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.
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.
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.
These 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!
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.
I just realized that it’s been four months since I last posted an update on this blog. I’ve been too busy! Anyway, my Cold War book now has a working title – Rockets and Ray Guns: The Sci-Fi Science of the Cold War. I’m about two-thirds of the way through writing it – hopefully it should be out some time around the middle of 2018.
Basically the book is a follow-on to Pseudoscience and Science Fiction, which was published last year. While the first book looked at the way SF anticipated and cross-fertilized with various well-known tropes of the pseudoscience industry, the new one will do the same for the real (or in some cases, allegedly “real”) science of the Cold War.
The picture above gives a quick taster of the kind of thing I mean. The illustration on the left comes from a short story by John W. Campbell called “When the Atoms Failed”, from the January 1930 issue of Amazing Stories. The picture on the right is an artist’s conception of a space-based electromagnetic railgun, dating from July 1984. This was a real-world proposal for an anti-ballistic–missile defence system, using technology that had already been demonstrated in the laboratory.
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!
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.
About a year ago I did a couple of posts on my old blog (here and here) showing some of the books and DVDs I had the pleasure of “researching” for my Pseudoscience and Science Fiction book. Now I’m working on the follow-up. It’s not really a sequel, except that it’s for the same publisher and involves a similar mix of science fiction and real science (though no pseudoscience this time).
The general subject will be easy enough to guess from the “research” materials pictured above. My book is going to have a Unique Selling Point … but I don’t want to divulge that until its finished!
The latest issue of Fortean Times (FT350, February 2017) contains David Clarke’s great review of my book Pseudoscience and Science Fiction. It’s the first time any of my books has been reviewed in that magazine – or in any printed, as opposed to online, media for that matter. But it was worth the wait – David describes the book as “excellent” and gives it a score of 9 out of 10. I’ve put a teaser of his review in the picture above, but you’ll have to buy the magazine to read the whole thing – or better still, just buy my book!
Actually it’s a big relief to see a good review in FT, as that’s pretty much the book’s target audience. In other words people who are fascinated by wacky ideas like UFOs, ESP and conspiracy theories, but with a sense of amused detachment rather than a passionately pro- or anti- attitude – seeing them as popular entertainment on a par with science fiction. I’ve been reading FT on a regular basis since 1993, and I’ve still got every issue I’ve ever bought. That huge collection may take up a lot of space, but it was invaluable when I was researching this book – Fortean Times is mentioned no fewer than 55 times in its 180 pages!
Two of the regular features in this current issue focus on subjects covered in my book. David Hambling’s excellent science column on page 16 has all the latest news about the EmDrive – an alleged “reactionless” propulsion device which I discussed in Chapter 6: Space Drives and Anti-gravity. Whether it proves to be pseudoscience or real science (hopefully the latter), the EmDrive certainly follows in the footsteps of countless science-fictional space drives.
Then on pages 52 to 53, the “Building a Fortean Library” feature focuses on the Shaver Mystery of the 1940s, with its mind-controlling subterranean super-beings. I covered that in some depth in Chapter 3: High-Tech Paranoia – along with such topics as shapeshifting reptilians and the strange world of Philip K. Dick.
My most recent book was published by Springer a couple of months ago, although for some reason they’ve given it a copyright date of 2017. It’s called Pseudoscience and Science Fiction and it’s part of their ongoing Science and Fiction series. Aimed at “science buffs, scientists and science fiction fans”, the series encompasses both fiction and non-fiction, with the latter primarily looking at how “real” science is featured in science fiction.
But what about the pseudoscience in science fiction? I felt there was a gap in the market that needed to be filled, particularly given the numerous overlaps between pseudoscientific beliefs and popular SF tropes. I had great fun researching this, and Pseudoscience and Science Fiction is the result. Here is the publisher’s blurb (I had nothing to do with the last paragraph!):
Aliens, flying saucers, ESP, the Bermuda Triangle, antigravity … are we talking about science fiction or pseudoscience? Sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference.
Both pseudoscience and science fiction are creative endeavours that have little in common with academic science, beyond the superficial trappings of jargon and subject matter. The most obvious difference between the two is that pseudoscience is presented as fact, not fiction. Yet like SF, and unlike real science, pseudoscience is driven by a desire to please an audience – in this case, people who “want to believe”. This has led to significant cross-fertilization between the two disciplines. SF authors often draw on “real” pseudoscientific theories to add verisimilitude to their stories, while on other occasions pseudoscience takes its cue from SF – the symbiotic relationship between ufology and Hollywood being a prime example of this.
This engagingly written, well researched and richly illustrated text explores a wide range of intriguing similarities and differences between pseudoscience and the fictional science found in SF.
Pseudoscience and Science Fiction has its own page on the main website, but here are some Amazon links (the “look inside” preview is particularly generous, if you want to get a flavour of the content and style of the book):