Isaac Asimov in Britain, June 1974

Isaac Asimov First Visit to Britain

50 years ago today I was lucky enough to see Isaac Asimov, one of the greatest science fiction authors of the 20th century, on his first visit to Britain. I wrote about this previously on my Astounding Science Fiction website, where you can see a detailed itinerary of Asimov’s trip. Most of his time was spent in London, but I saw him during his visit to Birmingham on Thursday 13 June 1974 (note that, by coincidence, today is also a Thursday).

At the time I was 16 years old, and had been reading SF (including numerous books by Asimov) for around three years. This was largely thanks to my mother, who had been a fan since before I was born. Around 6 months before Asimov’s visit, we’d discovered that Birmingham had a specialist SF bookshop called Andromeda, and that was where we found out about Asimov’s upcoming visit. It actually happened on a school day, but as I had an exam in the morning of the 13th (Chemistry O-level) it meant I had the afternoon free. Equally fortunately, my mother was able to get the day off work.

We actually went into Birmingham twice that day (we lived a 30-minute drive away): first, with one of my school friends in tow, to a book-signing session, and then (just my mother and me) to an evening lecture. The tickets for the latter are shown above, together with four copies of the souvenir booklet (two from the book signing and two from the lecture).

Needless to say, our book-signing of choice was the one at Andromeda, but prior to that we peeked in at an earlier signing session at a much larger general bookshop called Hudsons, which is where we caught our first glimpse of the great man. But it was in Andromeda a bit later that we actually queued up for autographs. Of the three of us, my mother went first, and when Asimov looked up and saw a respectable middle-aged woman – in contrast to all the scruffy young males that made up the bulk of SF fandom in those days – he did a double-take and then said “Oh, hello dear”. That not only made Mom’s day, but I think it was pretty much the high point of her life!

We actually got two autographs each, one in the souvenir booklet and one in a freshly purchased paperback book. My mother bought a new copy of The Caves of Steel, which I think was her favourite Asimov novel, while I got volume 3 of The Early Asimov, which had only just come out at the time. The latter includes the spoof article “The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline”, which I discussed in detail in my book Fake Physics, where (just to show off) I included an image of the book open at Asimov’s signature. To show off a bit more, I’ll put the same picture at the bottom of this post.

The evening lecture took place at the Holiday Inn, and was organized and introduced by Dr Jack Cohen – a minor SF/pop-sci celebrity in his own right (looking at his Wikipedia article just now, I see that it says “he was one of the small group of British Mensans who persuaded science fiction author Isaac Asimov to visit the United Kingdom in June 1974”). Unlike Asimov, who I only ever saw that one time, I did see Jack Cohen on several subsequent occasions, most recently talking about his book What Does a Martian Look Like? at an event in London a few years before his death.

As for Asimov’s lecture, I retain several vivid memories of it, some of them distinctly trivial. I was struck by his strong New York accent, which wasn’t something I’d really come across before at that point (it was to become much more familiar a few months later, when the BBC began showing Kojak). I remember him saying that when he woke up after his first night in London and saw a Union Jack flying outside, he though “Aha, that must be the British Embassy”, before he realized where he was. He also complained that, although the hotel supplied plenty of towels, they didn’t provide a facecloth (which he referred to as a “washcloth”). Amazing what ridiculous things your brain chooses to remember after 50 years!

On more serious subjects, I remember him talking about environmental issues and non-renewable resources. This was the first time I ever heard the word “syllogism”, the example he gave being “Premise 1 – the Earth is finite. Premise 2 – we extract resources from the Earth. Conclusion – resources are finite”. He also described in some detail how, when Astounding Science Fiction magazine published a story about a nuclear fission weapon in 1944, its editor John Campbell received a national-security visit from the FBI (an incident I also recounted in my book Rockets and Ray Guns: The Sci-Fi Science of the Cold War). One thing that sticks in my mind is how at one point in this narrative Asimov wanted to say “confirmed”, but struggled for several seconds trying to recall the word. It’s gratifying to know that even the greatest writers are occasionally stumped for words!

Issac Asimov signed book

New book: How Space Physics Really Works

How Space Physics Really Works

This is my fifth contribution to Springer’s “Science and Fiction” series, and in some ways my favourite so far, because it deals with a subgenre of SF that particularly appeals to me. The full title is How Space Physics Really Works: Lessons from Well-Constructed Science Fiction, and that really sums up what I’m talking about – SF stories that take the trouble to get their physics right. Here’s the blurb from the book’s back cover:

There is a huge gulf between the real physics of space travel and the way it is commonly portrayed in movies and TV shows. That’s not because space physics is difficult or obscure – most of the details were understood by the end of the 18th century – but because it can often be bafflingly counter-intuitive for a general audience. The purpose of this book isn’t to criticize or debunk popular sci-fi depictions, which can be very entertaining, but to focus on how space physics really works. This is done with the aid of numerous practical illustrations taken from the works of serious science fiction authors – from Jules Verne and Arthur C. Clarke to Larry Niven and Andy Weir – who have taken positive pleasure in getting their scientific facts right.

The book has just been published and is available from all good bookshops, as well as online retailers such as and Amazon UK (paperback: ISBN 978-3-031-33949-3, ebook: 978-3-031-33950-9).

6 experiments in creative AI

The above YouTube video was my first attempt to put an AI tool – in this case Bing’s image creator – to creative use. I asked it to illustrate Loge and Wotan’s “descent to Nibelheim” from Wagner’s opera Das Rheingold, in the style of Jack Kirby – the artist who co-created Thor and the other Asgardian superheroes for Marvel comics (including Loki and Odin, who roughly correspond to Wagner’s Loge and Wotan).

The result isn’t great art, or a great animated comic, but it does demonstrate two things that impress me most about this latest generation of AI. First, it can understand what I’m looking for based on fairly esoteric prompts that might confuse many humans. This really does strike me as a genuine kind of “intelligence”, despite what AI’s detractors say. Secondly, the AI’s output is far better than anything I could produce myself, which opens up a whole range of possibilities. I’ll describe a few more of the experiments I’ve tried so far.

I’ve always wanted to create a comic, because it’s one of my favourite media, but I lack any kind of artistic skill. So that was my second experiment. I won’t describe it or show the result here, because Brian Clegg has already done that in an article on his own blog. Here’s the link to it: Is commercial art more at threat from AI than writing?

The other, better known, Bing AI tool is its chatbot. An important thing about this is that (if I understand correctly) no one has ever programmed it with pre-scripted phrases to parrot in reply to a user. Instead, it’s just been trained to understand and use language in a similar way to a human. So when it says, for example “I’m glad you enjoyed them. I had fun creating them.” (as it did when I said I liked some snippets of dialogue it created for me) it’s not because someone has programmed it to say that, but because it’s worked out for itself that it’s the kind of thing people say in those circumstances. It’s a subtle difference, but a very important one, I think.

One of the first things I tried with the chatbot (along with many other people, I imagine) was to get it to write a song. In my case I said “Write a song called Zen Matrix from the point of view of someone who has discovered through meditation that they are living in a simulation”. I was so impressed with the result that I set it to music, and illustrated it with suitable artwork courtesy of Bing’s image creator. Again, I won’t reproduce the lyrics here – you can see them in the Zen Matrix video I uploaded to YouTube.

As I understand it, the original intention with chatbots like Bing was to present factual information in a conversational manner, and the fact that they’re so good at “creative” tasks came as a surprise even to their designers. It conflicts with the deeply ingrained prejudice (among an earlier generation of science fiction writers, anyway) that human brains are the only intelligent system in the universe capable of taking a statement at anything other than literal face value. One of the most devout proponents of this view was the writer Eric Frank Russell, who used it in numerous stories, including the brilliantly titled “Diabologic” (1955). An oft-quoted line from this story is “Why a mouse when it spins?”

Okay, I thought, let’s see what happens when I ask Bing to write a poem using that as a first line. Contrary to what I’m sure Russell would have expected, the AI didn’t promptly overheat or explode, but came back with five verses of perfectly passable doggerel. Here is the first:

Why a mouse when it spins?
Does it think of its sins?
Or the cheese in the trap
that it barely could snap
before running away with a grin?

There’s a much more profound use of a “nonsense phrase” in old-school SF, as explained in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction in the context of A. E. van Vogt’s 1946 novel The Weapon Makers:

The word “sevagram” only appears once in The Weapon Makers, as its last word. This resonantly mysterious slingshot ending, which seems to open universes to the reader’s gaze, may well stand as the best working demonstration in the whole of genre SF of how to impart a sense of wonder.

So I said to Bing “The novel The Weapon Makers by A. E. van Vogt ends with the words ‘Here is the race that shall rule the sevagram’ – but he doesn’t explain what the sevagram is. Can you tell me? If you don’t know the answer, please make something up.” I assumed it would either say it wasn’t in the business of speculating, or give a randomly sci-fi-sounding single-sentence answer. Instead, it produced a 500-word essay that made a serious attempt to extrapolate a whole new ending to Van Vogt’s novel. Here is the key part of it:

The Sevagram is described as “a vast network of energy that linked every atom of every weapon shop on every planet”. It is also said to be “the ultimate weapon” and “the source of immortality”. The Sevagram is controlled by a supercomputer called Fara, which is the leader of the Weapon Shops. The novel ends with a twist: Fara reveals that he is not a computer, but a human being who has lived for thousands of years by transferring his mind into different bodies. He also reveals that he is the father of Robert Hedrock, the main protagonist of the novel and a secret agent of the Weapon Shops. Fara then declares that he and his son are part of a superior race that has evolved beyond ordinary humans, and that they are destined to rule the Sevagram. So, based on this information, I can speculate that “the sevagram” is not just a network of energy, but also a term for the domain or realm of Fara and his descendants. It could also imply a vision or plan for the future of humanity under their guidance. Perhaps Fara wants to use the Sevagram to create more immortals like himself and his son, or to spread his influence across the galaxy. Of course, this is just my imagination.

That’s a really good effort at capturing Van Vogt’s style, which is based around soaring concepts and a constant stream of unexpected plot twists. It does contain a couple of flaws which give it away as a fabrication (“Fara” is the name of a character in an earlier Van Vogt story, and Bing’s explanation of sevagram is inconsistent with the way it’s used in the real novel), but it’s not bad going for a machine.

Actually, it’s pretty unsettling that an AI can create this kind of fabrication, because there’s a danger they could end up being passed off as the real thing. The same is true in the visual world too – and, for me personally, that’s even more impressive. After all, I can fabricate convincing words myself, but I can’t fabricate a convincing image. So when I show you this engraving that William Hogarth produced of a UFO hovering over a London street in the 1730s, you know it’s got to be the real thing:

Hogarth engraving of a UFO

Out Now: The Science of Sci-Fi Music

The Science of Sci-Fi Music

My latest book has just been published! It’s my fourth contribution to the “Science and Fiction” series from Springer, following on from Pseudoscience and Science Fiction (2017), Rockets and Ray Guns (2018) and Fake Physics (2019). This one is called The Science of Sci-Fi Music, and here’s the back-cover blurb:

The 20th century saw radical changes in the way serious music is composed and produced, including the advent of electronic instruments and novel compositional methods such as serialism and stochastic music. Unlike previous artistic revolutions, this one took its cues from the world of science.

Creating electronic sounds, in the early days, required a well-equipped laboratory and an understanding of acoustic theory. Composition became increasingly “algorithmic”, with many composers embracing the mathematics of set theory. The result was some of the most intellectually challenging music ever written – yet also some of the best known, thanks to its rapid assimilation into sci-fi movies and TV shows, from the electronic scores of Forbidden Planet and Dr Who to the other-worldly sounds of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

This book takes a close look at the science behind “science fiction” music, as well as exploring the way sci-fi imagery found its way into the work of musicians like Sun Ra and David Bowie, and how music influenced the science fiction writings of Philip K. Dick and others.

The Science of Sci-Fi Music is available from all the usual places, such as or Amazon UK, either as a paperback or an ebook.

To give a flavour of the contents, here’s a link to a short video preview of the book:

Science + Fiction + Music

Sci-fi music books

I’ve just started writing my 4th book in Springer’s Science and Fiction series, following Pseudoscience and Science Fiction (2017), Rockets and Ray Guns (2018) and Fake Physics (2019). Like those books, this one focuses on the three-way overlap between science, science fiction and some other subject – which in this case is music.

There are plenty of books about sci-fi music – particularly film scores, or songs with SF-inspired lyrics – and the “science” of music in the sense of acoustics and the physics of sound waves. I’m not trying to compete with books like that. As I said, I’m more interested in three-way overlaps, which narrows the field considerably. The picture above shows some of the research material I’ve been consulting!

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 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.

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 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 UK and all other Amazon sites.