Tag Archives: russell’s attic

The Theoretical Minimum: Lecture 1, The Nature of Classical Physics

This is part of my series of commentary on the physics book The Theoretical Minimum.

Notable Quotes

The job of classical mechanics is to predict the future. (p. 1)

I love this.

The rule that dynamical laws must be deterministic and reversible is so central to classical physics that we sometimes forget to mention it when teaching the subject.  In fact, it doesn’t even have a name.  We could call it the first law, but unfortunately there are already two first laws — Newton’s and the first law of thermodynamics.  There is even a zeroth law of thermodynamics.  So we have to go back to a minus-first law to gain priority for what is undoubtedly the most fundamental of all physical laws . . . (p. 9)

As a number-lover, this sort of thing just makes me all kind of amused.

But there is another element that [Laplace] may have underestimated [when he said the laws of physics could theoretically predict the whole future]: the ability to know the initial conditions with almost perfect precision. […] The ability to distinguish the neighboring values of these numbers is called “resolving power” of any experiment, and for any real observer it is limited.  In principle we cannot know the initial conditions with infinite precision. […] Perfect predictability is not achievable, simply because we are limited in our resolving power. (p. 14)

This concept, I am keenly aware, is what makes my Russell’s Attic books science fiction.  My main character is only able to do the calculations she can on the world around her because I permit her to have indefinitely good resolving power.  It’s kind of a required secondary power for what she does.  And reading this section, it completely tickled me that it has a name!

Thinky Thoughts

I’ve said before that I reduce all physics to doing math.  I felt like I was cheating a bit in this section, because saying a system is deterministic and reversible is the same as saying you can model it with a one-to-one function.  So I bopped along just thinking of the functional invertibility of the the rules, most of which I knew off the top of my head.

Sigh.  You can take the mathematician out of mathematics . . .

In Which I Appear On Other People’s Blogs

I did a “Five Things I Learned” post over at Chuck Wendig’s blog today. Come by and give it a read!

And then this made me want to hide under the blankets . . . Thank you, kk.

Zero Sum Game has been uploaded to retailers and is just waiting for the gears to turn and for the carrier pigeons to lift the bits through the tubes. I’m only saved from refreshing repeatedly as I watch the sand trickle by the fact that I’m working tonight, thank goodness.

It comes!

Zero Sum Game Book Updates

Zero Sum Game is on Goodreads!  Thank you to the librarian who put it up; in my cluelessness I had not realized I could add it pre-publication.  Oops.

You might notice I’ve reorganized the website a bit, and now have a books section where you can see the blurb. After release, the vendor links will be posted there permanently as well.

I’m about a week out from publication (official release date is March 31, y’all, though I will probably upload a few days early to guard against delays).  Wheeeeee!

Holy Mackerel Folks IT’S A COVER! Zero Sum Game HAS A COVER!

I never used to understand why people did cover reveals.  I mean, the book is going to be released anyway, right?  Won’t people see the cover then?

That was before I started working with the most kickass cover designer of all time, Najla Qamber.

That was before she built me a cover I love so much I just want to wrap myself up in it FOREVER and never come out.  I want bedsheets made out of this cover.  More importantly, I want to tell the world about it, because it’s SO RIDICULOUSLY AWESOME that I can’t help shoving it in people’s faces and saying, “LOOK HOW AWESOME THIS IS!  Forget the text of the book, buy it just to get a copy of the cover!”

So! I present to you! The cover of Zero Sum Game, the first book in the Russell’s Attic series:

Zero Sum Game

And if you need a book cover, for Pete’s sake hie thee over to Najla Qamber Designs.  You won’t regret it!

The Mathematics of Walking and Running

So one of my betas gave me the feedback that she wants EVEN MORE MATH in my already-excessively-mathy book.

My reaction: “MORE math?  I CAN DO THAT!”

In particular, my beta (who is not a mathematician, by the way) wanted a few more technical specifics at some points.  I’d consciously tried to keep a balance between where I mentioned technical words and where I handwaved and basically said “because MATH,” and she thought some of the handwaving could stand a little more detail.  (Incidentally, I was quite chuffed the technical bits were interesting enough that she wanted more of them!)

Anyway, one of the bits my beta flagged was a spot where the MC is drawing conclusions about a person from the way he walks.  Here’s what’s in the book now by way of explanation:

It came to me in numbers, of course, the subtle angles and lines of stride and posture.

So, having been given the note of adding a touch of the specific to this part, I found myself researching the mathematics of walking.


This post is basically a ramp up to tell everyone to go to this website:

Modelling, Step by Step

which models walking and running mathematically, and can I say again, OMG SO COOL.  There’s mathematics behind the maximum speed we can walk (without breaking into a run), why running is more efficient, and why people who are trained to speed-walk can actually walk faster than people who aren’t.  HOLY CRAP THIS IS COOL.

On a side note, I’m constantly excited by how much I learn doing research for this book series.  I’m a theoretical mathematician, which basically means that the only mathy parts I’ve been able to write without research are the ones using high school-level math or physics (e.g. projectile motion) or when my MC was hallucinating.  I know very little applied math at all.  Writing this series has taught me all sorts of useful things, like whether a bullet can knock a grenade off course, and that blood spatter involves trigonometry, and now about the circular motion of walking!

Connotations When Genderswapping Characters

I’m in the midst of implementing beta feedback on my book, and as an experiment I am giving a secondary character who annoyed one of my betas a personality transplant.  Because it was hard to keep my mind from falling back into the well-worn tracks of the character’s previous personality, I also genderswapped him, which has been very effective in forcing my mind to think of the new character as entirely different.

And now there’s a line that’s bugging me.  A line that I thought was funny, when the character was a guy, but now seems . . . a bit skeevy, perhaps, now that I’m talking about a gal.  Here’s the bit, condensed slightly, back when I was talking about a male character:

I still had a valuable item stashed inside, and if I wanted to finish the job and get paid by my client, I had to get it out safely.

[…] I skidded up to a metal utility shed and slammed the sliding door back. My valuable item, also known as Leonard Polk, made a small whimpering sound and scrambled backward before he recognized me and relaxed.

“My valuable item, also known as Leonard Polk.”  Cute, right?

Only when I switched it to Courtney Polk, suddenly it wasn’t cute anymore.  Having my MC refer to a young woman as a “valuable item” who was of only financial worth feels kind of ugly and uncomfortable, feelings I didn’t get about the male version at all.  (For what it’s worth, my MC is a woman, but that doesn’t help.)

I think the reason is that so often, in the real world, women are treated as commodities.  Referring to a young woman as a “valuable item,” or with the pronoun “it,” pushes a button in my brain somewhere.  I start thinking of human trafficking, of women sold as unwilling prostitutes, as things to be bought and sold and traded.

I want to scream, because I really like that section of the text!  I like the wording of it, and the slick segue.  I think it’s clever and even a little funny.

But if I keep the genderswap, I think I have to change it.


Reactions to Mathematical Fiction

I’ll have a concluding followup on the SFWA thing, by the way.  I’m collecting links.  But for now, an intermission.

As regular readers know, I’m writing a mathematical fiction series (I consider this a subgenre of “science ficiton” . . . of course, very few other people think it’s a thing!).  I find the concept of mathematical fiction to be AMAZINGLY COOL, especially as there aren’t that many books out there I would classify as mathematical fiction (probably Mathenauts, Cryptonomicon, and Flatland, and that’s it).  This site has more, many of which I haven’t read (yet!), but some of the ones I have read I honestly wouldn’t count myself.  In my opinion, to count as “mathematical fiction” a book needs more than a scene or two in which the math is important—a mathematical fiction book needs to have important fictional mathematics as a large part of the meat of the book, the same way a science fiction book has important fictional science.

There are a few more short stories (“Division by Zero” by Ted Chiang and “The Feeling of Power” by Isaac Asimov come to mind, among others), but still not many when compared to the genre of science fiction as a whole.

I would dearly love to see more mathematical fiction.  And it doesn’t have to be esoteric—I firmly believe that fictional mathematics can be every bit as accessible as hard scifi.  Heck, I’m pretty sure my series reads more like urban fantasy than anything else; it has snarky characters and lots of guns and I swear I try to limit the probability jokes![1]

Anyway.  So.  About . . . 80 percent of the people I’ve shared this with have said, “Hey, that sounds kinda cool!” or something along those lines, which makes sense as I admit to some selection bias among my friends.  But I’ve also gotten:

::weird look::  “Only YOU would write something like that.”

“Zzzz . . . I’m sorry, what?  I dozed off when you started saying you were writing about math.”

“Is there sex in it?”

“Is there romance?”

“Well, tell me it’s at least got boobs or action!”  (Action, yes.  Boobs, no.  Other than as unmentioned but assumed attachments to the female characters’ bodies.)

What I take away from this?  It’s possible I’m writing very, very, very niche.  I am totally okay with that.

  1. That’s totally a lie.  You can never have too many probability jokes.

Bullet Versus Grenade

I’m working on editing my novel, and I find myself needing to know whether a .40 caliber S&W bullet can knock a grenade off course.  My initial assumption would be yes, because the bullet is moving fast enough to make up for its lack of mass, but we all want accuracy in writing, so, MATH!

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