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Science Is Nothing But One Big Hack
When we turn a knob to release a stream of water or flip a switch to illuminate the darkness, what are we really doing? We're hacking reality.
This essay was presented on June 24, 2010, on a panel at the Wine Loft in Flagstaff, Arizona. The event, entitled “Science + Fantasy = Science Fiction,” brought together scientists and writers to discuss how science inspires science fiction and vice versa.
My view of science is pretty well summed up in a conversation between two characters in the novel I’m working on now, Endgame [later retitled Root]. This is the story of two teenage friends in Chicago named Hasta and Ivan who develop seemingly magical powers—except that they don’t automatically accept magic as the explanation for what has happened to them. Instead they set about using the scientific methods of theorizing and repeated testing to get to the bottom of things.
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Here, as they investigate Hasta’s ability to teleport objects, they talk about magic and science:
“I wonder what the cost will turn out to be,” said Hasta, sitting back on the track and stretching her arms.
Ivan had finished setting up the blocks again and moved back to squat next to her. “The cost of what?” he asked.
Hasta regarded him through narrowed eyes. “The cost of this magic. In all the books, the magic never comes for free. There’s always a cost.”
“Like a dragon demanding a pound of flesh,” Ivan said, chuckling, “or our souls starting to rot inside us?”
“Something like that.”
He shook his head. “This isn’t magic,” he said. “It’s just physics. It has to be. There’s an energy expenditure, obviously, but maybe that’s just why we feel tired and wrung out afterwards. Like when you exercise to build muscle.”
“Moving a grown man half a mile? I paid attention in physics, Ivan. That takes a lot of energy.”
“Sure it does,” Ivan said, “but there are plenty of ways to hack around that requirement. What else do you think physics is?”
“Physics is hacking?”
“Totally. See, a hack is basically just a shortcut for getting something done, so you don’t have to waste a lot of time and effort on it. Or resources. Like, you might hack into a record company’s servers so you don’t have to waste resources buying their music.”
“You might,” Hasta said.
“Hypothetically,” Ivan granted. “Or you might write some code that monitors all a bank’s transactions and diverts the rounded-off fractions of cents into a secret account. Those would be different kinds of computer hacks.”
“Sure,” said Hasta, motioning for him to keep going already.
“Okay, then you have what I think of as reality hacks, which are tricks the smartest of us monkeys have been figuring out for all of recorded history. Like, I could never move a giant boulder by myself, no matter how hard I pushed against it. I just physically can’t muster enough force. But if I employ the hack we call a lever, suddenly my pathetic amount of force is multiplied. In fact, there’s an immutable formula you can work out that tells you exactly how much extra force you get depending on the length of the lever and the distance of each end from the fulcrum. With the right lever positioned correctly, I can move that boulder!”
“That’s basic physics,” Hasta said. “But I guess I never really thought of it as a hack before.”
“We hack reality in so many ways, it isn’t even funny,” Ivan said. “Levers and pulleys and screws to multiply force. Optics to bend light the way we want it to go. Turbines to generate electricity, and water, wind, and fossil-fuel power to turn the turbines. Conductors to move the electrons from one place to another. Battery chemistry to store and release that energy. Airfoils for lift so we can ply the atmosphere. Clever hacks, every one of them, all designed to save us time and effort and make our lives easier.”
So that’s my philosophy of science right there—reality hacking.
I see scientists as the ultimate hackers—women and men who work hard to figure out how the physical world around us works, so they can then take that knowledge and find shortcuts for performing tasks we want and need done more easily than we could otherwise do them.
That’s where I get the inspiration for a lot of the different ideas I end up using in my fiction. What do I want or need done more easily? What sorts of things would make my life easier or better? Maybe I’m an avid hiker, and I’d like to be able to go out into the wilderness for days on end without worrying about how I’m going to carry in all the food I need. Well, I can imagine that maybe there’s a way I could engineer my body to use chlorophyll like a plant does to convert sunlight into sugar.
Maybe when I get back from my hike, there’s a science gala at a wine bar that’s black tie only, and it sure would make my life easier if I didn’t have to run back home and change into my tuxedo. Well, maybe I can imagine a way that my hiking clothes were made out of reprogrammable fabric, and by downloading an open-source pattern from the Internet I can tell my clothing to change color and shape until I have on the proper evening wear without having to change.
Maybe at that black-tie gala my friend Greg tells me about a book he’s read recently that sounds really great—like, say, Nation by Terry Pratchett—and I’d like to be able to start reading it tonight without worrying about trying to find an open bookstore. Maybe I can imagine a way that I could read books on a screen instead of... Well, actually, that happened last night, and within three minutes I had bought the book and downloaded it to my iPhone.
Now, the trick to good science fiction is to not just make these wish fulfillment stories. The trick is to know enough about the way the world works, and the way people work, to make some guesses about how your fictional invention would affect the world in unexpected ways, and not just in the way you originally intend. Like, what would it be like to live in a world of people with green skin who didn’t necessarily have to grow food or slaughter animals to get nutrition. What would happen to farmers? How would people migrate and where would they live? (Hint: Maybe chlorophyll people would really not want to live in Chicago, where we can go a full month during the winter without seeing the sun.) And what other scientific advances and social changes, both good and bad, would be necessary in order to support that change?
The bottom line for me is that writing science fiction is my way of hacking reality, and by imagining the world I would like to live in, I hope I’m helping to inspire the people who are actually smart and dedicated enough to make that world real. ∅