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The Physics Of Science Fiction

Good Morning/Afternoon/Evening/Whatever. My name is Michelle and I am a senior at Kentridge High School. One of my favorite things to do is read, and a good amount of the material that I read is science fiction, which necessarily contains, well, science. In reading all of these books, I have always wondered if the things that they describe could ever really happen. The simple answer to that would be: of course not, you idiot, that is why it is called science fiction. Well, yes, but I embarked anyway on a quest to see gauge the possibility quotient of the physics in six of my favorite science fiction books. As a result, I learned two things: 1-it is very hard to do this kind of page without a lot more physics knowledge than I posess and 2-a lot more is possible in those books than I ever gave them credit for. I also learned that html is not very much fun at all, but that is not really relevant to this project. Anyway, after I embarked, I found out a lot more about physics than I had understood before, was fun. I liked it. I hope you do too.

The results of my physics/scifi odyssey are listed below, along with the bibliography and my own possibility rating system (eerily similar to the system of rating restaurants. 5=most possible)

Ender's Game and Xenocide: Orson Scott Card

Card, Orson Scott. Ender's Game. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, Inc. 1977

Synopsis: Boy wonder Ender Wiggin must save the world from the threat of bug-like alien invaders

Principle: Generation and reflection of gravity

"...I've thought of a lot of neat things you could do with gravity weapons and gravity drives on starships. And think of how starships could move near planets. Maybe ear big chunks out of them by reflecting the planest's own gravity back on itself, only from another direction, and focused down to a smaller point" (Card 82).

Possibility Rating: ****

Reason: The formula used to determine gravity is F=ma yes? This means that gravity is a force. A force is not something that can be reflected. Of course, it is possible to generate a force, and it is quite possible that such a machine could be made, and some sort of "gravity beam" could be focused on the earth. However, such an endeavor would be ultimately futile, because, as Newton's Third Law states; for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. So the beam pulls on earth, and the earth pulls back on the beam. And so does the rest of the gravity from earth's mass. Assuming that such a machine would have to be in orbit around the earth to be effective, who do you think will win this particular tug of war? However, there is a theory that gravity is not really a force, but a wave, like light or sound, and like these, could be produced by a machine, or reflected (think echoes and mirrors). However, the gravity of the earth in one specific point is not all that tramautic. You walk around all day in it and hardly notice it is there. And the further away you are from the source of gravity, the less you feel it. Such a gravity mirror would have to be fairly far away from a planet to keep from being either destroyed by planetary defenses, or simply to keep it afloat (in orbit) and so you would need a BIG gravity mirror to generate any force/waves worth speaking of. Say, half the planet. And how in the world would you make anything that big? Maybe with a and a gravity lens to concentrate it...

Principle: Molecular Disruption Device
"At the focal point of two beams, it sets up a field in which molecules can't hold together anymore. Electrons can't be shared...The field spreads out in a sphere, but it gets weaker the further t spreads. Except that where it actually runs nto a lot of molecules, it gets stronger and starts over. The bigger the ship, the stronger the new can set up a chain that wipes them all out. Then the field dies down, the molecules come back together, and where you had a ship, you now have a lump of dirt with a lot of iron molecules in it. No radioactivity, no mess, just dirt" (Card 272)

Possibility Rating:*

Reason: It is possible, with enough heat or pressure or atomic bombardment to split a molecule: if we can split the atom itself, a molecule is a piece of cake. But to make a molecule no longer want to stay together would require a bit more force; some atomic bonds are ionic; imagine trying to make a field that would make a magnet no longer work. It is probably possible to do it, but at the cost of a lot of energy. Which would, at this point in time, be wasted. The molecular disruption device can only be used in space safely; to use it on a planet, or on anything on a planet, would result in that planets complete destruction. And since we have no use for a weapon in space, it is not needed, and very dangerous

Card, Orson Scott. Xenocide. New York: Tor Books. 1991

Synopsis: Slightly older boy wonder fighting to save family and friends and alien races from destruction at by the weapon mentioned above.

Principle: "there's a space so universally adjacent to our own that philotes can pass into our space from the other space at any point" (Card 490).

"So here's how we do it. Instead of trying to physically move all of the particles that compose the starship and it's passengers and cargo from Star A and Star B, we simply conceive of them all-the entire pattern, including all the human contents-as existing, not Inside, but Outside. At that moment, all the philotes that compose the starship and the people in it disorganize themselves, pop through to the Outside, and reassemble themselves there according to the familiar pattern. Then we do the same thing again, and pop back inside-only now we're at Star B"(Card 491).

Possibility Rating:(Pending Research)

Reason:How in the world am I supposed to know if there is an alternate universe? I have not a clue as to whether there is one or not. If there is, this would be quite possible.
Star Trek

it's rather difficult to come up with a bibliography for this's on channel 13 at 10:00 every night...and here's a link to the Official Star Trek Site in hopes that I won't get sued for quoting them

A quote is rather difficult about: "engage cloaking device"?

Principle: Cloaking Device

Possibility Rating: *****

Reason: It's already here (cue spooky music now) In June of 1943 the U.S. allegedly conducted and experiment on the U.S.S. Eldridge, a small destroyer. The experiment was to see if they could render a ship invisible by the use of an intense magnetic field to refract light around the ship. Apparently, the experiment worked: observers report seeing a greenish fog gather about the ship, which then disappeared, taking the U.S.S. Eldridge with it. Fifteen minutes later, the generators powering the magnetic shield were turned off, and the ship reappeared. Piece of cake.


On October 28 of that same year, there was an identical test performed on the same ship, in the same place, but with very different results. According to the reports of observers, a blinding blue flash was the last thing that they saw before the ship not only disappeared, but also teleported, moving from a shipyard in Pennsylvania to the coast of Virginia and back, all in a few minutes. But nothing like the condition in which it had left only minutes before. The remaining crew members (some disappeared)suffered violent illness (the mildest cases) ranging through the various stages and intensities of mental illness to the last five, who were found fused with the ship, not melted onto the surface, mind you, actually fused, on a molecular level with the structure of the ship.

Worth it?

*Note: there is no tangible evidence that the Philadelphia Experiment, also known as the Rainbow Project ever existed. There are eyewitness reports, and that is pretty much it. No victims have come forward, as far as I know

"Beam me up Scotty."

Principle: Transporting People

Possibility Rating:**

Reason: See above reason on for cloaking device for reason that it is possible-if it is possible to do it on accident, you can do it on purpose. But at what price? What would it entail? First of all, it might not be necessary to dismantle the body and send it through the beam (or whatever). If you could somehow store all of the information in a computer and do the equivalent of emailing it to the place you wish to go and then having your body assembled from atoms at the location. The problem would be making sure that you got the coordinates right and all of you came through. And then there is the possibility of "crossed calls" that could give you another's body. Plus, as your data was transferred, your body would have to be disintegrated (otherwise you would end up with two bodies, which would just be really creepy). What if you were disintegrated before your data was transferred? On the whole, I would prefer a plane.

Startide Rising, The Practice Effect, Heaven's Reach Earth: David Brin

Brin, David. The Practice Effect. New York: Bantam Books, 1984

Synopsis: Maverick Scientist probes anomaly world, discovers slight deviations in the laws of physics.

"But he hadn't been mistaken! The stuff had simply improved!... He saw a tower that had become, after many generations, a great castle-because it had been practiced at it for so long!(Brin 72)

Principle: Reversal of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Possibility Rating: (there are no stars here)

Reason: First of all, for all of those of you who do not know what that is, the second law of thermodynamics is the one about entropy: stuff gets worse as it gets older. The reversal of that means that if you wear a burlap sack long enough, it will turn into a silk robe. And, as is painfully obvious to me every morning as I look into my closet, THAT DOESN'T HAPPEN. At all. Could it happen in an alternate dimension? I didn't know, and so I asked my physics teacher. His answer? Anything is possible. Anyway, it isn't exactly a testable theory right now. I'll post a new reason when I visit an alternate dimension

Brin, David. Startide Rising. New York: Bantam Books. 1983

Synopsis: Terran exploration vessel Streaker lands on poisonous metal planet Kithrup. All sorts of alien fighting over them.

"They cannot have found such a devilish trap. They cannot have...."
It watched the Pthaca ship collide relatavistically with a barrier that had not been there minutes before.
It was only a diffuse stream of gas particles, drifting in thier path. But, unexpected, it met the Pthaca warship's screens like a solid wall. At a fair fraction of light speed, any barrier was deadly." (Brin 439)"

Possibility Rating *****

Reason: The acceleration of an object is determined by its mass and the force that starts it moving. In order to have an acceleration that brings the ship near to lightspeed, you need an incredible amount of force. A lot of atoms hitting the warship would cause a fly-hitting-the-windshield effect. When this happens to your car, the windshield is much stronger than the flies, and the car is not going very fast. As a result, the flies are pulped against your windshield, but they do a minute amount of damage to it as well. The damage ratio of collider to collidee is determined by the strength of both objects as well as the speed at which the collide. An atom is very hard to break-(just think of all the energy needed for fission reactors to work-to start them; not maintain them), and near light speed is very fast. Think having flies made of lead hit your car. Or how about having someone shoot fly-sized bullets at your car...

"On the ship in the center of a fleet of ships, a phase of denial was passing. Giant cruisers spilled out of a rent in space, to fall toward the pinpoint brilliance of a non-descript reddish sun. One by one they tumbled from the luminous tear. With them came diffracted starlight from their point of departure, hundreds of parsecs away. There were rules that should have prevented it. The tunnel was an unnatural way to pass from place to place. It took a strong will to deny nature and call into being such an opening in space. The Episarch, in its outraged rejection of What Is, had created the passage for its Tandu masters. The opening was held by the adamant power of its ego--by its refusal to concede anything at all to Reality" (Brin 18).

Principle: Basically "if you wish for something hard enough, it will happen"

Possibility Rating: No Stars

Reason: Well, first of all, it is possible to change your reality if you deny it hard enough-just think of all the mentally instable people that actually think that they are Babe Ruth or Gandhi, or whatever. To these people, that is their reality. We do not share this reality, but their reality is as real to them as ours is to us. But can we actually change the reality of others just by wishing? Well, that depends on where you are. After all, in Neverland, it is possible to save a fairy by clapping...But seriously, it is hard to tell....I doubt that it would be possible, and even if it was, you would need some pretty heavy denial to make it work. Otherwise, it would mean that every little kid who said and believed with all their heart that there was a monster under the bed would be right. Kind of makes you glad this isn't possible, doesn't it? Ultimately, however, this is seems to be a question of philosophy, not of physics.

Brin, David. Earth. New York: Bantam Books. 1990

Synopsis: Scientist builds black hole which escapes him, falling into the center of the earth.

"have you created a monster, Dr. Lustig?
Yes Mr. Hutton. I think I made the very Devil itself." (Brin 6)

Principle: Making a black hole artificially

Possibility Rating: (in space)* on Earth (no stars)

Reason: A singularity is the core of a black hole. They weigh in at masses so huge as to defy comprehension, and yet are incredibly small-some could be microscopic. In order to create a singularity naturally,an enourmous star must implode, compacting its mass into an incredibly small space. In order to make a singularity on Earth, you would not only need thousands of tons of matter to compact, you would also need an enormous amount of power to cram it into the small shape of a singularity. And even if you did this, as soon as you succeeded, the thing would probably not waste time falling through the Earth to the center. Instead, it would simply start its vacum where it was, pulling everything around it inside of it-starting with you. The singularity in this story was temporarily confined in a magnetic field, which is another impossibility-something which eats light is probably not going to be detered by magnets. Perhaps it would be possible to create a black hole in space, by making a huge star explode and then fall in on itself, but the lack of huge stars on Earth makes making a black hole here rather impossible.
A singularity is also thought of as a hole in spacetime. And spacetime is everywhere, just as space is, correct? (well, maybe not correct, I'm a little fuzzy on the fine points of this) So perhaps it is possible to pierce spactime directly, and make a hole that would serve as a singularity. I have absolutely no clue as to how you would do this. It's just an idea.

Brin, David. Heaven's Reach. New York: Bantam Books. 1998.

"Caterpillar ribbed, with rows of talonlike protrusions that bite into spacetime, the vessel claws its way urgently against a bitter gale" (Brin 9).

Principle: Biting into spacetime to go at lightspeed

Possibility Rating:**

Reason: According to what I learned in Astronomy class, the universe is expanding at a speed faster than that of light. If somehow one could make "talons" that could grip the fabric of spacetime, the universe would take you along for the ride. But, unfortunately, I don't think that a physical talon could grasp a concept, which is kind of what spacetime is. And while this kind of travel would make one go faster than light-or maybe just at the speed of light-but general relativity makes it so that relative to the planets, you would be standing still. Technically, you would be going at the speed of light...not that it would do you much good.


I am, as I have stated before, a high school senior, not a physicist. I am sorry if I have written anything that annoys/distresses/offends anyone (especially those of you who actually are physicists).

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