As a lifelong science fiction reader I’ve always had an on again, off again relationship with science, but now that I’m retired I’m thinking about a deeper commitment. Science fiction inspires a kind of love for science that’s not very realistic. Science fiction is a marijuana high of smoking science, and is about as scientific as two dopers discussing theories of reality. Science fiction is a good gateway drug to science, but sooner or later you have to move on to the harder stuff – physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics.
Most folks today have little knowledge of science, and most of those who do, have a Newtonian model of reality in their heads. The hard to intuit relativity of space-time, and the bizarre quantum world is beyond all but a few to incorporate into their seeing of how things work. We truly live in a science fictional world, where a little bit of science creates a lot of fiction.
Back in the 1950s and 1960s when I was growing up, science fiction was about the future, but our lives in the 21st century present are very science fictional. We live in times described by Arthur C. Clarke’s third law, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Growing up reading science fiction gave me a view of the future that’s turned out to be wrong. Before I die, I’d like to assemble another view of the future, to imagine what things will be like after I die. But this time, hopefully, I want to install a more realistic science. We can’t predict the future, but we can shoot down a lot of crap ideas. I’d like to die with a reasonable idea of what my brief visit to reality was all about.
I read about 52 books a year, or on average, one a week. I’d like to be more systematic about reading science books, but I don’t want to give up reading other kinds of books. Actually, I don’t want to create any rigid rules to live by at all – anything I feel obligated to do, I won’t. But lately, I’ve been reading a lot of great popular science books and I realize to better understand what I’m reading will require some applied effort.
For example, I’m currently listening to Time Reborn by Lee Smolin, and he mentions reading Einstein’s original papers from 1905 as a young student. Smolin says they are quite easy to understand, far better than most science papers, and they set the standard for science papers in their clarity of thought. I’ve always assumed they could only be read by genius level scientists. It just so happens I have a copy of Einstein’s Miraculous Year: Five Papers That Changed the Face of Physics. Now, I’m torn. Should I stop reading Time Reborn and read Einstein?
Smolin makes it sound like reading Einstein’s original work is the foundation of all his scientific thinking. This makes me think instead of reading the latest popular science books I should instead be reading older ones. I’ve always dismissed science books older than a few years as being past their expiration date. Maybe this is a false assumption.
When I bought Our Mathematical Universe, I read an interesting reader review at Amazon where Michael Birman said:
Years of reading science books have produced a personal pantheon of the finest I’ve ever come across. There are several aspects of Tegmark’s book that have placed it amongst the three finest popular science books I’ve ever read. The other two books are Albert Einstein and Leopold Infield’s The Evolution of Physics and Kip Thorne’s Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy (Commonwealth Fund Book Program). The first book, The Evolution of Physics, is still the clearest exposition of classical and (relatively) modern physics ever written, despite its age. It remains the most authoritative, concise and profound discussion of the source of Einstein’s world-shattering ideas, and has never been surpassed as a book written by a great scientist for a popular audience. Kip Thorne’s book combines personal reminiscence and scientific exposition with an elegance and depth that makes it my choice as the finest modern popularized science book. Thorne proved that you can write about science in an engaging manner without sacrificing either intelligence or necessary relevant technical detail.
You guessed it, I ordered those two books too. So just starting two new books has gotten me to buy three old books. The trouble with reading current physics books is they are often so ethereal that I don’t know if I’m learning science or reading science fiction. For the last many years, I’ve been constantly drawn back to the 19th century in literature and history, so I’m thinking I might need to return to that century to study science. I need to learn the physics that led up to Einstein.
Then there’s the whole gnarly issue of math. My math abilities are slight. How far can I really understand science without math? I’ve bought a bunch of math history books, and a Great Course on the history of mathematics. Part of my retirement benefits is getting to take two free courses a semester, and there are many online math courses. If I wanted to, I could study math again. And I might. Although I wonder at making such an effort in my retirement years when I seem to be forgetting faster than I’m remembering.
Reading Einstein (I’ve already started) does make you think about the physical world differently. To understand time in the way Smolin is talking about it in Time Reborn will take a lot of contemplation. More and more I realize the value of Einstein’s thought experiments.
In the modern world we’re easily fooled by pre-digested knowledge we get from television. The new Cosmos might look dazzling, but to understand it requires ignoring the frenetic CGI dazzle and returning to a slow Amish like simplicity of thought. Just doing the math to model 13.8 billion years on a generic 365 day calendar is enlightening.
I’ve read lately, but I’ve forgotten where, that if the most complex science can’t be explained to the average person without mathematics then that science isn’t really understood by the scientists either. I’d like to believe that. I’d like to believe I can understand science even if I can’t prove it mathematically. But I shouldn’t give up on studying math either. What I need to do is go back to the beginning and learn math historically, and progress forward through time. Start with the Babylonians, and then the Greeks, and see if learning math in the order it was discovered will help me see a mathematical reality.
Growing up in a gee-whiz era of science and technology makes it hard to tell science from fiction. Even the science books I read, and the science documentaries I watch, are full of fiction, even though they are factual in intent. If I don’t comprehend what they say correctly, then I create mental fictions to explain what I think I see. Science fiction novels that I’ve always loved to read, took science concepts and intentionally made wild fiction out of science. Such hopeful expectations from science fiction has corrupted my mind about science. I now need to rethink both science and science fiction.
I’ve been a life-long atheist, and been skeptical of religion, mysticism, the metaphysical and paranormal, thinking instead that science is the only valid course to understanding reality. But the more I study science, the more I feel the need to be skeptical of my own knowledge of science. It’s very easy to fool oneself. Eye witnesses are notorious unreliable, and we tend to feel that other people can be tricked and not us – that what we see is real. But isn’t that another fiction?
How much do you know could you prove? Can you really prove the Earth orbits the Sun? Humanity has discovered a lot of scientific knowledge in the last four hundred years, but how much could you prove yourself? Being told something is true doesn’t mean you understand why its true.
Even if science fiction didn’t exist, we still live in a science fictional world, not because of rocketships and robots, but because we fictionalize science, we fictionalize what we’re told is true, we fictionalize everything we don’t know, and even the things we do.
2 thoughts on “More Science, Less Fiction”
Four years ago, when I was on the exact same journey you are on now, I stumbled across Isaac Asimov’s book, The Collapsing Universe. It will be available in your used book store and will go for two bucks or so. Boy, am I glad I read that book. It gave me the background I needed to understand the other books. I went on to read Nobody writes math/physics better than Asimov.