I use this blog as a soap box to preach (ahem... to talk :-) about subjects that interest me.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Authors' Mistakes #14 - Dean Crawford

If you care about Science (capital initial intentional) do not buy Apocalypse by Dean Crawford.

People who don’t understand science shouldn’t write about it. After reading 146 of the 553 pages of the novel, I gave up.

The first problem I encountered was on page 86. Crawford writes: “a young Air Force ensign”. He should have known that “ensign” is a rank exclusively used in the Navy. OK. It has nothing to do with science, but it was annoying nonetheless.

It is when Crawford starts writing about science that he really gets onto my nerves. On page 95, he writes:

If an object starts moving at high velocity, then time begins to run more slowly compared to another object that remains stationary. The discrepancy was predicted by Einstein in his Theory of General Relativity.

The first sentence, although not entirely rigorous (and not written in the best English) is acceptable in a novel. But “General Relativity” is wrong, as it is “Special Relativity” that explains time dilation when objects move fast.

Then, on page 96, Crawford claims:

Mercury orbits very close to the sun and always seemed to appear slightly out of place. It turned out that the sun’s mass curved the light reflected from Mercury’s surface when seen from the earth, making it appear in a different place to where it actually was.

Wrong. Even ignoring the mixed-up tenses, Crawford’s statement is incorrect. The anomaly in Mercury’s orbit that Newtonian Physics failed to correctly predict is the perihelion precession (i.e., how fast the point of the orbit closest to the sun moves). This is a real effect, not something that is explainable away with curved light paths.

One page later, on page 97, Crawford makes another blunder. After explaining that the presence of a large gravitational field has a dilation effect on time similar to that caused by high speeds, he goes on saying:

Sergey Avdeyev [...] orbited the earth almost twelve thousand times over 750 days whilst aboard the Mir space station. At such velocity, and farther from the mass of the earth than those of us on the ground, the time dilation he experienced sent him 0.02 seconds into the future, because time passed slower for him than for the rest of us.

Wait a minute! If the cosmonaut was subjected to a lower gravitational force, the resulting effect was to reduce the time dilation caused by the earth, not to increase it. Therefore, “despite being farther” would have been correct, not “and farther”.

Incidentally, the author also shows his poor command of English by inserting a comma between “velocity” and “and farther”.

Crawford proves beyond any doubt that he has not understood Relativity when, on page 113, one of the characters explains what a scientist had thought:

his idea was to place some kind of camera aboard a spaceship and send it into orbit around the sun for long periods of time at a very hight velocity. [...] The ship would then return to earth [...] the high velocities and close presence of the sun’s immense mass would allow the cameras [wasn’t it singular at the beginning of the paragraph?] to peek into earth’s future, just by a few minutes.

Baloney! If the ship’s time slows down, it means that it will fall behind earth-based clocks. That’s all.

What made me stop reading the novel was the explanation given by Crawford of a machine capable of filming the future (chapter 22). According to Crawford, you can peek into the future if you hold a camera very close to a black hole and point it towards a TV set located further away from the black hole. The camera will film future news shown on the TV set.

This is complete nonsense.

There are also other misconceptions, like the following one, expressed on page 156:

jets of steam hissed and enveloped the entire device in thick water vapor [...] A precautionary measure, to wash away any particles irradiated by the immense energy within the chamber.

“Irradiated by the energy”? Give me a break! And again, a misplaced comma (after “measure”).

In case you are wondering about the fact that at the beginning of this article I claimed to have read 146 pages while the last quotation refers to page 156, it is because I skipped chapter 21 in order to read the description of the “time machine”.

Crawford appended to the novel an Author’s Note where he claims: “all of the science within my novels is real, [his italics] but some of it is stretched to embrace the extreme events that are part and parcel of thriller fiction”. Clearly, he hasn’t simply stretched the science. He has broken it in a bad way. In the same Author’s Note, Crawford also states:

If one were able to stand alongside the event horizon of a sufficiently massive black hole, then time would indeed be dilated in the manner described.

He really hasn’t understood Relativity. And, what’s worse, his book got published by Simon & Schuster and sold well, otherwise it would have not been printed in Australia. How many thousands of people read it and were misled by Crawford’s bad science?

It makes me angry that ignorance, once more, has prevailed.

In any case, Crawford’s prose is also not satisfying. His writing is flat and banal with the pretence of being interesting or educational. He writes sentences like “The warbled tones of a despatch officer replied to his question across the radio waves.” (page 1). “Across the radio waves”? Please!


  1. In his book Extinction code he says that Aceh is in Thailand, it is not, it is in North Sumatra, Indonesia

  2. The problem is also that the editors don't do their job. To their defence, the publishing industry keeps cutting more and more corners to reduce costs, with the result that quality suffers. We consumers are also in part responsible because we want to spend less and less and, ultimately, prefer quantity to quality. But that's for another posting...