Wizards, Aliens, and Starships

Wizards, Aliens, and Starships: Physics and Math in Fantasy and Science Fiction

CHARLES L. ADLER
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 360
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt5hhs58
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Wizards, Aliens, and Starships
    Book Description:

    From teleportation and space elevators to alien contact and interstellar travel, science fiction and fantasy writers have come up with some brilliant and innovative ideas. Yet how plausible are these ideas--for instance, could Mr. Weasley's flying car in the Harry Potter books really exist? Which concepts might actually happen, and which ones wouldn't work at all?Wizards, Aliens, and Starshipsdelves into the most extraordinary details in science fiction and fantasy--such as time warps, shape changing, rocket launches, and illumination by floating candle--and shows readers the physics and math behind the phenomena.

    With simple mathematical models, and in most cases using no more than high school algebra, Charles Adler ranges across a plethora of remarkable imaginings, from the works of Ursula K. Le Guin toStar TrekandAvatar, to explore what might become reality. Adler explains why fantasy in the Harry Potter and Dresden Files novels cannot adhere strictly to scientific laws, and when magic might make scientific sense in the muggle world. He examines space travel and wonders why it isn't cheaper and more common today. Adler also discusses exoplanets and how the search for alien life has shifted from radio communications to space-based telescopes. He concludes by investigating the future survival of humanity and other intelligent races. Throughout, he cites an abundance of science fiction and fantasy authors, and includes concise descriptions of stories as well as a glossary of science terms.

    Wizards, Aliens, and Starshipswill speak to anyone wanting to know about the correct--and incorrect--science of science fiction and fantasy.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4836-2
    Subjects: Physics, Mathematics

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. VII-XIV)
  3. CHAPTER ONE PLAYING THE GAME
    (pp. 1-10)

    When I was young, back in the 1970s and 80s, I read a lot of science fiction. I read a lot of other stuff, as well, but science fiction (and fantasy) filled a need that other literature simply didn’t. I tended to read “hard” science fiction, that is, stories plotted around hard science: physics, astrophysics, giant engineering projects, and the like. The worlds these stories portrayed, where space travel was common, human problems such as poverty were nearly eliminated, and conflicts centered on larger-than-life issues, always seemed to me more compelling than human dramas that revolved around why someone didn’t...

  4. I POTTER PHYSICS
    • CHAPTER TWO HARRY POTTER AND THE GREAT CONSERVATION LAWS
      (pp. 13-26)

      The “physics of fantasy” seems like an oxymoron: by definition, fantasy doesn’t concern itself with science but with magic. However, a lot of fantasy writers follow in the tradition of science fiction writers in trying to set up consistent rules by which their fantasy worlds operate. This is because many fantasy writers are science fiction writers as well. It is almost a universal trait: those who write quasi-realistic science fiction will also write quasi-realistic, rules-based fantasy; those who don’t generally won’t set up rules by which magic works.

      Among the former is Ursula K. Le Guin, whoseEarthseatrilogy has...

    • CHAPTER THREE WHY HOGWARTS IS SO DARK
      (pp. 27-37)

      Many fantasy novels are set in preindustrial worlds, such as the Conan novels by Robert E. Howard, or in parallel worlds of quasi-medieval setting in which modern technology doesn’t exist, such as theLord of the RingsandEarthseatrilogies. Others are set in worlds where magic coexists with the mundane world. As an example of the latter, the Harry Potter books provide a means to examine the distinctions between the magical worlds and the mundane.

      Hermione Granger inThe Goblet of Firementions that most modern electronics won’t work in Hogwarts because of the high concentration of magic there....

    • CHAPTER FOUR FANTASTIC BEASTS AND HOW TO DISPROVE THEM
      (pp. 38-56)

      One of the chief hallmarks of a fantasy story is the presence of other-worldly creatures. This is true of science fiction as well. In science fiction they are called aliens rather than monsters, but in numerous works the two are treated in a very similar manner. The troll at the bridge judges whether the party is worthy to cross or whether he must eat them; the aliens from Alpha Centauri judge humanity and decide whether to destroy us or reward us with advanced technology.

      The chief difference, at least between “hard” science fiction—that based on known scientific principles—and...

  5. II SPACE TRAVEL
    • CHAPTER FIVE WHY COMPUTERS GET BETTER AND CARS CAN’T (MUCH)
      (pp. 59-70)

      This second section of the book deals with spaceflight, mostly manned spaceflight. Manned exploration of other planets is perhaps the most common theme in all of science fiction, with the possible exception of alien contact; the parallels of this literature with novels of the Wild West have been thoroughly explored before, and I won’t go into them. Space-flight is linked to the colonization of space, paralleling the colonization of the Americas and Africa by Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Space colonization has remained a persistent theme in science fiction to the present day; the website tvtropes. org refers...

    • CHAPTER SIX VACATIONS IN SPACE
      (pp. 71-85)

      In an early scene in the movie2001: A Space Odyssey, Dr. Heywood Floyd travels via a commercial (Pan Am) shuttle to a space station in orbit around the Earth. The humdrum way in which this is shown in the movie makes it clear that in the future world of 2001, such “flights” are common. This scene is almost unique among science fiction movies for actually getting the dynamics of space flight correct. Clarke’s observations from his popular 1968 book on space exploration reinforced this idea in the movie: in the future, space travel will be as easy and as...

    • CHAPTER SEVEN SPACE COLONIES
      (pp. 86-114)

      In the 1930s the science fiction writer George O. Smith penned a series of stories that were subsequently collected into a book titledThe Complete Venus Equilateral[222]. The stories take place on a large space station placed in the orbit of Venus. That is, it circles the Sun in the same orbit Venus follows, but located 60 degrees ahead of Venus in orbit; it is not circling Venus. The space station serves as a radio relay, shuttling messages between Earth, Venus, and Mars, and is crewed by a few hundred engineers and support staff. The stories featured the adventures...

    • CHAPTER EIGHT THE SPACE ELEVATOR
      (pp. 115-129)

      It’s time for your summer vacation, but you’re bored with Aruba, Tokyo is so blasé, and even the wonders of Antarctica have begun to pall. So you get online and decide to book a trip to the Moon. The first leg is simple: a plane ride to Ecuador to the new Space Hub. Touching down in the airport near the Hub, you look in vain for rockets, but see only a large, circular building with what seems to be a thin ribbon reaching up as far as you can see into the sky. You go past immigration, get passports stamped...

    • CHAPTER NINE MANNED INTERPLANETARY TRAVEL
      (pp. 130-144)

      In Robert Heinlein’s novelPodkayne of Mars, the eponymous heroine takes a voyage from her home on Mars colony along the first leg of a projected three-legged voyage to Venus, Earth, and back home again [118]. The ship she travels on, theTricorn, is essentially an ocean liner moved into space; it has fancy dining halls, a ballroom, and first-class, second-class, and steerage compartments. The ship is described in detail. As is customary in a Heinlein novel, the science is pretty good: the one place where it departs most from reality is the “torch” drive, which is essentially direct matter-energy...

    • CHAPTER TEN ADVANCED PROPULSION SYSTEMS
      (pp. 145-156)

      In the last chapter we considered the Hohmann transfer orbit as a means of traveling from Earth to Mars or another planet. It was an energy-efficient method of getting there from here, but it had one big disadvantage: it took a long time. This was because the planets had to be in the right relative positions when the rocket was launched, and also because when the rocket was launched it became a planet in effect: a satellite of the Sun, acted on only by the force of gravity (except for short times when changing orbits). A trip to Mars took...

    • CHAPTER ELEVEN SPECULATIVE PROPULSION SYSTEMS
      (pp. 157-175)

      As far as we know, nothing travels faster than light. Aside from energy issues, it takes a long time to get anywhere interesting. The nearest star apart from the Sun is the triple-star system Alpha Centauri, located 4.3 light-years away. There are about 32 star systems within 15 light-years of the Sun, and roughly 600 within 100 light-years. This means it will take years to get to the nearest stars even traveling at speeds close to light. There is one saving grace: because of relativity, the trip won’t seem as long to the voyagers. However, to get to these speeds,...

    • CHAPTER TWELVE INTERSTELLAR TRAVEL AND RELATIVITY
      (pp. 176-187)

      Robert A. Heinlein’s novelTime for the Starsis essentially one long in-joke for physicists. The central characters of the novel are Tom and Pat Bartlett, two identical twins who can communicate with each other telepathically. In the novel, telepathy has a speed much faster than light. Linked telepaths, usually pairs of identical twins, are used to maintain communications between the starshipLewis and Clarkand Earth. Tom goes on the spacecraft while Pat stays home; the ship visits a number of distant star systems, exploring and finding new Earth-like worlds. On Tom’s return, nearly seventy years have elapsed on...

    • CHAPTER THIRTEEN FASTER-THAN-LIGHT TRAVEL AND TIME TRAVEL
      (pp. 188-214)

      Faster-than-light travel and time travel are both impossible.

      I’m in a somewhat difficult position writing this chapter, for several reasons:

      I don’t believe that the laws of physics allow faster-than-light travel or time travel into the past.

      However, both of these ideas are strong elements in many science fiction stories.

      Compounding the problem, there is a plethora of recent books on the subject, and almost anything I can say about the subject has already been said by those authors, and better.

      Faster-than-light (FTL) travel is a key component of many science fiction stories, for obvious reasons: traveling to the stars...

  6. III WORLDS AND ALIENS
    • CHAPTER FOURTEEN DESIGNING A HABITABLE PLANET
      (pp. 217-241)

      A large number of science fiction stories take place on alien worlds, and the process of designing an alien world with alien life on it is perhaps as old as science fiction itself. Hard science fiction writers tend to pay attention to astrophysics and planetary science to make their worlds both realistic and exotic, a very difficult combination to achieve. Several examples of successful designs spring to mind, including Hal Clement’s Mesklin in the novelMission of Gravity, a large planet whose rapid rotation spun it into an ellipsoid, with a surface gravity three times that of Earth at its...

    • CHAPTER FIFTEEN THE SCIENTIFIC SEARCH FOR SPOCK
      (pp. 242-254)

      The idea of life in other stellar systems is an old one and a source of speculation at least since the times of the ancient Greeks. However, serious scientific attempts to detect life outside the Solar System dates back only to the 1960s, and at that time were a marginal effort. Although a number of well-known scientists including Carl Sagan and Philip Morrison participated in the search, it was never well funded. It always remained a research sideline even for those people most passionately interested in it.

      This changed significantly in the 1990s, when it moved from the sidelines to...

    • CHAPTER SIXTEEN THE MATHEMATICS OF TALKING WITH ALIENS
      (pp. 255-272)

      Apart from space travel, contact with alien races and civilizations isthetheme of science fiction. In this chapter we will examine the issue of communication with alien races. There are, of course, many hurdles to overcome in any communication with intelligent aliens. The first is whether any exist at all. Science fiction writers tend to adopt one of three views:

      1. Alien life is common across the galaxy.

      2. Alien life is rare, but intelligent aliens exist.

      3. Alien life is nonexistent.

      Let’s discuss each of these views in turn.

      The view that alien life is common across the...

  7. IV YEAR GOOGOL
    • CHAPTER SEVENTEEN THE SHORT-TERM SURVIVAL OF HUMANITY
      (pp. 275-291)

      This section poses a simple question: how long can humanity last? Here I am going to throw caution to the winds: This is not a question that I will try to cast in terms of realistic bounds; instead, I will simply speculate wildly as to how long the laws of physics will let us last. In doing so, I examine the different ways in which the human race can become extinct. I move forward in jumps: first considering all the many, many ways in which we can do ourselves in during the next century or so, then taking up more...

    • CHAPTER EIGHTEEN WORLD-BUILDING
      (pp. 292-302)

      The noted physicist Kip Thorne first defined the Sagan problem as one that tested what the laws of physics would allow on a fundamental level [236]. The question Thorne was considering was whether physics allowed time travel and faster-than-light travel. This is a question that clearly probes the ultimate laws of nature. In these final chapters we’re going to consider a series of Sagan problems, each progressively more fundamental than the last, to see what might be possible for a sufficiently advanced civilization. These discussions are based on the laws of physics as they’re known now. However, all of them...

    • CHAPTER NINETEEN DYSON SPHERES AND RINGWORLDS
      (pp. 303-325)

      In June 1960 a paper titled “Search for Artificial Stellar Sources of Infrared Radiation” appeared in the journalScience[71]. Its author, Freeman Dyson, is a physicist who is currently a fellow of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University (the same place where Einstein worked). We have encountered him before as one of the chief driving forces behind the Orion nuclear pulse propulsion drive. In theSciencepaper he presented an idea for finding alien civilizations that did not require searching for radio signals from them; instead, he suggested that astronomers look for sources of infrared radiation radiating...

    • CHAPTER TWENTY ADVANCED CIVILIZATIONS AND THE KARDASHEV SCALE
      (pp. 326-335)

      In the 1950s, Isaac Asimov envisioned a great “Galactic Empire” as the stage for hisFoundationnovels, a civilization set thousands of years in the future that encompassed every star in the Milky Way Galaxy. The sweep of this vision proved popular: Asimov followed his initial three novels, focused on the collapse of the first empire, with three more that both chronicled the rise of the second empire and also deconstructed the background of the first novels. Not only have several moreFoundationnovels been written posthumously (a neat trick, that), but his vision has been shared by many other...

    • CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE A GOOGOL YEARS
      (pp. 336-350)

      In this final chapter of the book I would like to examine the grandest theme in science fiction, the future of intelligent life in the universe. And by future I mean thefarfuture. In previous chapters we’ve examined what truly advanced civilizations are capable of, and how they can potentially modify their environments in extreme ways. In this chapter I would like to examine how long such extraordinarily advanced societies can hope to last. It will dwarf all the history of the universe to this point by a long shot. Let us consider the long-term survival of humanity and...

  8. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. 351-352)
  9. APPENDIX: NEWTON’S THREE LAWS OF MOTION
    (pp. 353-358)
  10. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 359-370)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 371-378)