Friday, January 06, 2012

... then, crash your probe at 700 g ...

The second book I finished this year was a re-read, Hal Clement’s “Mission of Gravity”.

If you are about my age, you probably first met this book through the picture of the Mesklinite in ‘Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials’.  They are our high-density low-temperature hydrogen-breathing pals who are fun to be with.   
One of our high-density low-temperature hydrogen-breathing pals who are fun to be withTM

What struck me re-reading it this time is how ‘Mission of Gravity’ is a paean to science.

First of all, it is proper science fiction. Not ‘indistinguishable from magic’ science fiction. Not some rubbish latte-land love triangle with spaceships and aliens. Not flip-through-this-week’s-New-Scientist-and-grab-a-few-dodgy-interpretation-of-Quantum-Mechanics-articles science fiction. Just Newtonian Physics pushed to the edge.

Second, the motivation of the (largely offstage) human characters is all science all the time. They want to know stuff. They are part of a project spending a fortune to find stuff out. Completely fundamental blue-sky no-applications-need-apply stuff.  It’s all they care about. They never talk about anything else.  Which is how it ought to be, because next to a world like Mesklin everything else is pretty boring.

Third, the narrative arc of the novel is the conversion of the Mesklinite characters to the scientific worldview.  Barlennan, the main character, is the Han Solo or Vasco de Gama of his world. As the story begins he is all about the phat lewtz. But as it goes on – like Han Solo – he becomes aware of a higher purpose. A higher purpose that might enable him primarily to get more phat lewtz, true, but a higher purpose. Again and again, the scientific skills of the humans are shown to be of practical use in solving problems. Barlennan realises that he wants what they’re having. At the climax of the novel he refuses to help the humans anymore unless they teach him science. This is the sort of standoff situation people like me dream of.  So I’m going to quote his whole speech (awkwardly screenshotted from Kindle Cloud):
 Amen, little brother.


Lexifab said...

That is a remarkable sequence, and the best argument in favour of the scientific method that I have seen this side of Neal Stephension's Baroque trilogy, which is 3000 pages long.

Man, I wish I'd read that story when I was 14. Instilling scientific curiosity in my children (as a refinement of just ordinary curiosity) is probably the main thing that I hope they can achieve that I never quite managed.

Well, that and to open the bowling for Australia.

Dr Clam said...

Hey, you've just been here! Belay suggestion #2 in my comment on your last post...

Hal Clement was a science teacher, so I'm sure he would have been chuffed at how inspiring we find this little sequence. :D

Lexifab said...

Looking back on it (as I have done a few times over the intervening 20-plus years) the real curiosity is that while high school helped instill in me a great love of and curiosity about things that science can help us understand, it did not actually impart the same affection for the scientific method.

I distinctly remember how it was covered in Year 11/12 Biology, a subject I more or less aced, thanks to what in retrospect I realise was an affinity for learning through labelled diagrams.

The scientific method was articulated through the example of Gregor Mendel's pea experiments and it was *the most boring fucking thing I had ever heard* at that point (that record was later overturned by my one and only semester of Hydrology at Uni, which was unutterably tedious).

If, on the other hand, we'd had a bit more of the argy-bargy and slanging matches of Newton and Leibniz or (fill-in-the-blank your favourite mutual-theory-smashing rivalry here) - like that Philosophy course at uni - I suspect things would be different now.

Dr Clam said...

That 'History and Philosophy of Science' was, I am pretty sure, the most valuable one I took.