S.K. Slate has been a physicist for many years, a career that has taken her from turning screws while dangling above the fragile surface of a 13-foot mirror (one which cost the taxpayers millions of dollars), to performing experiments a hair’s-breadth above absolute zero temperature, to using the world’s biggest laser to blow things up.
She loves writing (and reading) novels that leave the reader fascinated, immersed, and having learned something new. When not writing or science-ing, she can be found running, gardening, playing with a pit bull, or drinking a dark beer in Austin, TX.
Quantum Mechanics in Science Fiction: Why am I so Mad?
by S.K. Slate
Imagine the following situation: Dr. Oz decides to write a medical thriller. After completing three-quarters of the book, with his protagonist terminally ill, the doctor has no idea how to give the book the happy ending his agent demands. He drags his fingers through his impossibly-thick hair a few times, sighs, and then it comes to him: why not simply alter medical reality? He begins typing furiously. His brow furrows handsomely in concentration. The hero of the story cures his stage-four thyroid cancer by licking lead paint sprinkled with turmeric and a squeeze of lime. The manuscript is complete.
It leaps to the top of all the best-seller lists. Dr. Oz buys a third yacht to sail while his other two yachts are being detailed. Incidence of lead poisoning among cancer patients increases by a factor of one thousand.
Pretty terrible, right? Downright irresponsible? But it’s only fiction. It says so right there in the disclaimer statement on the copyright page, plain as the smudges of paint dust on your face. Why is it the author’s responsibility if the less-than-skeptical among us apply information from a novel in the real world?
It’s an unavoidable fact that the printed page (or screen) carries subliminal authority with many readers. It’s a little like hearing your horoscope read by someone with an English accent; no matter your beliefs, it starts to sound plausible.
While it might not have the direct, life-and-death impact of the example above, the use of quantum mechanics as a hollow plot device is bad for the world. It plays off, and confirms, existing misconceptions. Many people have a vague idea that “quantum consciousness” is a serious scientific concept that they just aren’t smart enough to understand. They’ve heard Deepak Chopra’s poetic misuse of scientific jargon as hope machine. They’ve seen Michio Kaku on television, spewing whatever nonsense will sell his latest book. So, when an author throws in a few words like “wave function” or “superposition” or “nonlocality”, and then mixes in some mystical mumbo-jumbo, some will assume he’s done his research and is presenting a theoretically plausible mechanism.
Why does this matter? While quantum science has had an unquestionably huge impact, being the fundamental to technologies including Magnetic Resonance Imaging, lasers, and transistors, despite being discovered only a hundred years ago (or thereabouts), some might say that many of these novels are just written for fun. They’re a bit of escapism while in the waiting room at the doctor’s office or unwinding after work. Who cares if they’re misleading? After all, only a miniscule fraction of readers will ever do any work in the field, and those few probably already know better.
It’s also true that only a small subset of third-graders will ever use advanced math, but when a young child gets the unstated message from an under-educated and over-worked teacher that math is hard, scary, and best avoided unless one is a genius, it can impact his life choices in many subtle ways. Quantum mechanics (or substitute here relativity, field theory, and so on) is not an esoteric field that requires a top 0.01% IQ or a decade in an ivory-tower monastery to explore. It is a science that thousands of people, some brighter than others, use every day to make predictions about experiments. Anyone with sufficient motivation can learn about it, just an interested person can learn about chemistry, or fly fishing, or jiu jitsu.
The point is not simply to exclude hard science from non-fiction, not at all. If no one ever wrote a story involving a subject that they hadn’t absolutely mastered, there would be very few novels and even less variety among them. That said, why not do some research? You wouldn’t write a novel set in sixth-century India, or populated entirely by pig farmers, without doing a lot of research, right? There are reliable sources of information suited to non-scientists, though they can be hard to find among the nonsense. Writing a story that involves particle physics (and more conscientious than Dan Brown)? Check out “Deep Down Things” by Bruce Schumm. Does your novel need a time-travel mechanism involving black holes? Take a few days and read through “Black Holes and Time Warps” by Kip Thorne. Whatever the topic, a polite email to a subject matter expert can lead to credible reference materials, or even an interview. Who knows, maybe all this research will light a creative fuse that will lead to a brilliant idea for your next book.
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** THRUM is available NOW on Amazon Kindle! **
About the Book:
Watching the fireball which is all that remains of a hospital filled with hundreds of Chinese civilians, U.S. Air Force pilot David Weaver realizes with horror that his own missile caused the carnage.
THRUM is the first in a series of science fiction thrillers. The story is set in 2025, when the United States and its allies are at war with China. An epidemic of mass suicides strikes different cities each winter; the cause is a tragic mystery.
David and his young son must embark on a journey that will take them across the globe, uncovering many shocking and dangerous twists, if they hope to solve the puzzle and prevent more gruesome deaths before time runs out.