Thursday, August 20, 2009


This blog will analyse various topics of science and technology, which Neal Stephenson incorporated into his four books of historical science fiction. That composite genre offers pitfalls to the unwary author, as well as opportunities to the readers. Typical science fiction is set in the future, so that authors can invent almost any new scientific "facts", and their technological applications, that they want. However, Stephenson chose to put part of the action of Cryptonomicon in World War II, and all of the action of his trilogy, The Baroque Cycle, in the period 1655 t0 1715. In both of those eras, actual technologies existed, and were recorded and preserved, along with the science that inspired or explained them.

Any author, who puts himself into this position, should avoid displaying mistakes in history or in science/technology, or in the combination. The combination errors are often anachronisms, which may be trivial if the scale is a few years, but may be more serious if the scale is centuries. Of course, the author can also score successes, where everything fits perfectly.

For the readers, the opportunities are new inspirations to learn or re-learn science and technology. One can do a free association while reading, asking mental questions such as: Does this fit with what I already know?"; or "Would it really work that way?"; or "Did it actually happen that way?" For me, it has meant that I have read each one of these books several times, and I have learned something new every time. If fact, for some of the "case studies" I have considered for this blog, I have changed my mind about what I had learned, after a subsequent rereading. On a sobering side, I now wonder how many students I had managed to baffle, while trying to teach this stuff. But most importantly, I have enjoyed every one of Stephenson's books, every time I have read it.

As my UserName implies, I received a B.S. degree in Engineering Physics in 1951. In that era, introductory engineering courses typically included lots of historical material. I had also paid attention to things which happened during World War II. All of those memories were available as I did my own free associations. Unfortunately, I have disposed of my personal professional library, so that most of the analysis in these case studies is done "off the top of my head". Please feel free to catch me up in all the mistakes I may make here.

The subject matter in this blog will be at the introductory undergraduate level in physics, mathematics, astronomy, earth science, and branches of engineering. Specific topics will include optics, oscillatory systems, planetary motions, tides, surveying, deflections of beams, machinery, weapons, and units of measure.

I will cite pages in Stephenson's books as they become involved. To make it easy for me, I will refer to the editions which I happen to have. My copy of Cryptonomicon is in the first printing of Avon Books (HarperCollins) paperback. My copies of Quicksilver, the Confusion, and The System of the World, are all in first printings of First Editions of William Morrow (HarperCollins) hardcover.

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