Science Fact

David Brin

Can I look any more smug. Can I.

David Brin
David Brin

Oops, he did it again.

David Brin, whom some think of as a libertarian science fiction author, and who styles himself as such, but who really isn’t even close to being libertarian, and who seems to spend an inordinate amount of time these days attacking real libertarians like a jilted lover, was recently interviewed on Wired.com via the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast.

Brin has a controversial take on Star Wars. For example, he calls Yoda one of the most evil characters ever. Well, okay, Brin does have something of a point when it comes to Yoda. The Jedi as a whole are pretty much useless, meddling busybodies who are directly or indirectly responsible for the fundamental political problems in the Star Wars universe.

But Brin’s main criticism of Star Wars and George Lucas is premised largely on his fetish for state-democracy (my term for democratic institutions and processes ossified as formal mechanisms in the state apparatus). Lucas comes under fire for always protraying the republic as corrupt and nonfunctioning, which he does because he despises democracy and favors benign dictatorship.

But, of course, Brin has staked his entire nonfiction career on his Platonic ideal of radical transparency allowing perfect knowledge in a state-democracy. Only when this ideal is realized will freedom be protected and capitalism work properly, says Brin.

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EDITORIAL | Why Space Is So Important Thumbnail

Robert Zubrin

The answer: freedom and opportunity.

Dr. Robert Zubrin has long been a strong proponent of Mars colonization and he has put forth a strategy for doing so with existing technology on the (relative) cheap. Hint: We don’t need to build big spaceships in orbit or colonize the moon first. If you’re interested in this subject, I recommend you check out his books Entering Space, The Case for Mars, and How to Live on Mars. These books are understandable to the layman but also include enough nitty-gritty details and formulas to satisfy the more mathematically inclined enthusiast, and they make excellent resources for science fiction authors.

In the brief video below, Zubrin is answering a question about his book, How to Live on Mars, at the 28th Annual International Space Development Conference, held March 28-31, 2009. Watch it and then continue on after the break for my thoughts on what he had to say.

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NEWS | James Cameron on the Piss Poor State of Ocean Exploration Thumbnail

io9 has the story about Cameron’s complaint and his endeavor to spearhead a return to “Challenger Deep, the deepest known point in all the world’s oceans.”

I just want to highlight a pleasantly surprising remark from Cameron:

“I think we’ve got to do better,” he told Nature News. “If it means getting private individuals together with institutions and bypassing the whole government paradigm, that’s fine. Maybe that’s what we need to do.”

Please, by all means, do.

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NEWS | David Friedman and L.E. Modesitt on Economics in (Their) Fiction Thumbnail

Harald by David Friedman

A physicist by training and an economist by vocation, David Friedman, son of famed economist Milton Friedman, is best known in libertarian circles as the author of The Machinery of Freedom, a utilitarian case for anarcho-capitalism.

But David Friedman has also written two fantasy novels: Harald and Salamander. Recently, in two blogposts, he discussed the economics and physics in his fiction. Update: There is a third post on related matters (military logistics) in Harald; be sure to peruse the comments on this one.

In the first post, Friedman references a blogpost by an economist working at the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research about his realization that “Sci-fi needs economists.”1 He can take heart, perhaps, that science fiction authors are becoming more economically literate (or so Gregory Benford believes).

Reading Friedman’s posts reminded me of some things I read and listened to from L.E. Modesitt, Jr., a while back. A professional economist before becoming a full-time science fiction and fantasy author, Modesitt has also discussed how he incorporates the economic point of view into his work (see The Magic of Recluse, for starters) as well as the importance of understanding economics in order to write practical fantasy:
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  1. Bonus: Reading through the comments, I happened this tidbit: A Travis J. I. Corcoran is working on a science fiction novel titled The Powers of the Earth, “a novel about anarchocapitalism, economics, corporate finance, antigravity, lunar colonization, genetically modified dogs and AI.” According to his website, it’s due out July 2012, so it might be something to keep an eye out for. 

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NEWS | Gregory Benford in Reason Magazine on Science Fiction in Light of Humanity’s Future in Space Thumbnail

Wernher von Braun's Vision

There’s an article by science fiction author Gregory Benford in the February issue of Reason Magazine (also available online at Reason.com). I hadn’t realized it, but Benford has written three other articles for Reason (see below for a list of the others).

In the article, Benford briefly discusses the role of Nazi SS officer and rocket scientist Wernher von Braun ((Benford doesn’t call Von Braun a facilitator of mass murder, but does mention that he ran “Adolf Hitler’s V-1 and V-2 programs, which sent more than 10,000 rockets into England in 1944 and 1945.”)) in the American government’s space program, from his popular promotion of his vision of man conquering space (interesting choice of war metaphor) to his running the Apollo program.

Benford discusses Von Braun’s vision for how man will conquer space, a vision that strikes me as impractical and expensive and that still lingers in NASA today. He also highlights the decline of NASA and its “ruinously expensive” nature of the American government’s space shuttle program, which suffered catastrophic failures and kept going long past its planned obsolescence.

Though Benford says that Von Braun’s vision lives on, I’m not so sure of that. If he means Von Braun’s  general vision of man “conquering” space, then yes, that vision is not dead. If he means Von Braun’s more specific vision of how this is to be accomplished, then no, I do not think that vision will live on.

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BOOK REVIEW | Cells, Gels, and the Engines of Life by Gerald H. Pollack Thumbnail

A revised vision of basic cell biology

Science fiction blends science and story, but stories and images are among the building blocks of science itself to a greater extent than most people realize. The most engaging science books tackle the narratives that scientists believe and on which they base study designs and interpretations. Cells, Gels, and the Engines of Life provides a detailed case study of how such scientific stories and simple mental images operate to guide entire fields over decades – and not always along the best available paths.

With everything from bio-engineering to bio-hazards of keen interest in the popular and science-fictional imaginations, it is important to be clear on the fundamentals of how cells work. We might have thought we already knew, but this book questions a whole list of “textbook” fundamentals and offers an alternative, integrated framework for explaining a wide range of cell functions.

Once a misguided view has been established in any field, not only in economics, but apparently also even fields such as cell biology with relatively few obvious sources of political distortion, it can take a rare blend of courage, expertise, and clarity to budge things in a new direction. This can emerge not only in the storied times of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo, but even today. It still takes a heroic protagonist to put it all together and say it out loud against layers of convention. Meet Dr. Gerald H. Pollack,  the author, professor of bioengineering at the University of Washington.

A master class in scientific thinking

Anyone with a firm reading ability can delve into this book and might be surprised, given the school-inflicted association of basic science instruction with soporific textbooks, to be sucked in on the first page. This is much more than a book about how cells work; it is a master class in fresh and precise scientific thinking, an art much in need of renaissance in an age of truth by click-through count, research-grant total, and mere widespread assertion.

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It might be something like this fantastic new rap video produced by John Papola and Russ Roberts as part of their EconStories.tv project, “Fight of the Century: Keynes vs. Hayek Round Two“:

One of these days I’ll write an article on why fiction authors, especially science fiction authors (hellooo!), should study the “dismal science.”

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