Thursday, June 25, 2009

Nerd Word of the Week: Multiverse

The Anti-Monitor fights heroes from eight Eart...Image via WikipediaMultiverse (n.) - Simply put, multiple universes that are linked together. More specifically, a set of interrelated parallel realities, usually involving characters that jump between universes to visit and interact with alternate versions of themselves and/or their history. While this term has been extended to any parallel universe story, like that found in The Chronicles of Narnia, it is most often associated with comic book franchises, particularly the DC Comics universe, which had its multiverse grow so expansive and unwieldy that it destroyed it in the seminal Crisis on Infinite Earths (and has since brought it back -- sort of -- in the recent Infinite Crisis).

I bring it up because: June 30 is Superman's 71st birthday -- he first appeared in his modern form in Action Comics #1, which came out on that date in 1938 -- and nobody is a better example of the multiverse than Superman, as he has appeared in more alternate versions than virtually any other character in history. In fact, Grant Morrison turned the joke in on itself, creating a Superman Squad of parallel-universe and time-traveling Men of Steel that regularly team up to battle interdimensional threats. (Just for fun, ask a Supes fanboy whether he prefers the John Byrne Man of Steel origin for Superman, or Mark Waid's Birthright; sparks will fly. Or better yet, ask him which Superman Elseworlds story is his favorite. Not superfan can fail to have an opinion. Personally, I'm a Speeding Bullets guy.)

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Nerd Word of the Week: Uplift

Cover of "The Island of Dr. Moreau (Banta...Cover via Amazon

Uplift (n.) - The process by which one species genetically engineers another into a more "advanced" state. In most science fiction examples, this involves gene-hacking animals to give them human-level intelligence, and possibly anthropomorphized bodyshapes. This notion was first popularized by H.G. Wells in The Island of Dr. Moreau. In other equally famous stories, uplift by extraterrestrial agents led to the rise of humanity, as was implied by the presence of the monolith in Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey. (The same aliens/gods/unknowable beings would uplift life on Europa in the 2001 sequel, 2010.) The specific term uplift is today most often identified with author David Brin, who wrote a series of novels set in the Uplift Universe, notably including the classics Startide Rising and Sundiver.

I bring it up because: 151 years ago today -- June 18, 1858 -- Alfred Russell Wallace sent a copy of his theory of natural selection to Charles Darwin, one which matched the latter's own ideas to a striking degree, prompting Darwin to finally publish his theory of evolution. Uplift is often mistakenly referred to as "forced evolution" when evolution itself is a natural process with no more a goal than a rainstorm or an earthquake. We aren't "destined" for intelligence or opposable thumbs, it just worked out that way, and playing with the notion of applying our own human-centric ideas of "advanced states" to other species' biology makes for some philosophically intriguing fiction, and often some pretty compelling space opera, too.

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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Nerd Word of the Week: Psychohistory

Isaac AsimovIsaac Asimov via

Psychohistory (n.) - A field of study that uses advanced mathematics to accurately predict the future. Specifically, it's the use of sociological statistics to predict the collective behavior of large groups of people, like galaxy-spanning empires. Isaac Asimov is credited with coining this connotation of the term in 1951 with his Foundation series, which itself is considered required reading by most traditional sci-fi fans. There is a real field of study called psychohistory, which is about analyzing the psychological motivations behind historical events, but most sci-fi fans are either ignorant of this fact, or simply curse its existence when it muddles up their Asimov-related Google search results.

I bring it up because: A mere 58 years ago this week, the first UNIVAC I was dedicated into service at the U.S. Census Bureau -- June 14, 1951. (1951, coincidentally, was also the first year that Asimov's original Foundation stories were collected into book form.) UNIVAC was America's first successful commercial computer, and it made famous the notion of statistical prediction of major events when the fifth UNIVAC I unit successfully predicted the outcome of 1952 U.S. Presidential election based on early poll returns. This practice is now common, and is in some ways the real-world analogue of Asimov's psychohistorical notions. Asimov, in turn, took the UNIVAC name and ran with it, creating the Multivac series of stories about a perpetually evolving supercomputer. The most famous of these is the short story "The Last Question," which Asimov described as perhaps the favorite of his own works, wherein Multivac is asked to "solve" the heat-death of the universe.

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Thursday, June 04, 2009

Nerd Word of the Week: Unobtainium

Bose–Einstein condensate In the July 14, 1995 ...Image via Wikipedia

Unobtainium (n.) - Snarky term for either a scientifically impossible substance that makes some fantastic device or process possible, or an exotic real-world substance that is conferred with implausible or impossible properties for the sake of a story. The classic examples are Cavorite, a metal that creates antigravity fields as first imagined by H. G. Wells in The First Men in the Moon, and scrith, the impossibly strong material from which Larry Niven's Ringworld was built. A more contemporary example would be dilithium, the crystal from Star Trek that regulates matter-antimatter annihilations and makes warp drive possible.

Science fiction fans (and, more importantly, critics and editors) refer to these blatant wish-granting elements and minerals as unobtainium, as they are unobtainable in the real world. Equivalent phrases include: Unattainium, wishalloy, buzzwordium, handwavium (for technical handwaving), and element 404 (as in Not Found).

I bring it up because: 14 years ago this week, the first pure Bose-Einstein condensate was synthesized. A BEC is an extremely weird state of matter with behaviors that cannot be fully explained by current science--including a propensity to spontaneously crawl out of containment vessels. Bose-Einstein condensates are often used as contemporary stand-ins for classic fictional unobtainium in modern science fiction stories, as it "sounds" more real and the author at least has the flimsy cover of "science doesn't understand it" to explain how BECs can turn raw matter into a Jovian mooncastle using only a souped-up inkjet printer (I'm looking at you, Charles Stross's Accelerando.) Plus, Bose-Einstein condensate is just fun to type, even if it sounds vaguely like the residue from a lightspeed subwoofer.

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