Friday, April 27, 2012

Science Fiction, Science, and Inspiration

In the sixth grade, I read my first science fiction novel: Isaac Asimov's Foundation. From that moment, I was hooked.

These days, I make a decent chunk of my living writing about science and a less decent chunk of it writing about science fiction and related popular culture topics.

In that regard, consider my most recent publication, an essay in the collection The Big Bang Theory and Philosophy: Rock, Paper, Scissors, Aristotle, Locke (Amazon, B&N). I had a great time with this essay, which explores the differences between experimental and theoretical science, especially as it relates to the search for a workable theory of quantum gravity, such as the one that pushes Sheldon Cooper to study string theory.

The actual scientists who work at the frontier of discovery are typically inspired on this path in some way. In talking to, listening to, and studying these bold pioneers of the future, I've discovered that most of them were inspired by the same sort of science fiction which inspired me as a young man.

When the PBS NOVA blog The Nature of Reality asked me to write an article for their "Thought Experiments" column, I jumped at the chance. In the article, "Writing a Bold Future, Together," I discuss how science fiction inspires scientists (and vice versa). The article went live yesterday, so check it out and let me know what you think. Does it inspire you?

Speaking of inspiration ... one question that I'm sometimes asked is whether we'll ever know everything in science. I think that's highly unlikely, even though it is sort of the goal of theoretical physicists like The Big Bang Theory's Sheldon Cooper. (Emphasis on the "sort of.")

As I pointed out in a recent Physics post on the end of science, the current understanding of science - the standard model of quantum physics - really can only account for about 4% of the universe. The other 96% is made up of mysterious dark matter and dark energy, which we do not understand at all!

So for those who are concerned that someone like Sheldon Cooper will usher in an era where there's nothing left to the imagination, don't worry ... there'll still be plenty of empty gaps for science fiction authors to exploit.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Philosophical Avengers Assemble!

This spring, The Avengers finally hits theaters ... and bookstores ... bringing the top heroes of the Marvel Universe together to fight forces that threaten to destroy the world. Among the plethora of media tie-ins rests one that might of particular interest to you if you're reading this blog: The Avengers and Philosophy: Earth's Mightiest Thinkers (Amazon, B&N).

My contribution to this anthology takes the form of the essay:

"Can Kang Kill His Past Self? The Paradox of Time Travel." 

The title pretty much says it all, I suppose, but for the uninitiated here's some context:

Kang is a warlord from the distant future who frequently travels through time in an effort to defeat the Earth's Mightiest Heroes, the Avengers. However, over the nearly-50 years of the Avengers' existence, Kang's recurrences in the comic book have resulted in a wide range of time paradoxes.

In the essay, I walk through three of the most significant paradoxes that arise out of the various Kang storylines and discuss how they relate to our scientific and philosophical understanding of the flow of time. For a hint of the scientific themes involved, you can also check out these posts over at Physics (although the Avengers make no appearances in these articles):

If time travel isn't your thing, there are a lot of other great essays based on the Avengers' many years of adventures. For example, the nature of romantic love is examined through the life of the android The Vision. What are the ethics of being a superhero? What are the philosophical implications of having and maintaining a secret identity?

These topics all sound great, but I think my favorite title (I confess I haven't yet read the essays) is:

"I Am Made of Ink: She-Hulk and Metacomics"

She-Hulk always had a playful air about her, in part because she was (sometimes, at least) actually aware that she was a character inside a comic book. She even went so far as to directly address the readers of the comics ... not in the form of a vague narration, but flat-out looking out through the "fourth wall."

What philosophical question would you most like to see tackled in relation to the Avengers?