Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Taking a Look at "The Invisible Finite"

When Hugo Gernsback founded Amazing Stories in 1926, he was eager to educate the public about science (a laudable goal), and he was hoping that his scientifiction stories would serve that purpose. Robert A. Wait's "The Invisible Finite" could serve as a model for the kind of stories Gernsback was hoping to publish: it was written by an actual scientist, it featured loads and loads of exposition laying out actual scientific principles, and it ended with an unexpected twist that opened up vistas of unknown phenomena.

Wait was an instructor in chemistry at Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois, and this gave his story a great deal of verisimilitude. His scientist-hero, Dr. Moore, is also a chemist at a university, and the story opens with him giving a lecture to one of his classes. Dr. Moore has a tendency to start lecturing at the drop of a hat, which is an occupational hazard among college professors.

These days, it's more-or-less expected that a science fiction story will contain a certain amount of technobabble -- made up science, imaginary elements and substances. H. G. Wells himself resorted to an imaginary antigravity material called cavorite in his 1901 novel The First Men in the Moon. Wait, however, does not. His fictional experiment is conducted with an X-ray machine operating on thin plates of a gold-uranium alloy coated with colloidal platinum, real technology and real elements. Incidentally, the use of uranium gives the story an unexpectedly modern ring -- back in the 1920s and 1930s, radium was always the go-to radioactive element in SF stories. It wasn't until the detonation of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 that pulp science fiction abandoned radium for good. This, too, can be attributed to Wait being an actual scientist, and not a pulp fiction writer using half-understood concepts.

In an illustration of the unconscious sexism of the era, all of the students in Dr. Moore's class are male, even though Millikin University was coeducational at the time, and Wait presumably had the occasional female student in his own classes. On the other hand, both of Dr. Moore's top graduate students are foreign -- the Irish Jerry Murphy, and the Brazilian Carlos Manoras, a too-rare indication of the international nature of science, and doubtless a reflection of the makeup of Wait's own classes.

What may be the most admirable quality of "The Invisible Finite" was Wait's description of Jerry Murphy's skeptical attitude: "It was only because he was a good scientist that he was skeptical. Early in his career he had learned that skepticism was not a vice -- more of a virtue, ofttimes preventing false conclusions based on insufficient evidence." You really couldn't ask for a more succinct summary of the chief virtue of the scientific mindset: skepticism, the steadfast refusal to believe something just because you want it to be true.

This has always been at the heart of attacks on science by religious fundamentalists -- the fact that scientists refuse to believe the things the fundamentalists want to believe. So it comes as no surprise that as religious fundamentalists gain control of the Republican Party, the GOP has become ever more hostile to science, and conservatives insist on their right to construct their own alternate reality where the things they want to believe are true, are true.

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