The Ficlets Author Interview series is back – and we’ve got a heck of a fun interview to reignite the series, with science writer Jennifer Ouellette. By day, Ouelette writes about science for Discover, New Scientist, Salon, and others. But at night! – Well, at night she’s still writing about science, but she’s injecting fun into it, too. Such is the case with her book The Physics of the Buffyverse, in which Ouelette takes the magical and action-packed events of that beloved series and uses them to help explain interesting real-world physics.
In our interview we discuss how Buffy can help explain science, the problem with “popular” science books today, and just what’s really going on with levitating frogs. Dare I say it? I dare – with this interview, we will blind you with science!
Okay, don’t hit me. Just read the interview, okay?
1. Quick! Tell us about yourself and The Physics of the Buffyverse!
Ack! Pressure! Mind drawing a blank!
Okay, calm now. The Physics of the Buffyverse is kind of self-explanatory: I’m using the characters, story lines and various other details from the popular TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spinoff Angel, to illustrate fundamental concepts in physics. The book includes what I call “found physics” – handy illustrative examples of both “good” and “bad” science – but it also explores the nature of the Buffyverse itself, how it actually works, then compares and contrasts that fictional world with how our own universe works. Any believable fictive universe must have its own physical “laws,” after all – for starters, without rules, there is no conflict or drama.
For anyone who thinks I wrote the book just to cash in by riding Joss Whedon’s coattails: (a) Whedon makes more in a single day than I made writing this book, and (b) since when is getting paid to write a bad thing? The truth is, the book was a labor of love, and I actually had to endure quite a bit of good-natured ribbing from colleagues during the writing process. Many of my science-minded pals were quite skeptical when I took on the project: “But vampires aren’t real,” was one sober observation – as if this fact needed to be pointed out, because I was incapable of discriminating between fact and fiction. Some insisted it couldn’t be done, but I persevered out of sheer cussedness – and also because I’m a diehard Buffy fan, which makes me the perfect person to write such a book.
I’m not a scientist by training. I’m a former English major who staunchly avoided taking physics, in any form, all through high school and college, only to run smack into it as a struggling freelance writer in New York City. And I found it wasn’t nearly as scary and inaccessible as I’d expected; in fact, it was fascinating, fun, and even cool – albeit hard work at times. Because of my liberal arts background, I try to bring a unique perspective to more traditional forms of science writing. I’m always looking for innovative ways to communicate the beauty and relevance of science – all science, not just physics – to people like me, for whom the traditional physics curriculum is, frankly, a bit of a turn-off. My brain just doesn’t work that way, but it doesn’t mean that I’m mentally challenged; rather, I just need a different approach to grasp the fundamental concepts of science. And there are plenty of other people out there just like me. That attitude is reflected in both of my books, and also my blog, Cocktail Party Physics.
2. You are a genuine science writer – when you were putting together this book, how did you pick and choose which concepts could help illustrate genuine science principles? At what point do you simply throw your hands up and go say, “Yes, well, that’s just magic, there”?
Well, certainly there are things in the Buffyverse that just defy explanation, eg, vampires don’t have a reflection, yet they show up on camera – something that became a bit of a running gag for the writers on the show. I think it’s important to realize that not EVERYTHING in a fictional world has to make perfect sense; one needs to make allowances for artistic license and the willing suspension of disbelief (some people, obviously, are more willing than others). I made a point of occasionally mentioning such incongruities, in the interests of fairness, but chose to focus mostly on things that had some correlation with real-world science. The point of the book was not to be a know-it-all killjoy. I love the Buffy and Angel series, so why spoil everyone’s fun? Rather, I wanted to delve a little more deeply into an aspect of the Buffyverse that I felt had largely been ignored or dismissed outright by both its fans and its critics.
A few words about “magic”: This is probably the aspect of the Buffyverse that more literal-minded science types have the most trouble with, to the point where they just assume it can’t possibly relate in any way to physics. I’d argue that they’re just not looking closely enough by dismissing the magic in the series outright. I gave a great deal of thought to how the magic actually works. And I realized that there are some rather strict rules – even in the Buffyverse, you can’t just snap your fingers and magically make something happen. Those rules in turn bear a striking similarity, conceptually, to energy conservation, for example. In fact, by Season 7 of Buffy, Willow actually declares outright, “Magic works on physics!” and cites energy conservation by way of example.
When making these points to skeptical sorts, I also like to reiterate the famous quote by Arthur C. Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” That’s something we tend to forget. Imagine the reaction of someone from the 17th century to things like wireless communication, for example. There was a time when, if I were walking down the street and encountered someone conducting a conversation with an unseen entity, I’d assume said person was crazy and keep my distance. (Then again, it might have been me: I’m notorious for having intense arguments in my head with imaginary people, muttering to myself and waving my hands when I get particularly worked up. I once mentally debated the hell out of Donald Trump.)
Nowadays it just means they’re wearing a wireless headset connected to their cell phone, and the conversation is quite real. In the Buffyverse book, I took that notion one step further in the discussion of telepathy and telekinesis. Rather than seeking a magical means of achieving it, I pointed out that cerebral implants are under development to enable test subjects to, say, move computer screen cursors with their thoughts. It’s not “magic” in the supernatural sense of the word, but it is certainly “magical” in the Arthur C. Clarke sense – an ingenious application of technology to achieve something previously thought to be impossible.
3. Do books like this and the ones that explain the science behind Harry Potter, Star Trek and Star Wars serve a genuine educational purpose? Are they genuinely teaching people about scientific concepts, or are they just about giving fans hope that their favorite fictional universes aren’t too far off our own?
Well, define “educational.” Certainly such books are no substitute for an actual, rigorous physics class, nor do they claim to be. But they can be terrific supplemental reading for a physics class, particularly one that targets non-majors. In that sense, they do serve a genuine educational purpose: how many people, like my former self, deliberately avoided physics because they thought it was dry/dull/too difficult? “Physics of [blank]” books can give such readers a taste of cool physics concepts, in an entertaining framework – something they already care about, whether it be the physics of Star Trek or the physics of NASCAR. This in turn might encourage them to explore a little further. I wish I’d had access to books like that when I was in high school.
As for wishful thinking – well, there’s always going to be a small, diehard subset in any fandom that is so emotionally invested in maintaining the fantasy, no amount of wheedling will move them to consider possible practical explanations. They want the world to be “magic” (in the supernatural context of the word). But there are plenty of others we can reach, if we take an inclusive stance, rather than snidely debunking cherished tropes. Take the above mention of telepathy and telekinesis, both of which have a strong appeal to the human imagination. Rather than dismissing it outright, it’s much more helpful to take the time to think about what might actually be involved in achieving those capabilities: powerful, precisely tuned transmitters and receivers, for example, implanted not just in the human brain, but also in every object around us. Seeing as how such a discussion promotes a better understanding of the kinds of energy required, the physical “laws” under which it might operate, and what technologies one would need to make it a reality, I think such an approach is highly educational – it’s a way of countering wishful thinking with critical thinking, in a fun, light-hearted manner.
And just to state the obvious: Science and science fiction have a long history of feeding into each other in that respect. So many physicists I’ve interviewed cite works of science fiction they read as children as influencing their decision to become scientists: writers ranging from Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and Isaac Asimov, to William Gibson and Philip K. Dick – not to mention films like 2001: A Space Odyssey or Blade Runner. Those writers fuel the imagination, and the scientists in turn often go on to invent new technologies – and sometimes new physics – that mimic aspects of those fictional worlds they loved so much growing up. So to me, the whole “Physics of [blank]” genre is a natural extension of a phenomenon that’s been happening all along.
4. Share a piece of advice you’ve been given about writing.
“In order to be a good writer, you have to be willing to kill your children.” It sounds brutal, and it is, but it’s also true. A big part of writing seems to be a willingness to cut out sections that may be near and dear to my heart – not least because I created them – but just don’t work in that particular context. It’s even more devastating when writing fiction, at least according to my fiction-writing friends. I’m reminded of a scene in Dorothy Sayers’ mystery novel, Gaudy Night, in which novelist Harriet Vane takes Lord Peter Wimsey’s advice on one character’s development, which in turn throws the entire book out of balance. He tells her to abandon the jigsaw puzzle approach to her novels and write a mystery about human beings instead. When she responds that it would hurt like hell, he shrugs, “What does it matter, if it makes a better book?”
Sometimes writing hurts like hell. Sometimes you have to cut out things, or kill off beloved characters, and it feels like you’re cutting off one of your own limbs. But in the end, it produces a better book. For a serious writer, that IS all that matters.
5. In your opinion, what is the general state of science reading in the US? Are people reading enough about what’s going on in the world of science? If not, is their any way to make it a bigger part of the US reading diet?
It’s not so much that there isn’t a market for books about science; to the contrary, it’s quite a solid niche in the publishing industry, although sometimes “popular” science books are far more technical than the term would lead one to believe. People are fascinated by science, even if they doubt their own ability to understand it. The problem is who is actually reading these “popular” books on science: author Margaret Wertheim (Pythagorus’s Trousers) conducted a survey and found that the vast majority (as in, over 70%) are white males between 40 and 60 with college degrees, usually in the sciences. So it’s a healthy market, but it’s preaching to the converted. There’s a vast untapped sector of the population who will never crack open a copy of The Elegant Universe or A Brief History of Time without being threatened with torture first. The findings led Wertheim to ask a provocative question: who is science writing for? The answer seems to be, educated white men over 40.
That needs to change. I want to reach people like my former physics-phobic self with my books: the people who resist any mention of physics. I’m not trying to make them all eager young physicists, I just think they shouldn’t be afraid of physics – and they certainly shouldn’t assume they can’t possibly understand it. So I tailor my writing accordingly, trying to present physics concepts in a real-world, everyday context, placing science back into our culture at large, rather than treating it as something separate and only for super-smart people. If someone can’t understand a concept as I’ve explained it, I always assure them that it’s not because they’re stupid. It’s because I have failed to communicate it clearly, in terms they can understand. It’s a big challenge, since everyone responds to different frameworks. Some people might love Buffy, others might be more inclined to read The Physics of Star Trek, or The Science of Harry Potter. That’s why the genre has proliferated so extensively.
However, I’m surprised at how much resistance there is to this approach by staunch traditionalists: those 40-something college-educated white males for whom popular science books have always been written. They think there is only one way of popularizing science, and it’s the way that it has always been done. If it was good enough for them, then it should be good enough for everyone else, gosh darn it, and any other approach is simply a useless watering down of a serious subject. They don’t understand that John or Jane Q. Public mostly just wants the Cliff’s Notes version, not all the nitpicky details—which is not to say those details aren’t important, they just aren’t necessary when it comes to broader communication of science.
Michael Shermer once outlined three basic levels of science writing: technical papers for scholarly journals; the science “trade press”, like Nature and Science; and mainstream media coverage (TV and newspapers). I’d argue that there are actually more than three levels, and that we need as many levels as we can muster in order to reach as broadly as possible. Each level fills a specific need, and all work together to ensure that people who want to know more, can easily learn more about any given topic. It’s not like one approach is “wrong” and the other “right”; we’re all just preaching to different choirs, and adapting the message to suit the target audience. The primary criteria for evaluating any popular science book should be, who is the target audience, and how successfully does this book address that audience? Period.
6. As a writer of science, can you recall the one science story you’ve covered that amazed you the most – either for how it showed science affecting people in unexpected ways, or just for the sheer awesomeness of the science involved?
Two words: “levitating frogs.” In 1998, Michael Berry of Bristol University collaborated with a Dutch physicist named Andre Geim in an experiment: a live frog was “magnetized” by suspending it above a powerful electromagnet, so that the frog levitated, slowly spinning in mid-air – completely unharmed, I might add, should anyone from PETA be reading. It’s the spin that’s key: without it, it wouldn’t be possible to balance the gravitational and magnetic forces to achieve stable levitation. The experiment earned them an Ig Nobel Prize in 2000 – solely because of the whimsically kooky factor, because it was, in truth, serious science. [See here for more details.]
Geim has a knack for colorful research topics. In 2003, he created a supersticky adhesive mimicking the ability of gecko lizards to grip even the most slippery of surfaces. The secret: the gecko’s foot is covered with tiny hairs. Geim & Company used microfabrication to create a synthetic version of those hairs, thereby mimicking the gecko’s unique mode of traction. One square centimeter of their gecko tape was sufficient to suspend a Spider Man action figure from a pane of glass: you can see the photo here.
If they made enough to cover an entire human palm, they’d be able to suspend a person of average weight. How cool is that?!? Again, serious science, with a whimsical touch. I love it when scientists aren’t afraid to be human.