Announcing the Schrödinger Sessions: Science for Science Fiction

A few years back, I became aware of Mike Brotherton's Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop, and said "somebody should do this for quantum physics." At the time, I wasn't in a position to do that, but in the interim, the APS Outreach program launched the Public Outreach and Informing the Public Grant program, providing smallish grants for new public outreach efforts. So, because I apparently don't have enough on my plate as it is, I floated the idea with Steve Rolston at Maryland (my immediate supervisor when I was a grad student), who liked it, and we put together a proposal with their Director of Outreach, Emily Edwards. We didn't get funded last year, but the problems were easily fixed, and this year's proposal was funded. Woo-hoo!

So, we're very pleased to announce that this summer we'll be holding "The Schrödinger Sessions: Science for Science Fiction" a workshop at the Joint Quantum Institute (a combined initiative of the University of Maryland, College Park and NIST in Gaithersburg) to provide a three-day "crash course" in quantum physics for science fiction writers. The workshop will run from Thursday, July 30 through Saturday August 1, 2015, on the Maryland campus in College Park, with housing, breakfast, and lunch included. There's a fake schedule up on that web page, that we'll fill once we get JQI scientists signed up, but it gives the basic idea: three days of lectures and discussions with scientists, and visits to JQI's labs.

The web page is a little sketchy, because we were using a pre-existing template to speed things up, but that's why I have a blog: to provide much more information. Which we might as well do in semi-traditional Q&A format:

This sounds cool, but what does this have to do with public outreach? The idea is to bring in science fiction writers, and show them some of the latest and greatest in quantum physics, with the goal of inspiring and informing new stories using quantum ideas and quantum technology.

We know that science fiction stories reach and inspire their audience to learn more about science, and even make careers in science-- things like this astronaut's tribute to Leonard Nimoy are a dramatic reminder of the inspirational effect of science fiction. Our hope is that the writers who come to the workshop will learn new and amazing things to include in their fiction, and through that work, they'll reach a wider audience than we could hope to bring in person to JQI.

But why quantum physics? Well, because we think quantum physics is awesome. And because quantum physics is essential for all sorts of modern technology-- you can't have computers without Schrödinger cats, after all. And most of all because the sort of things they study at JQI-- quantum information, quantum teleportation, quantum computing-- could have a revolutionary impact on the technology of the future.

Isn't quantum too small and weird to make good stories, though? Hardly. Quantum physics has figured prominently in stories like Robert Charles Wilson's "Divided by Infinity", and Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life" (SPOILERS), and Hannu Rajaniemi just completed the trilogy that starts with The Quantum Thief, which you can tell from the title is full of quantum ideas.

The weirdness of quantum physics is a bit off-putting, but then that's the point of the workshop: to bring in writers to learn more about quantum physics, and see how it works in practice. The hope is that this will make writers who come to the workshop more comfortable with the subject, and thus more likely to write stories with a quantum component.

OK, but why Maryland? Well, because the Joint Quantum Institute is one of the world's leading centers for research in quantum mechanics and its applications. Just check out their collection of news stories about JQI research to get a sense of the range and impact of their work. If you want to see quantum physicists at work, it's one of the very best places in the world to go.

Yeah, but isn't the weather awful hot in July and August? Look, you can't have everything, OK?

OK, let's get to practical stuff. When you say "writers," you mean people who do short stories and novels? No, we're defining "writer" as broadly as we can. We'd love to have people who write for television, or movies, or video games, or online media. Really, anybody who makes up stories about stuff that hasn't really happened is welcome, regardless of the medium in which that work appears.

How many of these writers are you looking for? The budget in the proposal called for 15, though that depends a bit on how much money we need for food and housing; if more people than we expected are willing to share rooms, we might be able to take one or two more.

So there's going to be an application process? Yes. I mean, we'd love to have a huge number of people, but we have logistical constraints to deal with. We'll take applications online starting later this week (my other major task for today is to put together the application web form), continuing for a couple of weeks, and hope to make decisions around April 1, so attendees will have plenty of time to make travel plans.

Speaking of travel, what's included in this package? We plan to provide housing for attendees in the dorms on Maryland's campus, and breakfast, lunch, and coffee/snack breaks will be included. We left dinners open, in case people want to explore the DC area a little (great restaurants there, that's one of the things I miss from grad school...), but might look at doing one group dinner with a fun talk of some sort. The schedule is still being sorted out.

There is a possibility that a limited amount of funding might be available for travel support, but again, it depends on a bunch of other factors that affect the overall budget.

And what will the selection criteria be? Well, the ultimate goal of the workshop is public outreach, so we'll be trying to invite participant whose work will be able to reach as broad an audience as possible. That means we'll be looking for a mix of established and up-and-coming writers, and as much diversity as we can manage in terms of audience, subgenre, media, etc. I can't really be any more specific than that, though.

What if I'm busy on those days, or just can't afford it this year? Will this happen again? Can't you at least let us get through one of these before asking that?

If it goes well, we'd certainly be open to that possibility, but it'll depend on a lot of factors, mostly involving money, but also level of interest, success of the workshop, etc.


And that is the big news I've been sitting on for a while now. I'm pretty excited about this, and hope it will be a great program. If you know anybody who might be interested in this, please point them in our direction.


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When I read the title for this article I thought it meant "Scientists for Evolution."

But maybe that will be for another Schrodinger session.


By See Noevo (not verified) on 03 Mar 2015 #permalink

This is pretty neat. Can you say anything about the optimal level of background knowledge a person should have for this? Like, is there a minimum level required to understand what's being taught and a maximum level beyond which you're not going to get much out of it?

By Ori Vandewalle (not verified) on 04 Mar 2015 #permalink

Chad, this is great, and I'm happy to see it. Can I suggest something, though? Open it up explicitly to all fiction writers, not just science fiction writers. There's weirdness to do with definitions of "literary writing" and "science fiction" and all that, and people get testy sometimes about where the lines are and whether the lines exist or should exist at all. But science also shows up in (and belongs in) stuff generally described as not-SF. Anyway, if you can do that, I'll happily circulate/publicize around the Iowa/McSweeneysesque crowd.

By Amy Charles (not verified) on 04 Mar 2015 #permalink

Sure, I'll see if we can change that. I was thinking of it in the context of science fiction, because that's the community I'm most familiar with, and I was basing this on Brotherton's Launch Pad model. Science fiction has the most obvious and direct applicability, but I'd be happy to see applications from folks outside the normal genre pool. If you could circulate it, that'd be awesome.

I'm working on a SF series that plays with some Quantum Physics concepts extrapolated some ways into the future. I'm so synced to fill out an application for this!!!!

By Linda Addison (not verified) on 04 Mar 2015 #permalink

I live nearby, and I'm an aspiring SF writer though without any substantial credentials in writing yet. Is there any way I could 'audit' this, i.e. just show up and listen, without my using the lodging and food etc?

By Christopher Rose (not verified) on 06 Mar 2015 #permalink

We did, in fact, include a "I don't need lodging" option in the application form, so go apply and check that. I can't say what the chances of getting in are until we get a sense of how many applicants we're going to have, though.

If it helps any, Greg Egan and his book "Quarantine" (I think) does a reasonable job with quantum concepts. I don't know how well it does -- I have only a semester of QM to judge it by -- but I've used it as a sort-of-guide to how not to sound ridiculous. Stephen Baxter is more cosmology and the like but he dos so too (and h was in fact a scientist).

And yes. I think this is great.

This is a great opportunity for science fiction writers.

Matthew Foster Ph.D.

By Matthew Foster Ph.D. (not verified) on 16 Mar 2015 #permalink