Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Tolkien, in Nature, on Science

Nature recently published an editorial on the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who, but it was the quote at the end by J.R.R. Tolkien that really got my attention. Then I noticed that the quote was about science, and I realized I had just read my favorite Nature editorial of all time. Tolkien gives some very good advice about writing, stories, and magic:

"Perhaps the most surprising critic of such technological fixes was the great hobbitmonger himself, J. R. R. Tolkien, as revealed in his unfinished story The Notion Club Papers (published posthumously in 1992 in Sauron Defeated, edited by his son and literary executor Christopher Tolkien). Much of the story is a discussion between academics and writers on the dishonesty of using scientific-sounding MacGuffins to get one from here to there. If one insists on doing such a thing, one might as well dream oneself to Mars or wave a wizardly wand. The story centres on criticism of H. G. Wells’s The First Men in the Moon (1901), in which the protagonist, one Dr Cavor, invents a material, cavorite, that provides insulation against gravity. “Gravity can’t be treated like that,” complains one of Tolkien’s characters. “It’s fundamental. It’s a statement by the Universe of where you are in the Universe, and the Universe can’t be tricked by a surname with ite stuck on the end, nor by any such abracadabra.” Which suggests, perhaps surprisingly, that even if time travel and warp drives are impossible, the world’s best-selling fantasy author knew a thing or two about the general theory of relativity."

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