The Crucible of Time: a book review

The Crucible of Time by John Brunner (1983)

I recently re-read The Crucible of Time by science fiction author John Brunner (1934–1995). It is one of the last great triumphant-rise-of-human-progress novels where, in spite of all kinds of natural disasters, the inhabitants of a planet drag themselves through thousands of years of scientific development in order to escape their doomed planet (around the 80’s, science fiction became darker and more dystopian, as indeed, many of Brunner’s other novels are). What makes this novel stand out from a rather dull subgenre is that the characters are not human at all, but are some kind of mollusc. When you can get your readers to identify emotionally with a sort of intelligent slug or squid, then you’ve got serious writing talent: “‘But – !’ She sank back, at a loss. For the first time it was possible to see how pretty she was, her torso sleek and sturdy, her claws and mandibles as delicate as a flyet’s. Her maw still crowded, she went on, ‘But I always thought you and Professor Wam were enemies! When I heard you were giving a lecture and she had agreed to reply to you, I couldn’t really believe it, but I decided I had to be present, because you’re both on the other side from my parents. They are crazy, aren’t they? Please tell me they’re crazy! And then explain how you two can be acting like friends right here and now! I mean,’ she concluded beseechingly, ‘you don’t smell like enemies to each other!’

At one level, The Crucible of Time is a strange tirade against religion, having set up a universe in which the religious leaders are, by construction, dangerously wrong. This gives Brunner’s characters some more immediate opponents than the impending disaster itself, but these opponents seem a little too much like cardboard cut-outs most of the time. I was left somewhat confused as to why the universe of the novel contained religion at all. An evolutionary argument was implied, but it didn’t seem to make sense.

The novel (or rather, collection of linked stories) does have some fascinating descriptions of a civilisation that’s built mostly, but not entirely, on biology – in contrast to ours, which is built mostly, but not entirely, on physics. Brunner avoids tedious descriptions by giving animals names that suggest English equivalents. The alien equivalent of a domesticated camel is a drom, for example. The large domesticated water-creatures that perform the function of ships are barqs, briqs, and junqs: “‘Correct! Well, if a mindless plant can find a way to spread beyond its isolated patch, why shouldn’t we? Did it ever strike you that there must have been a first person who pithed a barq or briq, just as there was certainly a first who tamed a junq? Then, folk were confined to continents or islands, and had to trudge wearily from place to place unless they had a drom—and someone, equally, must have been first to ride a drom!’

In a similar vein are words like laq, sourgas, and stumpium (named after the planet Stumpalong). Checking Internet reviews, this aspect of the novel seems to be both loved and hated.

But I consider this novel to be one of the great science fiction classics; it’s well worth a read. See here for a more detailed review and plot summary.

The Crucible of Time by John Brunner: 3½ stars


The modern Trivium and the teaching of science

The “trivium” approach to education derives from “The Lost Tools of Learning,” a 1947 speech by scholar and detective story author Dorothy L. Sayers. This approach takes the seven liberal arts (illustrated above), drops the all-important quadrivium, and applies the remainder in a largely metaphorical way. It is an interesting approach, although it inevitably under-emphasises mathematics. The door to Plato’s Academy was marked “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter (Ἀγεωμέτρητος μηδεὶς εἰσίτω),” and this referred to the most advanced mathematic of his day. I’m not sure that the “trivium” approach to education delivers that level of mathematical knowledge. Then again, does the standard approach?


Science, on the other hand, can be fitted quite well into the “trivium” model. The three stages of this model (largely metaphorical, as noted) are “grammar,” “logic,” and “rhetoric.”

The “grammar” stage (intended for ages 6 to 10 or so) covers basic facts. Science at this level logically includes what used to be called natural history – the close observation of the natural world. Maintaining a nature journal is an important part of this, as are simple experiments, the use of a telescope, collections of objects (rocks, shells, etc.), and simple measurements (such as recording measurements from a home weather station).

Mother and child nature journaling examples from Nature Study Australia Instagram and website

Dorothy L. Sayers has nothing to say about science in the “logic” stage (apart from fitting algebra and geometry here), but the “logic” stage would reasonably include taxonomies, empirical laws, and an exploration of how and why things work the way they do – that is, the internal logic connecting scientific observations and measurements. A degree of integration with history education would provide some context regarding where these taxonomies and laws came from, and why they were seen as important when they were formulated.

Exploring Boyle’s law with a simple apparatus

In the “rhetoric” stage, the “how” and “why” of science would be explored in more detail, along with practical applications and project work (such as entering a science competition, or possibly even collaborating with local academics on a scientific conference paper).

A US Army engineer helps judge high school science projects (photo: Michael J. Nevins / US Army)

I suspect that quite a decent science education programme could be worked out on such a basis. If any reader knows of it having been done, please add a comment.

Looking back: 1994

In 1994, I finished up a three-year lecturing contract at the National University of Singapore, and returned to Australia. That year saw the launch of the Netscape Navigator web browser (I wrote my first web page) and the opening of the Channel Tunnel between France and the UK (I was to take a train through that tunnel some years later). A plethora of movies was released – Stargate was one of the better ones:

In science, the Wollemi pine was discovered in Australia, stirring up a media frenzy. Martin Chalfie transferred the jellyfish gene for green fluorescent protein to the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, eventually sharing in the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for this work. And Comet Shoemaker–Levy 9 crashed into Jupiter, leaving visible marks in the Jovian atmosphere:

In France, the Chauvet Cave was discovered. It contains cave art dated to around 30,000 years ago. And superb art it is – those ancient cavemen knew a thing or two:

American Solar Challenge 2018: The run to Burns

I recently got my hands on the GPS tracker data for the American Solar Challenge last July. Above (for the 6 Challengers completing the stage) and below (for the Cruisers) are distance/speed charts for the run from Craters of the Moon to Burns, which seems the stage of the route with the best data (at this time of year I haven’t the time for a more detailed analysis). Click on the charts to zoom. Small coloured circles show end-of-day stops.

Stage times were 15:Western Sydney 8:05:16, 101:ETS Quebec 8:20:13, 2:Michigan 8:25:08, 55:Poly Montréal 8:42:52, 4:MIT 9:07:58, and 6:CalSol 9:30:12 for Challengers, and 828:App State 10:22:37, 559:Bologna 12:13:57, and 24:Waterloo 15:29:12 for Cruisers (note that Bologna was running fully loaded on solar power only, while the other Cruisers recharged from the grid).

The data has been processed by IOSiX. I’m not sure what that involved, but I’ve taken the data as gospel, eliminating any datapoints out of hours, off the route, or with PDOP more than 10. Notice that there are a few tracker “black spots,” and that trackers in some cars work better than in others. The small elevation charts are taken from the GPS tracker data, so they will not be reliable in the “black spots” (in particular, the big hill before Burns has been truncated – compare my timing chart).

American Solar Challenge 2018 Tracker Data

I just got my hands on the GPS tracker data for the American Solar Challenge last July. Out of the 13 cars from Michigan, MIT, CalSol, Western Syd, Illini, Waterloo, Minnesota, GA Tech, Poly Montreal, ETS Quebec, Bologna, W Mich, and App State, most were not being tracked during large stretches of the route (see the map above). That restricts what I can do with the data, but I will do something. Stay tuned.