A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Category: science fiction

Daedalus versus Drone

The latest science-fictional device to hit the press is a swarm of hand-sized autonomous drones that can be dropped from a fighter or bomber.

Image credit: Popular Mechanics Magazine

As they fall, they form themselves into self-organized structures that fly about in ways that are by now familiar from a hundred YouTube videos.. The hardware and software originated at MIT. It’s called “Perdix”.

“Named after a character from Greek mythology,” the Popular Mechanics article says. Perdix is pretty obscure, so I looked him up. Ovid’s Metamorphoses, book 8.

Perdix was Daedalus’s nephew. Long before the Icarus incident, he showed himself to be an even cleverer engineer than Daedalus. Invented the compass, for example.  (The geometry one, not the navigation one.). Daedalus, jealous of his status, was enraged by the boy’s presumption and threw him off the Acropolis.  Halfway down the cliff, Perdix was saved when Minerva changed him into a partridge and he could fly the rest of the way down.  Partridges never fly more than a few feet off the ground because they still have PTSD from that event.

I have been amusing myself for a while now, speculating about reasons this story never gets mentioned in the press.

Comments on The Dispossessed

As usual, I’m a month or so behind the Mythgard Academy.  Had I been present at the sessions, or had I an ansible that could reach back in time with a text message, these are the things I would have said about The Dispossessed.  No overarching theme, just three disconnected observations.

The Physicist at Work

This book has the best descriptions I’ve read of a theoretical physicist at work. I searched the Web for biographies of Ursula LeGuin to find out if she had any physicists in her family — no. She did this all with imagination, and it’s spectacular. I recognized myself in almost every line of those scenes.  Usually, works of fiction that deal with a subject I know about in real life are excruciating.  The only fictional scientists I can handle are the humorous ones: Dr. Zarkov from Flash Gordon; Chris Knight (Val Kilmer) from Real Genius (I know what you’re thinking, no, Laszlo was my college roommate).  But Shevek’s struggles with his work, and how it affects his relationships with other people, ring true.

Also, the way LeGuin describes Shevek’s original insight isn’t wrong.  There’s nothing there that’s obviously insane; were relativity one day to be falsified, the explanation might well sound like that.  Only exception is the paragraph that talks about “the interval” as the key insight.  Replacing the absolute position of objects in time and space with intervals as the fundamental description of a system is, in fact, the heart of special relativity.  But by that point I was too smitten to care.


I found myself yelling at my iPod whenever Corey referred to Annares as a communist society.  Anarres is anarchist (see it in the name?); Thu is the communist society.  The people of Anarres refer to citizens of less-evolved societies as “archists”, a collective term for capitalists and communists.  (If you want to hear more about anarchism, here you go.  It’s all Real Genius, all the time, here at Idiosophy.)  Anarres draws heavily from Marxism, but Communism was not much like what Marx had in mind.

Putting myself back in the mindset of the early 1970s, the Cold War is all over this book.  It’s all happening on Urras, though.  There weren’t any neutral observers to the Cold War, because nobody could be far enough from the bombs to be safe.  LeGuin is showing us what the USA (which I can hear inside “Nio Esseia”) would have looked like, if anyone could be neutral.

Vea, Siegfried, and Roy

Corey did a good job getting through the uncomfortable politics of Vea.  All through that disquisition, I found myself thinking of Siegfried and Roy.  Vea is in the same line of work as they:  There’s an awesomely powerful force around, and by making a public show of dominating it, you gain wealth and status.  In Urras, that force is the patriarchy.

Vea didn’t passively accept dominance, she figured out how to manipulate it and turn it to her own ends.  Because she was so good at it, she became wealthy, popular, and influential. However, when you’re playing that game, you have to be perfect.  One mistake, and it all blows up in your face.  When Roy Horn got bitten by a tiger, his career was over.  He was lucky to escape with his life and his fortune mostly intact.  Vea got off easy, by comparison, with just a dry-cleaning bill and (one presumes) a case of the shakes in her room after all the guests had gone.

Update:  Brad DeLong, to whom I have referred readers before, was posting a discussion of “communism and related issues” on his blog as I typed this.  The Dispossessed features prominently.  As does an interesting discussion of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” which TIL comes from the Acts of the Apostles.

Speculative Fiction: SF : MidMoot 3.04

These are my notes from the first panel on Sunday at MidMoot 3.

Neil Ottenstein: Dreams and Prophecy in Babylon 5

I usually think of myself as a science-fiction fan. Compared to Neil, I am not. When I want to quote a work, I type out the words on a screen. When Neil wants to quote from Babylon 5, he comes to the front of the room with a stack of bound quarto volumes of scripts, opens each one in its turn, and reads passages to us with a reverent tone. That’s a true fan.

This was another in his series of talks about prophecy. It was orders of magnitude smaller in focus than his presentation at MidMoot 2. B5 doesn’t have a radical concept of prophecy. “We create the future with our words and our deeds. Prophecies are possible futures, not certainties.”

The Centauri seem to be able to make prophecies and confine them to things that are fixed. Unlike other characters who talk about things that may or may not happen, depending on people’s choices, the Centauri seem to be able to perceive “constants of the motion”, making prophecies that are going to turn out to be true no matter what.

Margaret Ann Mendenhall: The Borg: Is assimilation Fertile?

First question: is Star Trek’s humanism patriarchal? It certainly privileges Western values.

Margaret projected the text of the Prime Directive (non-interference with other cultures) up on the screen, and proceeded to slice it to ribbons. Nearly every phrase in it comes from mid-20th-century American ideology. Our perspective, here and now, isn’t that far removed. We’re in the same country, just 50 years later, but those words no longer look to us like a statement of a principle to live by. We now see terms like “healthy development” or “normal cultural evolution” as bags that carry a lot of prejudice in them.

(I’d point out here that those ideologies are honored more in the breach than the observance. Roddenberry may have been writing them down explicitly to get the US to recognize how far short of them our actions in (e.g.) Vietnam were. Which doesn’t disagree with Margaret’s thesis in any way.)

Of course, this gets taken to extremes in the show. Captain Kirk violates the Prime Directive every chance he gets. As Jon pointed out, the Prime Directive is a plot generator, not an actual law to live under. Life would be very stressful under a code that was designed to maximize the frequency of exciting events.  Possibly recognizing this, newer incarnations of Star Trek have replaced the Prime Directive with an ideology of “infinite diversity in infinite combinations”.

On to patriarchy. The presentation of the Borg in “First Contact” shows a feminized twist. The Borg Queen is a Great Goddess figure. (I hadn’t seen this movie – apparently the Borg have been transformed from a mechanical assembly to an insect hive.) It’s a gylany rather than a patriarchy. It works by horizontal linkages, not a command hierarchy.

Now, by assimilating other species into their collective, the Borg is perfecting them.  I got whiplash at this point, because if you say “market” instead of “collective”, it sounds like the attitude of  global capitalism.

Q: Aren’t the Borg and Starfleet both making decisions for other people. What’s the difference? A: They’re both symbolizing the unconscious.  (The subspace network the Borg use to communicate is the Jungian collective unconscious. Fascinating, to coin a phrase.)

Q: (from VF) are the theories you’re working from applicable to western fantasies at all? A: Yes. Her dissertation is about how the Hero’s Journey has been taken over by monotheists to mean pefection of the soul. She’s instead balancing Artemis, Lilith, and Isis in a lemniscate. (MM didn’t say “lemniscate”, but she laid “gylany” on us and I must have revenge.)

Kris Larsen: Mad Scientist Alphabet Soup

Mad scientists aren’t all lone wolves. Kris is talking about three organizations of mad science.  Their common features: obsession with experimental design (she says this like it’s a bad thing); Population-control mission; and complete disregard for informed consent.

First, the DHARMA initiative from “Lost”. Numerology – terms in an equation to predict the number of years left for the human race. The initiative is trying to change one of the parameters and lengthen our existence.

WICKED from The Maze Runner:  plans to eradicate half the population with a virus, because we’ve overloaded the planet. The virus didn’t work as planned. Natural immunity became a valuable commodity. WICKED used immunes to generate a cure.

NICE from That Hideous Strength:  There’s been a decades-long debate about whether this is an attack on science, or just scientism.  Their goal is to “Make man a really efficient animal.” NICE will “take charge of Man”.  Direct manipulation of the brain is their goal. Same as Wicked. Wither and Frost are two definite mad scientists. (How about Glitter and Lost?)

Lewis’s bitter observation: to parents, “Experiment on a child” is a bad thing. But offer them a seat in an “experimental school”, and they’ll sign right up.

Kris ended with an exhortation to science not to forget that we might be working from immoral principles. Fascinating exchange at the end of this talk:

  • Q: Why are there mad scientists, but nobody ever denounces mad theologians or literati? A: We scientists are highly respected.
  • Prof Olsen: do scientists have a proclivity that way? Philostrato isn’t mad, though he’s a dupe. A: Nobody wants to read a novel about normal scientists.
  • CO: it’s a compliment to scientists – in order for them to do evil, they must be insane.
  • Jon: science stripped of humanity leads to these effects.

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