Pitt Magazine Homepage Table of Contents



We're becoming a stratified society. There are people who know how to program their VCRs and people who don't. There are people who really have a sense of what scientific terms mean and use them properly. And there are other people who avoid them like the plague. In my "Physics and Science Fiction" course, I take people from that second category and teach them scientific terms--not to make them into scientists, but to give them an idea of what real science is. I wan t to lay a foundation, to give my students some concept of real science and then talk about how that works in science fiction stories: which parts are reasonable and which are not.

There are really two parts of science fiction. The first is called "hard" science fiction, and the other is called fantasy. Fantasy makes no pretense at being real science. It's really just using science as a device. "Hard" science fiction claims to be based on somewhat "real" science with a few natural hypotheses. Almost everything we read in this course is "hard" fiction. What you find, though, within the genre of "hard" science fiction, is that much of the science is really fantasy.

We read two science fiction classics--Jules Verne's book, From the Earth to the Moon and Around the Moon, and Isaac Asimov's short story, "Nightfall." The interesting thing about both these stories is the role of authority--the person in the white lab coat, the scientist as a priest for today.

The Verne story is a witty social commentary that begins when military men, bored after the end of the Civil War in America, decide to put some scientists inside a bullet--Verne's version of a rocket--and shoot them to the moon. But after the manned bullet has been shot from a cannon, nobody on earth knows what's happened to them. Though they are later seen falling into the Pacific Ocean, a French scientist announces that they have landed on the moon.

Asimov's "Nightfall" is set in a hypothetical world surrounded by suns. No matter which side of the planet its inhabitants are on, it's daylight. They never have a night-time. But because of their planet's particular orbit, once every two thousand and some years, they have one night. There is no authority on astronomy because it hasn't been developed.

There tends to be a contrast or a dichotomy made between authority and science. In scientific terms, an "authority" is any secondhand information that we believe on faith without checking it out for ourselves. There are certain kinds of secondhand information that we, in principle, could check out. If someone told me that they were selling eggs downtown for 69 cents a dozen, I could go down and check it out for myself. But I might not check it out if I believed my source to be an authority. On the other h and, there are things I could not check out myself through direct observation, such as events that happened in the past, and so I must depend entirely on an authority, whether or not I believe the authority.

Modern science is not just abstract reasoning. It's based on scientific method that includes the elements of observation and experimentation. Some people say science is only based on observations and experiments and "what I can see with my own eyes." But that is very much an oversimplification. Modern science rests to a high degree on authorities.

The two stories we read take different approaches to authority. In the Asimov story, you have people who have learned things through a different route. Their science is very advanced in many ways, but it's very rudimentary in terms of astronomy and things that were done first here on Earth. Imagine if we had developed solid-state physics, developed quantum mechanics, but astronomy was completely unknown to us because, except for every two thousand years, we couldn't see the stars. How would things have be en different? Even though we would still have a modern society, we would be relying on certain historical stories told about a "nightfall."

There is one extreme relation toward authority that is called absolute skepticism--not to believe anything unless you see it with your own eyes. No secondhand information is acceptable within that framework. The opposite side of things is pseudo-science, or gullibility, which is to believe essentially everything that comes packaged from some kind of authority. That's where the Verne story comes in. He writes: "Assert the most absurd nonsense, call it a scientific truth, back it up with strange words which , like 'potentiality,' sound as if they have a meaning but in reality have none, and nine out of 10 men who read your book will believe you."

One thing that all science does is coin new terms. A lot of books and movies are using scientific terms like "positronium" and "antimatter"--they sound like real science but really they're used in a fantastic way. And what you find is that you have pseudo authorities who will pick up those terms and not use them in the way they are defined. And so, in the first part of my course, we're defining things like energy and fields, and all those terms that get used in science fiction, because most people have no idea what they really mean.

Literacy is a relative thing. There are so many hundreds of terms in science, and I can't give students knowledge of all of those things. But scientific literacy also has to do with understanding the scientific method, how scientists work, and their view toward authorities. I would hope that when my students read a newspaper story that deals with science, they would have a basis to look at that story and, without making a snap judgment, have a sense of whether the story is really credible or not credible, and whether or not they should be worried or excited.

And, in the same way, there's an awful lot of science fiction that kind of merges into pseudo-science literature. These things are on TV all the time. Star Trek is fantasy-- complete fantasy. It doesn't present itself as true. But, for instance, in the film The Philadelphia Experiment, there is really a kind of assumption that this is a believable story.

In The Philadelphia Experiment, a battleship is transported magically to North Carolina or somewhere, and the response of the whole scientific establishment and the military establishment is to suppress it and not let anybody know about it. I was in Romania in 1991 talking about these issues at universities there. It was right after the Berlin Wall came down, shortly after their own revolution, and they started watching western TV. This movie, The Philadelphia Experiment, was shown on their national TV without comment, kind of in the form of a documentary. The conclusion of the movie is that the CIA has been hiding this information all along. Well, to those people in that part of the world, it was very believable for them to imagine that the KGB and the CIA would hide all kinds of things. I was lecturing on science and scientific issues, and numerous people would come up to me and ask, "Well, what do you think of this Philadelphia Experiment? How could one explain that in the terms of modern science?" They were really thinking that it was true. Their hypothesis was that all information from the West was true and all information from the Communists was false. Now that was right after the Wall came down. But people in America make similar kind s of assumptions: "Everything I read in Discover must be true, because it is a scientific-type magazine."

The scientific method always asks who made the observation on which the theory rests. Typically, we don't have the observations of those things readily available, and so we can't rule them out. We simply have to say, "It could be." But if someone comes along with a story and says, "I saw this," and it fits with our theories, then it makes us more predisposed to believe that person. On the other hand, if someone comes along, as in the Asimov story, and says that two thousand years ago there was blackness, completely contradicting what we believe to be logical, then we might be inclined to discredit that authority. If we believe the authority to be honest, then we may decide that there is a flaw in our theory. As in the Verne story, the people in the bullet are seen splashing down in the ocean while an authority in France is announcing that they're still on the moon. If we believe both contentions, we've got an apparent contradiction. Perhaps then it's worth checking into further, because the person in the middle is getting secondhand information from both sources. Reconciling this contradiction--being able to determine who is a valid authority--is one of the things life is all about.

Pitt Magazine Homepage Table of