By Sanford (Sandy) Morganstein
Book Review: The Three-Body Problem
The April March for Science
What does a science fiction book have to do with supporting science in today’s American environment? A Chinese science fiction book for that matter? Here’s the tipoff: “To effectively contain a civilization’s development and disarm it across…a long span of time, there is only one way: kill its science,” author Liu Cixin has one of the characters say.
Just a little background: The book’s title refers to a problem in what would appear to be the simple physics of gravity. Falling apples, planetary orbits and all that. But, the problem is very difficult when there are three objects with mutual gravitation. In fact, except in certain limited cases, mathematicians have shown that you cannot write equations describing the motions of the three bodies using algebraic expressions. Worse yet, except in special cases, the motions of the three bodies are not repeating…over time, the objects can follow an infinite number of paths.
So what…isn’t this kind of nerdy?
Imagine that you lived on a world that had three suns. No circadian rhythms for you. The length of your days and years would be subject to constant variation. So would the climate…seasons would have no real meaning.
Liu sets his Hugo-award-winning book (awards given annually to science fiction works) to create a conflict between a three-body world and ours. Liu has a worldwide view which he uses to make us think about political attacks on science in both Chinese and Western cultures. Here’s a Chinese example from the book: A political leader in China’s Cultural Revolution says, “Comrades, revolutionary youths…we must clearly understand the reactionary nature of Einstein’s theory of relativity…Its static model of the universe negates the dynamic nature of matter. It is anti-dialectical! It …is absolutely a form of reactionary idealism.”
The West is not immune from Liu’s criticism. As if ripped from today’s political conversation, he has a character say, “But how are things any better in the wealthy countries? They protect their own environments, but then shift the heavily polluting industries to the poorer nations. You probably know that the American government just refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol.”
In the Three-Body Problem protagonists understand that their self-serving political agendas are at risk if science is allowed to stand. An authoritarian figure says, “You! Scientists!…[The] most effective technique remains disrupting your thoughts. When a scientist dies, another will take his place. But if his thoughts are confused, then science is over.”
Don’t take my selected quotes to mean that bad guys in The Three-Body Problem are just comic-book two dimensional anti-intellectual buffoons. The characters in the book are often real enough to allow us to reflect on our own times.
In our own world, it’s not just anthropogenic climate change that is subject to attacks on science. There is an element of attack on the scientific method itself in our own air. Scientists are called “elites” and accused of being in the service of special interests—only interested in preserving their research funding. We’ve seen this before with attacks on the science of tobacco risk. Fossil fuel interests are attacking science for a variety of reasons other than climate change: clean water, smog, lung damaging particulates are examples of risks that are being poo-pooed. Antibiotic use in inappropriate environments puts us all at risk from dangerous organisms that evolve to become immune. Special interests are able to command significant portions of public policy.
The Three-Body Problem has ample excursions into math and science to ensure that the work is not a political screed. Liu writes about using Monte Carlo methods to work around the three-body problem. Ruminations about the consequences of “String Theory” might entertain those whose interest in science is more important than the current risks to science itself.
Which takes us back to the April 2017 March for Science (April 22, 2017—Earth Day). Scientists are going to stand up to the attacks on critical thinking, on attacks against the scientific method. Scientists will stand up in Washington, D.C. and in several local venues. Please connect with the Chicago Council on Science and Technology for more information (www.c2st.org). See also www.MarchForScience.Com and #marchforscience.
Sanford (Sandy) Morganstein has a MS in Astrophysics from the University of Chicago and a BS in Physics from MIT. As an undergraduate, he was inducted into Sigma Xi, an international honorary community of scientists and engineers. Mr. Morganstein has served in both the private and public sectors. He has been awarded more than 35 patents including pioneering patents related to voice mail and similar voice telecommunications technology.
Sandy is a volunteer at the Adler Planetarium and at C2ST.