I met Graham when I publicly denigrated the opening line of one of his novels. Thankfully he’s a forgiving chap and hasn’t held it against me – must be the Yorkie heritage. Since then I’ve found great delight in reading his short stories. Graham writes what is known as hard science fiction; all technical and precise and really delightful futuristic stuff. I knew I had to have a post from Graham during the workshop about being both a scientist and a writer, so I’m very pleased to have him along today to share his insights with you.
Creativity and the Scientific Mind
When I was a small boy (imagine a skinny little thing with intense gaze and short trousers) I used to design spaceships. One I remember had a special hull alloy – a mixture of aluminium, to make it light, and lead, to protect the occupants from radiation.
It wasn’t until I was very much older, looking back, that I suddenly realised how ridiculous this mixture was. Since then, I have often wondered how it was that, even as a child, I could have made such a mistake. I think the answer is that I was thinking magically, not like an engineer or scientist.
To the scientific thinker, the addition of aluminium to lead does not make it light, it just makes it lighter. To the magical thinker, the properties of materials may be bestowed upon whatever possesses them. Either way, I wasn’t being particularly creative, I’m afraid. Why weren’t my hulls made of chitin (to pick on a random substance that hulls could be made of but aren’t)? Or, for that matter, why have ships with hulls at all (to try challenging the premises)?
To some, science and creativity are opposites. The rigid discipline of thought, the absolute necessity for logic, reasoning and mathematics, seem to exclude the free-wheeling, free-associating florescence of ideas that creativity usually suggests. But it is not true, of course. Some of the most creative people ever have been scientists.
I am often awed by the conceptual leap made by some of our great scientists – when Murray Gell-Mann realised that quarks could have electric charge in multiples of 1/3rd so by packaging different types in groups of three, you get all the hadrons we know, or when Einstein realised that, for objects of different mass to fall at the same rate under gravity, the geometry of the Universe must be radically different from what anyone had previously suspected. These are astonishing insights and they are also creative acts.
What makes General Relativity different from, say, pickling half a cow in formaldehyde and putting it in an art gallery, is that scientific creativity is massively constrained. Good scientists, like good artists, are having marvellous ideas all the time.
Yet, while the artist has only their own aesthetic judgement, taste (and public opinion) to help them decide which is worth pursuing, the scientist must match their idea against all previous theory, every known observation, every experimental datum, and then (and only then) pit it against every possible experimental test they can devise.
Most creative people could not bear to have their brilliant ideas so severely filtered through the sieve of reality – and so frequently cast aside as worthless, not because it isn’t a brilliant idea, but because it doesn’t fit the facts. The scientific mind, however, is one that relishes the challenge of creating within such a framework of constraints.
As a writer of ‘hard’ science fiction, I impose upon myself the constraint that my fiction must be scientifically plausible. It is a hard road, sometimes so hard that I wonder why I do it.
Using a laser beam as a plot device, for example, is not like using a vampire. Laser beams are real things with real properties. They can only do what the laws of physics allow them to. If you find the physics won’t let you transfer enough energy quickly enough to burn a hole in a spaceship’s hull, that’s it.
With a vampire, you just need to make up some new magic ability, or some other bit of unrevealed lore, whenever you get stuck. With the laser problem, you can’t do that, you have to be more ingenious, more creative, you have to find other credible ways to make it work. Could you get two or more beams on the spot? Could the attacker match trajectories with the victim for a longer period? Just where are the vulnerable spots on a space ship anyway?
I solve problems like this every day and, as a writer, the ideas I come up with don’t just have to be plausible, they have to interesting, exciting, something that will put my protagonist in more jeopardy, something that will have consequences, even if they solve the immediate problem.
The ‘scientific mind’ is usually described as a sceptical attitude, a desire to test all statements against reality, perhaps even a deep respect for the truth, or for detail. But don’t confuse scientists with accountants. If you are writing about a scientist, bear in mind that creativity is part and parcel of their mental makeup. Some of the most eccentric and interesting people I’ve ever known have been scientists – and some of the most dull and boring have been artists.
Did you know, for instance, that mathematical ability and musical ability often go together? That the great physicist Richard Feynman was an inveterate practical joker (and a bongo player)? That William Herschel the British astronomer wrote 24 symphonies? It really is worth reading a few biographies of great scientists. They’re fascinating people – a lot like you and me.
Perhaps the best insight you can get into the scientific mind is by reading the cartoon series XKCD. You may not find it funny if you’re not a nerd yourself (I love it!) but it is a peep inside the skull of someone who seems quite representative of the type.
Graham Storrs is someone who thinks a lot about the future. It’s a place we’re all going, whether we like it or not, a place where we, our children and their children will have to deal with changes we can barely imagine. Some of us can’t wait to get there, to see what it’s like, and how we will cope. That’s why Graham writes science fiction – he wants to know what happens next in this amazing story we’re all living.
After a career in research and software design, Graham has turned his gaze firmly to the far horizons and now lives and writes on a remote mountain-top in rural Australia. Surrounded by gum forests and wild animals, he relies on his wife, Christine, and their Airedale terrier, Bertie, to keep him anchored in the present. TimeSplash is Graham’s debut novel and is available here or from leading online bookstores.