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April 8, 2016

GOOD TASTE ALONE | Science/Fiction

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I have to act like I’m typing something because there’s a group of elementary school kids walking by and I want to look responsible.

That’s actually the most motivated I’ve felt in weeks, so I’m gonna leave that there. I can only hope that one day, one of those kids will come to Cornell and derive purpose from the nonexistent expectations of a group of kindergarteners. It’s the circle of life.

Speaking of the circle of life, but on a cosmic scale that makes ours seem insignificant, yesterday I got to listen to a lecture given by Interstellar producer and renowned astrophysicist Kip Thorne. It was awesome. After that, I went and baked some bread. Which was a message from fate for sure because at one point I think my Tumblr username was cosmicbreadloaf.

And speaking of academia, space and the circle of life, something that’s always frustrated me is the fact that I’ll never be able to become an astrophysicist because I consider myself to be bad at math (or math to be bad at me, I guess, because math gives me a headache but I don’t think I’ve ever given math a headache). I can grasp the concepts, but I can’t perform the calculations that prove them. It’s really difficult because I want to study and understand space, but I don’t want to calculate it.

Self-taught geniuses and bloggers on the internet would probably destroy someone like me. I have a genuine passion and curiosity for cosmology, but maybe my theory of time as an infinitely propagating simultaneity is a load of shit (when you try to use big words you should always ask yourself whether you’re trying to disguise a load of shit). There’s certainly no mathematical basis for it. But it is really fun to think about.

And this is where I think science fiction sometimes struggles to strike a balance. Because what do we want out of science fiction? Quasi-official generic conventions might dictate that science fiction operates within a possible, if not plausible universe. Some readers, on the other hand, might hunger for the impossible made plausible. But when does it become a waste of time for scientists and psuedo-scientists to obsessively fact-check a work of fiction? And when does it become a futile, unmarketable opportunity for a writer to flout the laws of the universe in the service of his own whimsy?

We definitely seem to seek both. We want to suspend our disbelief at some times and defend it to our dying breath at others. So why do we get mad at fiction for not being science? Kip Thorne said that Miller’s planet in Interstellar would not survive an orbit so close to a non-spinning black hole; the Internet denouncers were right. However, a fast-spinning black hole would support such a close orbit. The limits of the possible are not a matter of knowledge, or at least, not so much a matter of knowledge than a matter of imagination and discovery. Maybe what’s possible has already been predetermined and we have only to discover it, or maybe we create it by searching for it.

Either way, I think that the ever-broadening scope of what we understand to be “the possible” owes its development both to the caustic corrections of the amateur and professional scientific community and the artists who question whether being “right” actually limits the range of what we can grasp of the impossible.

Sarah is a sophomore Psychology and Performing & Media Arts major in the College of Arts and Sciences. She likes to exist sometimes, but mostly just recite lines from The Office. Her favorite food is oatmeal raisin cookies dipped in curry sauce, and she can usually be found using the words “film” and “movie” interchangeably, highlighting her favorite words in the dictionary or trying to transcribe feral cat noises into the next groundbreaking Twitter trend. Good Taste Alone appears on Fridays this semester. She can be reached at [email protected].