Wizards, Aliens, and Starships: Physics and Math in Fantasy and Science Fiction

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Princeton University Press, Feb 2, 2014 - Science - 392 pages

From teleportation and space elevators to alien contact and interstellar travel, science fiction and fantasy writers have come up with some brilliant and innovative ideas. Yet how plausible are these ideas--for instance, could Mr. Weasley's flying car in the Harry Potter books really exist? Which concepts might actually happen, and which ones wouldn’t work at all? Wizards, Aliens, and Starships delves into the most extraordinary details in science fiction and fantasy--such as time warps, shape changing, rocket launches, and illumination by floating candle--and shows readers the physics and math behind the phenomena.

With simple mathematical models, and in most cases using no more than high school algebra, Charles Adler ranges across a plethora of remarkable imaginings, from the works of Ursula K. Le Guin to Star Trek and Avatar, to explore what might become reality. Adler explains why fantasy in the Harry Potter and Dresden Files novels cannot adhere strictly to scientific laws, and when magic might make scientific sense in the muggle world. He examines space travel and wonders why it isn’t cheaper and more common today. Adler also discusses exoplanets and how the search for alien life has shifted from radio communications to space-based telescopes. He concludes by investigating the future survival of humanity and other intelligent races. Throughout, he cites an abundance of science fiction and fantasy authors, and includes concise descriptions of stories as well as an appendix on Newton's laws of motion.

Wizards, Aliens, and Starships will speak to anyone wanting to know about the correct--and incorrect--science of science fiction and fantasy.


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User Review  - fpagan - LibraryThing

A physicist's semiquantitative study (actual equations are included) of many of the concepts appearing in speculative fiction. After wasting (in my opinion) the first 4 of his 21 chapters on "urban ... Read full review

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Science fiction is one of my favorite genres, and I have pretty much grown up on a steady diet of reading about spaceships, robots, aliens, stars, and planets. In that regard I am probably very similar to most of my fellow Physicists, but by and large I had never actually set down and used any of my actual Physics knowledge in order to figure out how feasible are some of the traditional sci-fi themes. Fortunately, in this fascinating and extraordinarily well-presented book Charles Adler has gone to the trouble of exploring the Physics behind science fiction, and the result is a very intriguing and insightful book that would appeal to all die-hard sci-fi fans.
In order to get the most out of this book you should be at least comfortable with the kind of Physics that is usually taught at college freshmen level. There are a lot of equations throughout the book, and even though you won’t see any calculus or really long calculations, you should be comfortable enough with Physics equations in general in order to appreciate this material.
The book primarily focuses on science fiction literature, and a few science fiction writers in particular. Even though many of us (myself included) primarily consume science fiction in the form of movies, hardly any specific movies are ever mentioned. For the most part this works out fine, since the kind of general themes discussed here are equally applicable to both the movie and books. However, I really would have appreciated more of the references to such a staple movies as Star Wars and E.T. for instance.
The book takes a hard look at many of the most popular themes in science fiction – space travel, aliens, space colonies, tame travel, etc. – and presents a rigorous account of how feasible those themes are based on our best knowledge of the physical laws. Unfortunately, many of the more common sci-fi themes turn out to be if not quite impossible, then either unlikely or unfeasible. This is bound to put a damper on many science fiction fans’ expectation of what the future might bring in these domains (at least this is the effect it partially had on me), but at least it made me appreciate all the fantastical technological challenges that need to be overcome if we are going to have even a fraction of the fantastic gadgets that generations of the science fiction writers have been promising us.
I was less than enthusiastic about the part of the book that deals with fantasy. Granted, I am not the biggest fan of fantasy to begin with, but I do enjoy a well-written fantasy movie or a novel every once in a while. However, in fantasy writing, unlike science fiction, there is not even the pretense of trying to be constrained by the laws of nature. This going through the trouble of showing why so many of the fantasy themes are impossible in the real world, while intellectually entertaining, feels rather futile.
I would particularly recommend this book to any aspiring, or even established, science fiction writers. It can be used as a quick reference for all the main physics-related issues and themes that constantly pop up within the sci-fi genera.
There are a few other themes that constantly pop up in science fiction, but are either mentioned only in passing and in the broadest terms in this book, or not at all. These include advanced robots, artificial intelligence, advanced weapons (lightsaber!), cyberspace, cloning, extinct advanced ancient civilizations, etc. As the central theme of this book was physics in sci fi, it’s understandable why these other themes would not be covered. It would be great if some experts in those other fields offered their insights in another book similar to this one. Or if a group of authors joined forces and composed a reference work of sorts that would include all of these themes in a single volume. Thanks to the self-publishing revolution there has been an explosion of new writers writing science fiction for the first time, and a book like that one could greatly help them get a single resource where they could all the main scientific and


Newtons Three Laws of Motion

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About the author (2014)

Charles L. Adler is professor of physics at St. Mary's College of Maryland.

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