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G E O F F R E Y   A.  L A N D I S : Hands-On Science
(excerpted from Locus Magazine, January 2000)

Geoffrey A. Landis
    Photo by Beth Gwinn

Geoffrey A[lan] Landis was born May 28, 1955, in Detroit, Michigan, and grew up in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Illinois. He received a B.S. in physics and a B.S. and M.S. in electrical engineering from M.I.T. in the late '70s. After five years work for a small company outside Boston, he went back

 

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to graduate studies in solid state physics at Brown University in Providence RI, where he received a Ph.D. in 1988. He is now a scientist with the Ohio Aerospace Institute, on permanent assignment to the NASA Lewis Research Center, author of more than 150 scientific papers dealing with photovoltaics and astronautics, and winner of a number of science prizes. Working with various collaborators, he has also written science articles for Science Fiction Age over the last few years.

In the early '80s, Landis began writing SF. His first story, ''Elemental'', appeared in Analog in December 1984, and was nominated for a Hugo. He attended Clarion in 1985, with fellow students including Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Martha Soukup, and the woman he would marry in 1999 Mary Turzillo. Landis's fiction has now appeared in most of the major SF magazines, and he has been nominated for the John W. Campbell Award, as well as numerous Hugos and Nebulas. His story ''Ripples in the Dirac Sea'' won a 1989 Nebula, and he won the Hugo for short story ''A Walk in the Sun'' in 1992. Some of his short fiction was collected in Myths, Legends, and True History (1991), and he has sold forthcoming first novel Mars Crossing.

''There's certainly a lot of crossover in my life between science and science fiction. Some very hard-SF stories revolve around a scientific plot like 'A Walk in the Sun'. When I wrote that, I was working on the question, can you make a lunar base with a solar array? They're very light and cheap, compared to most other reactors, so if we could do that, it would be a great thing for a lunar base. The problem is, the moon has 14 days of darkness, and that's an awful long time to run on a battery. Even the Energizer Bunny gets tired! One concept we had is that maybe your moonbase is not stationary. The moon doesn't rotate very fast about ten miles an hour so I thought, 'Well, you put wheels on your moonbase and you just keep it in the sun all the time.' (You could also do that on Mercury, which also rotates very slowly.) I wrote that up in a little piece presented at the Conference on Space Manufacturing, then as an article published in the journal of the British Interplanetary Society, then decided to turn it into a story.

''Another one of the hard-science stories was 'Ripples in the Dirac Sea'. The science premise came from daydreaming in an advanced quantum mechanics class. Quantum mechanics just gets stranger and stranger as you keep going deeper into it. The things the world is made of are certainly a lot different than the things we mostly see and feel in the world around us. It was a fun course, but it did prove to me that I was not cut out to be a theoretical physicist. Too bad, since what I always wanted to do was go into theoretical physics and invent teleportation! Somebody had to invent teleportation, and why couldn't it be me?

''I've sold a novel, which will probably be out in late 2000, with the working title Mars Crossing. And that's what it's about. I'd certainly like to see us go to some of the nearby planets in our lifetime, and send probes out further into the universe. I was very surprised when we abandoned the moon. That was one thing science fiction didn't really predict that we'd go to the moon and then stop, go back home and say, 'OK, been there, done that.' It may have just been a pause, and we'll be going outward in space again. In a democracy, it's tough to get a consensus about going in just one direction. What we do is try to educate people, make them excited, and make them understand that it's important. We're talking about the bridge to the future, but we're either going to go forward or we're going to go back, and we have to make a choice.

''The problem with science is, as it gets more and more sophisticated, it's getting harder for a person to understand the work that's being done at the cutting edge. There's really some spectacularly interesting work going on, but it's very difficult to communicate to the man on the street, or even other scientists. Something science fiction is good at is communicating some of the excitement of science, and some of the thoughts that really interesting and great things might happen in the future. Of course, science fiction also gives us the opposite view and says if we screw up, if we go in the wrong direction, things could get really bad.

''There's a lot of science fiction out there now. It saturates our culture. The problem with Star Trek and Star Wars is, they tell us it's easy, and it's not easy. Rockets blow up. Missions fail. On Star Trek and Star Wars, they just get into their ships, go into hyperspace, and they're half-way across the galaxy. So they almost do us a disservice by showing it as easy. They make people impatient, and they say, 'Oh, this didn't work. It's expensive and difficult to get into space, not like Star Trek, where you step into a beam and you're on the spaceship.' It raises expectations and makes people disappointed with the reality.

''I was looking at a list of predictions from the 1890s. Somebody polled the scientists to find out what the great innovations of the 20th century were going to be, and they all predicted that railroad trains would reach 60 miles an hour at least, and you'd be able to cross the continent in a few days! They were very strong on pneumatic communications, saying that you'd be able to pop your little message into a pneumatic tube and it would get shot across the city within minutes. They were predicting the steam-punk 20th century, and it didn't turn out to be that way at all. I'm sure the 21st century will be far stranger than we could ever imagine.''


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