We are about to take up some of the more speculative topics, like space combat and star travel. To make things work, we will have to bend, and perhaps even break some of the theories of physics. But you have to do it responsibly, remaining true to the spirit if not the letter of the laws of science. Otherwise your SF world will degenerate into a self-contradictory mass of putrid fantasy pathetically trying to cover up with scraps of ridiculous technobabble. There is some good reading on this topic at StarDestroyer dot net. In particular beware of pseudoscience.
There are a few areas where the problem crops up again and again. They are all where the theories of science are inconveniently preventing the writer from doing something they want, and the writer is getting petulant about it.
The most common ones are:
- "That meany Einstein and his relativity won't let me have my FTL drive!"
- "I'm going to have my stealth spacecraft if I have to murder the Second Law of Thermodynamics to get it!"
- "One-man space fighter ships are really really cool, shut up about them making no sense militarily, scientifically, or economically!"
While FTL travel is an excusable violation (you want it, the readers want it, all the other authors are doing it), the other two are more questionable.
Simon makes a very good point, one that I fret about since this entire website appears to be composed of "you can't do that." In my defense, I do have a few places where I suggest what you can do, and I try to explain matters instead of talking down to the reader.
Having said that, you will find me unsympathetic if the reason that you are upset with the science is because it is preventing you from recreating Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, or whatever other unscientific Hollywood media SF that you happen to be fixated on. If that is the case, you'd be better off avoiding this website entirely.
Irate SF fans will sometimes attempt to refute scientific theories they find inconvenient. While this is permitted for SF writers (as long as they don't make a habit of it and wash their hands afterwards) it is more worrisome with fans who think they can prove the Starship Enterprise's warp drive is possible in the real world. Their self-confidence is good, but they have about the same chance of success as a child in a soapbox derby car winning the Indy 500. It ain't gonna happen, and for the same reason. A dilettante with home-made gear cannot hope to compete with trained professionals with precision equipment. Such fans would do well to examine the The Alternative-Science Respectability Checklist.
From Stardestroyer.Net by Michael Wong.
The man who goes by the internet name of "Comic" had these words of wisdom:
According to Wikpedia, the Dunning-Kruger effect is "a cognitive bias in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their mistakes.". It goes on to say "Actual competence may weaken self-confidence, as competent individuals may falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding. David Dunning and Justin Kruger conclude, "the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others""
Rational Wiki translates this into English: "The Dunning-Kruger effect occurs when incompetent people not only fail to realise their incompetence, but consider themselves much more competent than everyone else. Basically, they're too stupid to know that they're stupid. If you have no doubts whatsoever about your brilliance, you could just be that damn good. On the other hand... The effect can also be summarised by the phrase "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing"."
This explains a lot of posts your are subjected to on various online forums from self-proclaimed experts.
The observation is not particularly new. In the 1930s Bertrand Russell said "The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.". In 1871 Charles Darwin said "ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge".
In some cases you have no choice but to violate a theory of physics. For instance, if you are going to have FTL travel, you are going to have to violate either relativity or causality; one of them has got to go.
Mark Temple said:
And try just to break one theory, not two or three.
Breaking the theory in question might make things a little too unlimited. It is often wise to create your own fake "theories" to rein things in. For instance, violating relativity in order to allow FTL travel can result in FTL travel with an infinite velocity. No transit time, click and you are instantly at Altair 6. How boring.
It would be better if you create a fake theory that restricts FTL speeds to some convenient multiple of the speed of light.
Finally, be aware that the more fundamental the theory is that you just broke, the more serious and the more numerous will be the unintended consequences.
Things have implications. This means every time one adds a new scientific law or gizmo to their SF universe, you have to examine it to ensure that it does not introduce unintended consequences. In the real world we have such examples as stiffer penalties for drunk driving leading to an explosion of hit-and-run accidents (as fear of the stiffer penalties cause drunk drivers to flee the accident), and how the introduction of the internet has lead to virtual extinction of magazines, newspapers, telephone books, and encyclopedias.
As a rule of thumb, the more fundamental the theory is that you just broke, the more serious and the more numerous will be the unintended consequences.
The classic science fiction example is the "Transporter" from Star Trek. When Gene Roddenberry was producing the original Star Trek, he did not have the special effects budget to land the Starship Enterprise on the planet du jour every episode. So he added the Transporter: a teleportation device that can send a landing party to or from a planet's surface in the twinkling of an eye. All the producers need is a cheap optical effect, and the actors are on the planet ready to get the episode rolling.
But the implication is that while on the planet, the instant a hideous creature/Klingon raiding party/other threatening event pops up, that same Transporter can whisk the landing party out of danger. There goes the dramatic tension right out the window. The only band-aid the producer could put on this gaping wound was to have some sort of malfunction put the Transporter out of action every single episode. This got to be pretty hard to swallow after it had happened five episodes in a row.
Another example of unintended consequences is Jon's Law for SF authors. If you the author make your standard spacecraft propulsion system powerful enough to reduce interplanetary travel times to a few weeks, you suddenly have to deal with the fact that any old tramp freighter spaceship can vaporize Texas.
There was what could have been an "unintended" consequence (but was actually intended) in Frank Herbert's "Committee of the Whole" (1965). A nasty Congressional committee orders an uppity ranch owner to testify. He does so, and on national TV describes how to easily construct in your home workshop a laser sidearm powerful enough to slice and dice an army tank using only materials commonly found in one's garage. The "unintended" consequence is that such a weapon would allow libertarian minded people to hold off entire army battalions, and there are quite a few garage workshops in the US. As it turns out, this was precisely the reason that the ranch owner testified on national TV, since he was libertarian enough to want to render the US government impotent. He made sure by mailing a few hundred copies of the blueprints to various places.
If you broke the Second Law of Thermodynamics in order to obtain stealth in space, a major unintended consequence is that you simultaneously have allowed perpetual motion machines of the first kind, infinite free energy from nowhere, and all the secondary unintended ripple effects. (Actually, as Andreas Marx points out, as long as you don't break the first law of thermodynamics, you only have a perpetual motion machine of the second kind. Not quite as bad, but still more than bad enough.)
In his essay Thought experiment SF author Charles Stross talks about the pitfalls of unintended consequences. He coined the term "Second Artist Effect": The first artist sees a landscape and paints what they see; the second artist sees the first artist’s work and paints that, instead of a real landscape. For example, the first novels in the new genre called "Steampunk" had backgrounds that were groundbreaking and innovative, but subsequent novels sort of copied the backgrounds of the first novels. SF authors who wanted to be innovative had to explore new backgrounds, which often meant adding new scientific laws or gizmos to their SF universe, which regretably lead them to falling headfirst into the pit of unintended consequences.
Mr. Stross gives an example of the sudden discovery of a method to communicate faster than light, in fact, instantaneously. What are the not so obvious consequences? Well, for starters, the probability of a manned landing on Mars just became far more remote. Teleoperative space probes like the Mars Spirit rover are a good argument for manned missions: operating with a half-hour time lag almost makes it not worth the effort. But an instantaneous communicator has no time-lag, so suddenly there is no need to go to the incredible expense of sending real live men.
Meanwhile, there will be a global stock market crash, since high-frequency trading strategies depend upon speed-of-light delays.
And then all forms of encryption will suddenly be broken. All encryption methods rely upon algorithms that are NP-hard to crack with a computer. But since instantaneous communication violates causality, this opens up interesting strategies that will allow cracking problems that are NP-hard. In one fell swoop, all the bank account data, secret government information, and military information will be readable.
In other words, this simple instant communicator destroyed the business cases for manned space fight while simultaneously causing bubbles and wars and depressions.
In the sphere of economics, there is the havoc created by the unintended consequences of the Star Trek Replicator.
The producers saw one problem right off the bat, and quickly handwaved a reason which prevented using a replicator to make multiple clones of a person. But they passed over the small matter of replicator technology irrevocably causing the collapse of the global economy. You would have spotted that right away, if you had read Ralph Williams's "Business as Usual, During Alterations" Murray Leinster's The Duplicators, or George O. Smith's "Pandora's Millions".
In "Pandora's Millions", the ivory tower engineers of Venus Equilateral invent a matter transmitter, and quickly figure out that the signal can be recorded. This makes it into a replicator. A businessman friend of theirs screams at them that they've just destroyed the economy of three worlds in one fell swoop.
The businessman says it is too late to suppress the invention, but if the engineers want to prevent it from being a complete and utter disaster, they had better go and invent some substance that cannot be replicated ASAP. Lacking that, there is no way to prevent either currency or cheques from being counterfeited. Counterfeits so good they cannot be distinguished from genuine money.
With a replicator, everybody can pave their driveway with gold bricks, eat caviar and filet mignon every day, and wallpaper every room in the house with Mona Lisas. Which basically means all these formerly expensive items are now worthless, that is, valueless in the sense of being free.
Of course, if your monetary units are based on gold or something physical, they are now valueless as well. As are any investments, savings, or retirement nest eggs made with such money.
Things will go downhill quite quickly, since a replicator can also produce more replicators.
Factories will close sending millions out of work. Who needs the goods manufactured by the factory when all you need is a replicator and a recording of the desired item? The stocks and bonds of the companies who own the factories will plummet in value.
About the only thing that will still have value will be services. A replicator will not help you if you need a cavity filled or an appendix removed. Some kind of barter system will replace a monetary economy. (Actually, the replicators still need electricity. In the story, to make the point, this is handwaved away by allowing the replicators to violate the law of conservation of energy and duplicate charged batteries.)
In Star Trek, I suppose the role of an un-replicatable material is filled by "gold-pressed Latinum". Left unexplained is what value was backing the poker chips used in all those poker games. I suppose they are for services. That appeared in the Firefly episode "Shindig", where the chips represented on-ship chores: garbage detail, washing dishes, septic vat, etc.
And don't forget the sociological effects.
Writers who want to make their interplanetary novels have reasonable science will equip their spacecraft with reasonable propulsion systems. Which unfortunately are very weak and undramatic. If the writer wants to push the envelope, they can equip their spacecraft with unreasonably strong propulsion systems. The jargon is "torchship".
And if an author wants far too much of a good thing, they can look at the missile weapons the warships are carrying, and replace the missile's reasonable propulsion systems with an unreasonably powerful one and have a "torch missile". This is the sort of missile you can fire at your opponent, and have the missile chase your opponent all over the entire solar system for the next year or so. Of course this means you are mounting on a little missile a multi-hundred-megawatt fusion reactor intended for an entire spacecraft, but that isn't against the law.
But as Ken Burnside points out, once again the law of unintended consequences rears its ugly head.
This silly opinion implies that the word "fiction" nullifies the word "science." Since it is "fiction", and fiction is by definition "not true", then we can make "not true" any and all science that gets in the way, right?
Hogwash. By the same logic, the term "detective fiction" gives the author license to totally ignore standard procedures and techniques used by detectives, the term "military fiction" allows the author to totally ignore military tactics and strategy, and the term "historical fiction" allows the author to totally ignore the relevant history.
Imagine a historical fiction novel where Napoleon at Waterloo defeated the knights of the Round Table by using the Enola Gay to drop an atom bomb. It's OK because it is "fiction", right?
This non-argument is the favorite of science fiction fans who like all the zipping spaceships and ray guns but who actually know practically nothing about real science. And who cannot be bothered to go learn.
In the presence of people who are indeed scientifically literate, such fans tend to get very defensive about their lack of knowledge. The non-argument is a feeble attempt at compensating for their shortcomings by attempting to forbid the others from using their knowledge.
Slightly more difficult to deal with, but still operating under a flawed concept are those fans with little or no technical background, who think that they can take a "shortcut" to advanced scientific knowledge by skipping over the usual years of hard work in university, and simply reading some books on quantum mechanics. It doesn't work that way.
This generally takes the form of "Well, Einstein's relativity is just a theory, not a fact/scientific law." However, such a statement only demonstrates that the speaker is either severely scientifically illiterate or an evil demagogue trying to pull a fast one.
The colloquial meaning of the term "theory" is the opposite of "fact", it is a guess, or hunch (what a scientist would call a "hypothesis"). But in Science, the meaning of the term "theory" is totally different. Theory and fact can be the same.
So if Einstein's relativity theory is "just a theory" in the same way that atomic theory is "just a theory", then you shouldn't mind sitting on top of this thermonuclear warhead while I sit in a bunker a few kilometers away pushing the detonator button, hmmmmmmm?
The common misconception is that if a budding young scientific theory gets quote "proven" unquote, it graduates and becomes a scientific law. As you see above, theories and laws are two different things. Even worse, it is impossible to prove a scientific theory.
This argument usually takes the form of "Well, they said that man would never break the sound barrier either, but they were wrong!".
That formation of the argument is doubly suspect, since if you do the research there does not appear to be any scientist on the record who actually stated that breaking the sound barrier was impossible. For one thing, bullets were breaking the sound barrier almost since the invention of gunpowder. Heck, whips have been doing it since the invention of whips. The "crack" of a whip is actually a the tip of the whip creating a tiny sonic boom.
But the core of the argument is that maybe some future scientific breakthrough will remove all those pesky scientific theories that are keeping the author from doing what they want.
First off, from the standpoint of probability, there is at least a 50% chance that any new scientific breakthrough will actually make it harder to do what you want. There was an amusing SF story by George R. R. Martin called "FTA" where scientists discovered how to enter hyperspace. They were initially jubilant, with visions of FTL starships and Nobel prizes dancing in their heads. Their hopes were quickly dashed when they found out that the speed of light in hyperspace was slower than in our universe.
But actually it is probably a better than 50% chance that a breakthrough will make matters worse. And this will still be a problem if you try to declare by authorial fiat that the breakthrough is indeed in your favor. Let me explain.
The general rule is what physicists call the correspondence principle or the Classical limit. This states that any new theory must give the same answers as the old theory where the old theory has been confirmed by experiment. Newton's laws and Einstein's Relativity give the same answers in ordinary conditions, they only give different answers in extreme conditions such as near the speed of light, refining the accuracy of the GPS system, or calculating the orbit of Mercury (none of which Newton could confirm by experiment).
Which means if you just state that in the year 2525 Professor XYZ came up with the "Take THAT, Einstein!" theory of FTL travel, you still have a problem. You have to explain how the TTE theory allows FTL flight while still giving the same answers that relativity theory did for all those experiments it confirmed. Experiments that were accurate to quite a few decimal points.
And since your desired breakthrough is functionally equivalent to breaking a theory of physics, you also have the problem of unintended consequences.
Ken Burnside had this to say. The topic was postulating some scientific breakthrough rendering null and void the Second Law of Thermodynamics and thus allowing stealth spacecraft in a proposed spacecraft combat game.
Brock Greman agrees with the main thrust of Mr. Burnside's argument, but point out that one or two of the fine details are slightly off. Keep in mind that Mr. Greman does agree with the argument's conclusions. The details in question are bolded above.
There are a lot of con-artists out there, trying to sell you on their dubious scientific theories. It is a mistake to let down your defenses just because said con-artist is promising you a warp-drive for your Starship Enterprise.
In his article about the infamous "EmDrive", Corey Powell wrote about consulting with Caltech physicist Sean Carroll about some questionable terminology contained in the EmDrive paper. Dr. Carroll agreed that there is no such thing as a "quantum vacuum virtual plasma", which should have been a tip-off right there. Powell goes on to say:
For an in-depth analysis of the crackpot phenomenon; run, do not walk, and read this article by Dr. Rhys Taylor. He goes on to say "I stand by my idea of a "Wegener's Law", whereby anyone comparing their idea to Wegener's would instantly lose the argument. Just because that one mad idea did turn out to be correct, doesn't mean yours is too. Yes, science got that one wrong for a while, but uncounted other mad ideas were proven to be exactly that."