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Marissa Lingen

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Spherical cow generation ships of 7-11 [Jun. 7th, 2013|01:25 pm]
Marissa Lingen
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One of the key skills of a physics major that applies quite usefully to writing is analogy. The other day one of my Facebook friends asked a question from her daughter: what happens to pressurized containers in hard vacuum? And one of the keys to answering this question is recognizing the breadth of what “pressurized container” means. Within the kid’s experience, it has probably been used to mean things like soda cans. But from a physics perspective, it means soda cans, it means spaceships, it means the human body, it means a highly variable set of stuff. And we’ve stuck some of that stuff in space, and so we have the ability to talk about what happened and why, and draw analogous conclusions from there.


When you’re a kid, it’s sometimes hard to see which aspects of an analogy will be important and which will not, because you don’t have as much experience–with physics or with social situations or whatever else is up for discussion. My parents are still shaking their heads over the time in my early childhood that I was pining to go into a 7-11. I’d seen them in movies (oh, the Eighties!), but I’d never been in one, and I wanted to go. As adults, my parents had the cultural background to see that a 7-11 in Sioux Falls, SD, where we were visiting my Gran at the time, would be pretty much exactly the same as any other convenience store or kwik-e-mart in Sioux Falls, SD–that any differences would likely be regional, not brand-related (and even those would be pretty minimal). But I yearned. I was filled with curiosity. So Grandma, ever indulgent, took me in and bought me a Cadbury Crème Egg and let me see that the analogies held, the things I could expect of a Casey’s General Store, I could also expect of a 7-11.


One of the ongoing physics jokes is the spherical cow of uniform density, but that’s one of the things a physics major teaches you: when it’s okay to do that and when it’s just not going to work and what you need is a point cow of neutral charge instead. Once my aunt got a nerd test to give me, and when I was laughing ruefully at the spherical cow, my cousin asked what the joke was. My aunt said, “Because they’ve been in the lab so long, they’ve forgotten what a cow looks like.” And I stared at her, and I tried to be nice about it, but no. No. There is a foible to mock here, but it’s not that one. It’s the tendency to push an analogy farther than it will go. A cow, we think, is “sort of like” a sphere. Well, okay; sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t.


One of the things that is most likely to make me bounce off a book can be conceived of as a failure to draw analogies–either in the spherical cow case or in its opposite. The fiction equivalent of the spherical cow comes up when the author doesn’t know much about an area and wants to tell you that something they have come up with will work “just as well,” and you know more about it, and it won’t. The opposite–well, this came up in a discussion at one of my favorite conventions, when the panelists were talking about generation ships. Generation ships, the panel nearly unanimously agreed, would be so very unfair because what if you were born into one and couldn’t do the job you really wanted because there was not room for you in it, and you had to do a job you didn’t like as much instead? How horrible this would be! How unbearable, and how completely incapable of forming a long-term functional society! Because people would be doing hard jobs they didn’t love! And I let them talk as long as I politely could and then put my hand up and said, “You mean like now? You mean like here?” Because seriously. That is the status quo. And if you’re talking about writing dystopias, “It will be a horrible dystopia the like of which the world has not seen since Tuesday!” is somehow less compelling. If you’re going to use something we already have as the main element that makes something dystopic, for heaven’s sake do so with malice aforethought.


Sometimes it’s our job to push a metaphor too far, to see what’s interesting about the ways in which it doesn’t fit–or the ways in which it unexpectedly does. But it’s always on us to make it clear what the hell we’re talking about, to convince the reader that we have not made a spherical cow, nor have we failed to notice that some of the cows are already spheres.




Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

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Comments:
[User Picture]From: jimhines
2013-06-07 07:26 pm (UTC)
“It will be a horrible dystopia the like of which the world has not seen since Tuesday!”

That one line just cheered up my whole week, thank you :-)
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[User Picture]From: ashnistrike
2013-06-07 10:21 pm (UTC)
Mine too!
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[User Picture]From: aedifica
2013-06-08 12:39 am (UTC)
And mine!
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From: sheff_dogs
2013-06-08 01:39 pm (UTC)
And mine!
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[User Picture]From: cathshaffer
2013-06-07 09:23 pm (UTC)
The biologist laughs at that joke for a different reason, because in setting up his thought experiment, the physicist conveniently eliminates everything about the cow that makes it a cow. Nothing in nature (or real life) is spherical and of uniform density.
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[User Picture]From: ashnistrike
2013-06-07 10:21 pm (UTC)
Oh my, imagine being stuck in a situation just because you were born there, and having limited options because of it. Tuesday indeed.
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[User Picture]From: vcmw
2013-06-07 11:01 pm (UTC)
Oh lovely! Thank you. My brain needed something nice just this evening.
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[User Picture]From: nojay
2013-06-08 12:02 am (UTC)
Cows are not spherical. They're toroidal.
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[User Picture]From: brooksmoses
2013-06-08 03:07 am (UTC)
Only if you make the somewhat-odd choice of neglecting the nasal passages but not the digestive tract.
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[User Picture]From: blue_hat_guru
2013-06-09 03:20 am (UTC)
Hear, hear!
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[User Picture]From: mgs
2013-06-09 07:07 pm (UTC)
I know you know this, but I feel moved to lay out the physics thought processes explicitly.

First, I'm not going to just wave my hands about this I'm going to do math on it. Second a cow shape is intractable mathematically so I need to simplify. Then I'm going to be explicit about how I am simplifying so that you can judge for yourself whether it is an appropriate simplification for the question we want to answer. Finally rather than saying "consider a sphere of uniform density". I'm going to say "consider a spherical cow of uniform density" because it's really funny.
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[User Picture]From: columbina
2013-06-10 03:46 pm (UTC)
Apropos of absolutely nothing else in this post: How do you feel about the idea that generation ships are unfair because of the decisions they impose upon later generations born on the ship?

I mean, on Earth decisions are made for us by our parents, but we do (upon reaching our majority or perhaps even sooner) have the option to rebel, go off in our own directions, etc. On the ship this option is limited, to say the least. I could easily picture some of the first kids to be born on the ship being all "I didn't choose to be in this stinking can on a trip to somewhere we don't even know exists! I could have been on Earth! Sure, I've seen the archives, I know it was polluted and overcrowded and all that, but it would have been better than THIS! How could you ruin my life for me in advance, Mom?"

(This is in connection with some fiction percolating in the back of my head; you reminded me of it, and I'm curious what your thoughts about it are. Or anyone else's here ....)
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2013-06-10 06:09 pm (UTC)
Again, analogy: is it unfair to have children when you reside in a tiny village with no modern transportation? I think almost everybody would say no, you can't tell people to just never screw because they live in a remote village in New Guinea--or because they were my ancestors up in the mountains in 14th century Norway. Or now, just because we haven't invented interstellar travel or perfected interplanetary travel, so being able to rebel and go off in our own directions still means having to share a planet, and sometimes one planet is NOT ENOUGH.

It's not that I think you're wrong about some of the first kids and their teenage rebellion--that's exactly what I think they'd say, if the culture is still such to foster teenage rebellion of that type in the first place. But "this place sucks in the following ways and you should have done better" is a good thing, if channeled properly. Helps us move forward. And again: are they actually worse off? Is this actually any different than, "Why did you become a professor instead of something lucrative, we could have been rich, and then I could get out of this hick town?"

I think we need to distinguish between restlessness and critique, because teenagers have both (and rightly so!). But I'm not sure that they would be less able to adjust to the constraints of a generation ship than to any of the other major constraints kids have had throughout time. Sure, some of them would always rail at the bonds and dream of being something glamorous like a farmer or a pizza delivery ninja on Good Old Earth. Some people here never give up daydreaming about something inaccessible to them. It's a human constant, not a problem new to generation ships.
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[User Picture]From: columbina
2013-06-10 09:53 pm (UTC)
Sorting out restlessness from critique, especially in teenagers, strikes me as one of the great conundrums of life.

You make good points (I knew you would). I don't know if the "isolated village" idea holds up as an analogy because, after all, you COULD take a rucksack and set off on foot through the mountains, or set off with some coconuts and a spear and an outrigger canoe and hope to make it to the next island (and your odds were probably dismal, but that's still different from having NO exit from the situation). Still, I do see what you mean.

My wondering about the rant of the hypothetical Space Teenager wasn't so much about the validity of the rant, but whether, as the hypothetical parent of that teenager, I would feel any guilt at having made that choice (bearing in mind that one can think one has made the right decision and be unwavering about having made it and yet still feel some guilt about it).

I suspect that if I was the kind of person who had decided it was the right thing to go on the generation ship, then I would probably feel comfortable at having imposed that upon my offspring as well ... but I can't say for sure, not just because I have no offspring, but because I actually wouldn't sign on for a generation ship in the first place. I am Not That Type.

At any rate. Pardon the woolgathering.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2013-06-11 02:31 am (UTC)
People decide that the world they live in is not one fit to bring children into now. People feel guilty about the crap they haven't fixed for the next generation now.

Writing a generation ship story without that firmly in mind seems like maybe a bad plan.
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[User Picture]From: blue_hat_guru
2013-06-13 03:51 am (UTC)
While I was driving 500+ miles today, among the many ponderings which went through my brain was that, while the generation ship at first blush is an excellent example of Tuesday's dystopia, perhaps there could be a threshold (based on smallness/scarcity of jobs and decency of the alternative on earth) where it is indeed reasonable to describe the particular generation ship as unfair.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2013-06-13 11:42 am (UTC)
Oh certainly. There's got to be a reductio ad absurdam around here somewhere, but it doesn't invalidate the entire concept.

One of the things I don't see more of in limited-population stories, and it confuses me, is increased awareness of the value of small numbers of humans. In Battlestar Galactica, for example, the union worked like you would expect a union to work for unskilled labor drawn from an oversupply of labor population. And that was...exactly the opposite of the situation the writers had set up. Throw politically difficult deck engineers out the airlock and you have no more engineers, and no reasonable way to train them. You'd think someone would notice.
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[User Picture]From: blue_hat_guru
2013-06-15 11:36 pm (UTC)
That will be an episode I need to look out for....
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