Getting it right

Science Fiction by Scientists: An Anthology of Short Stories

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SPRINGER: 2016. 190 pp. £15.00

Science fiction is a difficult genre. In its most orthodox hard-SF form the writer has to get both the science and the fiction right, and very often the science bit proves tricky. So when scientists start writing, at least that is taken care of. Many researchers are keen on speculative fiction, with numerous examples in the Futures series published weekly by Nature, and intermittently in Nature Physics. In the same spirit, the Springer series Science and Fiction explores the boundaries and overlap between the two in different forms ranging from scientific novels to titles such as Hollyweird Science or Using Medicine in Science Fiction.

The latest addition to this series is an anthology edited by Michael Brotherton, collecting fourteen short stories by fourteen scientists with backgrounds in physics, astronomy, computer science, neuroscience, cell biology or molecular genetics. They blend classic science fiction themes with serious science: the Turing test, type Ia supernovae, hidden variables in quantum mechanics, stem cells, epigenetics, Schrödinger's cat and more. Most of the characters are scientists, reminiscent of 'lab lit' — a lesser-known literary genre that tries to portray scientists realistically, beyond the classic lab coat stereotypes. None of the fourteen authors shies away from detailed and accurate scientific explanations. Here, scientist characters come in handy, as they can naturally lecture about difficult topics. The authors complement their stories with additional explanations, interesting in themselves. Overall, the anthology leans a bit to the hard side of hard-SF, but that is a treat for the scientifically minded reader.

The Physics and Astronomy of Science Fiction

MCFARLAND: 2016. 277 pp. £32.50

But most of the popular science fiction is not written by scientists, and is not exactly scientifically accurate. Steven Bloom, professor of physics and astronomy, and former researcher at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, dissects the physics and astronomy of science fiction. He gives accessible and entertaining explanations of the good and the bad science in beloved series from Star Trek and Doctor Who to Battlestar Galactica. Some of my personal favourite science fiction sins are explosions in vacuum with spectacular flames and sounds, the ability to ignore Newtonian mechanics whenever convenient, and outrageous violations of the second law of thermodynamics.

But is getting the physics right even so important? Ideally, science fiction should at least be scientifically plausible, but after all, this is not the main reason that people love the genre or that scientists are inspired by it. A genuinely good science fiction story is a pleasure to read regardless of whether it was written by a professional writer or by a physicist. As author Neal Asher put it (http://go.nature.com/2bsgyfy): “Science fiction [...] is there to entertain and stimulate the imagination. There is absolutely no doubt that many of the imaginations it stimulates belong to scientists. To some extent it drives and directs science.”

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Georgescu, I. Getting it right. Nature Phys 12, 820 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/nphys3881

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