What’s Behind the “Science” in Science Fiction? (Part 1)

You don’t have to be a scientist to enjoy science fiction. If you’re lucky, you may learn a few scientific facts painlessly while enjoying a good read, or at least that’s my goal as a science fiction author. But what exactly lies behind stories categorized as science fiction?

Science, of course, but it goes beyond that because it often addresses the impact of technology on society. Science alone is a real snoozer if you don’t combine it with how it affects your life. Unless you happen to be a rocket scientist, however, much of the actual science in science fiction stories often gets lost in the plot. But guess what? Then you’re missing a lot of the fun, too. If you’re someone who thinks that science is really cool stuff, you may want to know more about the actual science behind such things as time travel, teleportation, other dimensions and telepathy. But here’s the bad news. You needed to learn to crawl before you could walk or run and know the alphabet before you could read, so before you can get to the good stuff you need to know the basics.

In the Beginning there was Classical Physics

Originally physics only dealt with, big surprise, physical phenomena. It related to mass, motion and time, things which were apparent in the world around us. Math was used to create formulae to calculate their relationship to one another. Using algebra, if you knew two of the quantities you could figure out the third. A common example is D=vt (Distance equals velocity times elapsed time) which when rearranged become v = D/t. If that sounds vaguely familiar maybe it’s because in a more familiar form, velocity = miles/hour or miles per hour.

Classical physics derived from D=vt. To do so gets into higher math called calculus which is an interesting subject in and of itself. It was invented simultaneously way back in the 17th century by Isaac Newton and Gottfried Liebniz in order to solve more complicated problems such as orbital dynamics. More on that some other time. For now just file away the notion that the world of classical physics mostly involves the movement of objects in your everyday world such as how long it takes to get to work or school, how much momentum a baseball has when hit by a star player or how much energy there is in a garbage truck moving at 65 mph.

For a long time scientists thought that these basic formulae could explain everything in the universe. After all, they do a pretty good job of dealing with everyday life. They also thought that if you took everything down to the most fundamental level you could predict anything that might happen in the future. This was called determinism and in many ways reinforced the concept of fate and denied the idea of free will. This was the philosophy of the day, as noted in the movie “A Knight’s Tale,” where it was pointed out that it was extremely difficult if not impossible to “change your stars.”  You were dealt a certain hand in life that you had to play.  Period.

As is often the case, however, when an individual or group of like-minded people think they know everything there is to know, they eventually find out otherwise. Indeed, life isn’t that simple and toward the end of the 1800s and early 1900s new discoveries showed that indeed they were flat-out wrong. Not just a little wrong, but really wrong. For starters, the elements definitely did not consist of air, water, earth and fire.

More on that next time when we get into atomic theory. Stay tuned.

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