Thursday, January 15, 2009

Why I May Never Be Able to Write Hard Sci/Fi

Thanks to Jay Lake for alerting me to this article: Our World May be a Giant Hologram in New Scientist. I'm not sure whether that's alarming news, good news, or just kinda weird. And I do mean I'm really not sure because... well, because I can't understand a word of what they're talking about. The article is written in English. No one word confounds me. But reading it the beginning of each sentence is draining out of my mind by the time I get to the end of it. Nothing sticks.

Like, can you follow this?

Crucially, this provides a deep physical insight: the 3D information about a precursor star can be completely encoded in the 2D horizon of the subsequent black hole - not unlike the 3D image of an object being encoded in a 2D hologram. Susskind and 't Hooft extended the insight to the universe as a whole on the basis that the cosmos has a horizon too - the boundary from beyond which light has not had time to reach us in the 13.7-billion-year lifespan of the universe...


The holographic principle radically changes our picture of space-time. Theoretical physicists have long believed that quantum effects will cause space-time to convulse wildly on the tiniest scales. At this magnification, the fabric of space-time becomes grainy and is ultimately made of tiny units rather like pixels, but a hundred billion billion times smaller than a proton. This distance is known as the Planck length, a mere 10-35 metres. The Planck length is far beyond the reach of any conceivable experiment, so nobody dared dream that the graininess of space-time might be discernable...

Space-time convulsing wildly? A hundred billion billion times smaller than anything? The graininess of space-time? Huh? I don't know... It's beyond me, and it's the awareness that such things are beyond me that make me doubt I'll ever be comfortable getting in a space ship. As much as I love reading sci/fi, it may be forever outside my ken to write it.

Strap me on a flying lizard instead...

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Blogger Unknown said...

Thats easily the most confusing paragraph i've ever read in my life. Thanks for the confusion David. And I thought my day was going so well.

4:32 PM  
Blogger Cheryl said...

Hmm, yeah. I think I see what they are getting at.

In any case it is way easier than trying to understand philosophers, or lawyers.

4:47 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...


Sorry. Be warned: it gets more confusing the more times you read it. For me, at least.


I'd take philosophers or lawyers any day... At least, with them I know when I disagree and why and feel some confidence saying so. With this type of theoretical physics etc I feel like I'm treading water in Jello, while trying to solve a Rubik's cube, while being bombarded by tax code... or, what may be only the holographic memory of tax code... Or something like that.

Honestly, it feels like my brain just isn't wired to make sense of such stuff.

Strangely, I'm okay with that...

6:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll give it a try - I was okay with Hawking's Brief History until I hit Superstring Theory - but just-about caught it on my second re-read. Sounds interesting, though. Hey, we can always memorize the phrases and engage Penrose in conversation... :-)

3:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think I must be on the wrong planet again. I had no difficulty in understanding the quoted passages, and I'm not a scientist, I'm an engineer.

In fact I've just sold a SF story that turns on this sort of physics. How does Santa Claus manage to visit every home on the planet in one night, except by using exotic physics, and what might go wrong with it to make the sleigh crash?

However I can sympathise. I can't write fantasy because I run into the problem of making magic consistent with reality. I'd either have to do it the way CSL and JRRT do, where it's really a spinoff from religion, or turn it into humour like JKR's Harry Potter, where the reader suspends disbelief in a different way.

OTOH selling real, hard SF depends on finding an editor who likes it, and they are quite rare these days.

5:14 AM  
Blogger Derryl Murphy said...

Strap-on flying lizards? Boy howdy, does that sound kinky.

Keep in mind, David, that Ursula Le Guin and others can write SF without having to delve into this.


10:48 AM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...


Good luck. If you figure it out please come back and translate for me.


No, you're on the right planet. I think we need people that can think in these terms, so please stay.

Good luck with that story. Sounds interesting.


True enough. There are so many ways to write within any genre. In truth I just mean there are types of sci/fi that I'll probably never be good at, and that in general I respect the genre so much that I'll likely be slow to try my hand at it myself.

Strap-on flying lizards kinky?... Now that I already feel at home with.

11:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks. That story sold, and at pro rates. It came out just before Christmas in Futures, complete with two illustrations. It's also been chosen for a "Best of" online anthology.

12:54 PM  
Blogger Meghan said...

I think I speak for all of us when I say...buh?

2:13 PM  
Blogger J m mcdermott said...

It's much easier to read than Jung or Zizek.

I think I understood it, fine.

We're living as a 3dimensional projection of a 2 dimensional reality. It's like adding another layer into the real/hyperreal equation, because even the "real" is actually a 2d sub-layer. Proven by studying the radiation of black holes, and studying the edges of our measurable world, where the one bajillion pixels tremble like sitting directly in front of the Jumbotron and being unable to make out the pictures, or standing too close to an Impressionist painting to see anything but visual "noise" of swirling colors and shapes that seem to have no meaning.

Did that make more sense?

Admittedly, I lived with a Physicist and two Engineers for four years in college. I was exposed to this stuff. I am not intimidated by it. They often needed me around to practice explaining things in layman's terms so they could talk to their girlfriends about it later.

3:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Deeper layers of math and physics need comics to understand.


I tend to like the approach taken by George R.R. Martin's Tuf Voyaging, because ecology tends to be more understandable, and animals are fun to write about (and read about; good olde "animal interest stories" in the news/blog media). And yes, there are vats that clone animals, but they're essentially magic vats run by science.

The real fun is the interaction.

Which is a very non-hard SF way of looking at things.

2:22 AM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...


No. Not really. Did your roommates ever have any luck with those prospective girlfriends? I'm not at all sure that description would help... ;)


I like magic vats. That I can work with. Filled with glowing green stuff that pulses with light and lets of a "strange" odor. That's the stuff for me...


10:41 AM  
Blogger J m mcdermott said...


So, Plato's cave. Remember Plato's cave?

So, imagine that the flat, 2d projection is actually the part that's "real", and the part that reflects it is us.


2:55 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Well, yeah... I follow that. Clarity, sure... Thing is I can't particularly relate that notion to anything real. It's just... an... idea.

Or is it more than that?

Or is that enough?

4:36 PM  
Blogger Cheryl said...

In reality we are all just software routines running in a giant adventure game on Charlie Stross's laptop.

Or at least we might be. How could we tell?

(And if you have an answer to that, you are well on your way to writing SF.)

4:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

*begins weeping half-way through first paragraph*

My goodness.

5:31 AM  

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