Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and its various sequels set out to address one of the biggest and most important issues we humans have to deal with. The ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything. It turns out the answer is 42. The question itself is the real mystery.
In the third book, we meet a character named Prax who can only tell the truth. When asked about the mysterious question, Prax explains that “the Question and the Answer are mutually exclusive. Knowledge of one logically precludes knowledge of the other” (Adams, 465).
Last week, I told you about the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which says that you cannot know the exact position AND momentum of a subatomic particle at the same time. Measuring one characteristic changes the other, and no matter how advanced our technology becomes this is a problem that cannot be solved. In other words the knowledge of one precludes knowledge of the other.
The Adams Uncertainty Principle (as I like to call it) is one of the best things I’ve ever seen in a science fiction book. Not only does it make a clever use of real science, but in my opinion it accurately captures a fact of life. The meaning of life cannot be predicted, measured, or understood any more than particles of matter under the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.
As a science fiction writer, I’m not just interested in getting my facts straight for some techno-babble. Maybe my research will help me get the details right for a faster-than-light engine, but I have more important things to think about as well. My greatest ambition is to find a way to use scientific language to say something profound about love, death, God… whatever… the way Adams did.
Science has become a big part of our everyday lives, and writers today should find ways to use that. In the right hands, chemistry and calculus could turn into poetry. Probably not in my hands, but I can at least try. I believe this is the true potential of science fiction: to take scientific language and apply it to real life. To questions bigger than science itself.
Adams, Douglas. Life, the Universe and Everything. The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide: Five Complete Novels and One Story. NY: Random House, 2005. Pages 311-470.
Cassidy, David C. “Heisenberg, Uncertainty and the Quantum Revolution.” Scientific American May 1992. Pages 106-112.