Fake Physics: Spoofs, Hoaxes and Fictitious Science

Fake Physics Springer Science and Fiction

Out now – my third contribution to Springer’s “Science and Fiction” series, after Pseudoscience and Science Fiction (2017) and Rockets and Ray Guns (2018). Those two were based around pet subjects of mine – the two-way interaction between SF and pseudoscience in the first case, and genuine Cold War science in the second. In contrast, this new book came out of a suggestion by the series editor, who drew my attention to a large number of spoofs – often vey funny – produced by professional scientists and presented in the form of serious academic papers.

These papers tend to fall into two categories – spoofs written purely for entertainment, such as April Fool jokes, and hoaxes designed to make a serious point – of which Alan Sokal’s nonsensical paper on quantum gravity, which was accepted by the editors of a professional journal simply because it pandered to their preconceptions, is the best-known example. I’ve combined these with more familiar examples of science-fictional “fake physics”, particularly when perpetrated by writers who were also professional scientists – such as Isaac Asimov, whose “Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline” (1948) bridges both genres: t’s a spoof science paper as well as an SF story.

The result is Fake Physics: Spoofs, Hoaxes and Fictitious Science – on sale now from all the usual places, including Amazon.com and Amazon UK. Here are some words from the back cover:

People are used to seeing “fake physics” in science fiction – concepts like faster-than-light travel, antigravity and time travel to name a few. The fiction label ought to be a giveaway, but some SF writers – especially those with a background in professional science – are so adept at “technobabble” that it can be difficult to work out what is fake and what is real. The boundaries between fact and fiction can also be blurred by physicists themselves … examples range from hoaxes aimed at exposing poor editorial standards in academic publications, through “thought experiments” that sound like the plot of a sci-fi movie to April Fools’ jokes. This entertaining book is a joyous romp exploring the whole spectrum of fake physics – from science to fiction and back again.

Good reviews for Cosmic Impact

Sky at Night Cosmic Impact review

As you can see from the above picture, the current issue of the BBC’s Sky at Night magazine includes a review of my book Cosmic Impact. It’s a really nice review, too, by Katrin Raynor-Evans – who says, among other positive things: “The text is superb … It is informative and clear, and May manages to encapsulate everything you need to know about the potential risk to our planet and species.” She gives it four stars out of five.

Cosmic Impact also gets four stars from Brian Clegg, at his Popular Science  book review site. Again the review has lots of positive comments, including the following:

This short book is ideal to get a good overview of the subject without having to delve into too much technical detail – and May makes it approachable by giving the subject context from the many science fiction and popular culture scenarios … where something hits the Earth from outer space.

Finally, although I haven’t seen it myself, I’m told I got a very brief but favourable mention in New Scientist, in the issue dated 2 February 2019. It’s in the “Don’t Miss” column, under the subheading “Read”. After recommending the Penguin Book of Outer Space Exploration to “armchair adventurers” they go on to say:

But if hiding under the sofa is more your style, try Cosmic Impact: Understanding the Threat to Earth from Asteroids and Comets by Andrew May.

If you want to do just that, you can find it in any good bookstore or via the following Amazon links:

Postscript 10 May 2019

Another excellent review in the May issue of How It Works magazine – this time with a five-star rating:

How It Works Cosmic Impact review

Cosmic Impact – out now!

Cosmic Impact

Following in the footsteps of Destination Mars, my second contribution to the Hot Science series has just been published by Icon Books. It’s called Cosmic Impact: Understanding the Threat to Earth from Asteroids and Comets, and here is what the publishers say about it:

As end-of-the-world scenarios go, an apocalyptic collision with an asteroid or comet is the new kid on the block, gaining respectability only in the last decade of the 20th century with the realisation that the dinosaurs had been wiped out by just such an impact.

Now the science community is making up for lost time, with worldwide efforts to track the thousands of potentially hazardous near-Earth objects, and plans for high-tech hardware that could deflect an incoming object from a collision course – a procedure depicted, with little regard for scientific accuracy, in several Hollywood movies.

Astrophysicist and science writer Andrew May disentangles fact from fiction in this fast-moving and entertaining account, covering the nature and history of comets and asteroids, the reason why some orbits are more hazardous than others, the devastating local and global effects that an impact event would produce, and – more optimistically – the way future space missions could avert a catastrophe.

Cosmic Impact is available either as a paperback or an ebook from all the usual places. If you’re an Amazon customer, here are some quick links for you:

Another Book in Progress

Science and fiction books

I’m part way through writing my third contribution to the Springer “Science and Fiction” series, after Pseudoscience and Science Fiction last year, and Rockets and Ray Guns a few months ago.

As I’ve done in the past, I thought I’d share a photograph of some of the books I’ve been using as “research material” – one of the most enjoyable things about writing for this series! Unlike the previous two books, the unifying theme of this one has more to do with style than subject-matter, so it may not be obvious from the photo. So you’ll have to wait until Springer formally announce the new book – hopefully some time in the first half of next year.

Rockets and Ray Guns

My second contribution to Springer’s Science and Fiction series is out now – Rockets and Ray Guns: The Sci-Fi Science of the Cold War. It’s in a similar style to Pseudoscience and Science Fiction, and even includes some pseudoscience of its own (e.g. UFOs, ESP and mind control) as well as the more obvious topics such as nuclear weapons, guided missiles and space warfare.

The Cold War saw scientists in East and West racing to create amazing new technologies, the like of which the world had never seen. Yet not everyone was taken by surprise. From super-powerful atomic weapons to rockets and space travel, readers of science fiction had seen it all before.

Sometimes reality lived up to the SF vision, at other times it didn’t. The hydrogen bomb was as terrifyingly destructive as anything in fiction, while real-world lasers didn’t come close to the promise of the classic SF ray gun. Nevertheless, when the scientific Cold War culminated in the Strategic Defence Initiative of the 1980s, it was so science-fictional in its aspirations that the media dubbed it “Star Wars”.

This entertaining account, offering a plethora of little known facts and insights from previously classified military projects, shows how the real-world science of the Cold War followed in the footsteps of SF – and how the two together changed our perception of both science and scientists, and paved the way to the world we live in today.

The book has already received a couple of nice reviews:

  • By Tom Reale (“a work that will delight science, history, and SF buffs alike”) on the AIPT website
  • By Brian Clegg (“a solid contribution to the history of science fiction and its relation to the real world”) on his Popular Science blog

Needless to say, Rockets and Ray Guns is available from all good booksellers, including Amazon.com and Amazon UK.

Next book research

Asteroids, comets and impactsThese days I always seem to be working on a lot of things at once, so “next book” has multiple meanings. There’s the next one to be published, which I finished writing several months ago and is now making its way through the publisher’s production process. There’s the one I’ve been asked to write and given a title for, but I’ve barely started to think about it yet. And then there’s the one I’m actually writing at the moment. That’s the one I’m talking about here. There’s a clue to its subject matter in the research material pictured above!

The Science behind Jules Verne’s Moon Novels

Science behind Jules Verne

When I wrote The Telescopic Tourist’s Guide to the Moon last year, I wanted to refer, amongst other things, to descriptions of real lunar features in works of science fiction. Surprisingly, I found that many of the most famous Moon stories don’t actually refer to specific locations. Even more surprisingly, one of the few novels that does contain realistic descriptions of lunar geography is one of the earliest – Jules Verne’s Around the Moon, dating from 1870.

The surprise comes because Around the Moon – and its predecessor, From the Earth to the Moon (1865) – are probably best known for the completely unrealistic mode of travel, i.e. by means of a projectile launched from a giant cannon. But when I reread the novels, I was struck by just how scientifically knowledgeable they were – by the standards of their time, at any rate. As well as the physical descriptions of the Moon, Verne gets other subtleties right, too – such as the way things move once they get outside the Earth’s atmosphere (something Hollywood barely understands to this day).

So I thought I’d write another little book describing all the science Verne got right – and of course the science he got wrong, too. Here’s the blurb:

The idea of using a large gun to send humans into space is as impossible today as it was a century and a half ago, when Jules Verne wrote From the Earth to the Moon and Around the Moon. Yet he went to great lengths to persuade readers it wasn’t impossible – not through arm-waving and made-up technobabble, but using real physics and astronomy. No one had done anything like that in fiction before – and even today it’s unusual to see so much “real science” discussed in a work of science fiction. But just how much did Verne get right, and what did he get wrong? This book takes a closer look at the science content of his two great Moon novels – from Newton’s laws of motion and the conservation of energy to CO2 scrubbing, retro-rockets and the lifeless grey landscape of the Moon.

The Science behind Jules Verne’s Moon Novels is available as a paperback or Kindle ebook from Amazon.com, Amazon UK and all other Amazon sites.

Coming soon: 30-second Energy

30-second Energy

The popular series of “30-second” books from Ivy Press has been running for several years now. Next month sees the latest in the sub-series of physics-related titles edited by Brian Clegg. This is 30-second Energy, following on from 30-second Quantum Theory, 30-second Physics, 30-second Newton and 30-second Einstein. As with those earlier books, 30-second Energy includes contributions from myself as well as from Brian and several other authors.

30-second Energy is a slight departure from the previous titles in that it’s more about practical applications of physics than theory or academic research. That means that (as with virtually anything “useful” that comes out of physics), many people won’t even realize that it is physics! That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since readers who wouldn’t dream of buying 30-second Quantum Theory or 30-second Newton might still be attracted by 30-second Energy.

This book differs from the previous four in another way too. It’s the first to include a Foreword by a “big name” – in this case, Jim Al-Khalili. Apart from that, it’s very much the same style as the others – about 60 double-page spreads of get-to-the-point-quickly text and lavish full-colour illustrations. As I’ve said before though, “30 seconds” is a slight exaggeration – it will probably take you at least 90 seconds to read each of the entries properly!

In all, 30-second Energy contains 8 contributions by me, on “Kinetic Energy”, “Potential Energy”, External Combustion”, “Internal Combustion”, “Turbines”, “Fission”, “Fusion” and “Batteries”. The book is published on 1 March 2018, and you can see its Amazon UK listing by clicking on the following link:

30-Second Energy: The 50 most fundamental concepts in energy, each explained in half a minute

Under the slightly different title of Know-It-All Energy, the book is already on sale in North America. Here is a link to its Amazon.com listing:

Know It All Energy: The 50 Most Elemental Concepts in Energy, Each Explained in Under a Minute

The Telescopic Tourist’s Guide to the Moon

Telescopic Tourist Guide to the Moon
Hot on the heels of Destination Mars, here’s another book of mine that’s new out this month – The Telescopic Tourist’s Guide to the Moon, published by Springer. I actually wrote it several months after the Mars book, but Springer have a very fast system compared with more traditional publishers so it caught up!

This is the second book I’ve done with Springer, following Pseudoscience and Science Fiction last year. That one was in a series called Science and Fiction, and in fact there’s quite a lot of SF in this new one too (as you might guess from my earlier blog post about lunar research). However, this book actually belongs to a different series – the Patrick Moore Practical Astronomy Series. Here’s the blurb:

Have you ever been inspired by stunning images from the Hubble telescope, or the magic of sci-fi special effects, only to look through a small backyard telescope at the disappointing white dot of a planet or faint blur of a galaxy? Yet the Moon is different. Seen through even a relatively cheap telescope, it springs into life like a real place, with mountains and valleys and rugged craters. With a bit of imagination, you can even picture yourself as a sightseeing visitor there – which in a sense you are.

Whether you’re interested in visiting Apollo landing sites or the locations of classic sci-fi movies, this is the tourist guide for you! It tells you the best times to view the Moon, the most exciting sights to look out for, and the best equipment to use, allowing you to snap stunning photographs as well as view the sights with your own eyes.

It probably goes without saying, but The Telescopic Tourist’s Guide to the Moon is available from all good bookshops, as well as online retailers such as Amazon.com and Amazon UK.

Out now – Destination Mars

Destination Mars

My book Destination Mars: The Story of Our Quest to Conquer the Red Planet is published today. As mentioned a few weeks ago, it’s the first title in a brand new series from Icon Books called Hot Science, edited by Brian Clegg. Brian is one of Britain’s top popular science writers, and he gave me some really helpful pointers on the style and content of the book. Hopefully that means it turned out almost as slick and professional as one of Brian’s own books!

With a list price of just £7.99, Destination Mars is available from all good bookshops, as well the usual online retailers such as Amazon UK and Amazon.com.

To whet your appetite, here is a quick summary of the book’s contents:

  • Preface: From Science Fiction to Science Fact
  • Chapter 1: The Lure of the Red Planet
    Our Solar System neighbour – Another Earth? – The Real Mars
  • Chapter 2: How to Get to Mars
    Rocket science – Action and reaction – The long way round – Landing on Mars
  • Chapter 3: Martian Robots
    Fifty years of Mars exploration – Lost in space – Anything a human can do?
  • Chapter 4: From a Small Step to a Giant Leap
    The race to the Moon – Mars is harder – Risk management
  • Chapter 5: Big Plans
    Visionaries vs politicians – Mars Direct – One step at a time – Roadmap to Mars
  • Chapter 6: Private Enterprise
    Commercial space flight – Making life multiplanetary – Human interest
  • Chapter 7: Living on Mars
    Colonisation – Martian sustainability – Terraforming
  • Chapter 8: The New Space Race
    The contenders – A wild card – Mars fever
  • Recommended Resources
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Index