Does Goldilocks Make Better Science Fiction Realities? – an article by: GF Willmetts.

When I was reading ‘A Fortunate Universe: Life In A Finely Tuned Cosmos’ by Geraint F. Lewis and Luke A. Barnes in August, a couple things struck me. I should also say it applies to several other science books I’ve read, too, but it finally struck home. Essentially, there is the assumption that we live in the perfect reality for life, hence the goldilocks name for it.

Yet, as these authors point out, the Conservation of Matter/Energy is violated when photons lose energy because no one knows where it goes. Immediately, I thought our reality isn’t so perfect, just suitable for us. To call it a perfect goldilocks reality then makes it sound like the same way it was once thought that the entire cosmos rotated around our planet. An assumption that in General Semantics doesn’t necessarily match the reality. We just aren’t always on the look-out for holes or could it be better than it is.

We just see the highlights that makes life suitable for carbon based animal-life in an oxygen/nitrogen atmosphere. Obviously, we have to think that way is because carbon can bond to make more molecules, some 26,000 compounds, than other elements and even silicon can’t match. In an odd contradiction, silicon is the key element in our computer technology. Although it might not be useful for organic life, it certainly is for artificial intelligence. At least until we can make carbon-based neural nets.

So what would really make our reality perfect? I’m not talking faster than light drives but maybe have some stable radioactive elements. There has to be some balance of neutrons to protons that would improve their half-lives. That’s not to say that there shouldn’t be radioactive elements as they are useful for nuclear fuel, just that it does open things up for stable isotopes which wouldn’t be a bad idea. I know the physics of radioactive elements that makes it difficult to contain enough neutrons, but in a perfect reality it should be possible even if it’s a short half-life. Quite how big we could have a nucleus can have its own debates.

One would also have to question what we consider a perfect reality. I suspect my above suggestion will have people saying that’s not possible but if it was, we would probably take it for granted. It would certainly allow an extension of the Periodic Table but even that would have some limits simply because, as I note, there are limits to how big a nucleus can become. Although in a different reality, who’s to say how big that is? It’s estimated that element 126 but stability becomes an issue. Quite what we would do with an even bigger Periodic Table is debatable.

Even so, it does raise interesting questions on how do we improve on something we might conceivably think is perfect or at least nearly perfect. From the Science Fiction perspective, that’s how we put in faster-than-light travel and even time travel into place.

We call it a ‘fudge’ to make it possible and leave it to the reader to join the dots if they want to. That’s largely how the grandfather paradox came about when people speculated about going into the past and whether by deliberate or accidentally killing an immediate ancestor and where would it put you. Equally, scientists who read Larry Niven’s ‘Ringworld’ book, they applied the right maths and realised he made some mistakes, the author corrected them in the sequel, ‘Ringworld Engineers’. SF writers might conceive something but scientists can see if its possible. Even dyson spheres aren’t considered impossible although the engineering, let alone the budgeting of them would be problematic.

The real lesson here is that no matter how much research we might do, there is always the likelihood of mistakes but it doesn’t go for making a perfect reality. Even so, just the thought that what we deem the goldilocks reality we live in might be imperfect is what would you do to make it better?

Here, I can only speculate on a few things. The example of our Periodic Table and photon disintegration is more a highlight that our reality isn’t as perfect as it could be but would resolving these issues really improve our universe? Alternatively, it does provide the necessary leeway and freedom to make viable SF realities function.

Whatever fudge we use to ensure something works, whether it is perpetual motion to ftl, it has to give a significant difference to the reality and not isolated to a few things. We would need to know the ramifications these would have to other things to be fully integrated in a reality. Whether it is deemed an improvement or not remains something that can only be done in analysis. A lot of the time, SF writers don’t even look at how such changes affect anything beyond their story. You only have to look at the use of anti-gravity and the holes in its use to know its not abiding with what we know about gravity. If such a device existed, it would really destroy anything it was used on because it would spread the molecules out rather than just make it float.

Of course, if the object was confined, you could get around that problem but it would take a lot of failed experiments to sort that out. Depending on expense, you would also have to wonder how quickly it would become a household item or a means of propulsion or even to prevent acceleration problems to humans. Such a device would quickly go beyond its initial design. One only has to look at computer development where it was thought only of as a number cruncher to its use in games and household items today to see how something successful in one medium can be used elsewhere.

Any change in science law to make something like anti-gravity work has to be looked at from its good and bad points. With the latter, how do you overcome the obstacles like matter’s structure disintegrating or how it can be exploited as a clause. To just treat it as a means to float in the air or propulsion in space is anti-gravity at its most simplistic. Look at all the options.

The same applies to faster-than-light travel. We do know that as something approaches the speed of light that time slows down and its structure expands exponentially, although the latter is rarely addressed. I mean, if something expands to fill the universe, how does it get to its destination? In case any of you think I might not have any ideas on this, I would look at entanglement and use that to make the connection. Whether that would mean you would go even faster is debatable but it is supposed to be going faster than light and might ultimately mean things are in the same time frame so your home wouldn’t have had many generations pass.

We’ve always made the assumption that interstellar travel would be faster-than-light and in ‘normal’ space. Science Fiction has gone for all kinds of things from warp drive to interdimensional bi-passes to beat the long distances. Logistically, if we assume aliens on other planets have a similar problem, then they might find other viable solutions as well. We are on the verge of understanding entanglement but the biggest problem if it’s a viable means of teleportation is that we don’t know where we could end up or being able to report back our position if we do within the same time frame. Presumably, an entanglement might mean we are still in contact with where we left but its still a grey area.

Even the supposition that we might be lucky enough to appear on a planet with a similar nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere to our own is going to appear at low odds to arriving on an atmospheric-free world and quickly die. We might be able to ignoring appearing in space as entanglement means having matter to appear to. There’s also a stumbling block that if teleportation was possible, why hasn’t nature created a natural version first? It is a manipulation of energy and nature really goes for the easiest methods first and has no need for such a method.

I can only recall one SF reality created from raw cloth and that was Isaac Asimov’s 1972 ‘The Gods Themselves’ novel and that was done late in his career and totally bizarre and didn’t really take into account anything that the reader could relate to, even when people of our reality looked in.

That is the important thing to remember. If the reader cannot recognise or make a connection to the story then it will be an uphill struggle for them to keep reading. This is an important reason why whatever the setting, the characters’ emotional mindsets relate more to the decade they were written in. It can’t be anything else, really. I mean could you predict what we would be up to this decade and how we would think? There are some connections, true, but we can’t join all the dots. Of course, there are some past elements that will age stories but people adapt to them the same way as period piece drama and take it for granted. If we knew what attracted people to stories all of them would be successful.

In many respects, we’ve had different realities on Earth, although most of them were seen by our ancestors and now subjective to different countries. We’ve seen total religious control. A pre-technological age. The coming of the science age where improvements to medical health, etc has improved our state of living leading up to what we have today, which is more akin to a Science Fiction era that predated some of our current discoveries. All have been applied in stories although I suspect the dinosaur eras will have to be revised as we discover more of them look less scaly and more feather-like.

So, let’s address the problem from the start of the article: What makes a perfect reality, especially for Science Fiction? Probably anything that makes a particular fudge viable. It doesn’t mean it will be a perfect reality but, then, SF allows for any variation to be explored and see how viable it is. It might even inspire scientists to research in a particular direction, assuming the upcoming generations read as well as watch SF material. Even so, will having a better than our so-called goldilocks reality be truly utopic?

Nothing is ever that perfect. Always ensure there is a payoff where it isn’t always beneficial. Utopia is, after all, boring. It also needs a demonstration of the pitfalls as much as the benefits. We just want to make it more useful, especially in Science Fiction. Redefining what we can do in SF opens up more possibilities and updating what we’ve taken for granted.

© GF Willmetts 2022

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