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From Physics to Sci-Fi's Rising Star

Catherine Asaro
Catherine Asaro

The Quantum Rose
Former physics professor Catherine Asaro is a rising star among science fiction authors.

Her books range from "hard" science fiction, with scientific plot devices and premises laid out in intricate detail, to softer science fiction novels that use futuristic technology as a kind of backdrop to character-driven plots.

Arguably, her best work includes a substantial dose of hard science fiction in addition to well- developed, interpersonal relationships.

In fact, the characters in her science fiction books occasionally have relationships that are, to say the least, steamy.

"Traditionally, you couldn't write intimate scenes in science fiction. You just turned the lights out," says Asaro. "Well, you don't have to turn the lights out anymore."

A few well-lit boudoir scenes certainly haven't hurt her book sales. Asaro's novels and short stories seem to appeal to both hard-core science fiction fans and to romance fiction fans.

In 2001 Asaro received the Nebula Award, one of science fiction's most prestigious prizes, for Quantum Rose, even though it is one of her softer science fiction works.

Asaro enjoys exploring the details of the scientific elements in her stories. Many of her books document the adventures of various members of the Ruby Dynasty, who rule the galactic Skolian Empire.

"You can't have a galactic empire without a way to go faster than the speed of light," says Asaro. "So I wanted to come up with a believable way to do it, even if it's not physically possible."

The solution Asaro found was a mathematical trick involving imaginary numbers. "It's as if you're traveling in the complex plane," she explains, "It's actually kind of simple, and it's pretty." In fact, discovery of the trick led Asaro to publish a paper in the American Journal of Physics entitled "Complex Speeds and Special Relativity," (Am. J. Phys, 64 (4), April 1996, 421).

Like her novels, Asaro's personal life is a successful blend of traits that at first might seem mutually exclusive.

She initially had aspirations to be a professional dancer, and began college as a dance major. But she had always been fond of science and math, attributing her interest in science in part to her father Frank Asaro, a highly respected chemist at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory.

She eventually completed a PhD in chemical physics at Harvard, although along the way she founded two performance companies, the Mainly Jazz Dancers and the Harvard University Ballet and served as artistic director for both groups. Asaro now lives in the Maryland suburbs with her husband John, a NASA astrophysicist, and her daughter Catherine.

More information, including a bibliography, book excerpts, and upcoming public appearances, is available on her website www.sff.net/people/asaro.

Editor's Note: The above was featured in January on Physics Central [www.physicscentral.com], the public outreach web site of the APS. For more profiles, cutting-edge research topics, and other fun features, access the web site regularly.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette