Blast from the Past: Science, Science Fiction, and the Possible

I need a bit of a break from the economics stuff so here’s a blast from the past.  Slightly updated.


Some folks say that hard science fiction should be limited to what is possible according to current scientific theory.  Others (and I count myself among them) are a bit more flexible.  Consider the following:

Imagine it’s 1880 and you’re a physical scientist (or “natural philosopher” as it was sometimes called).  Someone approaches you with the following:

“I have here two lumps of a material called Uranium 235.  If you slam them together correctly, they will release energy with the explosive force of more than one hundred million sticks of dynamite.”

You’d laugh at him.  The very idea is preposterous.  First off, what’s this “235” business?  Uranium is Uranium.  It doesn’t come in types.  You’re familiar with the atomic theory of matter, right?  Atomic.  From the Greek atomos.  It means “indivisible.  A Uranium atom is a Uranium Atom is a Uranium atom.  And this ridiculous release of energy?  Energy can neither be created or destroyed.  You’ve can convert from one form to another but that’s about it.  If there was so much energy, whether chemical or mechanical, in Uranium to do as you suggest, it would tend to go off at the slightest provocation–Like, say, sneezing anywhere in the same county.  What you suggest is flat out theoretically impossible.

Now, instead, suppose someone approached you with the following instead:

“You know, if you applied a force to something, like say with a rocket, and continued applying it for long enough, there is no ultimate bar to how fast it could go.  Enough force, for enough time, and one could travel between the stars in weeks, if not days.  Of course that much acceleration would crush most things and the engineering challenges are probably prohibitive, but there’s no theoretical bar to it.”

You’d probably have to agree.  After all velocity is simply acceleration over time, and acceleration is simply force divided by mass.  Enough force, applying enough acceleration, for enough time and any velocity could be achieved without limit, at least theoretically.  The engineering challenges might be prohibitive but there were no theoretical limits.

Now, instead of 1890 imagine it’s 1990.  Now the possibility/impossibility of those two events have reversed.  We’ve discovered the electron, neutron, and proton (and never mind things like quarks) and learned that, far from being “indivisible” the atom is actually made up of components.  We’ve discovered that there are differences among atoms–isotopes–of the same element.  And we’ve discovered that matter and energy can be interchanged and very small amounts of matter can, in the right circumstances, be converted to very large amounts of energy as we understand them in human terms.  And we’ve demonstrated the very thing in the first example–slapping two pieces of Uranium 235 together to make whopping big explosions. (And using different materials we’ve made even bigger booms.)  As for the other, we’ve found that force applied to an object will produce different accelerations depending on how fast one sees the object as moving, i.e what your frame of reference is, and the faster it is moving relative to your frame of reference–the closer it’s speed is to that of light which is the same in all reference frames–the less acceleration a given force will produce, with the result that it can never reach, let alone exceed, the speed of light.

Back in 1890 physical theory would declare certain things to be flat out impossible.  Other things were theoretically possible but perhaps practically impossible (such as, say, focusing light so that it can burn through an inch of steel in the blink of an eye).  Other things were readily achievable.

With the revolution in modern physics that came shortly thereafter, those categories got shuffled.  Some things that were utterly impossible under the old theory were found to be possible and even readily achievable once you knew how.  Other things that had been theoretically possible but difficult (which was why they had not yet been done) were found to be theoretically impossible.

The one constant was that things that had already been done clearly had to remain possible.  Obviously, whatever has been done is possible. (What was done might not necessarily be what you think was done–ask any stage magician–but what was done remains possible.)

So what about 2090?  Or 2190?  or 9990?  Will the things that the physical theory of that future day considers possible and impossible be the same as today?

I suggest that it is only hubris that would lead one to suggest that they will.  About the time of 1880 many scientists of the day believed we had determined all there was to physical theory.  All that was left was adding a decimal or two to the measurement of various physical constants and we’d be done.  But then, a few years later Michelson and Morley performed their famous experiment where they attempted to measure the movement of the Earth through the Lumineferous Aether that had to exist given the demonstrated wave nature of light–only they didn’t find it.  And about the same time the photoelectric was discovered and it didn’t behave at all like it should in the then current physical theory and… Well, one thing led to another.

A few years ago, with the discovery of the Higgs Boson, I have heard at least one physicist say that it completely validates the Standard Model.  We’re done.  Nothing new left to discover about the underlying structure of the Universe.

Yeah.  I’ve heard that line before.  Unless one has the hubris to believe that we have actually achieved the final answer to physical theory, that all our current answers to “how does the universe work” are right, that “this time for sure”, then one must conclude that some things we think are possible will very likely turn out to be impossible.  And some things we think are impossible (theoretically impossible) will turn out to be possible after all.

And nobody knows which things.

What we’re waiting for is the scientist to look at the results of an experiment, scratch his head, and go “That’s funny.  Shouldn’t this be…”

As a writer of science fiction set in the future (or in a present with alien cultures more advanced than our own), part of the job is to explore these possibilities.  Now, most people don’t expect a science fiction writer to explore the detailed ramifications of “what if conservation of Baryon number can be violated?” or “what if it’s possible to alter the Pauli Exclusion Principle?” or even “What if Planck’s Constant isn’t actually a constant?” but limiting oneself to what we now “know” is probably the least likely future of all.

“Get Rid of the Middle Man”?

People often talk about wanting to get rid of the “middle man” in buying and selling in order to bring down costs.  There’s just one thing.  While the middle man may increase the price they generally bring down the cost.

Allow me to explain.

From time to time, I’ve gone to a “u-pick” farm to get fresh strawberries.  I could drive out there, get a box, and go down the row of strawberry plants picking fresh, ripe strawberries and when I’m done, I have the box weighed and pay substantially less than the same amount of strawberries would cost at my local grocery store.  And that’s not counting the ones I ate–everybody does it–while picking.

Cost saved right?

Well, actually….

Consider a few things.  The farm is about an hour’s drive from where I live.  So that’s two hours round trip in addition to the time spent picking.  Two hours, and gas money on top of what I spent at the farm itself.  Now maybe folk might want to discount that because…fresh strawberries generally better than I can get in most stores.

But you can’t just discount it.  Imagine your typical weekly shopping cart.  Consider every item in it.  Now imagine going to where that item is grown or made and buying directly from the grower/manufacturer.  And if you live in the Midwest, like I do–or anywhere far from the tropics, and that cart contains oranges, grapefruit, or anything that requires subtropical or tropical heat to grow that means driving/flying/boating to a place where it does grow.  And you’re going to have to go to dozens of different places, all to get the things that would fill that imaginary shopping cart.

While the price of the items would likely be less than you pay at the store, wow much would all that traveling around to get it cost?  How much of your time would be absorbed just going from farm to manufacturer to craftsman to a different farm and so on, all to get the basket of items that amount to your weekly shopping?

Instead, we have middle-men.  We have wholesalers who gather items from manufacturers around the world.  We have shipping companies that do nothing but carry goods from one location to another.  and we have stores which provide a variety of different items in one place from which you can select all at once.  Yes, each of those “middle men” need to be paid, and their pay adds to the price of the good when you buy it at the store.  But they do so by dramatically reducing the cost in terms of the time and effort (and gas) that it would take you to go and deal with each of the producers individually.  It might be fun or useful to do one or two but when it comes to everything a person might want?  The middle men make it not only cheaper (in total cost) but possible at all.

Another aspect is scale.  In college I took several art classes.  A lot of our practice work was done on newsprint.  And while newsprint was about the cheapest paper in the art supply stores, it wasn’t what I would call cheap.  Perhaps, if a paper mill was conveniently located I might go and get my paper there.  There’s just one problem.  Have you seen the rolls of newsprint as they come from the mill?  I have.  I have no idea how much one of those weighs but several hundred pounds at least.  As a college student, I could come up with a few bucks for a pad of newsprint from the art supply store.  Coming up with enough money for one of those gigantic rolls?  Not so much.

This is another thing that middle men do.  They take large units that come from suppliers and break them down into more manageable chunks for the consumer.

All too often people decry the middle man for “driving the price up” without recognizing that the middle man is actually reducing their costs.  They don’t realize that without that middle man they would be spending time and resources that could be put to better use elsewhere just to obtain the things they obtain now.  The most likely result would be to cut back on the things they purchase now–after all, how many people in the midwest really can drive or fly to Florida to buy a crate of oranges so they can have juice with breakfast?–with a commensurate drop in quality of life.

Problems arise when those middle men charge more than the value they add by reducing the total cost of acquiring the goods.  In a market economy, this provides incentives for people to seek alternate suppliers or simply use less of the products these particular middle men are dealing with and using alternate goods and services that provide better value.

And sometimes changing conditions change the relative value that a particular middle man provides.  In the modern era, for instance, the combination of electronic communication and fast shipping we have more people dealing either directly with manufacturers or regional distributors as opposed to dealing with local retailers.  The changing technology in some cases has lowered the cost of skipping one more more levels of middle-men enough that it no longer justifies the price those levels need to add to be able to function.

While this may be uncomfortable for those in the levels being “skipped”, who will need to find other ways to generate income if they are to maintain their own standard of living, the effect on the economy as a whole is to bring more goods and services to the consumers at lower cost increasing the standard of living of the population as a whole.