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The Accidental Scientist


Michele Dutcher

As is common in a lot of office buildings around the Holidays, I participate in a Secret Santa drawing each year. Small gifts are given for a few weeks with a ‘major gift’ - $15 USD – being the big finale’. Usually there are cookies involved. This year the gift I received was a sci-fi book entitled The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. It took me only five pages to realize that I had absolutely no idea what was happening in the book. The plot seemed to focus around something called a ‘kink-spring coil’. I told myself this object must have been a common mechanism I had regrettably missed during my past six decades.

As any modern lady would, I took the keyword to Wikipedia, where it explained the concept behind a kink-spring coil, which was a made-up term used exclusively in the Windup Girl, the author’s little joke on the reader. However, it seemed to be a viable scientific concept. It was at this point that I realized that I had learned a scientific concept (again) purely by accident – simply because I was interested in science fiction. It was at this point that I began to wonder how much science had penetrated my worker-class bubble purely by accident.

BTW – there was also a plot summary of the book that went along with the term’s definition and well, I’ll get around to reading the novel sooner or later, promise.

Now I’m not like many who are part of the working classes who say: “I never use algebra in my daily life – so why the heck did I need to learn it in High School?” Believe me, when I trip over some scientific fact, I will find a way to use it in my day-to-day world.

For instance: A cyber friend who is also an author recently wanted me to consider the idea that the universe is not physical, but a holographic representation. It’s a scientific redo of the philosophical idiom – ‘we are all one with the universe’. This didn’t make any sense whatsoever, but before I could tell him he was wrong, I needed to know more about the subject. It was advanced by theoretical physicist Juan Maldacena in 1997. He proposed “an audacious model of the Universe in which gravity arises from infinitesimally thin, vibrating strings could be reinterpreted in terms of well-established physics. The mathematically intricate world of strings, which exist in nine dimensions of space plus one of time, would be merely a hologram: the real action would play out in a simpler, flatter cosmos where there is no gravity.” Quote: Ron Cowen

Because of that small amount of gleaning through the web about the subject, I am now able to fend off beggars at bus-stops in breakneck speed. Watch and learn, grasshopper. Let’s say I’m approached by a stranger with a sad face who says forlornly: “Can I ask you a question?” The question is always can I give them a quarter/ a cigarette/ a phone. Now I can cut it off at the pass by saying, “Sure – if I can ask you a question first: What are your thoughts on the non-location of subatomic particles in a hologram-based universe?” Ta-Da! Problem solved! Inevitably the person will looked stunned before quietly walking away to harass some other bystander. If I ever do get an intelligent response, however, it will well be worth the price of a beer to discuss this theory’s implication further. Feel free to use this method to deter vagrants posthaste.

Accidental Science – the act of stumbling over information far beyond my mental comfort zone – has also helped me on my job. “How’s that?” you may well ask. Here’s an example: I ran across the term ‘the World War II German tank equation’ in relation to estimating the number of people at a presidential inauguration. ‘What’s that?’ I wondered. ‘Maybe I could use it in a story.’

So I walked right over to Wikipedia (again, post haste) and Ta Da – there was an equation that filled up my monitor screen with a cornucopia of numbers and symbols. So, I hit ‘print screen’ and copied the equation, using it as my screen saver! When people walked past my computer they were compelled to note how brilliant I must be. When asked what it meant (I understood the basic theory in the same way someone might if they skipped a stone across a pond filled with theorems) I would begin my explanation with: “As you well know…” I would finish with “of course” and then shrug as if this entire scientific mumble jumble ramble was common knowledge – and then the person would leave me alone. Ta Da! – Accidental Science once again used in day-to-day life.

BTW – I did eventually use the basic equation in my story Smelf, about an elf who wants to measure all the gnomes in a village without actually counting each and every one. Accidental Science comes to the rescue once again.

On the flip side of the coin from my misadventures into Accidental Science is the author Arthur C Clarke. He came at fiction from a science background. He’s known for theorizing the geostationary orbit - which he believed in 1956 would be ideal for telecommunication relays – 22000 miles above the equator. This is now simply the Clarke Orbit or the C-belt Yes the ‘C’ in C-belt stands for Clarke, the man himself. Clarke also theorized the invention of the space elevator, and we’re just waiting for technology to catch up before putting it into assembly. Fortunately, an accidental scientist/author like me can pick-up a brilliant concept like this and run with it as I did in my story A Pocket Filled of Posies.

P.S. If you’re an accidental scientist like me, Cosmos with Neil De Grasse is a gold mine of big ideas, so check it out.

Whether you are a true scientist like Arthur Clarke or just someone playing in the fields of knowledge like me, I trust you’ll enjoy this month’s selection of stories here at Quantum Muse.

2014-06-19 05:13:09
mark211 - Heh. I think I might also be an accidental scientist. Having said that ... not so sure about your advice for getting rid of unwanted attention at bus stops. I really enjoyed the Wind-up Girl too, though my experience of it was a little odd - I read it with only just enough enthusiasm to see me through to the end and it was only afterwards as I kept thinking about it that I realised just how good it really was.

2014-06-06 04:49:13
Ironspider - I have a vaguely scientific background (BSc in Environmental Biology) but tend to avoid putting too much science into stories - I don't like wasting words explaining how the science works. A lot of the other, non-ecological scientific concepts I've stumbled over just get added to my mental resource library, then dusted-off when an idea needs a little more coherent thought. Science shouldn't stand in the way of a good story, and bad stories aren't improved by shoe-horning science into the plot. If a narrative requires a deeper dose of the appropriate science I head over to my book shelves and do a little further research. Which I still find to be one of the bonuses of having writing as a hobby.

2014-06-04 12:50:02
micheledutcher - I was wondering if other sci-fi/fantasy writers or readers have become accidental scientists as well. Do you use science facts in precarious ways everyday like I do?

2014-06-03 14:16:43
Thought helping rather than thought provoking. I've been provoked to long. Thanks for the help. Have you heard the one about the speed of light slowing down? The fix is to say, "Don't worry. Constants are constant." But what happens if it stops? S4

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