by Sean McMullen
Late in 1969, as an undergraduate science student applying for a vacation job, I had an interview with a researcher from the chemistry department. The conversation drifted onto the topic of carbon dating and went like this:
Myself: Why not put the sample through the university cyclotron? You could measure the amount of carbon 14 present in much smaller samples and look further back into the past.
Researcher: You don’t understand. In carbon dating, we measure the level of radioactivity due to carbon 14 decay, and determine the sample’s age from that.
Myself: But you don’t need to measure its radioactivity level. Just use the cyclotron to measure the proportion of carbon 14 to other isotopes of carbon.
Researcher: You still don’t understand. Radiocarbon dating works by measuring the level of radioactivity from carbon 14.
After more of the above I gave up—and I did not get the job. Seven years later, the first measurements of carbon 14 in a carbon sample using Accelerator Mass Spectroscopy were made at the University of Rochester in America.
There have been more spectacular examples of conceptual blindness by scientific experts. In 1943 an RAF reconnaissance flight returned from Peenemunde with photographic evidence that German scientists were developing a long-range rocket about 10 metres in length. Churchill’s principal scientific advisor, Lord Charwell, disagreed. He said any such rocket would have to burn cordite in a thick steel case, which would need to weigh between 60 and one hundred tons. This was too heavy to be useful as a weapon. Duncan Sandys, who was not a scientist, said Lord Charwell might not know how to make a long-range rocket, but maybe the Germans did. Churchill agreed, and sent the RAF to bomb Peenemunde into oblivion.
Sandys turned out to have been right. The rocket was the V2, and it was powered by liquid oxygen and alcohol, not cordite. The October 1945 issue of Analog‘s ancestor, Astounding, contains a letter from Jerry Shelton, who was with invading Allied forces late in the war. He witnessed the launch of a V2 in the distance, and his account reads like quite chilling science fiction. Lord Charwell’s conventional wisdom had not extended to space weapons.
Most humans are pretty conservative once they become established. This is because we become good at dealing with the world as it is, and the idea of having to cope with entirely new concepts or developing new skills is confronting. This makes conceptual blindness to viable ideas depressingly common.
In my current Analog story, “Wheel of Echoes” [in our Jan/Feb issue, on sale now], I mention an Englishman, Thomas Harriot, who sketched the moon through a telescope some months before Galileo (fact). Why did I (and pretty well everyone else) grow up believing that Galileo had been first? Galileo was more methodical and meticulous with his telescopic observations, he pointed his telescope at a lot more than the moon, he published his discoveries, and he had a spectacular falling-out with the pope. Why is Harriot’s work largely forgotten? I was once considered unqualified to walk into a cyclotron with a carbon sample and a work request, so perhaps England’s scientific establishment thought Harriot was not qualified to pick up a telescope and point it at the moon. Perhaps, too, it’s because there is no such thing as bad publicity, and thanks to the pope, Galileo got plenty of that.
Thus one does not have to be a scientist to make a scientific discovery or prove conventional wisdom wrong, but how do you publicize your idea? Nature and Science are unlikely to take you seriously, but you might get a better reception from science fiction magazines like Analog. Ideas in science fiction stories are not invalidated just because the author does not provide citations and equations, and have a PhD in the right field.
My story “The Firewall and the Door” appeared in Analog in 2013. It features a way to decelerate an interstellar probe from a tenth of lightspeed to slow enough to orbit Alpha Centauri B. It does this using virtually no fuel, and the technology is within reach of what we can build today. This is vastly preferable to a flyby of the star system at a tenth of lightspeed, and I got a very nice email about it from a guy whose father worked on Project Apollo. Will NASA incorporate my idea for stellar aerobraking into its first interstellar probe? I can’t say, but thanks to Analog, the idea is out there.
Does anyone with real influence read science fiction? H.G. Wells proposed the idea of an atomic bomb in his 1914 novel The World Set Free. One of his fans was Winston Churchill, and Churchill subsequently took the idea of nuclear weapons very seriously indeed. Having powerful and influential politicians paying attention certainly does give your idea wings, but having a few bright students as fans works too . . . especially if they are into computers.
Gregory Benford’s 1970 story “The Scarred Man” introduced the computer virus to science fiction. True, the concept had been proposed by Von Neumann in 1949, but only a year after the story was published, Bob Thomas developed the first real world virus (running on a PDP-10, if anyone is into archeology). Ten years later, high school student Richard Serenka touched off the first uncontrolled viral outbreak with his Elk Cloner program.
John Brunner devised the cybernetic worm concept for his 1975 novel Shockwave Rider, and just thirteen years later, Robert Morris’s internet worm slithered into the spotlight. The scale of the disruption from Morris’s creation was so great that it captured the attention of mainstream media, then resulted in the world’s first conviction for malware distribution. The Morris Worm has also been referred to as the Great Worm of 1987, named after Tolkien’s “Great Worms,” Scatha and Glaurung.
People who work on computers tend to read science fiction, so it is a great place to introduce workable cybernetic scenarios. The atomic bomb required a lot of money to become reality, but early computer malware just needed time, imagination, and a computer account.
What is currently out there that will shake up the world in the immediate future? The technology for DIY Armageddon exists already. The television series Mr. Robot has a credible scenario in which a small number of very bright hackers take down a substantial chunk of the world economy. The British series Black Mirror presented us with some truly nightmarish scenarios, yet the technology for about half of the episodes already existed before they were broadcast. Most of it was DIY.
There is more to science fiction than prediction; it can also put a human face on some very unpleasant futures. George Orwell’s 1949 novel 1984 gave us a look at how bad life could be in a state based on total surveillance of citizens. In 1957 Neville Shute showed us the consequences of nuclear war in On the Beach, suggesting that it was an even worse idea than total surveillance. Overpopulation was treated in Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! in 1966, and it certainly influenced me to have just one child.
Like Orwell (journalist), Shute (engineer) and Harrison (author), I am not a scientist, so it is left to science fiction magazines to give me a voice in the scientific world. My 2009 story The Precedent is set in a future where everyone born before 2000 is put on trial for climate crimes. At best, their case gets adjourned. At worst, they get executed. For most people, well-reasoned warnings by scientists based on numeric modeling of climate change tend to be vaguely worrying rather than alarming. However, the prospect of execution by the next generation using the tipping point gallows, carbon dioxide mask, rising sea level tank, or personal greenhouse just might influence readers to sweep up with a broom instead of a leaf blower. Ten years after The Precedent was published, the school strikes are just one sign of increasing anger and militancy among young people concerning climate change policy.
Hans Christian Anderson’s The Emperor’s New Clothes is not compulsory reading in the scientific community, but it ought to be. The opinions of experts, authorities and other important people can occasionally be unreliable for any number of reasons unrelated to the facts, so somebody needs to tell the emperor when he’s naked. In 1969 I was a physics student telling a chemistry researcher how to do his job better, so perhaps his agenda was just to put me in my place. Lord Charwell did not like Duncan Sandys, so maybe his agenda was much the same. Basing one’s science on personal prejudice or mental inertia is a slippery slope, but people do it. When expert opinions fail, amateur opinions matter, and science fiction magazines are a great showcase for amateur opinions.
Sean McMullen lives in Melbourne. He has had a career in scientific computing, including three years administering a satellite-tracking computer for the Weather Bureau. He has won several awards for his fiction, and been a Hugo and BSFA nominee. His most recent stories appeared in Lightspeed, Asimov’s Magazine, Interzone and various anthologies. This is his eleventh story in Analog, and he has won the reader’s Analytical Laboratory twice. Online, he is at www.seanmcmullen.net.au.
Excellent essay , thank you!