THE PHYSICS AND SOCIAL CONSCIENCE OF SCIENCE FICTION

THE PHYSICS AND SOCIAL CONSCIENCE OF SCIENCE FICTION:

      There are basically two kinds of Science Fiction themes that are preponderant within this genre. One looks at the Science that influences the stories and the other investigates the moral and social implications within a story. Jules Verne, Isaac Asimov and A.J. Deutsch are among those who did the math and physics within their storylines, while H.G. Wells, Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury tended to ponder the social and moral implications of their futuristic novels.

      On rare occasion, an author would combine both into a story line with great effect. One such was Forbidden Planet by W.J. Stewart. He combined elements of physics and psychology known to an advanced alien civilization (the Krell) that was experimenting with the “ID”. It subsequently created a mental monster of such magnitude that it destroyed their civilization thousands of years before the arrival of earthlings to their planet. The term “Monsters from the ID” became a household word back in the 1950s for adventurers of Sci-Fi. It was devised in the mind of the Krell and became as real and ferocious as any creature here on earth. So the story was a moral parable as well.

       The two authors chosen for this expose are Deutsch and Bradbury because they represent these two themes in fascinating and compelling ways, much like Stewart did with Forbidden Planet. Deutsch looks at what can happen to a subway system from a postulate about systems connectivity in A Subway Named Moebius, while Bradbury postulates what can happen to a society when it is denied the availability of reading books in Fahrenheit 451. I will begin with Deutsch and later return to write about Bradbury’s tale of woe.

  A SUBWAY NAMED MOEBIUS: A.J. Deusch 1950

        The principles of connectivity state that as a system makes more connections to other parts of itself, the connectivity of that system increases in an exponential fashion to staggering levels. The subway under Boston had been growing in complexity for years. When the Transit Authority entered a new line into the system, it became so complex, that the best mathematicians could not calculate its connectivity. The topology of the system became overloaded.

      Then the first train disappeared. The system was closed, so it couldn't have gone anywhere, but when all the trains were pulled, the transit Authority still couldn't find it. The searchers would see a red light, wait curiously, and hear a train passing in the distance, sometimes so close that it appeared to be just around the next bend. Where was the train? What happened to the passengers?

      This is a cautionary tale of what could happen if you make your subway system too complex. And it revolves around the idea of a moebius strip; a twisted plane that goes from having two sides to just one in a closed system. Deutsch was a U.S. astronomer who understood the math of complex systems and made an example of  extreme complexity to the degree that a moebius was created causing two parallel planes within a singular closed system. The mathematical connection with a moebius band is tenuous but the story is still intriguing.

      The danger became real enough when two trains were found traveling within the same space but in two separate planes. At any time, the one train traveling within the other dimension created by the moebius could return to the plane and the track that the other train was traveling and cause an accident.

    The whole idea is quite “Frankensteinian” . Deutsch seems to want to suggest that a Quantum Monster has been created underneath the city of Boston. These are not Monsters from the ID however, but rather monsters of Mathematical Complexity. And he is pondering the moral prerogative of examining the responsibility involved with making decisions about interacting too much with exponentially complex systems. Is he suggesting perhaps, that we “look before we take that quantum leap” accidentally into another dimension? Intriguing stuff, indeed…

--Doug Taylor, Resident Philosopher