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White Mars : or, the mind set free : a 21st Century Utopia (2000)
Brian Wilson Aldiss / Roger Penrose
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)

It's not everyday that a mathematician of Penrose's calibre is listed as a coauthor on a science fiction novel. Although he is probably best known to the general public for the Penrose Tiling (a set of tiles shapes which can be used to tile an infinite plane, but only in a non-periodic fashion), Sir Roger Penrose's more serious work on geometric methods in general relativity (the so called `twistor theory' which has more recently found application in soliton theory, my own area of research) has won him the Wolf Prize and the Rouse Ball Professorship of Mathematics at Oxford. So, this book is definitely worth mentioning here for his involvement alone.

Unfortunately, I must admit that I can't think of much else to recommend the book. Of course, these comments reflect only my own taste and I would be very happy for someone who liked this book to write some comments to include here. For myself, however, nothing about the plot, writing or even the scientific ideas in this book appealed to me. Penrose's recent publications and lectures have focused on his theories relating quantum theory to questions of human consciousness. Let us say, to be as polite as possible, that I am skeptical of his claims in this area. So it may be that my prejudice against these ideas which come up in the book have had some effect. In the book, one character advertises Penrose's view that our mind is nothing other than a ``quantputer'':

(quoted from White Mars : or, the mind set free : a 21st Century Utopia)

It happens that some people in the early days of setting up the Mars experiment thought there was another justification for it. These people believed that there has to be more to the human mind than what they refer to as "just quantputing". They reckoned that finding HIGMOs would lead us to a "mysterious something" which would provide a better understanding of human consciousness. Maybe I should use the term "soul" again here. There are still some people -- even some important people on the project, who shall be nameless -- who continue to pursue this sort of a notion....Our brains are just very elaborate quantputers. Maybe we do still have to tune a few parameters a bit better, but that's basically all there is to it. Even Euclid [a robot] would have a mind if he had been constructed with greater sophistication and better tuned parameters.

In any case, there is not really much mathematics or even mathematical physics here at all. The HIGMO referred to above is a gravitational monopole, a real object of study in mathematical physics today (and since the 1960's), but there is nothing of any substance said about it in the book. One important concept in the book is the Ng-Robinson plot, a way to visualize the outcome of complicated experiments in particle physics:

(quoted from White Mars : or, the mind set free : a 21st Century Utopia)

The Plot has given us a wonderful method of displaying vast quantities of quantputer-generated information. At the time when it was first employed, supercomputers were already giving place to our QPs, or quantputers, to use their full name -- much faster and more versatile machines. The computer read off the mass of a particle along one axis, its lifetime along another, and the q-factor along a third, all colour coded according ot the various quantum numbers possessed by the particle in question -- charge, spin, parity, etc.

And one of the crucial features Ng-Robinson introduced is a key intensity factor which indicates the probability of the detection being a reliable one. A very sharp bright image indicates firm identification of a particle, while a fuzzy one implies there may be some considerable uncertainty as to the suggested identification of an actual particle.

Using such a plot to search for the Higgs boson (a quest of real physicists today), they find instead only a smudge, This smudge defied theoretical explanation until

(quoted from White Mars : or, the mind set free : a 21st Century Utopia)

The theoretical breakthrough...A brilliant young Chinese mathematician, Chin Lim Chung, achieved a completely reformulated theoretical basis for particle physics as it stood at the time. Miss Chin introduced some higly sophisticated new mathematical ideas. She showed how a permanent smudge could indeed come about on the Ng-Robinson Plot, but the culprit could not possibly be a particle in any ordinary sense. It was a new kind of entity entirely. So from henceforth it was simply referred to as a smudge.

I guess I can't help feeling that the amount of discussion of such technical issues as the plot and the smudge are going to bore people who are not really interested in math and physics, and the absense of any substance to the discussion is going to bore people who are! Couldn't Penrose have suggested what sort of theory Chin Lim Chung devised? This same problem (not saying enough to please me but probably too much for others) arises again when the character says "Well, I don't want to go into details....but a hiden symmetry is a sort of theoretical symmetry which is dual in a certain sense, to a more manifest symmetry than might exist in theory. Such an idea goes back to some hypotheses popular late last century, although at that time the correct context for the hidden-symmetry idea was not found."

There is a one paragraph defense of basic research which I like enough to reproduce here:

(quoted from White Mars : or, the mind set free : a 21st Century Utopia)

It is always difficult to justify curiosity-driven research in terms of its ultimate benefit to society. We can't tell ahead of time. Nevertheless the effect of such research, which seems entirely abstract to the lay person, can be tremendous. An obvious example is Alan Turing's analysis of theoretical computing machines done in the 1930s. It changed the world in which we live. We are on Mars because of it.

The subject of the plot of the book is a colony on Mars and how it deals with the collapse of Earth's society under economic and environmental stresses.

Contributed by Anonymous

This book is inspirational in as much as it demonstrates how the humanising of science and the rationalizing of humans is essential if our race ever wishes to acquire lasting purpose and 'happiness'. (a word as misguided as it is misused in its current state.)

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Works Similar to White Mars : or, the mind set free : a 21st Century Utopia
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Diaspora by Greg Egan
  2. Dark as Day by Charles Sheffield
  3. River of Gods by Ian McDonald
  4. The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross
  5. Finity by John Barnes
  6. The Planck Dive by Greg Egan
  7. A Game of Consequences by David Langford
  8. A Matter of Mathematics by Brian Wilson Aldiss
  9. The Hollow Man by Dan Simmons
  10. Unreasonable Effectiveness by Alex Kasman
Ratings for White Mars : or, the mind set free : a 21st Century Utopia:
RatingsHave you seen/read this work of mathematical fiction? Then click here to enter your own votes on its mathematical content and literary quality or send me comments to post on this Webpage.
Mathematical Content:
1.33/5 (3 votes)
Literary Quality:
2/5 (3 votes)

GenreScience Fiction,
TopicMathematical Physics,

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May 2016: I am experimenting with a new feature which will print a picture of the cover and a link to the page for a work of mathematical fiction when it is available. I hope you find this useful and convenient. In any case, please write to let me know if it is because I would be happy to either get rid of it or improve it if that would be better for you. Thanks! -Alex

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