Borderlands of Science Mass Market Paperback – 1 Nov 2000
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Top Customer Reviews
Want to know what the ship of the future might use as a power plant? Black holes? DNA? Quantum computers? - Charles Sheffield brings it to you in a friendly easy to read format. Ideas literally spark from the pages. What if's get you quickly scrabbling for a pen and paper creating ideas you wouldn't have thought possible in your wildest dreams. Yes, its that good!
So if you want to spend endless hours on the internet and find very little about the subject, go ahead. Don't buy this book. But if you want up to date information by your side when the Novel or paper beckons - Well you know what to do...
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
This book is a readable summary of a number of areas of science: physics, astronomy, chemistry, biology, etc., with an emphasis on topics most likely to concern a science fiction writer. The solar system and space flight both get long chapters to themselves, for example. Chaos theory gets a big chapter too -- bigger than it deserves probably -- but is interesting enough.
This book is a handy starting place for an sf writer, but doesn't really go into enough detail to do more than spark a story. The bibliography is therefore unfortunately thin (but at least there is one!).
I noted a significant number of small errors or conceptual problems in the areas of physics and astronomy (I'm a PhD astronomer). For instance, Sheffield repeats Clarke's erroneous point (from 2010) that if Jupiter were just "a bit bigger" it would support its own fusion reactions and be a star. Yes, if it were some 82 times bigger (more massive) according to current theory. That's nearly like saying if the earth were a bit bigger it would be like Jupiter (which is some 300 earth masses). He also notes that distant galaxies look "little different" from nearby ones, aside from brightness and redshift -- this is certainly not true for the higher redshift (say z > 2) galaxies in the Hubble Deep Field for instance, which are smaller and highly irregular indicating evolutionary effects. Sheffield is hard on the Big Bang without good justification (although I grant this could be a good area for story fodder), and gives a rather questionable amount of space to some very discredited alternatives. He does mention one of the more obvious scientific problems with The Sparrow (which is a good book and worth reading anyway) so if he can point it out I can point out a few of his.
I noticed that I stopping seeing problems when the topics moved into chemistry and biology, in which I am well read but no expert. That's a good sign. Sheffield has compiled a wide array of information at a pretty good level of understanding. If it really took a PhD in a particular subject to write hard sf in that subject, we'd be missing some great stories.
This book is an excellent addition to the shelf of a science fiction writer.
If you are writing a short story where the science is just part of the background, this will do a great job helping you avoid physical impossibilities in your plot. It's also more than enough detail for most screenwriters, not that that's saying much. But even the most non-technical SF novel is going to require a lot more research.
Sheffield delves into the origins of life, subnuclear and quantum physics, possible mechanisms for space travel, physical descriptions of the solar system, superconductivity, viruses and prions, and a lot more including a whole section on "scientific heresies".
The second audience are those interested in writing science fiction, specifically the sort of hard science fiction Sheffield wrote. To suggest story ideas, Sheffield explores some of the borders of modern science where conventional theory gives way to speculation. Along the way, he points out some common traps to avoid when handling topics like near lightspeed travel and suggests specific fiction titles as examples of how a concept has been dealt with. He does not offer any advice on the literary aspects of science fiction or in marketing it. His sole interest is in helping you get your real science right and make your imaginary science plausible.
While the book doesn't have a whole lot about the thought processes of scientists, Sheffield does cover the historical and contemporary objections to some scientific theories, the prejudices that sometimes blind good scientists, and some of the amazing minds that have roamed across several disciplines.
Admirers of Sheffield's fiction will also probably like the asides about its scientific inspiration.
My only objection to the book is that I wish some sections would have had more detail.
The book includes a useful bibliography of fact and fiction titles for further research and an index.