Friday, February 15, 2008

Sifting Sand Through a Screen: The Science of Dune

"Ever sift sand through a screen?" she asked.
The tangential slash of her question shocked his mind into a higher awareness: Sand through a screen. He nodded.
"We Bene Gesserit sift people to find the humans."

-Dune, Frank Herbert, 1965

This passage from Frank Herbert's Dune has remained with me since I was a child. I first read the book as a second-hand paperback when I was 11 and the book was 15. It has stood up to many re-readings, as I learned that this desert world drew from history and science. More science, in fact, than I had imagined.

Just how real or probable is Dune's science? Curious readers may find some answers inside The Science of Dune: An Unauthorized Exploration into the Real Science Behind Frank Herbert's Fictional Universe. Edited by Dr. Kevin Grazier, Science of Dune sifts through the entire Dune series for underlying truth.

What the volume cleverly and insidiously does is to propose a fun question like "How would one of those giant sandworms actually live on a big ball of sand?" It then answers that and related questions and in the process, the reader actually learns something about the branch of science under discussion. Dr. Sibyelle Hechtel's "The Biology of the Sandworm" exposes the reader to information about ocean-floor hydro-thermal vent communities, the process of metamorphosis, and the structural limitations placed by the size of an animal. Pretty good science for a fictional animal.

Other topics include real-life counterparts to Dune's mind-altering spice, melange, and an evaluation of the stillsuit which allows a person to survive in the desert and lose only a thimbleful of water a day. Also, Dr. Sergio Pistoi has written a bit of speculative fiction himself to explore the advances in artificial vision. It's one of the more whimsical contributions to the book.

The editor of the series has contributed two articles and co-written a third. In "Cosmic Origami", he explores the feasibility of faster-than-light travel. He employs a Einsteinian thought-experiment dealing with the Lorentz-Fitzgerald Contraction. This will seem familiar to readers who have read many pop-science books, but Dr. Grazier adds a bawdy limerick worthy of Thomas Pynchon in the same article. Take that, Brian Greene! Grazier truly shines in the article "The Real Stars of Dune". He takes the reader to the actual stars mentioned in the book and tries to determine whether or not they can support the planets that Frank Herbert placed in orbit around them.

Sure, there have been other pop-culture science books, most notably the ones related to Star Trek, but as the editor points out in the introduction, we're starting to catch up to Star Trek. Dune is still some 10,000 years hence, and there's room for planetary-scale dreams.

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