helen-louise (baratron) wrote,

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BAD SCIENCE in science fiction.

So, the short story, Slow Life by Michael Swanwick - as found in The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 16 - has some egregious scientific mistakes. I don't know whether it's the author, or the editor, or the typesetter to blame - but one of these people has a fecking awful understanding of some basic concepts, to the extent the story made me angry. Get this: (by the way, I don't know how to do superscripts in livejournal, so superscripted stuff is typed as ^)
Still tugging at the ropes in the sequence uploaded by the engineers in Toronto, she scrolled up the chart of hydrocarbons dissolved in the lake.
Solute Solute mole fraction
Ethyne 4.0 x 10^-4
Propyne 4.4 x 10^-5
1,3-Butadiyne 7.7 x 10^-7
Carbon Dioxide 0.1 x 10^-5
Methanenitrile 5.7 x 10^-6

There are two things definitely wrong with that section of book, and a third possibly wrong.

1) The standard form is incorrect. Standard form is a number between 1.00 and 9.99 followed by 10 to the power of something. The carbon dioxide value should be 1.something x 10^-6 rather than 0.1 x 10^-5.

2) Hydrocarbons are compounds containing hydrogen and carbon only. Carbon dioxide is not a hydrocarbon! Methanenitrile is certainly not a hydrocarbon!

Both of these mistakes are GCSE-level - exams sat by all students in schools in England, Wales & Northern Ireland at the age of 15 or 16. Knowing how to use standard form in maths and knowing that carbon dioxide is not a hydrocarbon are absolutely elementary - the sort of things we teach the brightest kids aged 11. What in $deity's name are these mistakes doing in a short story in a collected volume of best new science fiction stories?

The third possible mistake is something which I, as a chemistry graduate, am not sure about. I don't think that 1,3-butadiyne exists. That would be a hydrocarbon with only 4 carbon atoms, yet a carbon-carbon triple bond between 1st & 2nd AND 3rd & 4th C atoms. I don't think that molecule is stable enough to exist unless it was part of a complicated ring structure and stabilised that way. I think it's supposed to be 1,3-butadiene. But I'm willing to grant them slack on that one.

However... just a little further down the page, we see:
Propanenitrile 6.0 x 105 <-- yes, this is how it is typeset. No superscript.
Propanenitrile 9.9 x 10^-4 <-- didn't we just have propanenitrile already?
Propynenitrile 5.3 x 10^-6

I guess the middle one should have been propenenitrile. Chalk another one up for the typesetter. I can't believe the author and editor would both make that mistake.

And a few pages earlier, there was
"Is there life on Titan?"
"Probably not. It's cold down there! 94° Kelvin is the same as -179° Celsius, or -290° Fahrenheit."

Two things wrong in that. Temperatures measured in the Kelvin scale do not have a degree sign, as it is an absolute scale of temperature. Also, the unit is always written as lower case - so this should have been 94 kelvin or 94 K. (Yes, I'm linking Wikipedia - but it happens to agree with my textbooks.). Admittedly, this was something that Richard didn't know - when I pointed out there was were two mistakes in that sentence he immediately jumped to the arithmetic of 94 - 273 = - 179 instead of looking at the symbols, and he insisted that degrees Kelvin was correct. But again, this is GCSE level work.

I could overlook one mistake in an otherwise excellent story. But five or six elementary mistakes plus two or three wretched typos left me saying "What the hell is this crap doing in a book of science fiction?". I am now extremely unlikely to ever check out a book by Michael Swanwick for fear that I would experience tooth-grinding levels of ARGH BAD SCIENCE again. This is unfortunate considering that I would have enjoyed the story without these mistakes, and I very much enjoyed a story by him in another Best New SF book.
Tags: bad science, booklist 2008, boooks, fiction

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