Tuesday, July 6, 2010

E.E. Smith, you fail science forever!

Science Fiction readers wish they were scientists the same way Tom Clancy readers wish they were Army Rangers and Navy SEALs.

In the early days of science fiction, to have someone that's an honest-to-goodness PhD in science the way most of those early science-obsessed fanboys (and some girls) wished they were, must have been a real treat, something that gave authenticity to the stories. Science Fiction and magazines were seen as a tawdry waste of time, and real-life PhDs in science had better things to do than to give material to Hugo Gernsback and other magazine editors.

Nowadays, a lot of science fiction writers are PhDs: Isaac Asimov, famously, had a PhD in both Physics and Biochemistry (back when it was still called that), Larry Niven has a Masters in Mathematics, and Timothy Zahn was a Physics PhD candidate. Back in the 1930s, though, you took what you could get, and E.E. Smith and his editors were extremely proud of his PhD. Just look at those covers: E.E. Smith...PHD. It's like the PhD is Gladys Knight, and the rest of him are the Pips.

Too bad Smith's degree was in Chemistry, specializing in donut mixes.

Smith had a prose style that could best be described as YELLING, and his technobabble is some of the most astounding I've ever seen (is that why they call it 'Astounding Stories?'), and I watched Star Trek: Voyager. I don't like nitpicking science errors in science fiction, because that's just disruptive to suspension of disbelief, and I'm a good sport when it comes to waiving it in the writer's benefit...but I judge an honest-to-God PhD like donut-boy here by a different standard.

There are some truly headscratching things even in the field of chemistry. Smith's tactic is to browbeat the reader with fifty buck words until they are forced to believe his scientific concepts to make the barrage stop. It's called "suspension of disbelief by intimidation." Or "may the power of bullshit repel thee!"

Take for instance, a real howler in his book Triplanetary. The villains are a weird rhino-squid race named the Nevians that have declared war on the human race. Their power source? Allotropic iron.

(An allotrope is a molecular structure with only one type of element. Depending on how the atoms are arranged, something can have different properties. For example, graphite and diamond are both allotropes that consist of nothing but carbon arranged differently.)

According to Smith, this allotrope of iron is radioactive...so much so that 10% of its mass is switched to energy over time. As it does so, the binding content of the atom is released. This sort-of makes sense, as Iron has more binding in its atoms than any other you care to name. But otherwise...

1) Why would an "iron allotrope" make iron easier to crack apart at the atomic binding level? Iron atoms are iron atoms even if you arrange them differently. That's like saying walnuts are easier to break because you've got them spelling out "I Love You."

2) And this is the big one. Iron is the worst source of radioactive fuel in the entire universe. Literally! Seriously, Smith could have picked an element at random by spinning the periodic table and it would have made a better radioactive fuel source than iron. Iron absorbs nuclear energy, and iron buildup at the core of stars causes supernovas!

Iron is such a good absorber of nuclear reactions that it is actually the heaviest type of element that can be created by stellar processes alone. Only hydrogen existed in the early universe after the Big Bang, where the universe was so hot that fusion reactions could take place. After the Big Bang, five elements existed as a result: Hydrogen, Helium, Lithium and Beryllium, not to mention two isotopes of Helium. As a result of stellar conditions, heavier elements are created up to iron. Helium, in stars larger than our earth, create elements like oxygen, silicon and iron.

Iron has the lowest binding energy of anything, except maybe nickel, and from there elements increase in required energy further away from iron in both directions. Iron will absorb any additional energy placed on it! That is why iron is pretty much useless to any nuclear reaction you care to name - fusion or fission.

Iron is such a good collector of energy, in fact, that the only process that can create heavier elements than iron in the universe are supernovas, which use a high-energy process called beta decay to create the remaining elements (beta decay is a process where beta particles, a proton and neutron - are bounced around from atom to atom).

Dr. Smith, I had two semesters of physics and two semesters of chemistry at the undergraduate university level and I know this.

Smith gave another shocking science error in his novel Skylark of Space. Like the previous error, it was a physics and chemistry mistake that a PhD in Chemistry should know. In Skylark, the crew of an early spaceship land on a planet where salt catalyzes a metal to create super-armor, so the nation that has the table salt in the ship's galley could take over the planet. It reminds me of Matt Groening's "The Nation that Controls Magnesium Controls the Universe."
Now, I can sort-of accept that salt functions as a catalyst, depending on the reaction. Salt turns water into a better electrolyte (conductor of electricity), and oxidation (rust) is an electrochemical process, for example.

But salt being super-rare on an earthlike planet? Of all the materials in the universe to make super-rare on an earthlike world...! Okay, I can accept something like Scandium being super-rare, or Iridium, because those metals are very dense and aren't often found in the crust because they "sink." But salt is made of sodium and chlorine. Sodium and chlorine have two properties that make them super-common that a chemist should know:

1) They are among the ten most common elements in the crust of an earthlike planet, and are so because of their lightness;

2) They instantly combine with each other, covalently, because of their mutual charges. Alkali metals have an single electron, and halogens like chlorine have a free slot for an electron. Zap! They bind together.

There's no scenario where salt wouldn't be common, except for maybe a planet without an ocean or indeed, any water at all, that couldn't function as a solvent to break up earth compounds with both elements.

E.E. Smith may throw a ton of words of greater than five syllables around, and I guess that might be pretty good at suckering the rubes that don't know science. But when it comes to Smith's technobabble...take it with a grain of NaCl.


  1. My favorite Edward Elmer Smith "future science" was spaceship travel "at the speed of thought".

    Research project: name the academic institutions that granted a PhD to Smith and a physics PhD to Asimov.

  2. In all fairness, the means of space travel in, say, the Lensman novels was actually the most innovative thing about it, and it was so idiosyncratic that no one ever used that idea but Smith: inertialess drive, where all the inertia from an object was removed. To Smith's credit, this was actually thought through: objects when they collide in inertialessness, no matter how fast they were going, just "stop."

    There was one HUGE thing that I forgot to mention - not really a science error, but more of something that brought a smile to my face: in a Lensman story Smith had a regeneration chrysalis gadget, which a character praised as "finally achieving a cure for polio!" WOW.

    I have no idea where E.E. Smith got his PhD...but I know exactly where Asimov got his: my school, Columbia University!

  3. Thats rather entertaining in itself..
    You took him seriously ?

    You might as well take a "Biggles" novel seriously.

    E.E.'s books are called "Space Opera" you n00b, They are of a style that is supposed to feature Jut-Jawed Heroes, Stereo-Typed Bimbo's, Dastardly Villains and outrageous weapons and technology.

    I have often suspected that he actually did know all of the things you so cleverly point out that he got wrong, and deliberately put them in there backwards just to rile up "knowledgeable experts" (after a whole 2 semesters !) like yourself and give it a melodramatic edge.

    A bit like a Villain drawing a gun with a ridiculously long barrel, or wearing an improbable handlebar mustache as a disguise, the opposite-of-realistic technology adds to the sense of the dramatic.

    Of course, 80 years later, along comes Mr Educated and laughs at Mr.Donut mixer turned author. Well Smarty Boy, when you have as many published hit books making you $$ like E.E's books did, perhaps someone might actually take *you* seriously.

    Until then, Enjoy your newfound expertese at ridicule making you look ridiculuously credible ;)

  4. My only expertise is the 100`s of sci-fi books I have read. EE Smith was a genius entertainer..

    Easy to suspend disbelief that a form of iron is a power source, brilliant choice as we now all know it must be one of the most power-dense elements after absorbing all that star bred nuclear power.. Right?

  5. Yes, both graphite and diamond are allotropes and are consist of nothing but carbon arranged differently..