From Physics to Fiction

Catherine Asaro is a bestselling science-fiction and fantasy author best known for her "Saga of the Skolian Empire" series. A former ballerina, Asaro has performed with ballets and in musicals across the U.S. She founded and served as artistic director and a principal dancer for two dance groups at Harvard: Mainly Jazz and the Harvard University Ballet. Asaro also teaches math and has coached various nationally ranked teams with home, private, and public school students, in particular the Howard Area Homeschoolers and the Chesapeake team for the American Regional Mathematics League (ARML). Her students have placed a the top levels in numerous national competitions, including the USA Mathematics Olympiad (USAMO) and the USA Mathematical Talent Search (USAMTS).
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TRANSCRIPT

Question: How do you integrate concepts from physics into your science fiction? 

Catherine Asaro: The editor who finally bought my first book said, "I like all the science in it. I like its hard SF. That's what we're looking for." And I said, "What is hard SF?" 

He said, "You know, science-based science fiction. You are putting a lot of science into your book." I said, "Oh am I?" I so much take for granted that part of my life now that I wasn't really consciously aware I was doing it.

For “The Quantum Rose,” it's really hard to say exactly what inspired that. I was working on my doctorate at the time, and my doctorate is in Theoretical Atomic and Molecular Physics. So it just seemed at the time completely natural that that characters and the plot points and the symbolism in the book would be mirroring Quantum Scattering Theory. It just made sense to me the way the two main characters... the story is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast in a science-fiction science-y setting.  And so the two characters Beauty and the Beast, the two people in the story who are playing those roles, seemed to me like they were acting like particles in quantum scattering theory. They were coming around, orbiting each other, bouncing off... you know, we were having coupled channel interactions. It made sense at the time so what I did was... the book takes place on a fairly low tech world where they're not going to break into soliloquies on Quantum Scattering Theory. 

Sometimes what I'll do is... if it's a really neat idea that I want to get across, I might have a character do something like think, "I don't understand how this is going to work. And if I can't figure it out, you know, something terrible is going to happen; an explosion will occur.” So I'll use the character having to figure it out to show the principle I'm trying to show. 

Question: How did you first get into science fiction? 

Catherine Asaro: I trained as a dancer all the way up until college and all the time in the back of my mind, every time I was exposed to science, I'd think, "Well this is nice too." 

They're both very intensive fields. If you're going to do well in it, no matter how much talent you have, you have to put the work in too. So if I was dancing six hours a day and studying six hours a day, I didn't have much time for life. So that's why mostly I concentrated on the dancing first. 

I had some trouble reading when I was very young, like 4 or 5. And when I started first grade I was actually in the middle reading group and one day I went home and I picked up my sister's book for her class because she was in a grade ahead of me. I read the book from front-to-back in one afternoon. 

And I went to my mother and I said, "I want something to read. I read this book front-to-back," And she kind of stared at me and then apparently I found out later she went in the next to the school and said, "You have to do something with my daughter. She's not doing well because she's bored, not because she doesn't know how to do it." So they started trying to get my involved in reading and I remember one of the books that we got from the library was about these two kids, this brother and sister that went to the moon with their cat. 

I just loved this. I loved going to the moon. I loved the spaceship. The whole idea of going into outer space. And I also liked that they brought their cat. So I found these space cat books that were written for kids and it was about this cat that when with this astronaut to the moon and Venus. And it was really my "Eureka!" moment. I thought, "I love this stuff. Outer space is wonderful." I want to read everything I can. So I did, I went to the kid's library and I read pretty much everything they had available for children in the science fiction section; Andre Norton, Heinlein, Asimov—all of the classic names in the field. 

It was always science-fiction or fantasy. As a child I didn't really make a distinction between the two. I knew they were different. I knew science fiction was about if you extrapolate a scientific principle we know is true, what will happen? And I knew fantasy was made up out of more like mythologies, like, you know, fantastic characters and magic. But to me it was all that sense of wonder. It's different. It's stepping outside the usual life we live and almost always especially in science fiction, you were stepping outside to solve a puzzle, which was the other thing I really liked.

Question: When did you discover your passion for science? 

Catherine Asaro: One day I remember going to the library and I started reading this chapter on electronic structure, I got there about 10:00 in the morning. And I thought, "This is really neat stuff." 

So I read that chapter and I thought, "I like that. I'm going to read the next chapter." So I read the next chapter and then there wasn't any more in the book about the stuff I liked, so I went upstairs to the physics library and I said, "Do you have any of this quantum mechanics stuff?" And they said, "Oh yeah." So they gave me a book by Linus Pauling and some other quantum mechanics books. And I took those downstairs and I read their sections on electronic structure, and I just loved it. I mean I didn't want to stop. I remember getting up at one point to get something to eat out of the vending machines. And then I was studying and somebody tapped me on the shoulder, and I looked up and it was the security guard. And he said, "I'm sorry ma'am, you have to go." And I looked around and the library was completely empty, I was the only person. It was midnight and they were closing. So I sat in there from 10:00 in the morning until midnight. 

I was just so enthralled by the subject and I knew then, I mean, that was definitely my "Eureka!" moment. That's what I wanted to do. That's what I wanted to study.

Recorded on June 7, 2010

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