Friday, October 25, 2013
Wormholes vs. Wormholes
Did I mention that wormholes are prime examples of why science fiction writers, along with all other fiction writers, have to lie to tell a good story? A day after posting that claim, I caught an article on the National Association of Science Writers website by Dennis Meredith, introducing his novel Wormholes. His first words were, “I’m a liar and a thief, and I think that’s okay.”
So I just had to read the book. Wormholes turns out to be a ripping good yarn that moves swiftly from one disaster to another. The solar system, Earth in particular, is under siege by what an obsessed and slightly wacky theoretical physicist named Gerald Meier decides are “wormholes.”
Each onslaught has a dramatically different effect. Putative wormholes boil the ocean, or open on vacuum, or on Earthlike planets, methane oceans, or antimatter universes. The holes share one thing in common – and this is where I got lost, though not for long. As theorist Meier tells us, “I knew these might be space-time holes, but they couldn’t be black holes.”
Hmm. The essence of a black hole is that it’s a singularity, a gravitational collapse. “Classical” (Schwarzchild) wormholes form when singularities in two universes, or two regions of the same universe, join and very temporarily form a bridge – in essence they’re double black holes. (See Misner, Thorne, and Wheeler’s venerable text, Gravitation.) They are surrounded by event horizons, within which nothing can escape, and vary in mass: the more massive, the bigger the event horizons.
The wormholes in Wormholes aren’t like that. Apparently they’re not gravitational phenomena, and they’re all pretty much the same size – small, say weather-balloon size. While temporary, they stay open for a long time, and their edges (surfaces?) are sharp. Perhaps most unusual, they are exquisitely sensitive to magnetic fields, including fields as weak as Earth’s.
“That’s when I became a liar,” Dennis Meredith explained, in the article that first inspired me to seek out his novel. “To spin an exciting adventure, I invented physics.” He well understands that his fictional wormholes are only distantly related to the wormholes of astrophysical theory. “I became a thief when I misappropriated the popular term ‘wormholes’ to name these objects.”
It’s an interesting disconnect for the reader, to expect one kind of wormhole and discover that’s not what you’re dealing with – a little like the moment in Disney’s 1954 movie 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, one of my all-time favorites, when you find that the Nautilus isn’t battery-powered, as you might have expected from Verne’s novel (1870), but nuclear-powered, like the U.S. Navy submarine launched the same year.
For all the story’s implausibilities, novel wormholes don’t hurt it a bit – it’s still a thrilling ride, crisply told. Physicist Gerald Meier and plucky geologist Dacey Livingstone are well realized, as are the other main characters, the scientists especially; science-writer Meredith knows the tribe’s passions, insecurities, arrogances, occasional evasions, quirks, and dirty tricks, all its strengths and foibles. As a fiction writer, he does like his modifiers, but there are felicities even in the verbal rococo, such as a man “indolently wallowing” on a chaise longue while his wife pleads with him to mow the lawn. (He’ll soon pay for that mellifluous lethargy.)
Meredith describes countries and cultures and landscapes deftly; his plot twists are not only startling but often underpinned by solid research. One vivid and excruciating scene involves the last minutes of a supertanker caught when the ocean beneath it begins to boil. The author knows (or has studied) supertankers well enough to make you believe it.
It’s not the world or the universe we live in or surmise might exist, but it’s a possible world in the sense that most fiction is both possible and true: it takes place in a world “where the fiction is told, but as known fact rather than fiction.”