The Bulk of Haldeman's Brane2006-07-04
"There seems to be a resurgence in hard sf, but fantasy is still the 900-pound gorilla. As Barbie said, 'Math is hard!'"
HSF: How did you first get interested in science?
JH: Probably it was seeing the northern lights, growing up in Alaska.
HSF: What compelled you to start writing science fiction?
JH: Probably the same as most people: I grew up reading science fiction and when I came to write it, wrote the kind I enjoyed most.
HSF: How important is it to you, if at all, that the reader actually learn scientific concepts from your stories?
JH: Not really important. People who learn science from sf are like people who learn history from historical novels. Since there's no general obligation toward rigor, you can't really trust what you read.
HSF: Do you feel that hard sf is the only real type of science fiction? Or is there room for "soft sf"?
JH: There's room for both. I write soft sf all the time. I don't really think about genre conventions while I'm writing. Those decisions are probably automatic for writers unless they're consciously trying to violate them for artistic reasons.
HSF: Some hard sciences, like quantum physics and string theory, are understood by a very small percentage of the world. How does this affect you as someone who is trying to sell hard sf books?
JH: The people who read hard sf aren't put off by string theory or quantum mechanics; I have both in my current novel, The Accidental Time Machine. The people who read the book, I trust, will enjoy that aspect. The people who don't read the book will just have to enjoy something else.
HSF: Please tell us more about The Accidental Time Machine.
JH: I came across a time travel article in the 20 May New Scientist that looks like it was co-authored by Monty Python. There's a fairly standard description of our space-time as a four-dimensional brane adrift in a ten-dimensional space-time, or "bulk." If the bulk is in some sense folded, then there could be instant communication from one point in our space-time to another. (The brane itself can't be folded because that's incompatible with Special Relativity.) If the dimensions of this bulk larger than four are distorted, then things moving through the fifth dimension can go faster than the speed of light -- and thus backwards in time, from the point of view of those of us stuck in the 4-D brane. (Yes, this makes my brane hurt, too.)
The problem with making a time machine out of this is how does material stuck in the 4-D brane escape to travel through the bulk? This is where Monty Python steps in -- and coincidentally backs up the tongue-in-cheek arm-waving I'm using to describe the physics of time travel in The Accidental Time Machine.
HSF: How do you get around this in your book?
JH: All you need to do is manipulate gravitons -- the quantum particles that communicate the force of gravity -- with "sterile neutrinos," which in string theory are not attached to the brane. Sterile neutrinos can only affect our 4-D world via gravitons and the Higgs boson, "believed to endow all particles with mass."
The only problem is that none of these particles -- gravitons, sterile neutrinos, and Higgs bosons -- has ever been detected. To my mind this rather dilutes the power of the argument. What were the names of those angels dancing on the point of the pin?
It's still fun to speculate, and you have to admire the persistence and imagination of these guys (Heinrich Pääs and Sandip Pakvasa of the U. of Hawaii and Vanderbilt's Thomas Weiler), able to keep all these outlandish notions straight and communicate them to those of us with normal, well, brains.
HSF: Do you think traveling back in time will ever be possible?
JH: Kurt Gödel described an interpretation of Einstein's field equations that allows travel backward in time, and although Einstein couldn't fault his math, the obvious problem with cause-and-effect kept him from actually endorsing it.
HSF: How would you describe the state of science fiction today, compared to 10 or 20 years ago?
JH: There seems to be a resurgence in hard sf, but in realistic (i.e. economic) terms, fantasy is still the 900-pound gorilla. There's not much you can do about it. As Barbie said, "Math is hard!"
HSF: How might authors make hard science fiction more appealing to the masses?
JH: Actually, better science education would have that effect on "the masses." People who don't like science are lousy prospects for liking hard sf.
HSF: What kind of research do you do to gain scientific accuracy in your stories?
JH: The web and magazines, mainly. I subscribe to New Scientist, Astronomy, Sky & Telescope, Discovery, and Natural History. I pick up other magazines if they look interesting. I stay away from areas of science where I'm ignorant.
HSF: Which writers, books, or scientists have influenced you the most, and in what capacity?
JH: I grew up reading the Golden Age sf writers, and most of them wrote hard sf. I have a degree in astronomy, so of course the books I read in the course of study were the major influence.
HSF: As an Astronomer, how do you feel Mankind will be affected by space travel?
JH: Maybe the question goes the other way. I suspect that we won't significantly venture into space until human nature has changed for the better. All manned space flight now has a military subtext, and the quantity of energy required for space travel is currently so large that extensive ventures have to be done by governments.
HSF: But certainly privatized space travel will become commonplace someday.
JH: I think private space travel will become common if and only if there becomes a reasonably cheap and eco-friendly way to put large masses in low earth orbit. First there will be small-scale space industrialization along with high-ticket tourism, and then industrialization on a larger scale (perhaps O'Neill-style solar power schemes) and more general tourism. Ultimately it will just be another country, harder to get to and more exotic than anyplace on Earth.
HSF: Which contribution are you most proud of: science or literature?
JH: To the best of my knowledge I have never made a contribution to science. (I did describe using black holes for interstellar travel before Kip Thorn, but that was luck rather than physics.)
HSF: Which hard sf writers would you consider must-reads for fans of the genre?
JH: Both [Alfred] Bester books and most [Robert A.] Heinlein. But note that the science in Bester is arm-waving bullshit; they're hard sf by virtue of approach rather than scientific veracity.