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Stranger Than Fiction: The Novelization of Physics

A basic knowledge and understanding of scientific principles is more important than ever in our technologically based society. Yet recent statistics from the AIP indicate that only 28% of high school graduates currently take any physics classes, and only 3% take advanced physics courses. One useful method of engaging student interest in science is through fictional novels and films, which can educate as well as entertain. Such formats also offer a primary opportunity to offset some of the prevailing negative stereotypes of scientists in general, and physicists in particular, according to Aviva Brecher, chair of the APS Forum on Physics and Society, who organized a special session on the subject at the APS April meeting in Long Beach. The session featured two PhD physicists who moonlight as authors of science fiction and mystery novels, respectively.

Gregory Benford, a professor of physics at the University of California, Irvine, has written 20 science fiction novels over the last 30 years, including The Jupiter Project and Against Infinity, and is a two-time winner of the prestigious Nebula Award. In the last few years, his focus has shifted to Hollywood, where he served as screenwriter for the 8-part TV series "Galactic Odyssey," which describes modern physics and astronomy from the perspective of the evolution of the galaxy. His most recent novel is Eater, the plot of which he summarizes as being "about the entrance of a black hole in the solar system with completely unforeseen consequences."

Benford frequently attempts to write about the unknown frontier of science as a means of imparting something of the thrill of scientific discovery to the general reader, even if it means extending a little beyond the boundaries of what is currently known about the universe. "You are enlisting the devices of realism in the cause of the fantastic, because every new discovery is bringing into the human compass a very new thing about the universe, which is genuinely very strange," he says. "A certain childlike devotion to the truth is very useful; you should never lose your sense of wonder."

Now teaching logic and creative writing at Golden Gate University, Camille Minichino spent many years as a researcher at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory before embarking on a literary career as a writer of mystery novels. Her books feature a female physicist who lives above a funeral home ("this gives her access to bodies") and solves murders on the side, and are frequently set in Revere Beach, Massachusetts, where Minichino grew up. The novels, four of which have been published to date, are a series based on the periodic table of elements, with titles such as The Hydrogen Murder and The Beryllium Murder.

Minichino says her primary goal in beginning the series was to introduce general readers to real-world physicists, "ones who don't want to take over the world, don't leave the house with two different colored socks on, and aren't social misfits." Her character "sees the world in images of physics," and the novels are peppered with allusions to Physics Today and famous physicists.

Questions posed to the authors from the audience focused a great deal on how to break into writing fiction with a scientific theme. Minichino says she struggled, as an unknown author, to find a publisher for her first novel, and decided to sign on with a small publisher with minimal distribution and very little in the way of an advance to gain experience and exposure. "I had a lot of elements to cover, and I needed to get started," she jokes. After the first two books were published, she found moving to a larger company much easier. "It's a lot like getting that first job; you need to persevere and withstand a certain amount of rejection," she says.

In contrast, Benford began writing short science fiction stories, and when one was nominated for an award, he quickly drafted a two-page outline fitting the story within the context of a full-length novel, and promptly landed a contract. While admitting it is harder today to break into the field than it was in 1969, he still recommends a similar approach, rather than submitting a full-length manuscript. "There's nothing more daunting (for an editor) than opening up a manuscript and finding an entire novel inside," he says. "Remember there's another human being on the other side of your submission."

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette