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How 3 Body Problem puts the science in science fiction

The new Netflix show ‘3 Body Problem’ is an excellent introduction to the weird and wonderful world of ‘hard’ science fiction

A still from the Netflix show '3 Body Problem'.(Courtesy Netflix)

By Bibek Bhattacharya

LAST PUBLISHED 30.03.2024  |  04:00 PM IST

Since early last year, I’ve been slowly making my way through a fascinating little book. It’s called The World According To Physics, a handsome little hardcover volume written by British physicist and science communicator Jim Al-Khalili. It’s a book for the masses; for the science-curious who have never studied it outside of school, but are fascinated with physics all the same.

Since I check all of those boxes, I’m basically the perfect reader of this book. But despite my keen interest in the subject, and Al-Khalili’s lucidity in explaining some pretty trippy concepts, you’d understand why I read it slowly. It’s a lot to take in, be it the laws of thermodynamics, or the theory of relativity, or the deeply weird, beautiful world of quantum physics. It’s difficult for the average human brain to truly grasp a concept like quantum entanglement, for example, so I often find myself reading entire pages of the book again and again (and again), in the hope that something sticks.

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Now, why do I like all this stuff? Simple, because I love science fiction. And the thing with being a science fiction fan is that sooner rather than later one would want to try and learn a little about the actual science that supports its fictional cousin, especially if you, like me, love “hard" science fiction: the kind of stories that are as much about the science as about the fiction. The separation of such stories from other kinds of science fiction—or speculative fiction in general—is that many stories could be more interested in testing various social hypothesis, or perhaps telling more character-driven tales, where tropes of science fiction act as a general superstructure.

Hard science fiction has been around forever. Indeed, you could say that H.G. Wells’ The War Of The Worlds is pretty “hard", and even other mainstream classics of the genre, like Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and Robot series, are underpinned by fairly hardcore science-y stuff.

Themes such as the intricacies of interstellar travel, or the mechanics and ethics of artificial intelligence, also serve to propel hard SF stories forward. In fact, some terms and concepts first coined by science fiction writers, like James Blish’s “spindizzy"—a starship propulsion system powered by an intricate relationship between gravitational and electromagnetic fields—or Ursula K. Le Guin’s “ansible"—a device that enables faster-than-light communication in a universe where faster-than-light travel isn’t possible— have entered both pop culture as well as scientific parlance. I must also add that stuff like this is never dry, and actually extremely fun, in the hands of a good writer. Forget Interstellar, if you want to truly experience the horror of how it feels to fall into a Black Hole, read Frederick Pohl’s Gateway.

Hard Science Fiction essentials.

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Given these interests of mine, I was quite excited to hear that Netflix and Game Of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss (alongside third showrunner Alexander Woo) had adapted the modern classic novel The Three-Body Problem, retitled 3 Body Problem by the streamer. The first book of Chinese SF writer and computer engineer Cixin Liu’s Remembrance Of Earth’s Past trilogy, The Three-Body Problem is a dense work of hard science fiction that tells the story of humanity’s encounter with an alien civilisation called the Trisolarians.

Liu’s books take their time to advance the plot, and for him it is as important to get into long passages on something like particle physics as it is to detail the intricacies of a planetary civil war between humans who believe the invading Trisolarians (San Ti, Chinese for “three body" in the TV show) need to be fought off and those that see them as saviours. Then there are the inter-related arcs of some pretty compelling characters, whose stories form the bedrock of the novels.

When it comes to the science, the books take in the full spectrum of physics, from the laws that govern the largest cosmic forces and entities in the universe to those of the tiniest quantum level. The genius of Liu’s storytelling (for which he has won multiple Hugo, Nebula and Locus Awards), is how he ties it all together in very believable ways. To be sure, there is a great deal of fictional science in his science fiction, but even that is basically an exploration of the hypothetical realms of known physics.

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Take the case of “sophons", a concept that features prominently in Season 1 of the show. The Trisolarians use their advanced science to turn one of the smallest objects in the Universe, a proton, into a supercomputer as big as a planet—the sophon. They achieve this size by “unfolding" a three-dimensional proton into eleven-dimensions, allowing it to be embedded with computational circuitry. Then they use the principle of quantum entanglement to use the sophon to spy on humanity: one proton is sent to Earth, while one remains with the Trisolarians, separated by light years.

All this sounds pretty far-out, but then again physics is pretty far-put. According to quantum entanglement (roughly speaking of course, I’m no physicist), two subatomic particles can share the same information simultaneously, though separated by space and time, even to the tune of millions of light years. That’s just one aspect of the inherent weirdness of the quantum realm.

At a larger, more cosmic level, there is the central conceit of the books: The eponymous Three-Body Problem. This is actually a well-established concept in physics, which tries to understand how to predict the motion of three bodies—with their respective gravitational pulls—interacting with each other. As astrophysicist Charles J. Horowitz says in a recent interview with Vox magazine: “Conservation of energy implies that a planet will orbit a single star forever and can never escape to infinity. Two stars, on the other hand, can exchange energy and possibly eject an orbiting planet. This, then, is the three-body problem: How do we stabilize three gravitational objects or predict what their orbits might be?"

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While quite a few hypotheses exist, the most likely outcome is chaos. And that is exactly what the Trisolarians want to escape by invading Earth: Their own planet is tied up in a turbulent relationship with a three-star system, which leads to civilisation—and life—on their planet evolving over and over again after being obliterated repeatedly.

You see why I love hard SF? It’s just brilliantly mind-blowing! Writers of this genre are doing something akin to the scientists Al-Khalili terms as “lamppost physicists" in his book: “…the searchers in the dark…who come up with highly original or speculative ideas that are not so easy to test". However, the payoff of such an approach, he writes, is to “lead to paradigm shifts in our understanding". What can be better than that, really?

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