Writing science fiction, like teaching and doing research,
provides an opportunity to play with scientific concepts
By Jonathan Marx
Published: January 12, 2007
Science is a discipline of verifiable facts and hard mathematical calculations, but it's also a realm where imagination is key to making new advances. All scientists have to indulge their creative side, to push past the limitations of established knowledge. For most, though, science fiction writing would be a frivolous pursuit, an exercise that takes away from valuable research time.
For Vanderbilt physics professor Robert Scherrer, it's a natural extension of the work he does in the classroom and the laboratory, a chance to play around with scientific concepts in novel ways. During the last five years, this regarded astrophysicist has quietly nurtured a sideline as a science fiction writer, publishing regularly in the long-running monthly Analog Science Fiction and Fact and contributing to the semiannual journal Paradox.
"There are some similarities between doing theoretical physics and science fiction,” Scherrer observes. "I refer to both of them as disciplined daydreaming, where you're trying to get beyond what we already know, but you can't just dream up anything. It has to be within certain confines.” And even science fiction, he explains, has its own measure of rules and guidelines. "It's well known in physics that you have to obey the laws of physics, but science fiction writing has its own set of laws. You can't have warlocks and wizards and unicorns prancing through the scenery.”
This kind of disciplined daydreaming has served Scherrer well during his nearly two-decades-long career as an academic. The chair of Vanderbilt's Department of Physics and Astronomy since 2003, he spent the previous 15 years at Ohio State University, where he earned that school's Alumni Award for Distinguished Teaching in 1999.
Broadly speaking, Scherrer's field of study is cosmology, or the study of the universe as a whole. Within that area, though, he's engaged a number of topics. He's explored the production of elements during the first few minutes of the Big Bang; he's studied the way galaxies cluster in the universe; and, most recently, he's devoted his energies to understanding dark energy, which he describes as "the hypothesized stuff that's making the universe accelerate.”
Scherrer's eagerness to tackle new ideas pretty well defines the man, says his colleague Scott Dodelson, a professor at the University of Chicago and a researcher at Fermilab, the Chicago-based laboratory specializing in particle physics. "If you look at the body of Bob's work going back 20 years, it's not just one specialty,” Dodelson says. "Cosmology is a broad topic, and Bob has been contributing in many different areas. That's a striking thing about his work—how diverse he's been.”
Scherrer's scholarly pursuits go into realms as infinitesimal as subatomic particles and as impossibly enormous as the universe itself. And yet, he points out, such research is fundamental to our basic understanding of human experience. "We don't think that ordinary matter, the kind of stuff that you and I are made of, actually is the dominant kind of matter in the universe. And so that is a very significant question: What is the universe made of? That's one of the fundamental questions of physics from ancient times, and it's something we're still trying to answer.”
In the midst of such challenging queries, Scherrer's fiction writing gives him an outlet to come up with some playful answers. His approach is to toy with a scientific concept and see how it might work out if pushed to an extreme. "That's the style of writing I like—the 'what if' story, the idea-oriented story,” he says. "That's just one of many ways to do science fiction, but it's the closest to doing science, I think.”
For instance, in "Copernican Principle,” Scherrer creates a kind of meta-science-fiction, where he applies scientific and mathematical ideas to the very act of storytelling. In the story a professor struggles to get his half-asleep students to grasp the 16th-century astronomer Copernicus' notion that the earth doesn't occupy a special place in the universe. One kid speaks up, ready to advance the idea that if humanity has been stripped of its unique status in the cosmos, our existence would be even more in line with the Copernican Principle if it turned out we were simply living in a computer simulation. Troubled by the thought, and unable to come up with a counterargument to the student's claim, the professor then suggests we could just as easily be characters in a fictional story—at which point Scherrer answers the question, and the story, with a deft finish.
Stanley Schmidt, the editor of Analog Science Fiction and Fact, which during the course of its 76-year history has published stories by Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein, says it's not uncommon for science professionals to submit stories to his journal. "I like to think of us as the magazine that puts equal emphasis on the words 'science' and 'fiction.' We want the science to be solid and important, but we also want entertaining, well-put-together stories about interesting characters and interesting situations.”
That, Schmidt explains, makes Scherrer a perfect fit for Analog. "He has a good mixture of scientific speculation and entertaining stories, and I just wish he would write more of them! His stories certainly aren't just about scientific gimmicks. They're very much people stories, too.”
Finding that perfect mix of science and fiction is a challenge, Scherrer observes. "A lot of people think it's really easy to write science fiction if you're a scientist because you can just write the stuff you're doing and stick it in a magazine. I think it's actually harder, though, because when you know the subject so well, it's a lot harder to make leaps of the imagination. You're constantly second-guessing yourself. But if everything you write is factual, then you might as well write it up as a physics article. If it's all stuff we know to be true already, then it's boring, right? And if it's crazy, it's not plausible.
"So what you're trying to do is constantly hit the spot between stuff that sounds crazy and stuff that's already known to be true. It's the same when you're doing physics research: You still have to balance between things that are boring and things that are crazy. You want to be able to extrapolate from what we presently know, but not go so far out on the fringe that people think you're a nut-case.”
Even more challenging, Scherrer says, is working his own specialized area of research into a piece of short fiction. Knowing the subject so intimately can prove limiting. It wasn't until he'd published his sixth story, "Extra Innings,” that Scherrer had ever tried introducing cosmology into one of his plots. The result was arguably his strongest piece to date, mixing his good-natured sense of humor with some of his abiding interests—namely, baseball and the expanding universe—in the story of a friendship that spans from the summer of '69 until the literal end of the cosmos.
If physics research and science fiction require a similar kind of balancing act, the demands that come with writing each couldn't be more different, Scherrer says. For an academic who must choose his words very deliberately, science fiction can be a liberating outlet. "Physics research writing style has this very bloated, heavy use of passive voice and compound nouns and qualifying of everything,” he explains. "You don't want to say anything for sure because you might be proven wrong. The fiction writing style is much more peppy and direct, and you try to use colorful, descriptive things to suck the reader in.”
Scherrer has a lecture on the subject that he has given on several campuses. To point up the differences in writing styles, he takes the opening paragraph of "Extra Innings” and rewrites it as if it were a science paper, riddled with hyphens and past participles. "Most of the people who have attended my talk have read a lot of science fiction and have written science articles, so it was a natural thing to show them,” he says. "That gets the biggest laugh of anything in the talk.”
The energy Scherrer brings to pursuits both scholarly and creative filters into his teaching as well. For him, the classroom offers the same opportunities for inquiry and discovery as the laboratory. "When you teach, it forces you to examine ideas you might not normally look at,” he says. "Even when you teach very elementary subjects, like first-year physics, you can incorporate things going on in forefront physics. And when you're doing research, it allows you to talk about important things people are looking at today. You can bring those into the classroom and use them as examples and as a means of explaining how some of these principles work.”
In a field where researchers are constantly reaching for new insights, Scherrer suggests that teaching is one more way of keeping unanswered questions an active part of the scientific discourse until they yield a solution. "On one occasion I was teaching the cosmology portion of a course for first-year students, and afterward I was thinking about something I'd said in the lecture and thought, 'Well, wait a minute, that ought to be something we could resolve.' I thought about it for a couple of weeks and came up with a solution to the problem and wrote a paper on it.”