This morning a comment was left by Dr. Chris Lintott, astrophysicist. ASTROPHYSICIST. Oh, I am squirming with delight right now. And seriously, if that isn’t awesome enough, he co-wrote the book Bang! The Complete History of the Universe with Brian May – yes, THE LEAD GUITARIST OF QUEEN, WHO IS ALSO AN ASTROPHYSICIST. Buckaroo Bonzai naysayers can stuff it!
In February of this year I wrote an offhand snippet about my adoration of the science fiction movie Sunshine that included a few one-liners aimed at Dr. Lintott. He had been consulted as an astronomer to comment on the movie, and I used his quotes in my own post.
Today Halcyon wrote a response to Dr. Lintott that I wanted to publish it here as a front-page post rather than a comment (both due to its length and my continuing interest in the subject). I am thankful that Dr. Lintott felt comfortable responding to my previous post here at GalacticMu, and I hope that he forgives us for responding on our own turf like this.
(For ease of reading, I will reprint Chris Lintott’s comment here before Halcyon’s)
“I was asked to comment as an astronomer; to an astronomer, it’s hard not to notice that the science is, well, ‘complete rubbish’. That’s different from saying I didn’t enjoy the movie (which I did), but it does matter. The emotional impact of the film came partly from the fact that we believe this is our world we’re watching – otherwise why does the shot at the end of the Sydney Opera House under snow have such an impact? To me, that’s completely undermined by the fact that physics appears to work differently in the sunshine universe.”
Dr. Lintott, it is truly an honor. Thank you for stopping by our humble blogship.
I’m sad to say you seem to be arguing around the point of Captain Sunday’s post. There is a larger context here, which is explored thoroughly in a newer post. Here’s the gist: our community, the science fiction community, has taken an ugly turn toward realism… mundane fiction, as Sunday calls it. Part of the reason for this shift is that scifi authors have suddenly become quite concerned with what real scientists think of their work. Plausibility is running roughshod over imagination.
Science fiction, as Sunday points out, has never been about empirical science; it has always been about fictional science. The goal of SF is not to illustrate what is real, but to ask “What if?”
Many of SF’s greatest works completely ignore one or more fundamental laws of physics. Take “Fantastic Voyage” for example. The physics are preposterous. That’s a given, part of the contract Asimov makes with the reader at the beginning of the book. Everyone knows it’s impossible to shrink a human being down to the size of a blood vessel, but what if you could shrink a human down to the size of a blood vessel? How cool would that be? How many future scientists and doctors were inspired by that book (and the movie)? And what do you want to bet that Fantastic Voyage was the inspiration (directly or indirectly) behind today’s endoscopes? How about the camera-pill?
Scientific discoveries (and theories) inspire science fiction. Likewise, SF can and has inspired scientists. This reciprocity of inspiration is healthy. But it is lost when scientists take fiction too seriously and when authors (and auteurs) take scientists too seriously.
When SF creators become too concerned with how (as in: “how does this spaceship have artificial gravity”), they wind up sacrificing the what-if. SF becomes devoid of entertainment and inspiration, as dry as a scientific journal. A little suspension-of-disbelief is a small price to pay for a movie as beautiful as Sunshine.
Besides which, suspension-of-disbelief is good for you. It’s a healthy part of a scientist’s diet. Because almost everything you know to be scientifically valid would have been considered complete rubbish by scientists like yourself 100 years ago. And every new theory starts with someone suspending his or her disbelief about how our world works.
Always here to help,
Chris Lintott’s personal blog.
The official Bang! The Complete History of the Universe website.