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How much science in science fiction? April 14, 2009

Posted by fetzthechemist in Uncategorized.

Although I am a voracious reader, I only very seldomly read science fiction. I guess it is because that was the genre for me from about the ago of ten through my early teens. I read tons of Asimov, Heinlein, Bradbury, Clarke, and others.

One of my friends in the suburbs of the San Francisco bay area is a very successful writer of fantasy, science fiction, and horror stories (some of his books are the dabbles in sci fi I do). Through him I met and talked with some of his writer friends. They love talking science, yet their grasps of it vary. Often it is extrapolate with touches of pseudo-science or fiction.

Case in point is the chemistry of solicon. Since it is one spot below carbon in the periodic table, science fiction has done a lot of creating of solicon-based life. Carbon works in so many way because of its valency, balance of electron affinity, bond strengths, and lots of other properties.

Silicon is not an analogue. Its relative reactivities and bond strengths differ greatly from carbon. Two examples highlight this, hydrogen and oxygen. Carbon hydrides – hydrocarbons – are stable, have myriad bonding structures, are non-polar, et cetera. Silicon hydrides are pretty reactive, especially when there is a chance of replacing hydrogen bonds with oxygen atoms.

Carbon and oxygen both single and double bond in various compounds. The simplest ones are gases. Oxygen forms stable bonds, but not ones inordinately stable to prevent lots of reactions. Silica and oxygen form very stable, often unreactive compounds. Silicon oxides are solids.

The differents make life behaving anything analogously impossible.

I wonder, with all the interesting materials science, biochemistry, quantum physics, et cetera, how much gets snagged by science fiction writers just on a 1 % knowledge?



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