54. Ideas from the frontier of knowledge



Oddly perhaps as an ex-scientist, I haven’t written much sci-fi. Don’t get me wrong. I grew up with sci-fi; it’s in my blood; and I always thought I’d write sci-fi when I started writing fiction. Things just haven’t panned out that way. I’ve published one sci-fi story , about the “grandfather paradox” in time travel.

But keeping up with advances in science and technology is a rich seam for story ideas. Just in last week’s New Scientist alone, I read a story about neurobiological research on free will, and on the use of plants to store information.

Free will, it seems, may not be what we thought it was. The brain shows intention to act before we are consciously aware of it. Free will may just be about the decision not to carry out the action. Aficionados of religions that see us as surrounded by temptation will, no doubt, see their views as vindicated. The fictional potential is obvious. If free will turned out to be an illusion, how, if at all, might we behave differently?

The story about plants was even more bizarre. Dr. Karen Ljubic Fister stored data in the DNA of a tobacco plant instead of a hard drive and retrieved it again. She imagines a future:

walking through a park that is actually a library, every plant, flower and shrub full of archived information. You sit down on a bench, touch your hand-held DNA reader to a leaf and listen to the Rolling Stones directly from it, or choose a novel or watch a documentary amid the greenery.

Your imagination is the limit with this one. What might happen if you cross-bred two plants, each containing a different novel?

I recently read Carlo Rovelli’s delightful best-seller Seven Brief Lessons in Physics. The discussion of quantum mechanics contained an insight I hadn’t had before into Heisenberg’s famous uncertainty principle. Not the normal view that everything in the universe has to be observed to take up a definite state. But rather that everything in the universe has to interact with something else to take up such a state. For the briefest of moments I contemplated writing a literary application of this in which everything was an action, a process, rather than an object. In other words, in which all nouns were replaced by participles or gerunds (“the catting sat on the matting”).

After a moment of consideration, I realised how utterly tedious this would be to read. But the fact remains, there are strange and wonderful fruits of inspiration to be plucked at the frontier of knowledge.

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