Guest blog: Simon Fung

In space no one can hear you scream. Fortunately, there are less common methods that can be used effectively in space to signal for help. You can sign your scream (BSL, ASL, NZSL – take your pick), reflected light travels perfectly well through a vacuum. Emitting odours (voluntary or otherwise) to signal your distress is also a viable strategy, in fact, the presence of a vacuum accelerates the outward spread of your signal and summon help just that much faster. What will not work, is just trying to scream louder.

Simon Fung, scientist and author of A Matter of Scale

Space, and the rest of the universe, is a very different place to what us humans are used to. It follows then, that if we try to interact with and understand this different environment in the way we would with the world that we know, and as some might say ‘use our common sense,’ this could get us into a lot of trouble. If we’re not careful, even those that are trained to observe and act objectively can make mistakes and completely miss a solution that is right under their nose because of preconceived cans and cannots.

This, in part, is what my little flash fiction A Matter of Scale is about. We see the world through the lens of what we already know, and we tend to take this lens with us wherever we go. This is a very difficult thing to change. In this story we see our brave explorer giving names to her new discoveries. She names them after things she is familiar with, she describes her environment using words from her homeland. While this is useful, in that is helps her come to grips with her environment, it also entrenches a certain narrative on her adventure and may end up masking other interpretations of what’s going on. Sometimes, we need to set aside what we think we know and discard definitions of our world that have seemingly stood the test of time.

Space presents a good place to practice this. Intuitively, we know that the rules of earth don’t apply, making it easier for us to set aside traditional wisdom and adapt. There were many difficulties with space travel, and difficulties prompt ingenuity. Sound does not travel through a vacuum; this led to the invention of wireless headsets which bridge the gap where sound could not travel with light. Many marvellous feats of engineering were made for exploring space, and funnily enough, this technology made its way back to earth where it continues to be useful. Good things come of trying new ways of doing things.

Image credit: NASA

Similarly, the oddities of space also pushed against science, catalysing a new wave of research that changed our perception of our own world and beyond. Space is weird. The more we looked into the beyond, the more we realised that things don’t behave that way we thought they should. It started with small things, like planets moving ever so slightly faster than they should be, then suddenly time was no longer constant, and before we knew it particles were doing things they had no business doing while on earth (at least not without a great amount of effort). Old knowledge is thrown out and new knowledge comes in to replace it – for a time. What we sometimes forget is that it was hard fought, throwing out that old knowledge.

Admittedly, I do not write that much space fiction. For me though, space is a free pass to redefine the rules. The reader readily accepts we’re in space/a different planet, things are allowed to be different. This provides a useful means of exploring topics which may otherwise be difficult to engage in, whether because they are controversial or because they are simply difficult to conceptualise.

I use A Matter of Scale to explore the definition of sentience and life and show how a narrow definition of these terms may impede true understanding. Do we as individual also have our own definitions that we hold on to too tightly? Personally, I have a few. What would the world look like if we were able to let them go?

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