Monday, August 17, 2009

A Sense of Scale and Science Fiction Writers

Most people (I hope) know that Florida is closer to Jamaica than India is.

A sense of scale - at least a rough one - can, I think make or break the willing suspension of disbelief necessary for a story. Say you were reading a story about vacationers who took a bus from Hawaii to Florida, spent a day on a boat getting to Jamaica, and another day on a similar boat, getting to India?

Unless it was a magic bus, a magic boat - and the author had clued you in that the story involved (very) unusual vehicles - you might have a hard time staying focused on the story.

How Far is Alpha Centauri? Or, Let's Get Sirius

Let's say you're reading a science fiction (or, if you're up-to-date, speculative fiction) story about an epic space war. Nothing wrong with that, by the way. Not for me, anyway, Think of it like this: Star Wars did pretty well as a story.

Knowing Your Way Around the Neighborhood - Stellar Neighborhood, That Is

Now, in this space epic, you discover that it takes about twice as long to get from Sol (Earth's sun) to Alpha Centauri, as it does to get from Sol to Sirius. So far, so good. Sirius, at (roughly) eight and a half light years is approximately twice as far as Alpha Centauri.

Then, you read that it takes about the same amount of time to get from Alpha Centauri to either Sol or Sirius. Hey: Alpha Centauri is half-way to Sirius from Sol, right?

Wrong. It's pretty obvious that the author didn't check his sky charts. Alpha Centauri is about a light year farther from Sirius than Sol is. It's a bit over nine and a half light years from Sirius to Alpha Centauri.1

Although the distance from Alpha Centauri to Sirius isn't obvious from a sky chart, it's pretty clear that Alpha Centauri and Sirius are not particularly close to each other in the sky: so making Alpha Centauri a sort of stellar Midway between Sol and Sirius isn't all that sensible.

Finding out, in general terms, what direction things are in isn't the worst thing a writer could do.

Space is Big: Really, Really Big

I don't remember where I ran into this discussion of cosmic distances, and can't remember the exact words, but it went something like this:
Space is very big. It's so big that it doesn't have a bottom. It's bottomless. It's bottomless at the top and at the bottom. It doesn't have any sides, either.
That's actually a pretty good description. Distances here on Earth can be big, by human standards, and the world gets bigger when we leave this planet.

A Drive-Through Model of the Solar System

Peoria made a scale model of the Solar system (micro-reviewed January 18, 2008 in another blog). I think it's a pretty good educational tool for giving people a 'feel' for comparative distances in our immediate vicinity. Remember: Earth is about 8,000 miles across.

The dome of Lakeview Museum of the Arts and Sciences's planetarium is our son, Sol, in this model. The scale is 42 foot = 1,000,000 miles.

Here's how big the model is:
(from sun/Sol)(diameter)
The sun/SolN/A36 feet
Mercury0.25 miles1.5 inches
Venus0.5 miles3.8 inches
Earth0.75 miles4 inches
Mars1.2 miles2.2 inches
Ceres1.6 miles0.3 inches
Jupiter4 miles45 inches
Jupiter's rings-76 inches
Saturn8 miles38 inches
Saturn's rings-90 inches
Uranus15 miles16 inches
Uranian rings-32 inches
Neptune23 miles15 inches
Neptunian rings23 miles30 inches
Pluto40 miles0.7 inches
Eris62 miles0.8 inches
(Source: What is the Community Solar System?)

At this scale, Alpha Centauri A and B would be around 205,290 miles away: closer than the moon, but not by much.2

Basically, Space is BIG

These models are helpful in giving some idea of just how big the Solar system is - and how far it is between stars.
How Much Detail and Precision?
I don't think a writer could be expected to - or should try to - give the reader a precise 'feel' for just how much distance is involved. Although we've got ways to deal with very large numbers in mathematics, our brains don't seem to be particularly good at translating something like "205,290 miles" into a comprehensible distance. Not the way we can translate "four feet" into something concrete: something that can be seen with the mind's eye.

I do think that a writer can use radically scaled-down models, like the Peoria Solar system, to build a word-picture for the reader.

I also think that it's important for a writer to know a bit more about the scale of things than what gets told to the reader.

One page from the Television Tropes & Idioms website, "Sci Fi Writers Have No Sense Of Scale," has an impressive list of howlers in science fiction and fantasy animation, comics, and live-action shows.

Depending on how you look at it, this page could be a sort of cautionary tale of what a writer must do to avoid ridicule. Or, an example of how a series can have astonishingly goofy mistakes and still be successful. The Star Trek franchise is a fairly familiar example of this, from either point of view.

For example:
"...'All Our Yesterdays' refers to Vulcan as being millions of light-years away. Most of the stars of the entire galaxy fit in a sphere with a diameter of about 100,000 light-years. That would put Vulcan in the Andromeda galaxy or make Vulcan's sky really empty...."
("Sci Fi Writers Have No Sense Of Scale")
Don't get me wrong: I like the original Star Trek series and the subsequent television series, and have seen several of the movies. But that doesn't mean that I take the franchise as particularly serious science fiction. 'Speculative' fiction - maybe. I picked part of the Star Trek collection of bloopers because the franchise is fairly well-known, at least in American culture.
"...And then there's the Green Lantern Corps. The entire universe divided into 3600 sectors, each of which is patrolled by two (it used to be just one) Space Policemen. And most of them seem to spend most of their time on Oa, or their favourite planet, or pursuing obscure goals of their own...."
("Sci Fi Writers Have No Sense Of Scale")

It's a Matter of Time

It's a familiar science fiction (oops - speculative fiction) situation: Humanity reaches the stars, and there's a wide range of people out there: Some with stone age technology, a few with 'bronze tech' - quite a large number with interstellar space ships not at all unlike what humans are using - and there's an incredibly ancient race or two, a million years old.

Good stories can be told with a setting like that: but I'm not particularly comfortable with it. From my point of view, that million-year-or-so range in the length of time the various people have been around is way, way too short.

And the wild coincidence that the majority are at the same point as humanity, when it comes to transportation tech?

Today, we've got pretty good reason to believe that the universe has been around for between 11,200,000,000 and 20,000,000,000 years. Or 10,000,000,000 and 15,000,000,000 years. Or 13,000,000,000 and 14,000,000,000 years.

I'll pick 14,000,000,000 years as a reasonable mid-range guess.

Human beings have been keeping written records for about 5,000 years. (Discussion and list of resources in "Four Millennia of Human Nature: I Think Qoheleth is Right" (August 3, 2009).)

Not so many zeroes, yes?

Cosmologists are pretty sure that it took a seriously long time for elements heavier than hydrogen to build up to the point where there was enough to form rocky planets - and us.

Maybe the scenarios where humanity is one of a number of people who, on the cosmic time scale, are all about the same age, aren't all that wildly improbable. (See "Life on Other Worlds: Evolution, Orbits, and the Galactic Environment" (August 13, 2009).)

There's Ancient, and there's Ancient

I think there's a tendency to think of anything more than a few hundred years old as "ancient." Well and good, but let's look at what "ancient" can mean.

When the Roman Republic formed, Egypt was already into its late period, running through its 20th to 30th Dynasties, and upwards of 2,000 years old.

It would have been like the American Revolutionaries living in a world where the Roman Empire was still a going concern.

That's just what we know about the 5,000 or so years since Cuneiform was developed.
Getting Imaginative
Let's say the universe is 14,000,000,000 years old. And, let's say that the Solar system formed about 4,500,000,000 years ago: which makes it a bit less than a third the age of the universe.

And, let's say that the Solar system wasn't quite the first planetary system where life got started - or where people have lived.

The Carboniferous period, when Earth's coal was laid down, is about 300,000,000 years back. That's roughly 1/47 the age of the universe, assuming that today's cosmologists are pretty close to the mark, and 1/15 the age of the Solar system.

I don't think it's all that unreasonable to think that another planet was formed 3/47 of the universe's age before the Solar system was - and that there was enough non-hydrogen around then to allow a planet like Earth to form. I'll grant that I'm on slightly shaky ground here, but I'm just imagining.

That 'first Earth' would have been as old as Earth is, now, 600,000,000 years ago. They'd have had another 300,000,000 years to work on transportation technologies before the middle of the Carboniferous period came on Earth.

They might have developed ways of getting around that we're beginning to think about: and had time to check out interesting spots in this galaxy.

They might have been curious about what would happen on Earth, and left some equipment behind to keep an eye on the place. Maybe on the moon, maybe here on Earth, in rock that they figured would be stable.

Or maybe they buried something here, confident that it would stay buried under tons of rock on a primitive planet.

Part of what's now the Arrowhead region of Minnesota might have caught their eye for this burial. There's bedrock there that had already been fairly stable for about 200,000,000 years then.

Time passed.

When the latest set of glaciers melted on the North American continent, they exposed bedrock in what's now northern Minnesota that's upwards of 543,000,000 years old. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources identifies some of the exposed bedrock in the Border Lakes Subsection as being from the Precambrian, a period starting 453,000,000 years back: more specifically, from the "Late Archean and Early Proterozoic".

Maybe somewhere, a few hours' drive north of where I live, covered by a few feet of soil, tree roots and moss, a silted-in passage leads down to a chamber where equipment - and maybe something else - has been waiting for half a billion years.

Maybe what was a deeply-buried tomb has become a shallow grave. Shallow enough to allow escape.

Maybe H. P. Lovecraft was an optimist.

And the Moral of This Story Is - - -

Obsessing over nit-picking details isn't a good way of getting a project finished - and probably wouldn't result in a particularly interesting story. On the other hand, I think it's a good idea to do a little homework, check the numbers, and avoid having your characters ride a bus from Hawaii to Florida.

That yarn about a Thing buried in northern Minnesota? No, I really don't think so. On the other hand, paying attention to the scale of the universe - in time and space - allows a writer to start imagining on a large scale.

Related posts: Background:
1 I wouldn't have the distance between Sirius and the closest major star, if I didn't use The Internet Stellar Database. That website has the position of (most) stars within 75 light years of us, and a pretty-good online function for getting distances between stars. I'd be able to figure it out, with a star catalog I've got: but the math is a bit tedious.

2 At this scale, a light year (5,878,786,100,000 miles) is 246,909,012 feet, if I've got the numbers right. Or, again on this scale, a light year is around 46,700 miles. Which makes Alpha Centauri, the nearest main-sequence star (stars - it's a binary, at least), at 4.39 light years, around 205,290 miles away. Which is closer than the moon, but not by much. The distance from the center of Earth to the center of our moon is about 238,890 miles. On average. The moon's orbit is slightly elliptical, so the center-to-center distance ranges from 225,740 to 251,970 miles. According to a page at NASA, anyway. They should know, since they've sent a few ships out there - and gotten them back.

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