Saturday, October 18, 2014

Scientific Discovery and Time

by Gregory Benford

“Passion is inversely proportional to the amount of real information available” 
― Gregory Benford, Timescape

This is a novel of scientific discovery that does not neglect the story of the people who make the science. It is a better novel as much due to both its fusion of detailed character development and interpersonal drama and the science fiction narrative that includes time travel, an alternate reality, and ecological issues.

The story is written from two viewpoints, equidistant from the novel's publication in 1980. One narrative is set in a 1998 ravaged by ecological disasters and is on the brink of large scale extinctions. It follows a group of scientists in the United Kingdom connected with the University of Cambridge and their attempts to warn the past of the impending disaster by sending tachyon-induced messages to the astronomical position the Earth occupied in 1962–1963. Given the faster-than-light nature of the tachyon, these messages will effectively reach the past. These efforts are led by John Renfrew, an Englishman, and Gregory Markham, an American most likely modeled on Benford himself.

Another narrative is set in La Jolla, California at the University of California-San Diego in 1962, where a young scientist, Gordon Bernstein, discovers anomalous noise in a physics experiment relating to spontaneous resonance and indium antimonide. He and his student assistant, Albert Cooper (also likely based on the author and his experiences at UCSD), discover that the noise is coming in bursts timed to form Morse code.
The resulting message is made of staccato sentence fragments and jumbled letters, due to the 1998 team's efforts to avoid a grandfather paradox. Their aim is to give the past researchers enough information to start efforts on solving the pending ecological crisis, but not enough that the crisis will be entirely solved (thus making a signal to the past unnecessary and creating a paradox). Due to the biological nature of the message, Professor Bernstein shares the message with a professor of biology, Michael Ramsey. Since the message also gives astronomical coordinates, he also shares it with Saul Shriffer, a fictional scientist who is said to have worked with Frank Drake on Project Ozma. Initially, these characters fail to understand the true meaning of the message. Ramsey believes it to be an intercepted military dispatch hinting at Soviet bioterrorism, while Shriffer thinks the message is of extraterrestrial origin. Shriffer goes public with this theory, mentioning Bernstein in his findings. However, Bernstein's overseer, Isaac Lakin, is skeptical of the messages and wants Bernstein to keep working on his original project and ignore the signal. As a result of this interruption in their experimentation, Bernstein is denied a promotion and Cooper fails a candidacy examination. The signal also exacerbates difficulties in Bernstein's relationship with his girlfriend, Penny.

In 1998, Peterson recovers a safe deposit box in La Jolla containing a piece of paper indicating that the messages were received. Meanwhile, it is clear that the viral nature of the algal bloom is spreading it faster and through more mediums than originally expected. Strange yellow clouds that have been appearing are said to be a result of the viral material being absorbed through the water cycle, and it soon affects the planet's agriculture as well, resulting in widespread cases of food poisoning. Flying to the United States, Markham is killed in a plane crash when the pilots fly too close to one of the clouds and experience seizures.

In the past narrative, now advanced into 1963, Bernstein refuses to give up on the signals. He is rewarded when the signal noise is also observed in a laboratory at Columbia University (a nod "Tachyons were the sort of audacious idea that comes to young minds used to roving over the horizon of conventional thought. Because of Feinberg I later set part of my tachyon novel at Columbia towards the inventor of the tachyon concept, Gerald Feinberg of Columbia). Using hints in the message, Ramsey replicates the conditions of the bloom in a controlled experiment and realizes the danger it represents. Bernstein finds out that the astronomical coordinates given in the message represent where the Earth will be in 1998 due to the solar apex. He also receives a more coherent, despairing message from the future. Having built a solid case, Bernstein goes public and publishes his results.

The remainder of the story involves the possibility of an alternate reality and some surprising consequences. The combination of science, the impact of the scientists' work on their interpersonal relations, and the impact of the science itself on the future made this an excellent work of science fiction. It is no surprise that it won several awards including the Nebula Award in 1980.

View all my reviews


Brian Joseph said...

Wow, I read this one sometime back around 1984 or so when I was a teenager.

Surprising parts of it have remained with me so I agree that it is a very worthy novel.

I do remember that the interpersonal relationships combined with the science were very well done.

James said...


Thanks for sharing your experience with this fine novel. The background of scientists in the real world added to the novel, but I found myself itching for the tachyon/time thing to move along.