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A Physicist's Guide To Skepticism

1/12/2010. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts

Buy A Physicist’s Guide To Skepticism in the USA - or Buy A Physicist’s Guide To Skepticism in the UK

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A Physicist's Guide To Skepticism by Milton A. Rothman. pub: Prometheus Books, 1988. 247 page indexed small hardback. Price: $37.98 (US), GBP31.95 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-87975-440-2.

check out website: www.prometheusbooks.com

These days, a lot of people believe verbatim what they are told, often without question. A sceptical (or in the case of the American spelling in the book title, skeptical) mind is a questioning mind and being able to distinguish between real and fiction is kinda useful. Milton Rothman’s 1988 release ‘A Physicist’s Guide To Skepticism’ is another book to look at this problem. From an SF writer’s perspective, it’s important to know what is real before committing flights of fancy, mostly cos why invent if something is there already to be used? Rothman is also determined to show that a lot of what we use in SF as standard doesn’t really work. So if you can clear these cobwebs from your brain, it might enable fresh slants on a lot of subject and inject some fresh spice into Science Fiction stories.

The opening chapters give you a real crash course in physics although Rothman promises not to throw too much maths at the reader and indeed, he doesn’t. You do come away with a lot of knowledge of atomic theory which is always useful. If you want to get caught up in some real maths, wait until you get to the appendix and the problems with general relativity and what you can actually see at different distances. Rothman doesn’t dwell on how you can look out of porthole on a spaceship though.



It’s only when Rothman tries to match known theory to Science Fiction tropes that some problems begin to arise. From my side of the fence, if you’re going to go to exotic worlds or time travel, then you have to take certain liberties with current reality, providing it’s done in a credible way.

I don’t think any SF writer would disagree that there is a grey area between, say, normal real science and psionics. After all, premonition certainly defies conventional knowledge until you hit on neutrinos that are supposed to be so fast that they can go back in time. If a human psionic can perceive something akin to them or indeed the so-called ten other dimensions that String Theory says that is there, then surely this steps beyond the levels described in this book. I’m not entirely sure whether Rothman’s intent is to debunk or look for another means for such abilities to exist. After all, if extra-sensory perception in the real world isn’t a trick or faked, then all it really means is that science hasn’t addressed any scientific laws to it yet. However, even a sceptic could speculate that if something like psionics can happen, what mechanism is actually working if not the standard things. That is what SF writers actually do but they throw a story at it as well to give some entertainment as well as deep thought to the reader. The same could be said of telekinesis come to that although I accept Rothman diligently explains why it can’t happen under conventional conditions or with the science laws as we know them however, back when he wrote this book, String Theory wasn’t even being considered. If it turns out to be practical then a lot of ideas will have to be reviewed.

I like Rothman’s description of computers in that they don’t really care about the information they carry which is so true. Then again, it’s the software that might depending on what it is programmed to do with it.

His list of eleven things that aren’t correct and why is actually most illuminating and should be required reading. The observation that a UFO in Earth atmosphere can’t use the Earth’s magnetic field to keep it in the air because it’s too weak is valid but I’d wish he’d also addressed gravity and why it wouldn’t be possible for two objects not to necessarily fall towards each other. You’ll be happy to know it should be possible to create a force field by electrical repulsion one day.

Interestingly, Rothman does acknowledge that without Science Fiction that we might not have started the space race and that it shapes our creativity and problem-solving, so there is hope for us with this interest. However, should obeying only existing science laws be applied to Science Fiction?? It might limit the scope of stories but even when we modify something to make it possible, within the story, the restrictions that are re-defined are maintained throughout. Unlike fantasy, which changes anything at a whim, Science Fiction is much more of a discipline way of writing and has changed its perspective as new scientific discoveries are made.

As you can see from the points I’ve raised here, if nothing else this book has made me think, not to mention come up with an idea for a story, which is always a good sign. If you’re a writer then books like this are always useful because you can’t play with the rules of science unless you know what is possible from the start and find a different angle.

For the non-scientists who write SF, then you should come away with a better grasp of atomic theory and quantum mechanics, let alone what make some SF tropes act contrary with what we know.

GF Willmetts

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