First there was Lawrence M. Krauss's lightweight The Physics of Star Trek, which was fun but avoided the far edges of physics where warp drives really are being discussed. Next came Michael White's The Science of the X-Files, determinedly open-minded but with more common sense than the series – I'd expected stuff like: 'Although blinkered, government-controlled scientists claim that The X-Files is transmitted to you by electromagnetic waves, a paranormal explanation cannot be ruled out!'
Now, reliable sources tell me, two eminent pop-science authors are preparing The Science of Discworld. 'Although orthodox mathematics is unable to handle Terry Pratchett's sales figures, these can be explained by quantum.' And once I've arranged permission from the Tolkien estate, I'm jumping on this bandwagon with ... The Physics of Middle-Earth. Some extracts:
Tolkien's dragon Smaug seems too big to fly, but – pinching an idea from Peter Dickinson – it's workable if Smaug is built like an immense hydrogen-filled balloon. Naturally, floating around with all that hydrogen inside, he can belch fire. This also explains how he's so quickly clobbered by a single arrow from Bard the Archer. Balloon meets pin. Elementary!
Computer users will recognize the 'many colours' of evil wizard Saruman's shimmering robe: a simple diffraction rainbow, as in CD-ROMs. The subtext is that this ambitious but fatally flawed mage who wants to rule the world has CD-ROMs sewn all over his clothing, and is an obvious allegory of Bill Gates.
The Elves can be identified as Alien Greys with superior knowledge of topology (self-untying ropes), colour LCD displays (those elven cloaks that blend into any background) and Internet access (Galadriel's 'mirror'). The shadowy Black Riders must be holograms ...
Other mysteries in The Lord of the Rings are easily explained in terms of nuclear physics. Remember, the Third Age was very long ago, and so uranium – which steadily decays by fission into other elements – is much more plentiful than today. Dwarves live in subterranean mines, surrounded by dangerous heavy elements and radon gas ... sure enough, they're stunted little creatures.
So are the swarms of mutant orcs, bred underground by Sauron and thus obviously radioactive. This explains why the 'magic' swords Glamdring, Orcrist and Sting start glowing when orcs are nearby – their blades are coated with fluorescent material that shines in the presence of radiation. (No one explains why it's so useful that, when you're cowering and hiding from the orcs, your sword lights up to tell them where you are. But it probably looked good in the Innovations catalogue.)
The major bad guys, whose strongholds Isengard and Barad-dur contain heavy industrial machinery, are tooled up to exploit Middle-Earth's atomic fuels. In the battle of Helm's Deep, Saruman's army takes out the Deeping Wall with what is clearly a tactical nuke. But these are incredibly hard to make and Saruman could only assemble one. Sauron's single nuclear weapon is used more strategically, with threefold cunning. Its detonation in Mordor is the 'Great Signal' that orders his forces to attack. It generates enormous cloud cover leading to the 'Dawnless Day' – an obvious attempt to inflict nuclear winter on Gondor. And its electromagnetic pulse is intended to disable the West's radio communications.
What radio communications? Well, how did you think those handy crystal balls (the 'palantirs') worked?
Of course the Ring itself, which has such a debilitating effect on its wearers, must be made of pure uranium-235. Gollum in particular shows several disgusting symptoms of advanced radiation sickness, but seems to have developed compensating mutations. The vegetation of Mordor is less lucky, and is dying out thanks to Sauron's nuclear testing ...
Now you see how Frodo's suicide squad manages to overthrow the Dark Lord by, as it were, giving him the finger. Sauron's workshops in Mount Doom are nuclear-powered, using a classic 'swimming-pool' reactor design with molten rock instead of hot water. This glowing pit is the Crack of Doom, and its safety interlocks are clearly no better than Chernobyl's. When the extra fissile mass of the Ring is added, the reactor goes supercritical and causes Mount Doom to erupt in a colossal explosion that topples the Dark Tower.
And the Elves, of course, then depart from the Grey Havens to the Uttermost West to escape the resulting fall-out.
My next project: The Evolutionary Biology of Beatrix Potter. Expect amazing revelations.
David Langford just found NASA's web page on the possibilities of warp drives – http://www.lerc.nasa.gov/WWW/PAO/warp.htm ...