I started out reading as a physicist. What can I say? When I was younger I used to love the slide and switch of reference frames, the pure and perfect mechanics of Galileo, Newton, Einstein. The characters' names in this book even sort of look like arcane mathematical expressions with symbols incomprehensibly juxtaposed: Qfwfq, (k)yK, Mrs. Ph(i)Nko. So when I read Qfwfq babbling away like an old man about how the Moon used to be closer to the Earth in those days, I started mentally checking the details. "She rolled around the sky like an umbrella chased by the wind". Well, the Moon would have to go fast. To be in orbit is to cross the horizon before you can fall to the ground. If the ground is closer, the Moon must reach the horizon more quickly! Indeed, the necessary speed bothered me a little.
This is how we did the job: in the boat we had a ladder: one of us held it, another climbed to the top, and a third, at the oars, rowed until we were right under the Moon . . .
What's wrong with this picture? I kept finding myself imagining the Moon falling until I realised that, at the distance I was imagining it, the Moon would probably have to be travelling a lot faster than the average rowboat. Ah, but isn't it fun to imagine that you could climb to the Moon on a ladder? Poetic license. Never mind.
Yes, the Moon was so strong that she pulled you up; you realised this the moment you passed from one to the other: you had to swing up abruptly, with a kind of somersault, grabbing the scales, throwin your legs over your head, until your feet were on the Moon's surface. Seen from the Earth, you looked as if you were hanging there with your head down, but for you, it was the normal position, and the only odd thing was that when you raised your eyes you saw the sea above you, glistening, with the boat and the others upside down, hanging like a bunch of grapes from the vine.
I was skeptical of this one at first. It is, however, true that the closer you get to the Moon, the stronger the Moon's pull. The question is, how close do you have to be? If the Moon is that close to the Earth, might not the point at which the Moon's attraction becomes stronger actually be inside the Moon?
A quick calculation informs me that I was wrong, however. As the distance between the Earth and the Moon increases, the point of equal gravitational pull becomes outside the Moon before the distance becomes greater than the Earth's radius! So that's all good.
"Cling together! Idiots! Cling together!" the Captain yelled. At this command, the sailors tried to form a group, a mass, to push all together until they reached the zone of the Earth's attraction: all of a sudden a cascade of bodies plunged into the sea with a loud splash.
Okay, this is not poetic licence. It's not my fault for being picky either. This isn't something I could fail to notice. It's blatantly wrong. In fact, there's a nice thought experiment due to Galileo that tries to disprove the above using basically that example. You see, bigger things do not fall faster than smaller ones. Not unless the smaller one is a feather, in which case the key phrase is air resistance. Without air resistance, all objects would fall at the same speed. With air resistance, well, the air resistance does not have to be as big in order to affect the fall of a small thing as it would need to be in order to affect the fall of a large thing. This is what creates the disparity. However, I can assure you that tying the lace of one shoe to the lace of the other will not make your shoes fall faster; it affects neither the air resistance nor the gravitational pull on each shoe. Similarly, coming together in a group will not make each person fall faster. Gravity does not check whether you are holding hands before deciding how hard to pull each of you!
Thus began an uneasy balance between science and poetry. The delight of these stories is in the way that they take a snippet of science and build around it an absurd flight of fancy, an almost narcissistic reflection of human foibles created around a simple detached fact. Moreover, although the science may sometimes be bent or broken, the humanity never is. Who cannot sympathise with the narrator of 'The Light Years', suddenly realising that the inhabitants of other galaxies have been watching him and worrying desperately about what they must think of him, but knowing that they are so distant that they will not see any improvement he makes to his behaviour for millions of years?
As with all stories that have an allegorical component, there is always a temptation to try to find the more commonplace 'meaning' behind the fantastical description. I suspect that, having begun my reading thinking like a scientist, I was slightly more prone to this than I might otherwise have been, and spent a certain amount of time reminding myself not to try to decode. The stories are sympathetic in their own right, and their meaning is in their sympathy. A reader should not need more.
Ah, but I loved the final story! I had settled down into poetry far enough that I could dispense with the science by means of a mere 'of course evolution couldn't really have this sort of purpose' and enjoy the pretty story of how we create beauty -- the beauty of a spiral, no less! How very mathematical. This book is not all true, but it is clearly truthful.