Science Fiction for Physics Students

Science Fiction for Physics Students

Created by Thomas Seay and Nathaniel Williams

The following works of science fiction are suitable for inclusion in a class on physics.

  • "Somnium, or Lunar Astronomy," by Johannes Kepler. In this short story written around 1630, Kepler describes in the conditions of the moon as he supposed them to be, which included air and water, and burning days and frozen nights equal to fourteen Earth-days each. Copious footnotes elaborate on Kepler's views of lunar science.

    Reprinted in English translation in The Road to Science Fiction, Volume 1, edited by James Gunn.
     

  • Mission of Gravity, by Hal Clement. This 1954 hard science fiction adventure story explores life on Mesklin, a high-gravity planet that rotates very quickly so that gravity varies between 700g at the poles and 3g at the equator. Clement's article "Whirligig World," which is reprinted in the Orion SF Collector's Edition of Mission of Gravity, describes how he calculated and developed Mesklin's properties, and would be of interest to any physics class studying gravity.

    Clement, Hal. Mission of Gravity. Great Britain: Orion. 2000.

     

  • "Critical Factor," also by Hal Clement. This 1953 short story features a protagonist made of liquid who is part of a civilization below the earth's crust. It presents geophysical concepts like lava flow and continental drift fom the point-of-view of an intelligent creature who cannot breathe air. The story ends as this strange protagonist discovers the effects of gravity acceleration. Like Mission of Gravity, "Critical Factor," plays out scientific ideas by developing a whole society whose physical reality is much different from our own.

    "Critical Factor" has been widely reprinted, including in The Road to Science Fiction, Volume 3, edited by James Gunn.
     

  • "The Light of Other Days," by Bob Shaw. A 1966 short story exploring the human implications of the variable speed of light through different media. A special kind of glass slows the speed of light to a near standstill, so that a viewer standing on one side will see actions that occurred on the glass's other side years earlier.

    The complete text is available online at http://www.scifi.com/scifiction/classics/classics_archive/shaw/.

 

"The Cold Equations," by Tom Godwin. This 1954 short story dramatizes the fundamental coldness of physics: that scientific laws do not care for human concerns. A young teenage girl is discovered stowed away on a spaceship; her extra mass will prevent the ship from reaching its destination safely, and so she must be thrown overboard.

"The Cold Equations" has been widely reprinted, including in The Road to Science Fiction, Volume 3, edited by James Gunn.

 

  • Timescape by Gregory Benford. Scientists from an ecologically-devastated future attempt to send a message back in time to 1962 to prevent the catastrophe. The story discusses time in relation to the laws of physics and suggests the use of tachyons as a method for sending a message back to the past.

    Benford, Gregory. Timescape. New York: Bantam. 1992.
     

  • "Exposures," also by Gregory Benford. This short story realistically portrays the long-term nature of astronomers' work. In it, an astronomer pieces together evidence, from a series of unusual astral photographs, that another race is attempting to contact Earth. The work required to prove his extraordinary hypothesis, however, may take generations.

    "Exposures," has been widely reprinted, including in The Road to Science Fiction, Volume 4, edited by James Gunn.
     

  • "Particle Theory," by Edward Bryant. A scientist undergoing treatment for cancer discovers multiple supernovas. The story illustrates the nature of supernovas by likening them to the "pion therapy" used to kill off the narrator's cancer cells.

    "Particle Theory," has been widely reprinted, including in The Road to Science Fiction, Volume 4, edited by James Gunn.
     

  • "Neutron Star," by Larry Niven. This story portrays Niven's hero, Beowulf Shaeffer, piloting a spacecraft to a neutron star. It deals with concepts of tidal forces and hyperbolic orbits. For more information about this short story, see Andrew Love's essay on teaching "Neutron Star" on our Reader's Guides and Study Questions page.

    "Neutron Star" is available in a book-length collection of the same name.
     

  • "Kyrie," by Poul Anderson. Scientists investigate a recently collapsed star. The story illustrates how observing astronomical events--like a supernova--involves long periods of time because of the speed of light. In order to view such things up close, however, the scientists must contend with massive time dilation caused by a collapsing star.
     

    "Kyrie" has been widely reprinted, including in The Road to Science Fiction, Volume 3, edited by James Gunn.

 

  • "Nightfall," by Isaac Asimov. Asimov's classic combines astronomy and a study of human nature. The citizens of a planet that circles several suns live in perpetual daylight. A group of scientists and historians discovers that a recurring collapse of civilization coincides with an eclipse that causes total darkness every 2,049 years. The story challenges readers to envision a planet in a multi-star system and really think about how life would be in a world that has never seen a star-filled night sky.

    "Nightfall" has been widely reprinted, including in The Road to Science Fiction, Volume 2, edited by James Gunn.

     

Creative Commons License