him because no one can see him. He becomes mad from the power that his technology has given him, perhaps a valuable warning for our present technology mad society. As with exploration, the concept of technology changing human society is as old as human society is making this another very ancient theme indeed.

Our third great theme is that of Contact with Alien Life, Alien Intelligence and the novel we shall use to illustrate it is H. G. Wells ‘The War of the Worlds’ that was also first published in 1897. In the novel Martians invade Earth in order to conquer it as a new home for themselves and humanity is helpless against their superior technology.

‘The War of the Worlds’

Wells used some of the best science of his time in “The War of the Worlds’ including infrared radiation (the Martians heat ray) the use of poison gas and mechanized devices in warfare (the Martians war machines are basically tanks on legs) so that even after more than a century the story seems very modern.

What Wells was really doing however it criticizing his own country of Britain’s and the rest of Europe’s empires in Africa and Asia in the late 19th century. “How would you like it?” Wells asks, if a technically superior race dropped from the sky and said “This is our land now! You belong to us now!” Again we see how Science Fiction is being used as a platform from which we can observe and criticize human behavior.

I think I’m going to have to stop here for today; this is already the longest post I’ve ever published. Next time we’ll finish our survey of Science Fiction’s great themes and we’ll also discuss whether or not a story can be Science Fiction without using one of our themes. Can a Science Fiction story just be a story? (Hint: Of course it can.)

Till next time.

Blog Update for Science and Science Fiction

Just a brief update today, this really isn’t a post but I wanted to announce that as of today Science and Science Fiction now has over 500 registered subscribers! Not bad for a blog site that’s only a little over six months old.

I just wanted to take the opportunity to thank you all for visiting my blog and especially to those of you who have registered or written comments. I can’t tell you how amazed I’ve been by all the response and again, THANK YOU!

Bob L

What is Science Fiction, Part 1, Introduction and History

What is Science Fiction, boy now there’s a tough question to answer. We all have a feeling about what makes a story Science Fiction or not. The technology is more advanced than in our present day world; lasers replace firearms, rockets replace airplanes and automobiles and etc. Also, Science Fiction stories are often set in places no human has yet visited whether it be the planets or stars or perhaps the future. Then of course there’s the alien forms of life, creatures whose nature and motives are completely unknown to us, at least in chapter one. It seems then that Science Fiction takes what we know, science is the Latin word for knowledge after all, and proceeds from there to speculate on what we don’t know.

But at the same time isn’t Science Fiction more than that, doesn’t Science Fiction allow us to ask in story form the big questions, doesn’t it enable us to think about the very nature and purpose of reality and mankind’s place in it. With Science Fiction we can look out at the Universe and then turn around and look back at ourselves.

I’m going to take a few posts over the next couple of weeks to talk about just what I think Science Fiction is. The posts may not be one after the other but hopefully I’ll keep them close together.

I’m thinking of doing this in four or five parts. Today will be just a basic introduction of Science Fiction along with a brief history. Next time I’d like to discuss what I’ll call the great themes of Science Fiction, which will be followed by an analysis of some of the most famous Science Fiction novels and stories using those themes. In the final part I’ll talk about the difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy as I see it.

Now right up front I admit that this is going to be pretty much just my opinion. Oh, I’ll do my best to get the authors’ names and the titles correct, but really I don’t expect anyone to agree with me completely. Indeed, feel free to dispute everything I say.

If I just prompt you to think a little about Science Fiction. Or if you are inspired to find and read one of the novels I mention for the first time, then I will have done my job.

As a literary form Science Fiction has a much older history than you might think. What is generally regarded as the first Science Fiction romance was “True History” by the second century CE poet Lucian of Samosata. (By the way the term romance simply means a story composed in the Roman fashion, today we would call it a novel or novella)

The idea of writing a story that you don’t want anyone to believe was so unusual at that time that Lucian felt the need to tell his readers at the end that the things in his tales “do not in fact exist and could not ever exist at all”.

The story in “True History” concerns a group of travelers who are swept up to the Moon on a whirlwind where they witness a war between the armies of the Moon and the Sun over which would colonize the morning star. The story therefore contains two of the elements we mentioned earlier. Travel to a place no one had ever traveled to before and while there encountering strange and alien creatures.

Over the next 1500 years or so a rare story would be written that today we would call science fiction. Cyrano de Bergerac (yes he really lived, big nose and everything) wrote another story about a trip to the Moon but he used a balloon and, get this, rockets.

It wasn’t until the late 19th century however that we get authors who wrote several Science Fiction stories thereby establishing Science Fiction as a genre. I’m speaking of course about Jules Verne and H. G. Wells and this is where I’m going to stop for today. Next time I’m going to use the novels of these two pioneers in Science Fiction to discuss what I call the ‘Great Themes of Science Fiction.” Till then.

Human Machine Interface

In one sense of course, Human Machine Interface has been around since the invention of the wheel. Over the last twenty years however progress has been particularly rapid and Human Machine Interface has become both very advanced and quite intimate.

Much of the progress has taken place in the design and development of prosthetic devices to replace body parts lost by disease, injury or congenital condition. Modern materials along with engineering design and miniature electronics have produced artificial limbs that can function nearly as well as a limb of flesh and blood.

Some of the best available technology today employs the residual nerve signals or muscle contractions that would have controlled the missing limb to now control the movements of a myoelectric prosthesis. These devices have enabled thousands of people to regain the better part of the functioning of their lost limb. The picture below shoes a basic layout of a myoelectric artificial arm and hand.

Myoelectric Prosthetic Arm and Hand

Some of the most advanced work is now being accomplished by John Hopkins Medicine and involves a direct control of a prosthetic limb by the mind itself. To read the brain’s signals a sensor pad with 128 electrodes is surgically implanted on the region of the brain that controls arm and hand movement. The sensory data is then analyzed by a computer which then controls a robotic hand. The team that is conducting the research claim that they can reproduce 88% of the functioning of a normal hand with the test subject being able to individually move the robotic thumb and fingers. The picture below shows the sensor pad and where it was implanted on the brain.

Sensor Pad implanted on the Brain. Credit: Guy Hotson

If you’d like to read more about the research being conducted at John Hopkins click on the link below.


Another project taking place at MIT involves actual mind control of a robot. The picture below shows the experimental setup.

MIT Mind Control of Robot Experiment

In the experiment a human subject places a skullcap over their head which measures their brainwaves. The brainwaves are then analyzed by a computer which uses them to control a robot. In the experiment the robot is carrying out a simple task of sorting objects into one of two bins. So far the researchers are successful in commanding the robot into which bin to place the object with only their brains 70% of the time so we have a way to go before we can make robots dance just by thinking them to do so but it is a start. If you’d like to read more about the research at MIT click on the link below.


In some respects human control of what machines are capable of doing is almost a definition of technology. We’ve been getting better at it for thousands of years but progress is accelerating and what we may be capable of in just a few decades is staggering.


Space News for March2017

The past couple of weeks have seen several interesting news items related to manned space flight so I thought today would be a good day to catch up on Space News.

First off last week both Space X corp and the Russians succeeded in launching resupply missions to the International Space Station (ISS) with Space X also successfully landing the first stage of their Falcon rocket after it had placed the Dragon capsule into orbit. These resupply missions are becoming routine and that’s a good thing! It means we are finally building the infrastructure the space which will enable us to concentrate on new missions going further into space.

Speaking of going further into space, Space X announced last week that they are preparing a mission to take two paying customers out to, but not landing on, the Moon. This mission has tentatively scheduled for late next year (2018). Along with NASA’s announcement last month that the first mission of their Space Launch System / Orion spacecraft might now be manned (see my post of 22Feb for that news) this means that there could be two independent missions to Lunar orbit next year (actually I bet they’ll both end up in 2019 but still that’s progress!) If you’d like to read Space X’s official announcement click on the link below.


Now, for the fashion conscious among us (certainly not me) there was a press release for a company called StemRad based in Israel. StemRad already has a reputation for designing and manufacturing radiation protective gear for workers in nuclear power plants now they’re working on gear for astronauts. StemRad called the press release to show off the new radiation vest that they had developed and which they called the AstroRad. The vest is intended to protect human tissue from the effects of the radiation encountered on deep space missions such as to the Moon or Mars. NASA will be testing the vest on their planned Lunar missions.

The vests are form fitting and tailor made for each astronaut. The picture below shows the vests being worn by two of StemRad’s employees.

StemRad’s Radiation Vests

If you’d like to read more about the AstroRad vest click on the link below.


Finally the space company Blue Origen released an animation of how their soon to be completed Glenn rocket will be recovered after launching a payload into orbit. The critics are all saying that it looks awfully familiar and that Space X doesn’t need animations since they have actual footage of them landing one of their rockets! Still, more companies competing against each other should help bring down the cost of space travel. If you’d like to see the animation click on the link below.


Before I go I have an announcement of my own to make! If you look over at the right hand side of the page you’ll see that I have now started a bookmarks section where I will be providing links to other web sites devoted to Science and Science Fiction. Even better you’ll see that this blog has been chosen by Feedspot Blog Directory as one of their Top 100 science blogs. In fact Science and Science Fiction debuted at #73 on their list which includes such well known sites as Scientific American, Discover Magazine, National Geographic and Popular Science. O’k they’re all in the single digits while I’m 73 but still it’s cool just being on the same list! And remember, this blog is only 6 months old!

Physics Seminar: Free Neutron Decay

Back in High School you probably learned that the atoms that make up everything around us are themselves made up of three types of particles, Protons and Neutron sit at the center of the atom in the nucleus while electrons go spinning around the nucleus. What you might not have learned in High School is that the Protons and Neutrons are made up of particles called quarks and that sometimes Neutrons can ‘decay’ into a Proton, electron and an anti-Neutrino!

Two days ago I attended a physics seminar at my old Alma Matter Drexel University entitled “The Life and Death of the Free Neutron’ given by Doctor Nadia Fomin, Assistant Professor at the University of Tennessee and a researcher at Oak Ridge Laboratory and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

For those of you who have never had the pleasure of attending a science seminar let me take a brief moment to give you an idea of what it’s like. A visiting scientist is invited to come and give a talk by a member of the local faculty whose own research is in the same general field. First there is an introduction by the local faculty member mentioning where the visitor is currently working, where they received their degrees and a short description of their research.

Then we get the meat! For the next 45 minutes or so you get to listen to a lecture on the latest research being conducted, the cutting edge of science in action. If the visitor is an experimentalist as Doctor Fomin was you get to hear about the development of their instruments as well as their results but if the visitor is a theoretician you could be treated to 45 minutes of solid math, what could be better than that! After presenting their results the lecturer will then take about 5 minutes to relate what they think their results mean, how they effect what we know about the Universe. Finally there’s about ten minutes given to questions from the audience.

The question period can be the most interesting. I have attended several seminars where a member of the audience was well known to disagreed with everything the visiting speaker was saying and everybody else was just waiting for the clash when the two scientists argued their case. Now there’s no yelling or cursing, everything is calm and deliberate but this is the cutting edge of science in action. Two opposing models of how the Universe behaves, each side has some evidence and a lot of theories as support but neither side has enough to convince the other.

So that’s what attending a scientific seminar is like. Let’s get back to Professor Fomin and her measurements of the decay half life of a free Neutron. Ever since the Neutron was discovered by James Chadwick in 1932 scientists have know that a free Neutron, one that was not confined to the nucleus of an atom, would after some time decay into a Proton and an electron and it was some missing energy in this decay that led Wolfgang Pauli to predict the existence of the Neutrino (although in Neutron decay it’s actually an anti-Neutrino that gets produced). To understand the reaction take a look at the Feynman diagram below.

Free Neutron Decay

The Neutron and Proton are both composed of three quarks, two Ups and a Down for the Proton and two Downs and an Up for the Neutron. Now the decay of the Neutron takes place via the ‘Weak Nuclear Interaction’ and it’s half life was first measured after world war 2 to be something around 15 minutes. That doesn’t sound very scientific does it, well Neutrons are very hard to measure, they’re much smaller than an atom, they have to electric charge so it takes a lot effort to learn almost anything about them.

We have made progress since the 1940s, and Doctor Formin and her colleagues are a part of that progress. The best current estimate of the free Neutron half life is between 870 and 880 seconds and the hope is that with new instruments before long that range will be reduced to 0.3 seconds.

Why should we care? What difference does it make whether the Neutron’s half life is 874 or 875 seconds? Well, it does matter because the half life of the Neutron plays an important role in models of the early development of our Universe. Shortly after the Big Bang the universe was a foaming sea of elementary particles that quickly became atoms of hydrogen and helium along with a bit of lithium. Right now the biggest unknown in just how that process took place is the Neutron half life! Also, numerous theories uniting gravity to quantum mechanics, the so called ‘Theories of Everything’ make predictions about the half life of the Neutron and with a better measurement of the half life we can eliminate some of the wrong theories.

Physics began some four hundred years age with Galileo making measurements of falling objects. Measurement is central to what physics is and how it works. I look forward to hearing about Doctor Formin’s results when she gets her new instruments.

Book Review: Luna, New Moon by Ian McDonald

First Published back in 2015 the Novel ‘Luna: New Moon’ is an exciting, fast paced tale of five powerful families fighting for control of the industries that keep humanity’s lunar colony alive. The author Ian McDonald has himself described Luna as ‘Game of Domes’ and ‘Dallas in Space’, I think I’ll call it a space opera.

Novel, Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald

The plot revolves around the Corta family who control the He3 production on the Moon that powers the fusion reactors back on Earth. Rich and powerful, the Cortas are involved in a large number of rivalries and struggles both between themselves and with the other four families that basically run the Moon.

Although there is technology aplenty this story could just as easily have been set in the Italy of the Borgia’s or among the Frankish Merovingians. In other words it’s a story of human passions and mostly bad ones at that. The technology is basically used as scenery or to facilitate the human interactions rather than driving the story.

I do have one little criticism to mention. In the novel there are a number of individuals who were born on Earth along with many who were born on the Moon itself. Now the Moon born are stuck on the Moon, their bones and muscles are too weak to be capable of surviving Earth’s gravity. Now, that may very well turn out to be true but in ‘Luna: New Moon’ the people from Earth also can never return to Earth after they’ve been on the Moon more than two years.

That is almost certainly not true! In my post back on 15Feb17 I mentioned the medical studies being carried out right now on the Astronaut Scott Kelly who had spent an entire year in zero gravity! While astronaut Kelly did require several days to adjust back to Earth gravity and scientists studying him have found some minor changes in his physiology he is well, healthy and back to living a full life. If returning to Earth after one year in zero ‘g’ is not a problem at all can two years on in Lunar gravity be so debilitating.

Based on Astronaut Kelly’s example, and others, I have no doubt that a person can return to survive returning to Earth after more than two years on the Moon or Mars.

Aside from that minor point I did quite enjoy Luna: New Moon and do recommend it but with a warning. There’s quite a lot of pretty graphic sex in the novel so if you’re the type who doesn’t want to read about ‘dried semen stains’, well you decide for yourself.

One more thing; Luna: New Moon is actually the first part of a two novel story. The second novel, Luna: Wolf Moon is supposed to be published this month. So if you do read Luna: New Moon don’t expect any conclusion, in fact the ending is very much a cliffhanger, and don’t buy Luna: Wolf Moon until you’ve read Luna: New Moon.

Now the big question. If Luna: New Moon reminded me of ‘I Claudius’ as much as anything else, if the science is just scenery then is Luna really a science fiction novel? I’m not the first person to ask this question but I’ve thought a lot about it and I’m planning on a future post, or more likely a series of posts discussing just what is science fiction, what are the GREAT THEMES OF SCIENCE FICTION and where is the crossover between science fiction and other literary genres, Fantasy in particular. It won’t be too long, I’m working on it so keep watching for it.