Why not explain.

Suppose you write a story that introduces “science” or magic that has to be there for the plot to work.  Thus in the Nibelungenlied, Siegfried must help Gunther win Brunhild for the plot to progress. Now, in a contest of strength watched by all and sundry, Siegfried cannot be seen doing it, hence the need for a cloak of invisibility. Star Wars would not be the same story without the force. Star Trek would be quite different without teleportation and warp drive. One issue facing a writer is, when should one try to explain what underpins these devices?

One possibility is, “never”. Thus for centuries, people listed to the Nibelungenlied without worrying a jot about how the cloak worked; it was magic! The Star Trek “science” is slightly different. Teleportation in the sense used there was not really important other than as a means of getting on with the story, so as long as the story was good, who cared? It just removed the need for tiresome issues with shuttles, and it was accepted (or not) without further discussion. Warp drive was something slightly different. Again, that was needed to get the story moving, and to permit the crew to return to Earth, but it has an interesting side issue. According to relativity, or more particularly the representation of space-time in relativity, moving faster than light requires moving through time in a negative direction so you can arrive before you set off. As far as I am aware, this peculiarity was never made use of.

This introduces another reason not to explain: the explanation is just too complicated. Think of going back in time through warp speed. This depends critically on the concept of space-time, without which the equations of general relativity are sufficiently difficult that they beat Einstein (who, at first, thought “space-time” just plain wrong, but he later adopted it because there seemed to be no other way of making progress). The author does not need to get bogged down into that discussion! For example, one view might be that just because the maths are more easily solved using space-time, it does not mean that spacetime is a physical object. Think of the geometry problems you solve by making a construction, or a differential equation using a substitution. Making a construction on a sheet of paper does not make it real on whatever the diagram represents! It just makes it easier to solve the problem. Similarly, modern quantum mechanical problems are addressed through using something called Hilbert space. Nobody I know has suggested that Hilbert space is a real thing, and if it were, it is not really compatible with relativistic space-time. See why you do not want to get involved? Why dig a hole for yourself and lose readers?

Notwithstanding that, there is a problem with ignoring it. Thinking of warp drive, you can either do what Star Trek did and use it as a way of getting from A to B to shorten travel times. Now you are incompatible with relativity, so no explanation is a good idea, but you consign the concept to the “convenient” and turn your stories into the “ordinary”. Be careful, or all you end up with is a space western, and the author has lost a huge number of possible plots!

Take another reason. Think of the force in Star Wars. I remember watching the first three movies, and I, along with everyone else I know, accepted that, in these movies anyway, there was something called the force that a very few could access after a lot of training. I did not care what caused it. But then, a number of years later, Lucas made three more movies, and explained the origin of the force. In my opinion, the explanation was ridiculous, and it only detracted from the movie. To summarize what I am suggesting, sometimes it is better not to try to explain something. Details can add to a story, but silly details subtract from it.

The answer to the question re chattering women

In previous posts, I asked the question: can you think of a famous story involving a cloaking device that underpins a plot involving abuse of power, pride, wishing for what you should not have, and the curse of chattering women? My answer is the Nibelungenlied, which, like the Arthurian legend was written somewhere about the 12th-13th centuries and which culminated a sequence of legends that greatly embellished and “magicified” events from about the 5th-6th centuries. Thanks to Richard Wagner, most people have heard of it, but unfortunately Wagner played somewhat fast and loose with the original story.

I started this blog series with the question of how to introduce the “magical” devices, and perhaps the Nibelungenlied provides the briefest ever introduction. When Siegfried, the son of Siegmund and Sieglind, comes to the court of Gunther in Worms, he is introduced as the man who had killed the dragon and bathed in its blood, thus becoming unable to be wounded, who had acquired the cloak of invisibility, which also conveyed superhuman power, from the dwarf Alberich, and who had made Alberich guard the great treasure of the Nibelungs for him. All this in about half a dozen lines. The important point is, everything was established well before it was used, so there are no sighs of despair when the “powers” are used.

The plot is roughly as follows, and the first half focuses mainly on the desire by some to have what they should not want. Siegfried desires Kriemhild (Gunther’s sister), who is the most beautiful woman in the world. (Not that he has seen her, or knows anything about her.) Unfortunately, Gunther wants Brunhild, queen of Iceland and a woman with the strength of many men, for a wife, and to succeed he has to defeat her in three games of strength. Gunther has no right to her and should never seek her, but he offers Kriemhild to Siegfried if Siegfried will help him get Brunhild. They go to Iceland, where Seigfried is introduced as Gunther’s vassal. Thanks to the cloak of invisibility, Siegfried can throw the spear, the rock and Gunther for the jump, while Gunther pretends. (It is not clear who is the left-hander. Logic is not strong in this poem!) The problem then is, while Brunhild concedes to be his wife, she retains her strength while she remains a virgin. On the first night, she wraps Gunther up and hangs him from a hook on the wall. Once again, Seigfried must help, and while invisible, and presumably in the dark, he wrestles with Brunhild until she concedes. In the good Christian Germanic version, Gunther does the final deed, but in some of the earlier Norse versions, it is Siegfried. It is understandable that this was unsuitable material for Wagner. Leaving aside 19th century morality, how do you portray that in opera, with Brunhild first resisting, then finally conceding to losing her virginity to an invisible man in the dark. Try writing the words to sing with Brunhild’s leitmotif!

Now it is Siegfried’s turn to take what he should not: he takes Brunhild’s ring and girdle for souvenirs. Siegfried and Kriemhild marry, and about a decade later return to Worms. Brunhild and Kriemhild get chattering, and finally Brunhild gets sufficiently irritated that Kriemhild is not showing the deference that the wife of a vassal should. As things get heated, Brunhild sees her ring on Kriemhild’s hand, and the truth dawns. She asks Hagen for revenge, Hagen approaches Kriemhild and learns that Siegfried has a vulnerable spot, where a linden leaf fell on his back and stopped the blood from covering it properly. Kriemhild’s beauty is compensated for by a lack of brains, so after telling this to Hagen, she even sews a cross on the back of Siegfried’s shirt to show Hagen what he must protect. (This may be the origin of “X marks the spot”!) Hagen kills Siegfried by sneaking up behind him, but that is far from the end of the story. Kriemhild now wants revenge, and eventually, to get at Hagen, she has everyone from Burgundy killed, including her brothers.

The story might depend on invisibility, but invisibility is merely there to set up the plot, and not to let the hero have a cheap escape. The real story is about the consequences of pride and trophy gathering, betrayal and revenge, beauty and stupidity, in other words, the sort of things that make a great plot.

An answer: the relevance of invisibility to you!

Why put something scientific into a story? If it is merely to impress, in my opinion the effort is wasted. Putting in something necessary to make the story work is much better, however in my writing I would also like to show something about the scientific approach. I feel rather strongly about this latter purpose because we now have so much dependence on technology that we are beginning to create new problems arising from it (such as the dependency on oil, which must run out sooner or later) so we need to know how to address them. An important point about science is that collecting facts and doing mathematics are not the goals; rather the goals are to understand, and to make use of that understanding. Now, let’s reconsider The Invisible Man. In my previous blog, I asked the question, can you think of anything very important relating to invisibility that is relevant to your life? My guess is that most people would shake their heads in despair at that question. How can invisibility have practical use? You simply cannot make people invisible. 

The scientific approach looks at problems in a different way. The most common way is to ask and attempt to answer questions. So, why do we see things? Light comes from somewhere, strikes the surface of the object, and is reflected. We then ask, why is it reflected? Because the surface represents a change of refractive index. In The Invisible Man, Griffin became invisible by changing the refractive index of his body to that of air. Assuming that could be done, Griffin would truly be invisible, although there is a subtle price.

Changing a refractive index of an object is generally speaking impossible, but it is possible to immerse it in a medium with the same refractive index, in which case it will disappear, provided it is transparent. So now we ask, what is the difference between transparent and opaque objects? The answer is that opaque things have lots of internal surfaces (such as fractures between crystals) where light is reflected or scattered. We now see the price for Griffin: separate cells have surfaces, which perforce define changes of refractive index, so for Griffin to be invisible, he had to have no cells! That would make life somewhat difficult to maintain. Anyway, now we see we can make transparent objects become invisible by immersing them in a suitable fluid. That still leaves the question, why is this important for the average citizen? The answer is simple. Suppose you put a liquid on the surface of the skin that closely matches the refractive index of skin (about 1.5)? That makes all the roughness of the surface of the skin, which is quite effective at scattering light, invisible, which means that light passes deeper into the body. Now do you see the relevance? Think sunburn and skin cancer!

A number of oils have refractive indices around 1.47. Simply apply oils like coconut oil and you will baste in the sun! Get the skin wet with water (refractive index about 1.33) and your natural protection drops by about 50%. With close matching, very little reflection occurs. This becomes relevant when you apply sunscreens, because the carrying medium provides such matching, and removes almost all the natural reflectivity of the skin. The sunscreen, of course, stops the UV radiation while it is working, but if your sunscreen does not offer UVA protection, putting such screen on your skin may stop you burning, but it may pump the UVA into the lower dermis. Also, while a very high SPF may offer prolonged protection against UVB (which burns) the UVA screen usually decays more quickly. The SPF says nothing about UVA protection, and UVA is presumed to be capable of inducing a cancer. The remedy, of course, is to re-apply frequently, and I also recommend not rubbing it in, but merely smoothly spreading it and letting it dry.

The point I am trying to make is that a little bit of scientific reasoning, together with some necessary information, can lead to a much improved lifestyle. In my opinion, inserting some of these facts into stories, and showing how the reasoning works, is of some value. What do you think? In the meantime, next week I shall provide the answer to the other question that seems to be somewhat troublesome.