Physics in Science Fiction

The following is a "slides and notes" version of a talk, written and presented to the Johns Hopkins University Society of Physics Students by Andrew E. Love Jr, a long-standing subscriber, and frequent contributor, to the Larry Niven mail list.



The themes I'm going to touch on are, first, gravity, stability and tides, which can produce some nicely counterintuitive phenomena, second, space travel and orbits, and third, some weird stuff that doesn't quite fit in any of the categories but is too interesting to leave out. If I don't get to finish all of the topics I at least hope to interest you all enough that you read further - I've printed out the slides of this talk and the last few pages give plenty of references for further reading (and sources for the ideas I will have talked about). You'll notice that many of my detailed examples come from the works of Larry Niven. This is not because he's the only author who deals with concepts from physics, but merely because many structures in his stories are relatively simple to analyze and because he's an author whose work I'm very familiar with (I participate in a list-serve discussion group about his work and am often asked questions about the physics of Ringworld, etc.).

In a couple of places I've found accidental errors in a book's physics/mathematics. Science fiction writers seem uniquely accessible by fans - I sent Mr. Niven an e-mail asking about the errors I thought I'd found, and he replied, telling me to trust my equations. Of course in one very famous case, Mr. Niven actually wrote a sequel to one of his novels to remedy an oversight in the earlier book (I'll talk about that later).

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