I had been mulling over making a post on this topic when I saw this story in my Facebook newsfeed. A new galaxy, tiny and dim, has been discovered orbiting our own. That was a fascinating piece of news, and it confirmed my intention to write about the topic of space. More specifically, I want to discuss how the structure or layout of space seems to be widely misunderstood, even by some writers of science fiction. In this regard, this post is a sort of follow up to this one and this one. Thus, let us now boldly go into space and see what we’ll find there!
Since October 4th, 1957, with the launching of the Soviet satellite Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite to be sent by humans into Earth orbit, we have lived in the Space Age. Press coverage of space and space travel seemed wall-to-wall throughout the 1960’s and into the early 70’s. Space figured largely in pop culture, too, with the 60’s giving us Star Trek and the monumental 2001: A Space Odyssey. With time, the allure wore thin and the extraordinary became humdrum. Still, over sixty years later, we are more deeply connected to the inventions of the space program than ever before. Cell phone signals, Internet transmissions, and GPS all depend on satellites to function. Many of us get satellite TV as a matter of course. There has even been a resurgence of interest in space in both pop culture and reality. In the former, the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises, after periods of dormancy, have re-started. In the latter, Elon Musk is making plans for manned travel to Mars, while various government sources have spoken of returning to the moon and of founding a military “space force”.
Given all this, one would assume a certain amount of science literacy regarding space. Certainly in the beginning of the Space Age, there was a strong push towards what we’d now call STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education, out of fear of the head start of the Soviet Union in space. With space more integrated into our lives than ever, a permanent international space station in orbit, and the aforementioned space exploration plans, it would seem more imperative than ever that we have a good grasp of science and terminology of space. Most particularly, one would expect such science literacy from the writers of science fiction, which is perhaps the most characteristic genre of our age. Alas, that seems to be far from the case. Thus, along the lines of previous posts of mine which detail areas in which sf writers often fall short, I want in this post to look at some of the basics of space.
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.