2015 Hugo Awards Best Related Work: Reviewing Hot Equations

“The Hot Equations: Thermodynamics and Military SF”, Ken Burnside (Riding the Red Horse, Castalia House)

In the world of regency romance novels there is a set of people who will not enjoy the book if you use the wrong word for corset or bloomers or put long sleeves on a character before a certain year. In the Society for Creative Anachronism this set of people are the ones who argue about how much flesh a woman in the Ottoman Empire would expose. In gaming they are the ones who get into loooong discussions about what dice roll is most statistically like the actual firing of a gun of a specific type and can generally be spotted by the large number of Gurps books they carry.

I love my pedants. They are adorable and ferocious. I am not one myself.

It’s pretty obvious from reading Burnside’s essay that he is a pedant. Reality has a certain set of rules and shows like Firefly and Doctor Who do not abide by those rules. His essay sets forth some of the rules of reality as he sees them and suggests ways reality could be incorporated into military sf. He is very specifically interested in the machinery and physics as we know them now.

So for a very narrow set of people who want to be very sure that they are writing according to the laws of real physics without actually having to learn physics themselves I can see Burnside’s essay potentially being helpful. Except he doesn’t really make the topic consumable. It’s possible at the end to parrot and quote and follow what he says but a deeper grasp of what it means is only possible with some prior knowledge of science. With some prior knowledge of science I would rather go  read a harder science book to get a broader understanding of the topic.

Oddly enough some of the “harder science” books are easier to grasp than this essay. One of the things I adore about writers like Richard P. Feynman is how approachable, how consumable, their writing is. Here’s a small bit from Feynman’s Tips on Physics: Reflections, Advice, Insights, Practice:

This is much like the comparison of the directional gyro to the magnetic compass, except that instead of being done every hour or so, it’s done perpetually, all during the flight, so that in spite of the gyro’s tendency to drift very slowly, its orientation is maintained by the average effect of gravity over long periods of time.

Compare that to Burnside’s description of the change (delta) in velocity:

The total amount of velocity change a rocket has is ΔV, and can be thought of as the total fuel in the tank; while you won’t stop when you run out of ΔV, you won’t be able to slow down at your destination, either.

Where does that leave me? Shrugging. If you want a quick reference a la What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew to keep the pedants off your back as you write an ice pirate space opera then go to this essay and crib notes.Except the pedants will have different ideas about what is acceptably speculative than Burnside does and will still argue points like:

… while the physics doesn’t quite say that amount of thrust is impossible, it is highly speculative engineering and is included to make the game fun to play.

If I were you though I would much rather pick up Ben Bova’s Space Travel: A Writer’s Guide to the Science of Interplanetary and Interstellar Travel.

Or Time Travel and Warp Drives: A Scientific Guide to Shortcuts through Time and Space by Allen Everett & Thomas Roman.

Or The Science of Star Wars: An Astrophysicist’s Independent Examination of Space Travel, Aliens, Planets, and Robots as Portrayed in the Star Wars Films and Books by Jeanne Cavelos & Joe Veltre.

Or Fly Me to the Moon: An Insider’s Guide to the New Science of Space Travel by Edward Belbruno with a foreword by Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Now that’s some meaty related work!

Want something that was published in 2015 and might be worth perusing for next year’s Hugo Awards?

I’m going to check out: Beyond: Our Future in Space by Chris Impey

How about you?

Categories: 2015 Hugos, books, Hugos, reviews | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “2015 Hugo Awards Best Related Work: Reviewing Hot Equations

  1. Periwinkle

    Thank you for the recommended reading. I think that anyone wanting to truly understand spaceflight within our solar system should also play the game/toy “Kerbal Space Program”. People often talk about educational software that teaches by simulating; KSP succeeds to a degree that few other games have. Even Randall Munroe of xkcd agrees.

    While delta V is crucial to understanding spaceflight, I would say the quote from “The Hot Equations” uses it backwards, although it may be better in context. ΔV is an abstraction derived from all the fuel (and oxidiser) in your spacecraft. To refer to ΔV as a fuel tank invites confusion.

    • Spouse tells me the Kerbal Space Program is coming to the PS4 and “looks adorable” which means we will shortly own a copy. I will definitely check it out!

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