Scientists on their favourite science fiction

Michael J. I. Brown, Monash University; Alice Gorman, Flinders University; Bryan Gaensler, University of Toronto; Duncan Galloway, Monash University; Geraint Lewis, University of Sydney; Helen Maynard-Casely, Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation; Matthew Browne, CQUniversity Australia, and Rob Brooks, UNSW Australia

Tales of strange alien worlds, fantastic future technologies and bowls of sentient petunias have long captivated audiences worldwide. But science fiction is more than just fantasy in space; it can educate, inspire and expand our imaginations to conceive of the universe as it might be.

We invited scientists to highlight their favourite science fiction novel or film and tell us what it was that captivated their imagination – and, for some, how it started their career.

Bryan Gaensler, astronomer, University of Toronto

Time for the Stars
– Robert A. Heinlein

Bringing relativity to life.

Long before the era of hard science fiction, Robert Heinlein took Einstein’s special theory of relativity and turned it into a masterpiece of young adult fiction.

In Time for the Stars, Earth explores the Galaxy via a fleet of “torch ships”, spacecraft that travel at a significant fraction of the speed of light. Communication with the fleet is handled by pairs of telepathic twins, one of whom stays on Earth while the other journeys forth. The supposed simultaneity of telepathy overcomes the massive time delays that would otherwise occur over the immense distances of space.

The catch is that at the tremendous speeds of these torch ships, time travels much slower than back on Earth. The story focuses on Tom, the space traveller, and his twin brother Pat, who remains behind. The years and decades sweep by for Pat, in a journey that takes mere months for Tom. Pat’s telepathic voice accelerates to a shrill accelerated squeal for Tom, as Einstein’s time dilation drives them apart, both metaphorically and physically.

This is ultimately a breezy kids’ adventure novel, but it had a massive influence on me. Modern physics wasn’t abstruse. It was measurable, and it had consequences. I was hooked. And I’ve never let go.

Michael Brown, astronomer, Monash University

2001: A Space Odyssey
– Stanley Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey encompasses human evolution, space, alien life and artificial intelligence. Despite being released the year before Apollo 11, the Academy Award winning special effects still make its vision of space inspiring. It can be spine tingling when seen at an old fashioned cinema with a wide screen and a 70mm print (such as Melbourne’s Astor).

2001 is also a product of its time. During the 1960s NASA consumed roughly 4% of the US federal budget, and if that had continued, then perhaps the International Space Station would be a giant rotating behemoth seen in 2001. Indeed 2001’s Pan Am spaceplane seems like a natural progression from early (ambitious) proposals for the Space Shuttle.

Technologies in the film are ahead and behind what we have today.
The most memorable (and arguably emotional) character of 2001 is HAL, an eerily intelligent computer that is far in advance of any computer in existence. And yet astronauts on the moon are using photographic film, rather than digital cameras.

Kubrick deliberately made some space travel seem routine, so his space travellers are frozen in 1960s norms. The astronauts are mostly white men, with women mostly relegated to roles such as flight attendants (an exception is a Soviet scientist). Fortunately, in this regard, the 21st century is more advanced than 2001’s imagined future.

2001: A Space Odyssey

Alice Gorman, space archaeologist, Flinders University

Out of the Silent Planet
– C. S. Lewis

The first book of the classic “Space Trilogy” was written 20 years before the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957, the first “world-circling spaceship”. C. S. Lewis was no scientist – he was a professor of Medieval and Renaissance literature – but his deep knowledge of pre-modern cosmology gives his take on space travel a unique flavour. I find myself returning to Out of the Silent Planet and its sequel, Voyage to Venus, over and over again.

Voyaging through space powered by imagination.

In the story, Lewis’ hero, Ransom, becomes a reluctant astronaut when kidnapped by the uber-colonial “hard” scientist Weston for a journey to Mars. Confined in the spherical spaceship, he becomes aware of a constant faint tinkling noise. In the world before space junk, it is a fine rain of micrometeoroids striking the aluminium shell.

Ransom’s “dismal fancy of the black, cold vacuity, the utter deadness, which was supposed to separate the worlds” fostered by modern science, is transformed by the experience of actually being in space.

His revelation is an intimately joyous recognition that space, far from being dead, is an “empyrean ocean of radiance”, whose “blazing and innumerable offspring” look down upon the Earth. He feels “life pouring into him from it every moment. How indeed should it be otherwise, since out of this ocean all the worlds and all their life had come?”

How, indeed, could we not long for space after such a vision as this?

Duncan Galloway, astrophysicist, Monash University

– Larry Niven

Not just life on another planet…

It was Larry Niven’s Ringworld that led, in part, to my career in astrophysics.

Ringworld describes the exploration of an alien megastructure of unknown origin, discovered around a distant star. The artificial world is literally in the shape of a ring, with a radius corresponding to the distance of the Earth to the sun; mountainous walls on each side hold in the atmosphere, and the surface is decorated with a wide variety of alien plants and animals.

The hero gets to the Ringworld via a mildly faster-than-light drive purchased at astronomical cost from an alien trading species, and makes use of teleportation disks and automated medical equipment.

The appeal of high-technology stories like this are obvious: many contemporary problems, like personal transportation, overpopulation, disease, and death have all been solved by advanced technology; while of course, new and interesting problems have arisen.

Grand in scope, and featuring some truly bold ideas, Ringworld (and Niven’s other books set in “Known Space”) are as keen now as when they were written, 40 years ago.

Helen Maynard-Casely, planetary scientist, ANSTO

The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy
– Douglas Adams

Whether you have heard the radio play, read the book or seen the film, this story of a hapless Englishman negotiating his way through the galaxy is an essential piece of nerd culture. I first heard the play as a teenager, and even now not many weeks go by without me delving into sections of this trilogy of five-parts.

As a scientist, my life can seem a little zany to an outsider. When your job does sometimes actually entail reversing the polarity of a neutron flow, you need to look to an even crazier fiction world for your escapism. And for me this book is it. A world where sperm whales and bowls of petunias can appear in space for no reason at all and staggering co-incidences happen every time you power up your spaceship.

Life among the stars is rather more ordinary than it might seem.

The genius (and I do not use that word lightly) of Douglas Adams’ writing is that the loopy concepts of the book are presented with a thin veneer of “scienceness”, enough to make the fantastical concepts that little more believable. Then he “normalises” it all. A packet of peanuts will help you survive a matter transference beam, for instance.

The heart of this book is its characters, a suite of people/aliens that are echoed in every workplace (certainly every laboratory) across the world. Walk into any science institute and there will be a two-headed power-hungry presidential leader railing upon post-docs, with brains the size of planets, who really wish you hadn’t talked to them about life.

I get the impression that Douglas Adams would not have wanted you to take anything away from this book. But, for me it gives continued inspiration that there is always another way to sidle up to a problem. Most of all though: don’t panic.

Matthew Browne, social scientist, CQUniversity

Consider Phlebas
– Iain M. Banks

What might a post-scarcity society look like?

I love a lot of science fiction, but Iain M. Banks’ classic space-opera Consider Phlebas is a special favourite.

Banks describes the “Culture”, a diverse, anarchic, utopian and galaxy-spanning post-scarcity society. The Culture is a hybrid of enhanced and altered humanoids and artificial intelligences, which range from rather dull to almost godlike in their capabilities.

Most people in the Culture lead a relaxed, hedonistic lifestyle, going to parties, doing art, taking drugs (which they can synthesise from bio-engineered glands) and generally having fun. The tedious business of actually running the whole show is mostly left up to the most powerful AIs, called Minds, who manifest themselves in the great star-ships and orbitals in which most citizens live.

Of course, it’s a big galaxy, and not everyone shares the Culture’s easy-going approach to galactic citizenship. Consider Phlebas is set against the backdrop of a growing conflict between the Culture and the Indirans, a speciesist, religious and hierarchical empire with expansion on its mind.

Perhaps the best thing about Consider Phlebas (apart from the wonderfully irreverent ship names the Minds give themselves) is the fact that a story from this conflict is told from the perspective of an Indiran agent, who despises the Culture and everything it stands for.

My own take on the book is as an ode to progressive technological humanism, and the astute reader will find many parallels to contemporary political and cultural issues.

Rob Brooks, evolutionary biologist, UNSW Australia

The Truman Show
– Peter Weir

Truman Burbank, played with a delectable balance of animation and pathos by Jim Carrey, lives a confected life as unwitting protagonist in a reality television show. Conceived on camera, adopted by a corporation and manipulated at every stage by the show’s sinister creative genius, Christof (Ed Harris), Truman nonetheless comes to realise that his world is a sham and that almost every interaction he ever had was a lie.

Against the backdrop of Seahaven’s dystopic perfection, Weir exposes prescient glimpses of reality television, surveillance culture and the stalkerish targeted advertising we now find in our social media streams.

It’s like a peppy 1984 but with corporate hegemony replacing the totalitarian state. But I was most gripped by the fresh take on ancient debates about rationalist nature and empiricist nurture.

As a student of behaviour, I’ve always rued the amputation of biology from the social sciences, particularly the wasted opportunity that saw sociobiology turned into a perjorative in the late 1970s, at least outside the study of insect sociality. The rejection of evolutionary thinking as “biological determinism”, and its positioning as opposite to progress and liberation, has always rankled me.

I recall watching the film alone, between conferences, at an ancient cinema in Santa Cruz. What excited me most, and kept me up much of the night scribbling notes that would eventually shape my research direction and lead me to popular writing, was Weir’s clever inversion of the relationships between nature/nurture and determinism/free will.

While Cristof’s nurture tramples Truman’s nature throughout the film, in the end something inherent to Truman sets him free, as he whispers: “You never had a camera in my head!”.

The climax of The Truman Show. “Good afternoon, good evening and goodnight!”

Geraint Lewis, astrophysicist, University of Sydney

The Time Machine
– H. G. Wells

In the decade before Albert Einstein told us that time and space were malleable, H. G. Wells gave us the adventures of the Time Traveller.

We never learn the name of this Victorian scientist, a man who explains “there is no difference between time and any of the three dimensions of space” and builds a machine to explore this new world. It was not from Einstein that I discovered the non-absolute nature of space and time, but from the Time Traveller, and his present-day incarnation, Doctor Who.

A view of the distant future from the recent past.

The Traveller doesn’t head to past, to be a voyeur at historical events, but into the unknown future. And the future of Wells is not glorious! The Traveller finds evolution has split humans in two, with delicate Eloi being little more than food for the subterranean Morlocks.

Escaping mayhem and heading even further into the future, the Traveller finds the life’s last gasp under a swollen, red sun, eventually seeing the Earth succumbs to final freezing, before he returns to the relative safety of Victorian London.

This scientific vision of the future struck me, and the nature of time has remained in my mind. At the end of the story the Traveller heads back to continue his exploration of the future; playing with the equations of relativity is likely to be the closest I will ever come to realising this dream.

The Conversation

Michael J. I. Brown, Associate professor, Monash University; Alice Gorman, Senior Lecturer in archaeology and space studies, Flinders University; Bryan Gaensler, Director, Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics, University of Toronto; Duncan Galloway, PhD; Senior Lecturer in Astrophysics, Monash University; Geraint Lewis, Professor of Astrophysics, University of Sydney; Helen Maynard-Casely, Instrument Scientist, Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation; Matthew Browne, Lecturer in Psychology, CQUniversity Australia, and Rob Brooks, Scientia Professor of Evolutionary Ecology; Director, Evolution & Ecology Research Centre, UNSW Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Five reasons why you should read aloud to your kids – and pick their favourite book

Ryan Spencer, University of Canberra

As parents know all too well, children love to re-read their favourite books over and over again.

While this may feel painfully repetitive to adults, there is something in the text that is bringing children back time after time.

Children benefit greatly from re-reading as they learn the rhyming or predictable pattern of the text – rather than spending that time trying to understand what the book’s about.

Research shows that repeated reading of favourite books can boost vocabulary by up to 40%.

But this is only truly beneficial when the text is read aloud.

Research shows that when preschool children are frequently read to, their brain areas supporting comprehension and mental imagery are highly engaged. Studies show that this helps with the development of reading skills, such as word recognition, when they start to learn to read.

By assisting our children to develop these skills, we’re ensuring that they know that text conveys a message, and to read on for more information when they get stuck on a word.

And it’s never too early to start reading aloud to your children. Australian author and literacy studies professor Mem Fox says reading to children from birth can help develop a love for and understanding of books.

Need more convincing? Here are five ways that reading aloud can benefit your child:

1. Improves fluency

Fluency when reading is essential in order to build strong and confident readers. But it can frequently be misinterpreted as relating only to reading speed alone.

Researcher Timothy Rasinski highlights the “bridge” that fluency plays in between word recognition and understanding what the book is about. He highlights the way that reading fluently at a natural reading speed helps to ensure that comprehension is maintained when reading.

When you share a book with your child, they get to see good reading modelled for them. They establish a sense of the speed and prosody that is essential to fluent reading. This then aids in their comprehension of the story.

To help your child hear themselves as a fluent reader, choose a favourite book, and take it in turns reading a sentence, such as in the style of echo reading, where you might read a sentence or a page first then your child repeats the same part.

Hearing themselves as confident and fluent readers allows children to break out of the struggling reader mindset where every book is a challenge.

2. Expands vocabulary knowledge

Research shows that possessing a broad vocabulary is essential to making sure that children have access to a range of different words with different meanings.

It makes sense that the more words that children know when reading independently, the more they’ll enjoy what they’re reading.

While vocabulary lessons are taught in schools, parents can also assist in helping their children learn new words at home by reading favourite books aloud.

Before reading a book for the first time, flick through the pages with your child. Look for any interesting words that your child might not have seen before. Talk about what these words mean and where they may have seen them before.

3. Helps comprehension

Successful reading is all about making sense of what we’re reading.

As adults, if we don’t quite understand something that we’ve just read, the first thing that we tend to do is to go back and reread.

This is a vital skill that we need to encourage in our children to help them become self sufficient readers.

Reading aloud provides the means by which to clearly take about what is happening in the book and to practice this rereading skill.

The conversations about what the book is about can take place before reading with your child in order to predict what might happen. Discussions during and after reading are also usual in clarifying what your children have just read.

4. Involves family members

Fathers and other significant males in a child’s life play a vital role in encouraging their children to be active readers at home.

While mothers do tend to spend more time with their children and often take on reading as a part of this experience, research demonstrates clear benefits when dads, uncles, grandfathers and male friends read with children.

Dads are often seen as the untapped resource when it comes to reading with their children and they frequently provide a different range of experiences, especially when reading aloud.

This might be through using different funny voices and even the content that is read together.

5. Brings the fun back into reading

As any avid reader knows there are few things better in life than curling up with a favourite book and not wanting to put it down.

Sharing this experience with your child is a valuable way to get them on the path to loving books as well.

Consider taking home a new book from the bookstore or library and selling this to your child.

Try talking about the pictures, look at interesting words and predict what might happen before reading together.

When you are reading the book aloud for the first time, use different voices for each character.

If you’re looking for some inspiration on what to read to your child, then try the Children’s Book Council of Australia Awards shortlist, or the Dymock’s Top 51 Kids list which is voted for by kids for kids.

The Conversation

Ryan Spencer, Clinical Teaching Specialist; Lecturer in Literacy Education, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Infographic: Desserts Inspired By Your Favourite Books

The link below is to an infographic that looks at 20 desserts inspired by your favourite books.

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World's favourite bookstores ranking shows enduring market

Paul X. McCarthy, UNSW Australia

In a business environment that has seen industries decimated by the rise of digital, one sector showing resilience is that of books.

“Books are not like recorded music,” says Shaun Symonds, general manager of Nielsen Bookscan.

If anything, the total global market for books is growing, as confirmed in research by PwC and others:

Total Market for Global Books Continues to Grow PwC
Global entertainment and media outlook 2015–2019, PwC, Ovum

If you adjust for the effects of the closure of major book chains such as Borders there is in fact only one or two years of decline in sales volume over the last decade in most major markets. Every other year including the most recent year’s figures reflect a modest year-on-year growth in total books (including eBooks) sold on the year before.

That’s not to say there’s not been significant disruption and consolidation in the industry. A large part of the highest-value highest-margin segments of the business such as hardback fiction are steadily migrating to eBook and online fulfilment. And of course the rise of online pure-play booksellers such as Amazon, Flipcart and The Book Depository has meant a new level of global competition for local independent bookstores and chains alike.

The migration to eBooks has meant the total dollar value of books sold has declined but the profitibility of some publishers has actually increased as they’ve removed a lot of their printing, wharehousing and distribution costs. A growing source of the industries profits are from eBooks at analysis by Bain shows.

Growing share of profits from eBooks
Publishing in the Digital Era, Bain 2011.

On the retail front while some bookshops have not managed to survive this last decade, many have held on. And some are thriving and flourishing – delighting their customers in ways only they know how. And being remembered for it.

The long-established Shakespeare & Company featured in Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris.
Tamara Craiu/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

In an economy increasingly governed by attention, the need for companies and retailers to have their brands recognised and remembered has never been greater. Being forgotten is one of the greatest clear and present dangers in the global, web-connected and digital economy.

Using web data it’s possible to measure the collective visibility of today’s leading bookstores from around the world.

Towards a global Top 40

Novelist & co-creator of kids TV series Hi-5 Posie Graeme-Evans recently wrote about her Top 10 Favourite Bookstores.

What if you could find out who everyone’s favourite bookstores were, around the world? And what if this list included all the legendary independent stores like Shakespeare and Company in Paris, as well as online bookstores like Amazon and bookstore chains like Waterstones, Barnes & Nobles and Dymocks. Using large scale data collections from the web, I set about doing this.

The Top 40 Bookstores list is based on how many people think about these stores and how often.

Perhaps not surprisingly online stores lead the list with followed by the online goliath Flipkart of India just ahead of the world’s largest bookstore chain Barnes & Noble. France’s giant cultural and electronics retailing chain Fnac is fourth with the UK’s largest bookstore chain Waterstones rounding out the top five.

What may come as a surprise is leading independent single stores or small chains including Shakespeare and Company (Paris); Powells (Portland) and City Lights (San Francisco) all feature in the top 20.

Here is the list in full:

World’s Top Bookstores 2015
# Bookstore Twitter HQ Country
1 @amazonbooks US
2     Flipkart @Flipkart India
3 Barnes & Noble @BNBuzz US
4 Fnac @Fnac France
5 Waterstones @waterstones UK
6 The Book Depository @bookdepository UK
7 AbeBooks @AbeBooks Canada
8 Shakespeare and Company @Shakespeare_Co France
9 Books-A-Million @booksamillion US
10 Hay-on-Wye @Hay_On_WyeBooks   UK
11 WHSmith @WHSmith UK
12 Infibeam @infibeam India
13 Chapters Indigo @chaptersindigo Canada
14 Powell’s Books @Powells US
15 City Lights Bookstore @CityLightsBooks US
16 Blackwell UK @blackwellbooks UK
17 National Book Store @nbsalert The Phillipines
18 Alibris @alibris US
19 Foyles @Foyles UK
20 Eslite Bookstore @eslite Taiwan
21 MPH Group @M_TWEETbyMPH Malaysia
22 Hudson Group @hudsonbooks US
23 Books Kinokuniya @Kinokuniya Japan
24 Fishpond @Fishpondcom NZ
25 Strand Bookstore @strandbookstore US
26 Hastings Entertainment @goHastings US
27 Half Price Books @halfpricebooks US
28 Popular Holdings #popularworld Singapore
29 Livraria Cultura @livcultura Brazil
30 Higginbotham’s #higginbothams India
31 Landmark Bookstores @landmarkstores India
32 Hatchards @Hatchards UK
33 Fopp @foppofficial UK
34 Dymocks Booksellers @dymocksbooks Australia
35 Harvard/MIT Cooperative Society   @harvardcoop US
36 Eason & Son @easons Ireland
37 NewsLink #newslink Australia
38 Archambault @archambaultCA Canada
39 Kyobo Book Centre @withKyoboBook Korea
40 Hodges Figgis @Hodges_Figgis Ireland
Ranked by Bookstore Mind Share 1.01; Paul X McCarthy, June 2015.

The methodology

To create the Top 40 I created a “Bookstore Mind Share” (BMS index) derived from web data such as global visits to each bookseller’s Wikipedia page. This approach is a proxy for popularity or notoriety. I then standardised the results to allow comparisons across categories and across the world. As the BMS is based on the English-language web it is mainly representative of English-language countries and English-language bookstores but interestingly still includes bookstores in Korea and Brazil.

By using a standard measures across global web platforms like Wikipedia traffic data, Google Books N-Gram and Google search term frequency you can create interesting and fascinating comparisons that span across time and geography.

Another example of this type of web data use is the MIT Media Lab’s Pantheon project where you can browse rankings of many people across history from ancient times to today including:

This is an experimental data project and I would encourage readers to comment or make suggestions for improvements or additions.

The Conversation

Paul X. McCarthy is Adjunct Professor at UNSW Australia.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Article: Internet Archive

The link below is to an article on the Internet Archive – probably my favourite place on the Internet.

For more visit: