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:

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.

You Can't Do That

But first let's have a word from Simon Jester. In a recent thread on entitled Why do most wannabe SF writers reject science? he had this to say:

I suspect that most of these wannabe writers are getting their first introduction to 'putting the science in science fiction' in the format "you can't do that."

You can't have a planet-city because of heat pollution, you can't have an FTL communication system because it creates causality loops, and so on.

It's pretty depressing when every cool idea you ever have is getting shot full of holes, especially by someone who talks down to you. At some point, the natural reaction is to say "F--- it, I'm never going to get anything done if I keep listening to this guy drone on about all the things I can't do!"

Science and fiction aren't the only place where this happens. People can only juggle a limited number of important points in their head at a time; if you pile enough rules and confounding variables on them they start rejecting some of them simply as a defense mechanism.

So I think a lot of them are rejecting science because of a marketing failure; science is presented to them as a list of things they can't do. And the list is so long that they can't possibly remember all the rules, which makes it even more off-putting.

Talk to people about what they can do, or suggest what they should do, and they'll be less inclined to rebel against your advice than if you tell them they're wrong and dumb.

Most people prefer to be left with some ideas that are at least as interesting as the ideas that get shot down by the power of SCIENCE!, because otherwise they come away from the exchange of ideas poorer rather than richer.

Simon Jester

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.

Thus I Refute Thee

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.

Among the ranks of Star Trek fandom, there seem to be a lot of people 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. I've gotten dozens of E-mail messages such as the following:

"You shouldn't discount the opinions of people just because they have no background. I've done a lot of independent reading, including all of the Stephen Hawking books, the Feynman books, and many other books on advanced particle physics and quantum mechanics. I dare say I probably have better knowledge of these subjects than you do, so you should watch your mouth before you go putting down my knowledge."

This argument has four major weaknesses, as I see them:

1. Strawman attack: It's a strawman attack because I don't automatically ignore everything that comes from untrained people. If a layperson makes an argument which is not scientifically invalid, I'm perfectly willing to listen. But if a layperson makes claims about science which I know to be incorrect, I will tell him.

2. How hard did he really work? What sounds more difficult? Reading some science books in your spare time, or studying science or engineering for 5 days a week, every week, for years? What's more difficult? Reading a handful of books for personal enlightenment, or reading textbooks and papers because you have to take grueling three hour long exams and submit a series of fifty page laboratory reports? What's more difficult? Skipping over the boring parts and jumping right to conclusions or abstracts, or knowing that the boring parts are the parts on which you will be tested? I think it's rather arrogant of these people to believe that their intelligence is so immense that they can skim through a handful of books and instantly gain the equivalent of many years of education.

3. Trying to run before you learn to walk: Comprehension of advanced scientific concepts requires comprehension of the basics. People without a grasp of the basics (and no, high school does not give you a grasp of the basics) tend to misinterpret complex material. The result of this ignorance is that they can read "The Physics of Star Trek" and conclude that Treknology is realistic, or they can read "A Matter of Time" and conclude that conservation of energy has been rendered obsolete.

4. Proof: When someone gets a university degree, there is a public record to prove that he has done the work that he claims to have done. But what about our "independent study" oppponent? How do we know he's telling the truth about all of that hard work he claims to have done? How do we know his idea of "research" isn't just casual web-surfing and bookstore browsing? When someone gets a university degree, there is a public record to prove that not only did he do the work, but he was tested and found competent. But what about our "independent study" opponent? How do we know that he understood any of what he was reading? No one forced him to write reports, submit theses, perform experiments, or take exams, did they?

I'm not trying to claim that everything I say must be correct simply because I have a degree. However, I have studied certain subjects at length, in a university environment where my comprehension of the material was tested. Therefore, if I make a statement about scientific or engineering concepts which were covered in my education, it is made on the basis of the fact that I studied those subjects at length, in much greater detail than one who has merely read a handful of science books (especially when those books are the type that contain no equations).

Michael Wong

The man who goes by the internet name of "Comic" had these words of wisdom:

So you know, university Physics is essentially three years of this discussion among like-minded enthusiasts.

Done with supercomputers, access to the textbook collections of five continents and thirty languages.

On four hours sleep a night.

With no sex.

You're not going to find the loophole these guys missed.


He's right.

Noted SF reviewer James Nicoll had this to say:

The facts are wrong

Gene Ward Smith asks what looks like a reasonable question on rec.arts.sf.written

The mass-luminosity relationship for main-sequence stars was known [during] all of the Golden Age, and hence it was [known] that all of those sfnal Rigellians and Denebians were nonsensical, Was this simply being ignored as so much was ignored, or had the news not reached most sci-fi authors?

The actual answer is probably "a bit of both". Even today it is easy to find an SF author who apparently has no idea about the lifespans of high mass stars - Eric Brown comes to mind - but as someone points out, at least one TV show recommended using named stars in episodes and named stars are almost always high mass/short life stars.

One subthread rapidly turns into "Well, maybe the mass-luminousity relationship is wrong!" argument, which nicely encapsulates something in SF that I will call the SFnal Lysenkoist Tendency: when actual, tested science contradicts some detail in an SF story, attack the science.

James Nicoll

In the past, also, war was one of the main instruments by which human societies were kept in touch with physical reality.

In philosophy, or religion, or ethics, or politics, two and two might make five, but when one was designing a gun or an aeroplane they had to make four.

George Orwell, 1984

Dunning-Kruger effect

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".

The Dunning-Kruger effect describes a cognitive bias in which people perform poorly on a task, but lack the meta-cognitive capacity to properly evaluate their performance. As a result, such people remain unaware of their incompetence and accordingly fail to take any self-improvement measures that might rid them of their incompetence.

Dunning and Kruger often refer to a "double curse" when interpreting their findings: People fail to grasp their own incompetence, precisely because they are so incompetent. And since, overcoming their incompetence would first require the ability to distinguish competence form incompetence people get stuck in a vicious cycle.

"The skills needed to produce logically sound arguments, for instance, are the same skills that are necessary to recognize when a logically sound argument has been made. Thus, if people lack the skills to produce correct answers, they are also cursed with an inability to know when their answers, or anyone else's, are right or wrong. They cannot recognize their responses as mistaken, or other people's responses as superior to their own."

Limiting The Damage

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:

The important point is to keep the fracture under control. Hack writers will assume that "if we have to break a few theories of physics for FTL, why not just throw all the theories out the window?"

Don't give in. Omitting physics will degrade your setting to a pathetic lack of believability worse than an average Space Ghost cartoon.

Ultimately, the goal in writing good fiction isn't "accuracy", it's believability. The goal is to take the more fantastical elements and give them a sense of verisimilitude. For science fiction, scientific accuracy in anything not hand waved for the good of the story is a good start. If you want to preserve the sense of being real, you have to diverge as little as possible in your hand waving.

For the other, while (this) website is mainly a resource for novelists, I know many people online who employ it as a useful guide for roleplaying games, board games, and just plain intellectual debate.

Throwing out the laws of physics is going to screw up the setting the story occurs in, whether novel, fanfic, game, or thought experiment. and the setting being screwed up is going to be the thing that drags the story down into a farce.

Mark Temple

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.

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 ones 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 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.

The Reverend Thomas Doylen speared Keg Johnson with a fishy glance and thundered: "A plague on both your houses!"

Johnson grinned unmercifully. "You didn't get that one out of the Bible," he said.

"But it is none the less true," came the booming reply.

"So what? Mind telling me what I'm doomed to eternal damnation for?"

"Sacrilege and blasphemy," exploded Doylen. "I came to plead with you. I wanted to bring you into the fold -- to show you the error of your sinful way. And what do I find? I find, guarding the city, a massive facade of mother-of-pearl and platinum. Solid gold bars on gates which swing wide at the approach. A bearded man in a white cloak recording those who enter. Once inside--"

"You find a broad street paved with gold. Diamonds in profusion stud the street for traction, since gold is somewhat slippery as a pavement. The sidewalks are pure silver and the street-stop lights are composed of green emeralds, red rubies, and amber amethysts. They got sort of practical at that point, Reverend. Oh, I also see that you have taken your sample."

Doylen looked down at the brick. It was the size of a housebrick -- but of pure gold. Stamped in the top surface were the words: "99.99% pure gold. A souvenir of Fabriville."

"What means all this?" stormed the Reverend, waving the brick.

"My very good friend, it is intended to prove only one thing. Nothing -- absolutely nothing -- is worth anything. The psychological impact of the pearly gate and the street of gold tends to strike home the fact that here in Fabriville nothing of material substance is of value. Service, which cannot be duplicated, is the medium of exchange in Fabriville -- have you anything to offer, Reverend?"

"The Lord saith: 'Six days shalt thou labor--' You have destroyed that law, Johnson."

"That"s no law. That"s an admonition not to overdo your labor. He didn't want us laboring seven days per. If He were running things under the present set-up, He"d be tickled pink to see people taking it easy five days per week, believe me."


"Is it? Am I being sacrilegious to believe that He has a sense of humor and a load more common sense than you and I?"

"To speak familiarly--"

"If I"ve offended Him, let Him strike me where I stand," smiled Keg.

"He is far too busy to hear the voice of an agnostic."

"Then He is far too busy to have heard that I mentioned Him in familiar terms. What is your point, Reverend? What do you want?"

"A return to religion."

"Good. Start it."

"People will not come to church. They are too busy satiating themselves with the worldly goods and luxuries."

"Your particular private sect, like a lot of others," said Keg Johnson harshly, "has been catering to the wishful-thinking of the have-nots. That used to be all right, I suppose. You gave them hope that in the next life they could live in peace, quiet, and also in luxury, believe it or not. You call down the troubles of hell upon the shoulders of the ambitious, and squall that it is impossible for a rich man to get ahead in Heaven. Nuts, Reverend. You've been getting your flock from people who have no chance to have the pleasure of fine homes and good friends. You've been promising them streets of gold, pearly gates, and the sound of angelic music. Fine. Now we have a condition where people can have those worldly goods luxuries right here on earth and without waiting for death to take them there. If you want to start a return to church movement, Reverend, you might start it by making your particular outfit one of the first to eschew all this palaver about streets of gold. Start being a spiritual organization, try to uplift the poor in spirit instead of telling them that they will be blessed because of it. Don't ever hope to keep your position by telling people that material made with a duplicator is a product of Hell, Devil & Co., because they won't believe it in the first place and there won't be anything manufactured by any other means in the second place."

"And yet you have all of Mars under your thumb," scolded the Reverend Thomas Doylen. "Of what value is it to gain the whole world and lose your soul?"

"My soul isn't in bad shape," responded Keg cheerfully. "I think I may have done as much toward lifting civilization out of the mire as you have."


"Careful, Reverend. It is you that I am criticizing now, not God. Just remember this, people are not going to fall for a bit of salving talk when they want nothing. You promise them anything you like in the way of fancy embroidery, but they'll have it at home now instead of getting it in Heaven. Give 'em something to hope for in the way of greater intelligence, or finer personality, or better friends, and they"ll eat it up.

"As far as having all of Mars under my thumb, someone had to straighten out this mess. I gave them the only thing I had worth giving. I gave them the product of my ability to organize; to operate under any conditions; and to serve them as I can. I'm no better off than I would have been to sit at home and watch the rest run wild. They"d have done it, too, if there hadn't been a strong hand on their shoulder. Where were you when the bottom fell out? Were you trying to help them or were you telling them that this was the result of their sinful way of life?"

The reverend flushed. "They wouldn't listen to my pleas that they forsake this devil's invention."

"Naturally not. Work with this thing and you'll come out all right. But you've got to revise your thinking as well as the rest of the world has had to revise theirs, or you'll fall by the wayside. Now good day, Reverend, and I wish you luck."

From "Pandora's Millions" by George O. Smith (1945).

Torch Missiles

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.

Ken Burnside: I personally wonder what the ability to throw away multi-hundred-megawatt fusion reactors as missile drives does for your economics. We have, however, danced that one around a few times as well. :)

Rick Robinson: And the band strikes up again! The short answer is that war is wasteful. The slightly longer answer is that if the missile kills an even more expensive enemy ship, it has paid for itself.

Ken Burnside: No, Rick — you miss the point.

If 200 megawatt fusion torches (your last figure of merit that I recall) can be considered expendable munitions, on ships that do cruises of several months (implying they have around 40 or more of them), that means that they're mildly mass produced. If these are ever sent on marginal intercepts, that implies you have more of them, and they're cheaper as well.

Which says things about the power usage of your economies that may do ugly things to trade.

For example, if they can make these things in job lots and throw them away...what ELSE do they make 200 MW (or 0.2 MW) disposable fusion power sources for? What does that do to your society?

From thread in sfconsim-l forum (5/15/2006)

"So What If I Broke Twelve Laws Of Physics? It's Only Science FICTION"

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.

"It's Just A Theory"

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?

A theory does not change into a scientific law with the accumulation of new or better evidence. A theory will always be a theory, a law will always be a law. A theory will never become a law, and a law never was a theory.

A scientific law is a description of an observed phenomenon. Kepler's Laws of Planetary Motion are a good example. Those laws describe the motions of planets. But they do not explain why they are that way. If all scientists ever did was to formulate scientific laws, then the universe would be very well- described, but still unexplained and very mysterious.

A theory is a scientific explanation of an observed phenomenon. Unlike laws, theories actually explain why things are the way they are. Theories are what science is for. If, then, a theory is a scientific explanation of a natural phenomena, ask yourself this: "What part of that definition excludes a theory from being a fact?" The answer is nothing! There is no reason a theory cannot be an actual fact as well.

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.

T-Shirt designs from Teach The Controversy.

"Doctor," said Sacha, "Can you give me your assurance that this injection won't harm my children?"

"Well, there's always some risk, Ms Melham. I do have a leaflet that explains everything..."

Sacha placed a finger on the table.

"I don't need a leaflet, Doctor. I simply want your assurance that this injection will cause Willow and Gregory no harm..."

Doctor James Ferriday gazed at the finger.

"As I said, there is always a small risk, but if you look, you will see that this is less than the probability of..."

Sacha held up her hand.

"Please, Doctor. Don't try and confuse the issue."

"I'm not trying to confuse the issue, I'm simply presenting you with the facts..."

Sacha rose to her feet.

"Well, I think I've heard enough. Willow, Gregory, put your coats back on. Thank you, Doctor, we'll be... what's that?"

James's screen flashed red and green.

"Oh dear," he said, reading the yellow writing scrolling across the monitor. "I think you should take a seat."

Sacha did so. Her son slipped his hand into hers.

"What's the matter, mummy?"

"Nothing, dear. Is everything OK, Doctor?"

"I'm sorry, Ms Melham..." he began, and then more kindly. "I'm sorry, Sacha, but you've crossed the threshold. I'm afraid to say, you're not allowed science any more."

"I'm what?"

"You're not allowed science any more," repeated James.

Sacha's lips moved as she tried to process what he had said.

"You're saying that you're refusing my children treatment?"

"No," said James. "Quite the opposite. You and your children will always be entitled to the best medical care. It's just that you, Sacha, no longer have a say in it. I shall administer the vaccination immediately."

"What?" Sacha sat up, eyes burning with indignation. "How dare you? I, and my husband, are the only ones who say how my family is run."

"Well, yes," said James. "But you no longer have a say in things where science is involved. You're not allowed science any more."

"I never heard anything so ridiculous! Who decided that?"

"The Universe."

"The Universe? Why should the Universe say I'm not allowed science any more?"

"Because you haven't paid science enough attention. You've had the opportunity to read the facts and the education to be able to analyse them, yet you have consistently chosen not to."

"The education?" exclaimed Sacha. "Hah! My science education was terrible. None of my teachers could explain anything properly."

"Really?" said James. "That would certainly be grounds for appeal..."

He pressed a couple of buttons. Tables of figures appeared on the screen.

"No," he said, shaking his head. "I'm sorry... it turns out that your teachers were all really rather excellent. You went to a very good public school, after all. If you look at your teachers' results you will see they added significant value to their pupils' attainment."

Sacha pouted.

"Well, they didn't like me."


He pressed a couple more buttons.

"What?" said Sacha, hearing his sharp intake of breath.

"Look at this," said James, scrolling down a long table. "Times and dates of occasions when you've proudly admitted to not being good at maths."

"What's the matter with that? I'm not."

"It's not the lack of ability, Sacha, it's the fact that you're proud of it. You'd never be proud of being illiterate. Why do you think your innumeracy is a cause for celebration?"

"Because... Well..."

"That's why you're not allowed science any more."

"This is outrageous!" snarled Sacha. "How can this happen?"

"Oh, that's easy," said James. "Magic."

"Magic?" said Sacha, her eyes suddenly shining. "You mean there's really such a thing?"

"Of course not. But I can't explain to you how it's really done because you're not allowed science any more."

Sacha fumbled for her handbag.

"I'm calling the BBC," she said. "I'm a producer there, you know. I'll report you."

"Report me to who you like," said James. "The story will never get out. All your cameras and microphones and things work on science."

Sacha gazed at him.

"Who gave you the right to control my life?"

"You've got it the wrong way round. You gave the right to control your life away. You're the one who chose to ignore the way the world works."

"Hah!" said Sacha. "The way the world works! Bloody scientists. You think the world is all numbers and machines and levers. You don't understand anything about the soul or spirit."

"Of course I do," said James. "I've been happily married for 20 years. I have two children that I love. I play the piano, I enjoy reading. It's just that I have additional ways of looking at things."

Sacha stood up.

"Willow, Gregory. We're going home," she glared at James. "That is if I'm still allowed to drive? You don't have something against women drivers as well do you, Doctor?"

"This is nothing to do with you being female, Ms Melham," said James, calmly. "This is purely about your attitude to science. Now, before you go, I'll administer the injection to the three of you."

"You will not! I will not allow it."

"I told you, you have no choice."

"Why? Because I disagree with you?"

For this first time, James's anger showed itself.

"No!" he snapped. "You don't get it! You're allowed to disagree with me, I want you to disagree with me! I'd love to engage in reasoned debate with you. But until you take the trouble to understand what you're talking about, you're not allowed science any more. Now, roll up your sleeve."

Sacha muttered something under her breath.

"What's in the injection?" said James. "You know, you start asking questions like that, you might get science back..."

"Maybe A Future Scientific Breakthrough Will Let Me Have My Way"

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.

By the late 1940s, no competent engineer or test pilot thought that there was anything mysterious (beyond the mysteries of complex aeronautical design itself) about the sound barrier.

M.S. Cramer (

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.

Correspondence Principle

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.

Regardless of the fact that some of it is dogma, we do possess an exceptionally accurate and rational explanation of electromagnetic phenomena today that meets the criterion stated by Lancelot Hogben, "A scientific explanation is one that is vindicated by practice." Radio transmitters transmit, and radio receivers receive. Lasers lase. Nuclear reactors react. Semi-conductors occasionally conduct. Tunnel diodes, LED's, SQUIDS, and other electromagnetic devices based on quantum mechanics do their thing repeatedly and reliably. So we're obviously doing something right! And we don't dare throw away the theoretical base on which these gadgets do indeed work. We can and should modify the theoretical base as necessary, but we can't throw it away. Any new theories of the universe must be compatible with the old ones or at least permit logical and rational modifications in order to shoe-horn the old theories into the new ones.

From "Faster Than Light" by G. Harry Stine (1980).

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.

What science does is take a heretofore unexplained phenomenon and tries to make it fit into the established knowledge base. There is no unexplained phenomenon that might result in violating thermodynamics - and if there WERE something that violated thermo, it would radically change the universe as we know it - for instance, stellar processes require thermodynamics, the entire model of cosmology is based off of known properties for thermodynamics. Your car runs on thermodynamic processes. And all of these things work out the same way, and derive from the same knowledge base.

If there IS a way to cheat thermodynamics, you're going to have ripple effects. The most obvious one is going to be perpetual motion machines. (Seriously - there's an entire industry of people trying to patent perpetual motion machines...)

If you have a perpetual motion machine, you've just utterly changed everything in a society, in a way more fundamental than electricity. In its most mundane form, cars never need more gas. The entire energy segment of the economy gets transformed into something that's weirder than we can possibly imagine. A lot of projects that don't get done now due to energy expenditures get done because energy is now too cheap to meter.

This is why I wince at the "Thermo will get engineered away!" claims - if you've engineered thermo away, you've likely engineered most of the reasons for armed conflict at all.

Likewise, as much as we want to have it proven otherwise, there's nothing out there yet that's even implied that Einstein's general relativity has a gap in the model that can be reasonably exploited. And most of the ways you can work the equations for relativity that theoretically allow FTL also allow things like time travel, and reversing causality, and things even weirder to contemplate.

However, to make an analogy... How would you react to a game that purported to be about, say, Marines and their tactics and utilizations that insisted that the best formation for them to attack in was walking on their hands, with their rifles clenched between their knees, shoulder to shoulder, in tight formations, through beaten zones for artillery strikes and into machine gun kill zones?

Would you accept it if I told you that this was the result of a heretofore unknown doctrinal innovation made at some point 600 years in the future?

Or, would you demand to know WHAT doctrinal innovation made this the best way to conduct an assault with Marines on the ground?

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.

I've bolded the particular remarks I feel contentious about. You'd just mentioned the correspondence principle, stating that any new theory would have to agree with the current theory in the classical limit. Mr. Burnside then presents his argument as if the things we take for granted would not work if a "new" thermodynamics was discovered.

I understand the argument he's trying to make, and it's entirely valid, but I believe the way its presented implies that these things happen "because thermodynamics is true", rather than the true situation, which is that these things do happen, so any valid theory of thermodynamics had better predict or allow that they do.

The first statement in particular seems a bit "off", because science does not try to fit the observations to the theory. It creates the theory to explain the observations.

As a burgeoning scientist myself, with four years of undergraduate study and three years of research work, as well as a deep interest in the history and practice of science, I guess I just had to be nitpicky about what seemed to me, at least, to be a slight confusion of expression here. I'm certainly not arguing against the overall message Mr. Burnside is trying to convey though.

Brock Greman

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