A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Stealing presentation ideas

Brenton Dickieson recently discovered an unpublished preface to The Screwtape Letters that shows C.S. Lewis originally thought of them as part of the Space Trilogy (and incidentally making him the intellectual forefather of Douglas Adams). He gave a talk about it at the Lewis & Friends Colloquium, and has posted links to a recording of the talk and his presentation materials on his blog. It’s excellent;  30 minutes well spent.

There are three ways that talk is relevant to my project here.

  1. He knocks the “so what” question out of the park.  Easily half the time he’s talking, he’s suggesting ways that the connection can be used to give a new perspective on perennial questions about Lewis’s work. It’s a useful model for how to talk about my “discovery”, though I don’t have such a clear picture of the future.
  2. He gave the talk as a first-person narrative, whence I shall claim legitimacy for my own upcoming presentation. Writing it has been a continual struggle to keep it in the mode of an academic paper.  Releasing myself from that straitjacket will make the rest of the writing much easier.
  3. …and this is the big one, Brenton tossed off a casual side remark to the effect that “world-building is what we’re really interested in, here.” That crystallized for me the structure in which I’m working.  (As I’ve mentioned, I am so slow on the uptake that I make Butterbur look like a quicksilver wit. This is another case of that.) Science can meet Speculative Fiction scholarship to their mutual benefit, if we focus on how the authors build their worlds.  In a way, I’d be reverting to a pre-Enlightenment approach to science, except studying Nature to learn about the intention of the sub-creator.

The last one is really obvious, but there’s a reason the penny hadn’t dropped. This is a way of reading books that I turned away from, decades ago.  Lots of books can’t stand the scrutiny.  Even when I was a child, I had to stop myself from throwing a book across the room when I read a line like, “slow the ship down, we need to be in a lower orbit.” After I’d spent a couple of decades of school, it got worse. I was catching even authors who brag about their mathematical prowess (looking at you, Robert Heinlein) in physics mistakes. If I’d stayed picky, I wouldn’t have had anything to read! The trick to making it work here will be first to discern what parts of the primary world the author was using to convey meaning, and confine my attention there.


Persistence of Family Names




  1. nice, Joe. It’s funny. I’ve never really bothered too much about scientific inaccuracies (ships whooshing by — looking at you, Roddenberry — in a vacuum), except for one. Unless my understanding is totally wrong, an object moving through space would not just decelerate if you turned the engine off or ran out of fuel.

    • Joe

      Oooh – I know that one! Other spaceships don’t make noise, but the hearer isn’t in vacuum. Our ship’s collision-avoidance radar (or targeting radar, on a military vessel) needs to let us know about craft in directions other than the one the viewscreen looking right now. An audible signal is the natural way to do that. That whoosh we’ve been hearing all this time is a virtual-reality human-computer interface.

      I got this from an NPR radio version of “Star Wars”. Totally forgot the rest of the show, but that one line was brilliant. The fount of all knowledge tells me it was in 1981, which sounds right.

  2. Thanks for this great write up. You do me more honour than I deserve. If we meet in real life, I would love to dialogue on this idea of science and speculative world-building. But, perhaps you are doing this in the long term. Is that your work that you reference?
    In some ways I like the innocence of the pre-Arthur C. Clarke SciFi better. It does not pretend to accuracy, but to a mythic regularity.

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