This is an upper-level elective course designed to explore science through science fiction and is designed to be accessible to non-major students. The course will include reading, watching, and writing science fiction to get a better perspective on science and humanity and to investigate some interesting concepts in physics and astronomy.
Mike Brotherton is an assistant professor in the Astronomy department at the University of Wyoming. He received his PhD in 1996 from the University of Texas at Austin. He is also a published science fiction writer. His first novel, Star Dragon, is available from Tor Books. His second novel, Spider Star, is available after March 2008.
Course overview, introductions, reading/writing expectations, and brief discsussion. Evening topic: scientific versus humanity-based perspective in fiction. Read aloud in class the original story The Cold Equations by Tom Godwin and watch the movie adaptation with the changed ending. Discuss if time. Assignments: 1. Buy required textbooks on the amazon.com list; 2. Buy and read Think Like a Dinosaur by James Patrick Kelly at www.fictionwise.com. 3. Write 3-4 pages in proper manuscript format responding to the original story, the changed ending in the movie version, and how the Kelly Story plays up the difference.
Cold Light. Discussion of the The Cold Equations in its various incarnations, looking primarily at the different responses to the story along the lines I discuss here. Also worth comparison is Jack London's "To Build a Fire." Switching gears to light, I'll do some lecture based on some slides. We'll also look at a web-based video: infrared cameras. Scenes from Predator: camo and thermal vision. Demo night vision and the thermal camera (operating at 7-14 microns) for real technology demonstrations. Assignments. 1. Read or listen to one of these three stories: The Lady Vanishes by Charles Sheffield (small fee, fictionwise); "First Contact" by Murry Leinster (an audio story, small fee, fictionwise); or "The Light of Other Days" by Bob Shaw. 2. Write a scene (not a complete story!) using the science/science fiction elements in the story you read, or an original scene of your own creation exploiting properties of light. Remember to use standard manuscript format. We'll discuss the science in the stories and read our scenes, figuring out how well they work as fiction and explainers of science, next week.
Scenes and Sizes. First, reading and discussion light-based fiction scenes, both in terms of science and as prose, in comparison with the assigned stories. This week's new topic: Sizescales of the Universe. Watch Powers of Ten and opening to Contact. Some lecture slides. Handouts include appendices in The Spaceflight Handbook regarding powers of ten, physical constants, and data concerning the nearest stars. Finally, we read Arthur C. Clarke's story "The Star" in class and watched the 1980s Twilight Zone adaptation (which we will discuss next week). Assigments: Read pages 1-18 in Sheffield. Download from fictionwise.com and read "The Shoulders of Giants" by Robert Sawyer. Write a short essay on time, rate, and distance checking Sawyer's numbers and exploring your own numbers: how long does it take to walk, drive, fly, and travel at light speed from New York to Los Angeles? How long does it take to do those same things and get to Alpha Centauri? Estimates here are fine.
Discuss the Sawyer story and the associated assignment. Turkey City Lexicon. Sawyer Story and Homework. Lecture on gravity and motion: Slides. Movie clips from Apollo 13, Red Mars, 2001, and Armageddon. Gravity games discussion (Space War, etc.). Reading Assignment: Neutron Star by Larry Niven (fictionwise.com), more Sheffield looking toward Space Travel and Relativity (sections 2.4, 2.5, 2.6, all of chapter 8, and 9.5). Writing assignment: write a page from a brochure of space hotel in orbit above Earth. Be sure to make it sound interesting and exciting, and play up the attractions of freefall and variable artificial gravity (e.g., for games, or exercise, or whatever!). Feel free to make it look like a brochure, too, if inclined.
Discuss the Niven story, particularly the gravitational science and tidal forces (we'll work through the numbers in class). Some discussion about writing. Watch Destination Moon, and discuss various strengths and weaknesses, particularly how the science fiction differed from the reality two decades later, and what was necessary to educate the audience about. Reading Assignment: There will be some reading handed out from Nordley (www.gdnordley.com) to expand on the previous reading in Sheffield. Writing assignment: Write a SCENE (not a story!) in which one character must explain how a rocket works to someone who doesn't understand the concept (e.g., a child, an alien, or the silly person who wrote the NYT editorial referred to in this wikipedia entry..
Discuss Destination Moon, particularly the science issues the movie got right and wrong, and how it worked given the time it came out. Read aloud rocket scenes and discuss relative effectiveness and why. Defer Nordley and Sheffield reading on relativity to week 7 in preference to the lunar eclipse happening during class. We'll talk about eclipses. We'll watch scenes from PITCH BLACK and listen to "Nightfall" by Isaac Asimov (time permitting). Reading Assignment: Review Sheffield and Nordley in anticipation of finally talking about space flight and relativity next week. Listen to "Nightfall" from fictionwise.com if we don't have time in class. Writing assignment: write a scene from the perspective of a character experiences some type of eclipse, getting in every accurate detail you can manage that makes sense for your situation. Feel free to do some additional research about eclipses outside what I present in class..
Read eclipse scenes. Nightfall apparently removed from fictionwise.com (oops -- it's still on my virtual bookshelf). So, it's deferred to next week. Listen to it here. Go on into space travel (lecture, discussion from Sheffield, other books). Lecture/discuss relativity, Nordley articles. Read Relativity by Robert Sawyer and discuss. Reading Assignment: Chapters 1, 2, and 7 from Gillette (lots of review in these, too). Writing assignment: write a passage (2-3 paragraphs) from the point of view of an explorer returning from a relativistic interstellar trip. Choose a nearby star, a form of space travel (check out a space travel cheat sheet here), a velocity, and work out the time differences and work them into the passage. The explorer's concerns will depend on your choices.
Discuss Nightfall. Read interstellar return passages and discuss Robert Sawyer's "Relativity." Start discussion of alien solar systems (lecture/discssion) and on extrasolar planets. Reading from my newly released SPIDER STAR and discussion about the world building. Reading assignments: Gillette chapter 8 for the brave, plus online articles, Science in Science Fiction: Making it Work by Joan Slonczewski, Building New Worlds by Stephen Baxter. Writing assignment: design a solar system/colony world in which to set stories (more on this in class). I've found a webpage with a helpful guide very similar to what I want you to do.
Discuss reading and world building assignment. . Discussion/lecture on fiction writing and short stories in particular. Readi ng assignment: Chapters 2, 3, and 4 in Card (go ahead wit the entire book given time and interest). Writing assignment: Write a complete short story set in an extrasolar planetary system using all the science tricks and lessons we've had to this point. Probably a minimum length is about 2000 words, but the sweet spot where it's easiest to fit things in is 3000+ words (and I'd suggest trying to keep it under 5000 words). Use standard manuscript format. Don't worry if it's not brilliant for now -- just try to make it complete, with good science, and some sort of plot, setting, and characters.
Stories due, but some late stories and copy machine issues. Everyone should email me their stories ASAP for general distribution. Next week we will critique them. Watch student choice movie: The Arrival. Assignments: read and critique short stories. Write a critique of the science in the Arrival, good and bad.
Critiques pushed off for week 12. Hardcopies distributed this week. Discuss the science in The Arrival. Some useful websites include these: http://www.bautforum.com/archive/index.php/t-616.html http://www.solstation.com/47ly-ns.htm http://www.reelviews.net/movies/a/arrival.html http://www.scifi.com/sfw/issue22/question.html http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_nearest_stars I may put a summary of the class discussion on my blog.
New topics: Exposure to space and black holes. See Wiki articles on Human Space Adaptation, Vaccum, and Explosive Decompression. Some slides and discussion about Black Holes. In addition to critiques, read "The Hole Man" by Larry Niven available on www.fictionwise.com.
Delay critique stories for the week (my fault, sickness, plus weather). Discuss the black hole story "The Hole Man" by Larry Niven.
Start Quantum weirdness. Quantum physics has many aspects of "weirdness" that are not very intuitive, that differ from our every day experience, but nevertheless are supported by experiment. And there is still great philosophical disagreement on how to interpret the equations. Topics to be introduced and discussed include: quantization, E=mc2, wave-particle duality, superposition, Copenhagen and many-worlds interpretations, quantum teleportation and the question of whether or not god plays dice with the universe. Quantum Computing represents a science fictional type of technology to arise out of superposition. Here is another good article. Here is a video introducing, humorously, Schrodinger's Cat experiment. Here is another video of a weird old guy explaining the paradox. Another humorous take on the idea.
Discuss how to come up with story ideas (brainstorming) based on the discussion of quantum mechanics. One of the best quantum physics science fiction novels out there is Quarantine, by Greg Egan, FYI, bursting with ideas.
Writing assignment: write a synopsis of three science fiction stories, complete with characters, setting, and a plot, in anticipation of the year-end assignment. It should use science we've covered in class and ideally the science will be central to the story. You might check out http://www.writesf.com/ if you want more direction. Reading assignments: Chapter 10 in Sheffield (particularly quantum computing and nanotech sections. Hugo nominee All the Myriad Ways, by Larry Niven. (Note, this replaces a much longer and less focused story, The Planck Drive, by Greg Egan, both available on www.fictionwise.com.)
Discuss "All the Myriad Ways" by Niven. Critique midterm stories. The story "A Sound of Thunder" by Ray Bradbury came up. Here's a link, which has the complete story plus accompanying comic book art.
Start on nanotechnology. The story starts with nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynmann and his 1959 talk "Plenty of Room at the Bottom." Another step was Eric Drexler's dissertation Nanosystems and famous popular science book, Engines of Creation (1986). While this is the visionary thread, the nuts and bolts have been pushed all along in various branches of science, and key steps there involve the discovery of buckyballs and carbon nanotubes (here's a video), which are potential building blocks for nanotech (although Smalley, who discovered buckyballs, was critical of Drexler style molecular nanotechnology). Nanofabrication will become reality in one form or another, and the ability to create designer materials will have a large impact. Applications include the space elevator, Star Trek style replicators, nanomedicine and related biological applications, and super soldier suits. A good location for non-stop shopping for nanotech information is The Foresight Institute, originally founded by Drexler. A final, excellent up-to-date summary of current nano state of the art. Science Fiction treatments are many and good, such as the novels Blood Music by Greg Bear, Bloom by Wil McCarthy, and the Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson, among others. No explicit assignment(s), but note that final stories are due the last day of class (may be a major rewrite or a new story.)
Far-future SF, the Singularity of Vernor Vinge, Post-Humanism, and the limits of science. After Vinge, Ray Kurzweil is the guy to go to, and gives a supported vision of the near future. Discuss the far future, the difference between science and engineering, and how future technology and their impact on humans may be anticipated. In class reading: Day Million by Frederick Pohl, The Last Answer by Issac Asimov, and The Point by Mike Brotherton.