Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Dropping Science on Yo' Fiction -- A Talk with Stephanie Osborn

Stephanie Osborn, the Interstellar Woman of Mystery, is a veteran of 20+ years in the space program, with graduate/undergraduate degrees in astronomy, physics, chemistry and mathematics, is “fluent” in several more, including geology and anatomy. She has authored, co-authored, or contributed to some two dozen books, including the celebrated Burnout: The Mystery of Space Shuttle STS-281 and the Displaced Detective series.

Since you're the only writer I know who is actually a rocket scientist, how do you feel about the weird blending that happens when science fiction meets science fact?

I guess it depends. If it's obviously space opera or the equivalent, and it's well written, I'm up for suspending disbelief and enjoying a good romp. If it's really badly written, I want to fling something. Preferably something hard and massive. (Those who have heard me discourse on certain “science fiction” films will know what I mean.)

But a well-written hard science fiction book (or TV show, or film) is a treat, and can often inspire brainstorming as to how we might make it a real thing.

One of the theories you built from in your writing is the idea of parallel universes by way of String Theory and M Theory. For those of us who haven't been through the wormhole with Morgan Freeman and back again, could you explain the difference between those theories?

Ha! Well, “let's start at the very beginning; it's a very good place to start,” as Maria said (sang) in The Sound of Music. So. Most of the physics that the average person knows revolves around 4 dimensions: length, width, height, and time. But as “modern physics” (including relativity theory, quantum mechanics, and more) began to develop, we began to realize that the various fundamental forces of nature (nuclear forces -- there are two, the weak and strong nuclear forces; the electric force; the magnetic force; and gravitational force) could be unified, at least in part -- which is to say we found a way to relate them mathematically so that they can be described in the same way and their interactions readily predicted. Everybody's heard of electromagnetics; this was the first pair of forces to be unified, back in the late 1800s by James Clerk Maxwell. By now, all of those forces have been unified — except gravity. There seems to be something different about gravity, because it's not behaving properly per any of the theories. Some scientists speculate it may not even be a force in and of itself, but rather the response of mass to...something else. It's the “something else” that we're trying to figure out.

Anyway, all of this led to the development of something called cosmic string theory. This adds a new structure to the universe in addition to the particles of matter that we're used to: an infinitely long, infinitely dense string. (Imagine grabbing a black hole in your hands and jerking it out into an infinite string, and you pretty much got it. The “energy ribbon” from the movie, Star Trek: Generations was in essence a cosmic string, although the whole business about a world inside it invokes some other theories.) These probably do exist. Maybe. But that theory didn't explain all the observations.

So then they added a few more dimensions to the 4 we know, and came up with superstring theory. That's kinda like an interdimensional cosmic string. And at this point we start to realize that other universes, parallel continuums, could exist. But it still didn't explain all the observations.

So then M theory was developed. It requires at least 11 dimensions, possibly as many as 40, or even more. And it introduces another structure: a membrane, or “brane” for short (hence the M in the name of the theory).

There are several different versions of M theory, five to be precise, developed by five different teams of researchers, and it is looking like just maybe this might do the trick. Because while no one version of the theory explains all the observed facts, together they appear to do so. So if we can combine all five, we think we got it. And so we wind up with three basic multiversal structures:

1) closed-loop strings, kinda like Cheerios, that behave like particles called bosons, which carry the fundamental forces and can float between all the other structures, across dimensions;

2) bound, open strings, basically enhanced superstrings whose ends are connected to the third structure,

3) branes.

And it almost certainly invokes parallel universes in the “bulk,” or multiverse.

And lo and behold, some of the stuff that M theory predicts looks to be showing up in our observations. (So rather than trying to find the observations in the theory, we now are starting to get things in the theory to go look for.) There's even some very small nonuniformity in the background radiation of the universe that may — MAY, mind you, it’s not definite yet, and a lot of scientists think it's BS — indicate “bruises” where other universes have “bumped” ours. The imagery for that is pretty cool, by the way.

And it also makes for some fun science to play around with and extrapolate for science fiction novels! I've invoked it two different ways in two different series: the Point series with Travis S. Taylor (first book out, Extraction Point; I’m trying to shake him loose to write the other books with me), and the Displaced Detective series. (There’s going to be a kind of related series to Displaced Detective soon, over at another publishing house. The editor in chief of Pro Se Productions is a Displaced Detective fan, and has contracted me to write the Sherlock Holmes: Gentleman Aegis series, chronicling the adventures of “my” Holmes with his Watson in his original continuum’s Victorian Era. I’m working on the first book now, Sherlock Holmes and the Mummy’s Curse.)

You've mixed science with Sherlock and done so admirably. Are there other historical or scientific characters from real life you're itching to work with in fiction or other physics theories that are influencing you creative juices at the moment?

Thank you most kindly! I try hard.

Oh, I've brought in several scientists from the Victorian era in various works. I've used Nikola Tesla no less than three times in different works, one of which is still looking for a publishing home! That latter one is a YA steampunk novel, with a planned series behind it, and it pulls in quite a few historical personages in thinly-veiled form.

I actually kind of developed my own “science” in the Cresperian Saga. The first book of that series, Human By Choice, was written by Travis and another writer, Darrell Bain; I didn’t have anything to do with it. They invoked an alien race, the advanced Cresperians, whose science was so advanced it was almost magic to us. They had something that best translated into English as an “unreality drive,” but neither Travis nor Darrell had worked out the mechanism behind it. Well, Travis bowed out due to heavy workload for book 2, The Y Factor, and the publisher tapped me as his protégé to step in and work with Darrell as his co-author. By book 3, The Cresperian Alliance, Darrell — who is in his 80s — decided the character list was getting too big to deal with, so he bowed out and I took the lead. And I found, with the plot I wanted to write for that book, I needed to know how that “unreality drive” thingie worked. And neither of ‘em could tell me. So I sat down and racked my brains, and finally came up with something. It feels a little hokey to me, but it's still kind of a fun concept. It works like this:

There is a concept in more advanced mathematics called i. Now, i is an “imaginary number,” and is the square root of -1. The reason it is considered imaginary is that any time you multiply two negative numbers together, the solution is a positive number. Therefore, for instance,

(-2)2 = 4, not -4.

And

(-2) x (-3) = 6, not -6.

But

i2 = -1.

It violates the multiplicative rule, thus it is “imaginary.”

Now, interestingly, i tends to crop up in physics equations from time to time, and generally physicists take those “imaginary” terms in the equation and toss them, as not representing anything in the “real world.”

But the Cresperians had supposedly discovered that they DID represent actual phenomena in the multiverse, and had taken those terms in the equations and harnessed the phenomena they predicted, and this became the foundation for their propulsion systems and some of their power generation.

You cannot imagine how I racked my brains to come up with that explanation...

What advice do you have for non-scientists who are looking to use real-world science in their work?

Find a scientist who knows his/her stuff, who is willing to work with you, and USE 'em! Make the scientist your advisor, your teacher, your beta reader — and above all, LISTEN to 'em. I can't tell you how annoyed it makes me when another author consults me about the science to do a particular thing in a book s/he is writing — and quite a few do — and then when I explain the science and how to do it in the book, s/he blows me off with a, “Nah, I wanna do it THIS way.” When my solution would have been just as simple, not that different, but the modification of only a few details would have made it technically accurate. (Frankly, it makes me wonder if the writer really cares enough to get it right, or is just lazy, or whatever. A harsh thought, but if, for the same number of yet-unwritten words, you could make it technically accurate, and not affect your story, why wouldn’t you? Not to mention the ones who present me with their story concept and ask, “Will that work?” So I spend an hour or better explaining why it would NOT work, only to get, “Meh. I’mma do it anyway.” Then why did you bother asking me? You just wasted a big chunk of time for both of us, when I could have gotten in several hundred words in my own book.)

And then, at the end, make sure to thank him/her in your author notes.

 Editor's Note: For more information about Stephanie's work, visit her website.