About Writers, blogging, Research

Pushing the Sci Envelope

Science fiction authors used to push the envelope of knowledge. Rocket ships dropped out of space to land on their tails. GORT, the robot, walked among us in The Day the Earth Stood Still. Arthur C. Clarke submitted a manuscript to Wireless World magazine proposing global communication through geostationary satellites in 1945. These concepts are major industries, today, of course. In fact, today’s science seems to have sprinted ahead of fiction.

I stumbled upon an article about “working memory.” That’s cognitive scientists’ speak for how many potentially conflicting bits of information we can hold in out head. If a point requires more working memory than I have, I just won’t “get it.” Take the example of face masks during a pandemic. There is conflicting information in the media about the usefulness of face masks. The article correlated working memory with face mask use and found that people with less working memory tended to not wear masks. When it comes to complex situations, not everyone “gets it.”

The working memory article gave me a simple idea for a story, that the world is becoming more complex and as it does so, more and more people just won’t “get it.” What happens, I wondered, when the world reaches a point where not enough people understand the complexity of it to keep it running? Does it all break down? Chaos? Lost in my own thoughts, I Googled “complexity and chaos.” And, whoops! I stepped in it.

Turns out, there is a body of scientific study called “complexity science.” Most of it is baffling mathematics. I’m a writer, not a mathematician. But I write hard science fiction, so I have to get the science right and present it in a way to make the fiction entertaining. Luckily, I found A simple guide to chaos and complexity. It’s a scholarly paper written in (mostly) plain English for the health services and I have (some) background in medical care. I now have an inkling of how little I know.

Maybe we should stick to writing stories about things we know? A simple idea is turning into a year or more of research and writing. I used to approach science through fiction and now, I have to approach fiction through science? But enough complaining. Curiosity is addictive. What if people really are limited in how complex a life they can handle? What if our civilization does continue becoming more complex? Will chaos result? What-if is how sci-fi pushes the envelope of knowledge.


21 thoughts on “Pushing the Sci Envelope

  1. mimispeike says:

    I’m all for research, but I never let myself be tripped up by facts. I slice and dice facts and rearrange them to create my own reality. I don’t worry that people will point out that this or that isn’t possible. I have my back up arguments ready.

    Science, let alone hard science, is not my thing, but I would handle it the same way, with a wink and a smirk.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Mimi. Wait…. No! You’re not saying that Sly -Sly’s not real?! OMG!
      Your other facts though, they always sound authentic because you have done your research too well to be tripped up by writing anything that doesn’t.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. Each generation stands on the shoulders of the ones before. What is too complex for us is easy for them, because it’s what they’ve grown up with. E. G., TV remotes, Tik Tok, upgrading video games.
    We take for granted many things that flummoxed our forebears. My mother could never use a microwave oven. I had a secretary who added figures using pencil and paper because she didn’t trust the computer.
    Thus I don’t believe there is a maximum understandable complexity.
    From a math perspective, I’d use the image of an envelope curve—many smaller curves rising then falling, each curve’s peak slightly higher, with one overarching curve riding the peaks. This rising curve represents the complexity tolerance for each generation.
    I’ll also point out that from a technological perspective, innovators constantly work to make complexity simple. How else could a pilot master a fighter jet? How could we manage to drive a car in freeway traffic? Our ancestors couldn’t possibly do this. We’re not any smarter than they were. We’ve just grown up driving, and engineers continually work to make cars easier to drive.

    Liked by 5 people

    • That makes sense, Mike. Up to a point, anyway. I remember when my son didn’t want to learn math because he had a calculator. I told him that someone had to know math in order to make a calculator. He must have thought about that because he became a programmer.

      Me, I’m lost without a calculator. I’ll probably focus the story on characters who mostly don’t understand what’s happening. Again, up to a point. I’ll need my Jubal Harshaw or Lazarus Long – the one character who explains the bigger picture to the other characters and the reader. Come to think of it 🙂 I might name that character Van Horn.

      Liked by 4 people

  3. victoracquista says:

    Excellent post, GD! At some point in my life, I realized that I was much better at grasping concepts than I was at grasping details. Is the world more complex today than when Arthur C. Clarke wrote? I could argue the answer to this with myself and make good reasoned points to answer in the affirmative or in the negative. There certainly are many more scientific, technical, and other details that make the world seem more complex.
    Still, the fundamental laws governing the movement of the spheres haven’t changed, but our knowledge and information about the universe has changed. Nevertheless, can’t we still explain things using simple concepts? I can explain the fundamental operations of an automobile to a five year old. My explanation would be different in the scientific and technical details provided to an adult, but not the concept. Are the limits to understanding more of a communication problem in how we convey the information? Perhaps my working memory limitations propelled me to be comfortable with concepts over content many years ago.
    I read an article today about a polymer that can be used to interface the human brain with AI without inducing biological scarring. Perhaps our working memory can be machine enhanced. Is this much different than a cell phone connecting to Google now? Underlying complexity theory (and chaos theory) are patterns and organizing principles. Over time, I think these will emerge and then the really, really smart people who understand these complex things can hopefully communicate to people like me so that I can understand.
    I like your idea for a story. It reminds me of a short story I wrote about what happens when data acquisition exceeds the capacity for data storage. Given that we collect and then mine all sorts of data, what might happen if we ran out of storage space? It turns out Parkinson’s Law of Data: “Data expands to fill the space available for storage” is predicated upon having space available. Prepare for the digital apocalypse when data storage capacity is exceeded by data acquisition.
    In closing, I think you are onto something but it strikes me as awfully complex and I just don’t get it. 😉

    Liked by 5 people

    • Thanks, Victor. 🙂 You point out that there are good ways to simplify. Philosophy and religion also offer ways to deal with the complexities of life. Even politics simplifies things. Of course, when someone fails to understand that a virus does not care what they think, and they say, “This is a free country! You can’t tell me I have to wear a mask!” that is not a good simplification.

      I’ll probably take the attitude in my story that people are not getting smarter while society becomes more complex and eventually, the voters who don’t “get it” outnumber those who do. That’ll be fun to contemplate.

      Liked by 4 people

    • “Data expands to fill the space available for storage.”
      Also, data retrieval. How do we ever find what we’re looking for? I wonder about this when I read that 20,000 videos are uploaded onto Youtube every day? hour? minute? Plus all the snapchats, tiktoks, instagrams, etc. Not to mention all the self-published books pouring into Amazon. Hell, I can’t even manage the photos on my iPhone.
      And most of what’s recorded is garbage that nobody will ever want to look at again. It’s like we’re living atop a digital garbage dump, growing higher every year. Will it ever collapse?

      Liked by 5 people

      • victoracquista says:

        “It’s like we’re living atop a digital garbage dump, growing higher every year.”
        So true! How do you not only separate the wheat from the chaff, but how do you make the relevant information readily accessible in and retrievable from such a large pile?

        Liked by 3 people

  4. Great post, GD. I’m in that spot myself with a story about mind control. We all set a plausibility threshold for our stories, and the more plausible we want them to be, the more we have to read the science. I want mine to be as plausible as possible but the science of brain observation and manipulation is, well, mind-boggling. Then it becomes a question, as Victor says, of how to get the main points across without getting bogged down in detail. The more we discover, the more specialised each topic becomes, so mastering them all becomes impossible. Our awareness of this has increased because we’re (partially) informed of the major issues facing us, and there’s no consensus between the experts on how to deal with them. That explains, I think, the rise of populism: simple explanations are offered, and gratefully accepted, as alternatives to the information overload involved in trying to understand them all.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Perfectly put, Curtis. “That explains, I think, the rise of populism: simple explanations are offered, and gratefully accepted, as alternatives to the information overload involved in trying to understand them all.” I couldn’t agree more.

      Liked by 3 people

  5. victoracquista says:

    I think you’ve hit on something important there, Curtis. People are looking for others to explain things that seem complex. Who do you turn to? Experts, authorities, people and sources you trust all represent a short list of sources to provide explanation. It’s a set up for exploitation (and has been exploited for centuries).

    Liked by 4 people

  6. “What happens, I wondered, when the world reaches a point where not enough people understand the complexity of it to keep it running? Does it all break down? Chaos?”

    I think we’re halfway there already. You should defiitely write the story!

    Liked by 5 people

  7. Perry Palin says:

    Oh, I don’t know. Maybe the world is getting more complex, and maybe the things we need to keep in our working memory are evolving to be simpler.

    My dad learned as a child to harness a single horse or a team of horses. I can harness a single horse and drive a car, truck, or tractor with a clutch, but 85 percent of us can’t drive a vehicle with a standard transmission. I can look at a paper map, leave the map at home and find my way across a forest and come out on the other side, while some of my friends can’t find their way around their own towns without looking at an electronic screen. How many of us can grow our own grains, vegetables and meat, process them and bring them to the table? Some of my cousins think bread comes from aisle six and eggs come from the cooler at the back of the store. How many of us can keep the house warm and lighted through a Midwestern winter without an automatic HVAC system or electric lights? There are a lot of new things to learn and to know, but we’ve been allowed to forget many things that meant survival to my family 100 years ago.

    I have no doubt that the amount of working memory varies among people. How we choose to populate our own working memory with facts, knowledge, or skill sets is up to us. A lot of what we need doesn’t have to reside in our working memory. It is stored electronically, and it’s a simple process to recall it with a machine. I never learned to use a slide rule, but I can use a calculator. While the world grows more complex, we can manage our lives to become simpler.

    Liked by 5 people

  8. Sometimes, I simply avoid any explanation of the science beyond my understanding.
    The A.I. spotlight spoke up. “The reactor inside is in a state of quantum superposition. It collapses into reality when you look at it. But, the reality will include you as either dead or alive. So, after you look at the quantum state on the other side of that door, you will then be either dead or alive, depending on …um, on something we spotlights do not understand.”
    She’s Probably God, GD Deckard, Gods of Clay anthology, Rivenstone Press

    Liked by 4 people

  9. DocTom says:

    Really nice post and thread GD.

    Let me add a bit of a contrarian viewpoint – the problem with science fiction these days is not so much complexity, as much as our knowledge base has grown so much. I can’t sit down and write a story about Martians because next to me, on my bookshelf, I have an atlas of Mars (more detailed than many atlases of Earth!) and a volume of photos of Mars taken both from orbit and on the surface. So definitely no Martian civilization. However, I can write one about primitive marine life on Enceladus if I’ve followed the results of the Casini mission to Saturn since there is evidence of a water ocean under a crust of ice there. So to send the Martian story to a publisher is to get laughed at, but the Enceladus story might at least get a read.

    Now this doesn’t mean that you have to have a Ph.D. to write scifi. Star Trek has gotten away with lots of stuff that has physicists sniggering. When Superstring theory came out the writers at ST had these humongous glowing strings passing through the galaxy and threatening the Enterprise. The problem? Strings are theoretically the ultimate smallest units of matter. So the Enterprise, while ultimately made up of ‘strings,’ doesn’t have to worry about running into one – they’d never notice it. Another thing they get away with is the transporter. I came across an article years ago that pointed out that the amount of data storage necessary to allow a system to break down a human into their component atoms, convert them to energy, and then reassemble them exactly would probably need to be close to infinite. But who cares? Makes it much easier to get around, and the Enterprise never has to land.

    So I think we’re not so much speaking of complexity as we are knowledge. Perry is absolutely correct about things we just no longer learn because we don’t need to. If I found myself lost in a forest I’d have a hard time making a spear or some such to try to catch game for food (not to mention getting a fire going!); but I know how to read a map unlike many younger folks who are lost if their phone dies (this actually happened in the Adirondacks – a terrified young man had to be rescued by a forest ranger who found him sitting in the middle of a well-marked and blazed trail because his phone died so he had no idea where to go!).

    I disagree a bit with your example of the folks who won’t wear masks. I don’t think it’s a matter of “working memory” as much as it is a case of attitude (I’m trying to be nice here). A former candidate for Vice-President got a lot of mileage by telling people that they didn’t need to listen to experts because they had ‘common-sense’. I’ve often told students that if they want to run for political office, just find something that the government says you cannot do (jumping off a ten story building, peeing into the reservoir, etc.) and state that you will defend their God given right to do just that, and the odds are you’ll get lots of votes.

    On the other hand, oversimplification leads to dependence. The example of a calculator is a good one. Too many people don’t know basic math. Try buying something in a store if the cash registers are down. The cashier might not be able to tell you how much you owe for a $1 purchase because there’s 8% tax.
    I guess I’d suggest that “working memory” might correlate to the degree of decadence in a civilization. Consider the Eloi of Wells’ “Time Machine” or more recently Paolo Bacigalupi’s story “Pump Six.” In both cases people forget how to do things because they don’t need to. What takes up “working memory”? I’ll be cynical – there are folks I know who couldn’t hold up a reasonable conversation regarding current events, but they can tell you the best “hang time” for every punt in every important game of the 2009 NFL season.

    So I wouldn’t overly sweat minute details of “working memory” – try writing a story about a news writer who never learned to write by hand who wakes up one morning to find all the computers have died. 

    Liked by 4 people

      • DocTom says:

        Hi GD. Sorry this took so long, but I finally looked over the Working Memory Capacity paper you cited. I’m not tremendously impressed. While I don’t claim to be an expert on multiple regression techniques, I did teach basic statistics for a number of years and would point out that their statistics are a bit weak. First, they keep pointing to statistically significant results. The problem here is that with a very large sample size (in their case over 400) it’s actually pretty easy for even a minor, unimportant difference to be “significant”. So their correlation value of .26 even though significant is not impressive. A correlation of 1 would give you a straight line at a 45 degree angle on a graph – for each increase of factor 1 you would get an equal increase of factor 2. A correlation of 0 gives you a completely random distribution of data points (looking something like a circular blood splatter). So .25 is pretty weak – roughly a fat football shaped dispersion of data points.

        I’m not saying there’s no relationship, only that it’s pretty weak, and the fact that they did not include political affiliation in their study makes me even more dubious, since I’d imagine that would tend to influence their results. Otherwise you’d be saying that all Libertarians have a low WMC.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. I’ve read about a new age device that can facilitate healing. It’s called Trinfinity8 and it’s online. (there’s an app for the cell phone too!) It turns digital code into analog to submit the healing session through two crystals. Dr. Kathy Forti invented it. She has a book out, “Fractals of God.” A good read. The device employs frequencies.

    Liked by 1 person

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