Thought of the Week: Forget Einstein, H.G. Wells was the Father of Quantum Physics

MenmoonfrontMy wife recently came across H.G. Well’s War of the Worlds on TV, which was not the War of the Worlds with Tom Cruise in it, nor the infinitely superior The War of the Worlds from 1953 with Gene Barry. Interestingly (as I discovered) she had never read the original novel, which meant the twists of the tale were quite a pleasant surprise. I will say that I did not watch this adaptation with her, but suffice to say that humans use some kind of virus to destroy the rampaging Martians.

This naturally got me thinking about our beloved prototypical science-fiction authors such as H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, as well as, naturally, contemporary visionaries as well (amongst whom I would cite Gene Roddenberry as being one of the most influential). There is always a great danger in predicting the future, because it can be all too easy to become ensnared by the limitations of our mechanical knowledge, and lose sight of the true predictions: the state of human society, and the concepts that will develop over the following years, decades or centuries.

Jules Verne – the father of science fiction.

Jules Verne – the father of science fiction.

Though both Wells and Verne excelled at fantastical story-telling, to me it is undoubtedly Verne who gave the deepest thought to the progress of technology and its impact on the human race. Well’s visions of invading aliens and devolved humans in the far-flung future are engaging and frightening, but there is little reality for them to be based upon, and indeed the more we’ve come to learn of the universe, the more impossible these predictions appear.

The imaginations of Jules Verne continue to ring true through to the very present. This may be to do with the differences in their early lives; as a law student in Paris, Verne had access to some of the best literature and minds of the time, and essentially unlimited potential to nurture his fascination with travel and science. Wells, by contrast, grew up with little money, serving a number of unsatisfactory apprenticeships and teaching jobs, all in order to simply make a living. These themes ultimately reflect in his work, which appear to focus more on human interaction and class.

H.G. Wells – the father of quantum physics.

H.G. Wells – the father of quantum physics.

Verne’s fictional accounts of the future and the impossible have borne out in reality with uncanny accuracy. In 1873 he predicted the ability to travel around the globe at high speed in Around the World in Eighty Days. Fifty years later, it could be done in only three or four; today, in less than one. He famously predicted a self-powered submarine in 1870 with 20,000 Leagues under the Sea; today we have legions of such machines. He even imagined extra-terrestrial outposts such as in Off on a Comet, where a number of people are forced to coexist on a comet that pulled them from Earth as it passed nearby.

It comes as a surprise, then, that between the two authors’ visions of space travel (Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon in 1865 and Wells’ The First Men in the Moon in 1901), it is actually Wells who got it more ‘right’. Verne imagines people shot from a giant cannon; though technically possible, it would result in such phenomenal pressures that the unhappy astronauts would likely be mush by the time they left the Earth’s atmosphere.

Wells, on the other hand, creates a substance called cavorite, which has the interesting ability to repel gravity. At first glance this appears to be utterly impossible of course – far less likely than a moon-cannon – until we start to look into the world of quantum mechanics. Without diving too deep (for fear of losing myself!), I’d like to point out the theoretical graviton. When you boil the universe down to its most fundamental parts and start to observe all the wonderful weirdness that happens, one of the questions that arises is: what actually makes things attracted to each other? So far there is no answer, but one hypothesis is a massless particle called the graviton. If it exists, it would be responsible for the very thing that keeps our feet on the ground.

Given that, it then comes to mind that if gravity is the result of a particle, then that particle could be blocked. In fact, it may even have an anti-particle. If you could discover or create a material that could either cancel or block gravitons, you would essentially have created the potential for a free-floating object even in close proximity to extremely massive bodies – not just the earth or the sun, but potentially even black holes! Imagine the implications of that for astrophysics!

So ultimately, though Verne’s predictions have borne out more successfully and accurately, Wells holds the trump card for inventing quantum mechanics twenty years before anyone began doing any serious theoretical work in the field! Einstein, eat your heart out.

Wouldn't it be cool to be able to sit here – and not get sucked in?

Wouldn’t it be cool to be able to sit here – and not get sucked in?

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Movie Night: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

Year: 1954

Director: Richard Fleischer

Production Company: Walt Disney

Leads: Kirk Douglas, James Mason, Paul Lukas, Peter Lorre

Twenty_thousand_leagues_under_the_2Things got all Jules Verne-y a couple of weeks ago when Little Satis picked up an abridged children’s copy of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. We started talking about it, and then I started listening to an audiobook of the original on the way to work, and it wasn’t long before we naturally just had to watch this movie. (Incidentally, I’m very glad this is a movie that hasn’t been remade.)

This was another one of those films that I recalled vividly from my childhood, the kind that thrilled me, scared me, gave me nightmares, and fueled my young imagination (I remember endlessly drawing the Nautilus battling that giant squid). Equally, therefore, it was also a film that I was apprehensive about revisiting. What would I think about its special effects? What of the fifties overacting? Essentially, would it have stood the test of time?

I was happily relieved to discover that this favorite of my childhood not only was everything I had remembered it to be, but in some ways, even more. There are things that, as a young person, you don’t particularly notice, or take into account. The movie is life-size, breathing, and real. There is  no lie to the camera (there is no camera, in fact); that squid was simply real, and that’s all there was to it. And this leaves an influence; even when I read the original novel in high school, the vision in my mind of the Nautilus was Disney’s design. The film won two Academy Awards for set design and special effects, and the movie shows why: the interior of the submarine, the underwater diving scenes, even the opening drama of an unknown, luminous creature advancing upon a steam ship – all are tangible, and alive with reality.

And in revisiting it, I was struck at how strong the cast was. Kirk Douglas was the outrageous American, indignant and violent, yet ultimately with a good heart. Paul Lukas was suitably intrigued as a scientist by the wonders around him, and as a person by the unfathomed hate and pain of Captain Nemo. The inimitable Peter Lorre is simply wonderful as the under-spoken aide Conseille, keeping both Ned and the Professor in check with his quick wit.

But it is James Mason, as Captain Nemo, who completely steals the show. There could have been no one else. From the very first moment he appears on camera, he physically and emotionally embodies the very character Jules Verne created: noble, imposing, harsh, supremely confident, and utterly beyond all of mankind’s laws and morals. His impassiveness as he ambivalently sends the Professor – a person whom he professes to admire – to be cast off his ship early in the film is galling; the despair and rage in his eyes as he plays Bach’s Toccata and Fugue on his built-in organ is heart-wrenching.

All of this, combined with a lush (if occasionally twee) score, makes an unforgettable movie. It was a pleasure to watch it after so many years, and it was a pleasure to see Little Satis enjoy it as much now as I did then.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★