This is a follow-up of sorts to my recent post on aliens, robots, and perpetual motion. There, I rather harshly criticized the tendency of many science fiction (henceforth SF) writers to portray robots, androids, and sometimes aliens as being capable of functioning with no energy inputs of any kind. It gets a bit irritating for those of us who are scientifically inclined, and it would be nice, once in a while, to see someone actually address the issue—having a robot being charged, for example.
Despite this, I have still enjoyed many books, movies, and TV series with such perpetual-motion robots. I watched Star Trek: The Next Generation throughout its run, despite the fact that Data never once was shown being charged. I also have read all the robot stories of the granddaddy of robot stories, Isaac Asimov. Even he, to the best of my knowledge, never explained how robots are powered (I am open to correction on this if anyone has any references). Certainly, Asimov knew better. The thing is that, as he himself pointed out, the appeal of robots in fiction is not mainly about how they work, but our fascination with human-like beings we ourselves have created. It is the mixed fascination and fear, expressed as far back as Frankenstein—fascination that we ourselves become like God; fear that our creations will rise up against us. The very play that gave us the word “robot”, R.U.R. (an abbreviation for “Rossum’s Universal Robots”), by Karel Čapek, expresses this fear explicitly—the robots rise up and overthrow mankind.
The point is that sometimes SF gives us potent themes that are more important than details that get the science exactly right. This leads to the topic I want to talk about here: What should one expect from good SF in terms of scientific accuracy? That is a long-debated topic, and I make no claims to come to a definitive conclusion here; but I do want to look at some of the things that work for me, personally, at least.
About three years ago I read an SF (science fiction) novel in which one of the protagonists suspects that the other is either an alien or a robot (or perhaps a bit of both, and thus in effect a cyborg, though that term was never used). I enjoyed the novel, actually, but I noticed a trope that I’ve encountered before in SF. The first tip-off about the possibly non-human nature of the second protagonist is when she is observed not breathing. In a sequel novel, it is made explicit that the second protagonist is indeed a technologically-augmented alien (and thus, as noted, a cyborg) and that she does not need to breathe, eat, or sleep, although she chooses to do all three in order to blend in to human society, and also because she’s developed a liking for those actions. Additionally, I should point out, she doesn’t need to go the bathroom, either. Yes, the second novel went there…. I still liked it, though, which may say something about me.
Robots (and their variant, androids) don’t need to breathe, eat, or sleep, either, though some can eat. It is made explicit in Star Trek: The Next Generation that Data, the resident android, is capable of eating and drinking, though he doesn’t need to. In fact, one humorous vignette in the first TNG movie, Generations, is this:
In the process of testing out his emotion chip, Data drinks the liquor that Guinan offers him. He hates it, and orders another–but the point is that he is indeed capable of drinking it in the first place.
Another thing about robots is that they are immortal and seem never to need repair or recharging. In the TNG two-part episode “Time’s Arrow”, the crew find Data’s head in an archeological dig in a cave in San Francisco. It has apparently been there since the 19th Century–thus nearly half a millennium. Later in the show, Data’s head is blown off, and his body is recovered. His “future” head is reattached, and it works perfectly, while his “past” head is left in San Francisco, to be found in the 24th Century.
Similarly, in the Stephen Spielberg movie A. I. Artificial Intelligence, the boy android David spends two thousand years underwater, awaiting the granting of his wish by the Blue Fairy (you’ll have to see the movie if you want an explanation of the plot point!), until the future Mecha (sapient robots that have replaced the now-extinct human race) rescue him and restore him to the surface. He is after two millennia fully functional. In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, Marvin the Paranoid Android is functional after 576,000,003,579 years (he counted!) in the radio series, and “thirty-seven times older than the Universe itself” in So Long and Thanks for All the Fish, though there it is noted that he has had ongoing repairs.
So what am I getting at with all this? Read on!
I think that with all the emphasis on achievement, careers and competitiveness, science education has become — with notable bright spots to be sure — a joyless, alienating and frustrating experience for millions and millions of kids. There are those science-fair-winner types and then there’s the rest of the class, not grooving on the material and hence, they find out, doomed to mediocre futures. Seems like ambivalence and hostility aren’t such surprising responses to such a message. … I think things might go better if the narrative of our scientific understandings of nature — what some are calling “Big History” — were told early and often, capturing the interest and imagination of students from a young age. They might then be eager to learn the problem-solving, evidence-based process of scientific inquiry that has led to these understandings.
–Ursula Goodenough, “It’s Time For A New Narrative; It’s Time For ‘Big History'”, in 13.7: Cosmos & Culture (10 February 2011); courtesy of Wikiquote
My 2000th blog post went up on 15 December. Lots of things were going on, including taking care of a sick child, so I did nothing special for that occasion. I have had in mind a post that I’ve wanted to do for some time, and since I didn’t do anything marking post 2000, I’ll make the post now as post 2020. I used to like the old cartoon Sealab 2020 way back when, so that’s an interesting synch, anyway. What the heck.
I had never thought to get into blogging. Being of the tail end of the Baby Boom generation, I was well into my adulthood before the Internet started to become the phenomenon it is now. I had had some experience with intranet BB’s and such in college, but not that much. Even though I was a math major, at my university we still were doing things mostly the old fashioned way. It wasn’t until the mid 90’s that I got an email address (long since defunct), and in the late 90’s that I started spending lots of time in cyberspace.
Cum ergo audimus, Deum omnia facere, nil aliud debemus intelligere, quam Deum in omnibus esse, hoc est, essentiam omnium subsistere.
When we are told that God is the maker of all things, we are simply to understand that God is in all things – that He is the substantial essence of all things.
–John Scotus Eriugena, De Divisione Naturae, Bk. 1, ch. 72; translation from Hugh Fraser Stewart Boethius: An Essay (London: William Blackwood, 1891) p. 255; courtesy of Wikiquote.
A cultural inheritance may be acquired between dusk and dawn, and many have been so acquired. But the new “culture” was an inheritance of darkness, wherein “simpleton” meant the same thing as “citizen” meant the same thing as “slave.” The monks waited. It mattered not at all to them that the knowledge they saved was useless, that much of it was not really knowledge now… empty of content, its subject matter long since gone. Still, such knowledge had a symbolic structure that was peculiar to itself, and at least the symbol-interplay could be observed. To observe the way a knowledge-system is knit together is to learn at least a minimum knowledge-of-knowledge, until someday — someday, or some century — an Integrator would come, and things would be fitted together again. So time mattered not at all. The Memorabilia was there, and it was given to them by duty to preserve, and preserve it they would if the darkness in the world lasted ten more centuries, or even ten thousand years…
–Walter M. Miller, Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz; courtesy of Wikiquote
Miller’s magnum opus, one of the masterpieces of 20th Century science fiction. I’ll be putting up a post on it in the near future.