Skip to main content

Thought X (SF) - Rob Appleby and Ra Page (Eds.) *****

One of the best stories in the collection Thought X, written by veteran SF author Ian Watson, features the old idea of monkeys on typewriters writing Shakespeare (though with a brilliant new twist). For years I've hoped for science fiction that works well both as a story and at putting science across - I was beginning to think it was as likely as those monkeys typing out Hamlet. But to my surprise and delight, Thought X absolutely fills the bill.

With one somewhat disastrous exception (I'll come to that later), every single story in this collection is both a really high quality piece of writing and superbly illustrates a 'thought experiment' - the approach beloved, for example, of Einstein, of trying out scientific or philosophical concepts in a theoretical fashion to work out what would happen. Bearing in mind that this is essentially saying 'What if?' - absolutely the role of science fiction - this seems a natural pairing with SF stories. And it is. Even better, each story is followed by a 'science bit', where a scientist or philosopher explains the original thought experiment and how it fits with the story.

I'm not going to mention every story individually, but as well as the Watson story Monkey Business that I opened with, there are so many delights here - often taking totally unexpected routes to explore a well-known thought experiment from the Chinese Room to Olber's Paradox. For example, the second story, Tether by Zoe Gilbert is a beautiful, evocative fantasy worthy of Alan Garner, which also takes on an exploration of whether a perfect simulated experience is any different from reality.

I mentioned one exception on the science side - this is the opening story, Lightspeed  by Adam Marek. The story itself is well-written, though it ends rather abruptly as if it were extracted from a longer piece. But there are serious problems with the science. Usually in science fiction I would say that the 'fiction' part always has to come first and it doesn't matter if the science is more than a little mangled. But this book is explicitly about using stories to explore real scientific conundrums, so it has to be done properly.

Things start to go downhill in the book's introduction, which in talking about the story (illustrating the twins paradox of special relativity) gets wrong why there apparently should be symmetry in this time travel thought experiment (the editors say it's because time slows down on the way out and speeds up on the way back, but it actually slows down in both directions, and the apparent symmetry is because both the observer on the Earth and on the spaceship see themselves as stationary and the other as moving). The introduction then compounds the issue by saying that the explanation for this symmetry being broken (so there really is time travel) requires general relativity - where actually it's entirely within the bounds of special relativity, just harder to calculate than with the usual mathematics. Also, the story itself is wrong in portraying slowed down speech as being a big issue when receiving radio signals in a high speed ship, where actually the problems would be frequency shifts (easily fixed - my computer can do it) and time delays in conversations (not mentioned).

The reason I've gone on about this story for so long is primarily because I don't want anyone to be put off: the rest of the collection - another 13 stories - does the job so well. I can't recommend this collection highly enough: the stories are all superbly written - a great collection of writing purely taken as fiction - and but for the science errors here, do the job of illustrating the thought experiments brilliantly.  So just enjoy the first story, but relish both science and fiction with all the rest. Huge kudos to Comma Press and the Institute of Physics for this one. Excellent.


Paperback:  

Kindle:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you

Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Artificial Intelligence - Melanie Mitchell *****

As Melanie Mitchell makes plain, humans have limitations in their visual abilities, typified by optical illusions, but artificial intelligence (AI) struggles at a much deeper level with recognising what's going on in images. Similarly in some ways, the visual appearance of this book misleads. It's worryingly fat and bears the ascetic light blue cover of the Pelican series, which since my childhood have been markers of books that were worthy but have rarely been readable. This, however, is an excellent book, giving a clear picture of how many AI systems go about their business and the huge problems designers of such systems face.

Not only does Mitchell explain the main approaches clearly, her account is readable and engaging. I read a lot of popular science books, and it's rare that I keep wanting to go back to one when I'm not scheduled to be reading it - this is one of those rare examples.

We discover how AI researchers have achieved the apparently remarkable abiliti…

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …

Colin Stuart - Four Way Interview

Colin Stuart is an astronomy journalist, author and science communicator. He has written fourteen science books to date, which have been translated into nineteen languages, including 13 Journeys Through Space and Time: Christmas Lectures From the Royal Institution and The Universe in Bite-sized Chunks both published by Michael O’Mara Books. He also has written for the Guardian, the European Space Agency and New Scientist and has spoken on Sky News, BBC News and Radio 5 Live. He is a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and even has an asteroid named after him. His latest title is Rebel Star: our quest to solve the great mysteries of the Sun.

Why science? 

For me the stories that you can tell with modern science rival the most imaginative leaps in fiction. The secret, invisible kingdoms of bacteria and sub-atomic particles. The logic defying realms of black holes and Big Bangs. That excites me more than Hogwarts or Mordor. The universe is an amazing place and we’ve only just scratche…