Tuesday, 18 August 2015

ConBravo: Ask a Scientist

This post is separate from the main ConBravo chronology. It will focus on a 1.5 hour long panel from Saturday called “Ask a Scientist”. There were three panelists, one with an engineering background (I've been told it's Ryan Consell), the other two more biology based (I've been told the guy is Greg MacNeill). If anyone knows the identity of the third panelist, feel free to educate me.


(The guy closest to me was the engineer-type.)
The first question was regards artificial gravity, contrasting spinning against magnetic boots. It was pointed out that electronics are affected by magnetic fields, so it would be bad to accidentally put your foot on a computer terminal. A spinning structure is better, would act on the whole building - and since it simulates gravity, muscles wouldn’t atrophy unlike with boots that point “this way up”. But don’t look towards the middle, you’ll get nauseous.

The idea of “gravity plates in the floor” was also brought up (like for starships), the main problem there being it needs to exert enough of a force to keep people down - without people on the deck below being sucked up to the ceiling. (Unidirectional mass plates?) In the lull which followed, I asked for their biggest pet peeve, mentioned as being something that always comes up.

The biology person (Greg) said it would be the lack of accurate information, given how accessible it all is! A lot of science is sitting at a bench or standing in a river. Things go slowly. CSI is lazy writing, tissue samples don’t give you the image of a face. The zoology person said it would be the lack of accurate terminology, leading to a “sciency” word being applied to the wrong thing. (eg. “It’s some kind of nematode!” Uhh...)

The engineer (Ryan) concluded by saying he hates when writers don’t hand wave, but rather try to explain the interlocking pieces, and it’s WRONG where it COULD have been right! If you’d left it up to interpretation. He added that any trade (other than acting) means movies are showing things wrong, down to the job of a barista at a cafe. Which is okay in general, bad when you get technical.


Next question was about technology mimicking magic, and specifically could technology raise the dead? For people, not so much. You CAN take a piece of worm/starfish and grow a whole other organism. Hamburgers are also now being born in petrie dishes. Brief explanation here of stem cells, those being our first cells, which can turn into every kind of cell; once you’ve grown, the cells are all differentiated.

Techno-Mage animes like Nanoha
are pretty cool though
So how do we navigate in the weird middle ground between fantasy and reality? What on TV is actual “science”? (Even the ‘Discovery’ channel can get nebulous.) The challenge against science is in things that are difficult to disprove. Ghosts, for example, are BAD science, because it’s impossible to disprove they exist. Newton’s gravity is good science, ironically because it was disproved (in certain contexts) using relativity.

Good science looks at a PROCESS rather than FACTS. So question everything you hear around you, ask WHY do these people know better than I do on subject X? IS there a legit reason they should know more? I have Carl Sagan’s “Demon Haunted World” written, as a way to explain the scientific method. Of course, you also need to “strike a balance so you don’t break people emotionally”.

Troublingly, it’s easier to accept a “fact” than to dislodge one. Something Aunt Wendy asserted when drunk will need to be disproved by a panel of experts before you change your mind - because Wendy was FIRST (and you have emotional ties!). Incidentally, “you can tell the real scientists because they get excited by really boring stuff”.


What’s the practical feasibility of warp drive? At present, conventional physics says you cannot go faster than light. The reason is, as you get closer, you get heavier, so it’s harder to get any faster. In fact, if you hit the speed of light, you aren’t matter any more. BUT near the speed of light TIME WARPS, and there are things we don’t know yet.

(Personal aside: I’ve read that particles can go faster than light if the light beam isn’t in a vaccuum. If it’s shining through water, for instance. Of course, then that speed isn’t technically “c” any more.)

There’s also the idea of “exotic matter”, which may have NEGATIVE mass. (Not the same as antimatter, which still has mass but an opposing charge.) Some math says this “exotic matter” might exist, but we don’t know. (I think there was some connection to wormholes here.)

What about invisibility, and the idea of bending light? Well, it can now work with projectors and cameras, but that is hardly stealthy. Plus LCD screens tend to glow. The thing is, there’s no “corporate pressure” to continue on these lines, as we already have something that works to the extent we need. Yes, we CAN make clothes that change colour.


I actually jumped ahead there; before invisibility there was discussion of how to make movies dramatic and compelling, while still balancing accuracy. The problem here may be when things LOOK too historically accurate, giving credence to other inaccuracies (like in “The Imitation Game”, about Turing).

This scientist looks legit.
The real difficulty is how science has a natural “Error Box”, so the reality (“it might work this way?”) doesn’t sound as convincing as celebrities or lobbyists (“it MUST be like this!”). We gravitate to the “Certainty”. There’s also a “False Balance” problem in society, where we get one person on each side of an argument - even if one side is representative of a majority, which can reinforce beliefs over science.

An audience member brought up flight. We have all these models for airplane lift involving curves, yet when the Wright Brothers flew, they didn’t have those curves - so how did THEY do it? Most science comes from the realization, “You’re a LITTLE BIT wrong”. (A good argument for keeping your notes around.) So there was no answer per se, though it was noted that the bee problem has been solved (science now knows how they make a vacuum, and can fly despite their weight).

There was also an earlier question about mosquitoes, which became a discussion as to whether the buzzing is an unavoidable byproduct. For instance, a byproduct of our walking upright is that we need a big pelvis. Byproducts like this are different from adaptive traits.


I asked another question in here, about the square-cube problem and resizing people in a “Gulliver’s Travels” sense. (For those unaware, surface area is squared while volume is cubic, causing a problem when things grow or shrink.) They was pointed out how a mouse the size of an elephant would crush it’s own legs. And if an elephant could jump as high as a human, it would shatter it’s hips upon landing.

Another issue with growth - if you’re larger, you need more food. There are some work-arounds, for instance, in water you don’t have to support your own weight, but in general the idea of growing was rejected. Shrinking (a la “Ant Man”) is somewhat more plausible. Yes, the surface area of your lungs is smaller, but you also need less oxygen because you’re using less energy. So file this under it “might kind of work”?

"What could go wrong?"
What about the “slingshot effect” from Star Trek IV? The basic idea there is sound - you are using the gravity of a planet (or star) to speed yourself up. This WILL slow down the planet (equal and opposite reaction), but said planet/star is so massive it won’t notice. Time travel as a byproduct is more questionable.

One of the last questions was about prosthetic limbs, versus regenerating tissue. The former is a lot easier. The main issue with the latter is it might (with what we know now) take 18 years to grow you your new limb, as it grows not unlike you did. Also, while it’s said that we “have 5 senses”, we actually have something like 23. One of them being “Proprioception”, the sense of knowing where your limbs are.


The idea of science having the “Error Box”, and problems in society (like “False Balance”) are things I was aware of, but it was good to have that reinforced - and mentioned for those who didn’t know. Everything else was more specific, so may or may not be useful for my future writing (or yours!).

The “square-cube” problem in particular was something I mentioned because of an “April Fools” entry that Lucy Weaver wrote for my last web serial... and when I return to “Epsilon Project”, I suspect I will offer it as an option. Thanks for reading! You might also be interested in my “Face Palms of World Building” recap, towards the end of that CanCon post.


  1. Artificial gravity comes up in SF because it's easier to film in normal 1G gravity than in reduced or zero gravity or with a spin. Unless the work is animated, there's little extra cost to handwaving artificial gravity and a lot of overhead setting up even the moon's gravity

    CSI is never a good source of science. It moves at the speed of plot and handwavium. It's become a problem in jury trials. Mythbusters, while still not a great source, still uses the scientific method mostly, including the willingness to go back to an experiment if something was done wrong. Explosions are just the fun side effect.

    IIRC, a Dutch team managed to slow light down to highway speeds, but they passed the light through a dense material. I notice that no one mentioned space warps outside wormholes. The idea of bending local space to bring two points closer together still requires large energy outputs, though.

    From computer science, I'm a bit more inure to writers not getting programming. It can be an arcane art. But, please, not everyone uses a Mac, especially in government. They're too expensive and not flexible enough for office work. And no more shooting the monitor to disable a computer. That only works with some lines of Macs.

    1. The artificial gravity question may have been literary based, meaning film can go hang itself, but I get what you mean. As to the TV refs, I haven't actually seen either show in years. ^_^

      I did a quick search on light speed, which actually turned up the following article about Scottish scientists slowing photons by changing their shape. Okay. Huh.

      As to space warps, I think there may have been some mention in passing? Don't quite recall. Good things to keep in mind when writing about programming there though. (iPhones are pretty flexible - they can bend in your back pocket!)