Skip to content
Who's in the Video
Catherine Asaro is a bestselling science-fiction and fantasy author best known for her "Saga of the Skolian Empire" series. A former ballerina, Asaro has performed with ballets and in musicals[…]

A conversation with the bestselling science fiction writer.

Question: How do you integrate concepts from physics into your science fiction? 

Catherine Asaro: The editor who finally bought my first book said, "I like all the science in it. I like its hard SF. That's what we're looking for." And I said, "What is hard SF?" 

He said, "You know, science based science fiction. You are putting a lot of science into your book." I said, "Oh am I?" I so much take for granted that part of my life now that I wasn't really consciously aware I was doing it. For “The Quantum Rose” it's really hard to say exactly what inspired that. I was working on my doctorate at the time and my Doctorate is in Theoretical Atomically and Molecular Physics. So it just seemed at the time completely natural that that characters and the plot points and the symbolism in the book would be mirroring quantum scattering theory. It just made sense to me; the story is a retelling of "Beauty and the Beast" in a science-fiction science-y setting. 

And so the two characters Beauty and the Beast, the two people in the story who are playing those roles, seemed to me like they were acting like particles in quantum scattering theory. They were coming around, orbiting each other, bouncing off, you know, we were having coupled, channel interactions. It made sense at the time, so what I did was... the book takes place on a fairly low tech world where they're not going to break into soliloquies about quantum scattering theory. 

Sometimes what I'll do is if it's a really neat idea that I want to get across, I might have a character do something like think, "I don't understand how this is going to work. And if I can't figure it out, you know, something terrible is going to happen, like an explosion will occur." So I'll use the character having to figure it out to show the principle I'm trying to show. 

Question: How did you first get into science fiction? 

Catherine Asaro: I thought I would be a dancer. I always like signs because, you know, my father is a chemist, he's a nuclear chemist. And in fact he was the chemist who found the iridium anomalies in the earth's crust from the boundary 65 million years ago that made them propose that a comet or an asteroid hit the Earth and wiped out the dinosaurs, among many other species. So that's what I grew up around. We used to go to his lab when I was a kid and he would show us things, like he'd pour liquid nitrogen on the floor and we'd see how it'd beaded it up and ran in all different corners. 

And then he'd put a rose and he'd take the rose out and tap it with a hammer and it would shatter. So I was always exposed to that as a child and I loved it but I loved the dancing too. I really didn't know which I wanted to do. I trained as a dancer all the way up until college and all the time in the back of my mind, every time I was exposed to science I'd think, "Well this is nice too." 

They're both very intensive fields. If you're going to do well in it, no matter how much talent you have, you have to put the work in too. So if I was dancing six hours a day and studying six hours a day, I didn't have much time for life. So that's why mostly I concentrated on the dancing first. 

I had some trouble reading when I was very young, like 4 or 5. And when I started first grade I was actually in the middle reading group and one day I went home and I picked up my sister's book for her class because she was in a grade ahead of me. And I read the book from front to back in one afternoon. 

And I went to my mother and I said, "I want something to read. I read this book front to back," And she kind of stared at me and then apparently I found out later she went in the next to the school and said, "You have to do something with my daughter. She's not doing well because she's bored, not because she doesn't know how to do it." So they started trying to get me involved in reading and I remember one of the books that we got from the library was about these two kids, this brother and sister that went to the moon with their cat. 

I just loved this. I loved going to the moon. I loved the spaceship. The whole idea of going into outer space. And I also liked that they brought their cat. So I found these space cats books that was written for kids and it was about this cat that when with this astronaut to the moon and Venus. And it was really my Eureka! moment. I thought, "I love this stuff. Outer space is wonderful." I want to read everything I can. So I did, I went to the kids library and I read pretty much everything they had available for children in the science fiction section, Andre Norton, Heinlein, Asimov, all of the classic names in the field. 

It was always science fiction or fantasy. As a child I didn't really make a distinction between the two. I knew they were different. I knew science fiction was about if you extrapolate a scientific principle we know is true, what will happen? And I knew fantasy was made up out of more like mythologies, like, you know, fantastic characters and magic. But to me it was all that sense of wonder. It's different. It's stepping outside the usual life that we live and almost always especially in science fiction, you were stepping outside to solve a puzzle, which was the other thing I really liked.

Question: When did you discover your passion for science? 

Catherine Asaro: One day I remember going to the library and I started reading this chapter on electronic structure, I got there about 10:00 in the morning. And I thought, "This is really neat stuff." 

So I read that chapter and I thought, "I like that. I'm going to read the next chapter." So I read the next chapter and then there wasn't anymore in the book about the stuff I liked, so I went upstairs to the physics library and I said, "Do you have any of this quantum mechanics stuff?" And they said, "Oh yeah." So they gave me a book by Linus Pauling and some other quantum mechanics books. And I took those downstairs and I read their sections on electronic structure, and I just loved it. I didn't want to stop.

I remember getting up at one point to get something to eat out of the vending machines. And then I was studying and somebody tapped me on the shoulder, and I looked up and it was the security guard. And he said, "I'm sorry ma'am, you have to go." And I looked around and the library was completely empty, I was the only person. It was midnight and they were closing. So I sat in there from 10:00 in the morning until midnight.  I was just so enthralled by the subject and I knew then, I mean, that was definitely my "Eureka!" moment. That's what I wanted to do. That's what I wanted to study.
Question: What are the similarities between ballet and mathematics? 

Catherine Asaro: There are a lot of similarities or things that fit together between, especially ballet and mathematics. Ballet for one thing, it's all about spatial perception. To give you an example, I had a student when I was teaching physics at Kenyon College who was also a ballet dancer. And she was talking to me one time because she really liked physics and I knew her from both ballet and physics because I taught her as a physics professor and we both took the ballet classes at the college. 

And she said to me, "Well, I'd really like to do physics but I know girls don't have as good spatial perception." And this was for a while a misconception; I'm not sure where it got started but the idea that girls somehow couldn't do this. I think it's pretty much fallen by the wayside now, but at the time she believed it. And I said, "Okay, I want you to answer a question for me." She said, "Okay." I said, "You're taking that ballet class for credit." She says, "Oh yeah, I'm taking quite a few dance classes for credit." I said, "So you have to do an exam or a final project." And she said, "Well yeah, of course." 

I said, "What's your final project?" And she said, "Oh I choreographed a dance." And I said, "For how many people?" And she said, "Eight." And I said, "Okay, how did you choreograph this dance for eight people?" And she said, "Well I put on the music and I imagine in my head what they would do and then I went and told them what to do." I said, "So you envisioned for a three to four minute piece of music the steps of eight people moving in space and you figured out and played with that and came up with a plan?" She said, "Well yeah, of course." And I said, "I wish my physics majors had that good of spatial perception."

And I think it was one of those eye-opening moments. I know for me the realization that being able to make the connection between different areas of what we do in our life. If you can think in terms of imagining dancers or sports, and what they're doing on the playing field you have very good spatial perception. And that translates very easily into physics. Imagine the theoretical physics and how wave functions, and wave forms move, and that sort of thing. 

The other part that's very connected is ballet is very much about algorithms and patterns, and numerics. Everything we do in an exercise, for example, at the bar is an algorithm. And you learn them, they become incorporated in our body. You think, "Okay two here, one here, one back, reverse it," and you have to be able to reverse things very quickly, learn them very quickly. You have to become so used to the patterns that especially if you become professional, you can just go like that when someone tells you to do such and such. That's means you're incorporating not only the spatial perception aspects, but the ability to quickly see and make patterns or algorithms in your mind.

And then of course there's also the classical music connection. We've known for a long time that many mathematically oriented people are also very musical. And even Bach, there have been whole analysis of the mathematics of his music; you get that in dance, too. So when you put all those things together, it's no surprise to me at all that I found a connection between ballet and math. And I'm finding it in my students, too. Now that you see more girls going into mathematics, you tend to see more girls in ballet too, so the connection is becoming more obvious. A lot of my best students who are female were also dancers or something similar, something connected to that. 

Question: When you are writing a novel, solving a math problem, or dancing, what keeps you focused? 

Catherine Asaro: If I were to try and find a unifying emotion that kept me calm and focused while I was dancing or writing, or solving a math problem, I think the one unifying thing about all those that keeps my interest is creativity. It's what I like best about doing any of them. It's the creativity and also having the technical ability to use your creative impulses. To solve math problems, you need to know the basic mathematics before you can start applying it. So you have to get technical expertise in how to solve the problems. 

To do ballet, I love doing it, but you need the technical ability to do the steps. I can imagine my leg up here but if I'm out of shape the leg won't go up even if I want it to. And it's the same for science and for writing. To write you have to be able to know how to put words together. So part of the joy of it for me is the mastery of the techniques. Watching yourself improve, seeing the improvement, seeing the leg go from here to here, to here, knowing you're getting better at it. The satisfaction of going, "Oh I can do that today and I couldn't yesterday." 

But really that, in one sense, is the end to the means. And the means is that now I can apply my creative ideas and I have the tools to do it. I can tell that story that's been evolving in my mind. I have the tools now to put it down on paper and make it on paper the way I see it in my head. So I would say the creative part is the most satisfying for me. 
Question: If you had to choose between teaching math and dancing, which would you pick? 
Catherine Asaro: If I had to decide and I could only teach either physics or math, or ballet, it would be a really tough decision. I think probably I would teach the math because you can keep teaching a subject like math or physics forever, essentially. Whereas with dance, you have to stay in shape and if you don't stay in shape it gets harder and harder to teach the class. That's not saying that every teacher has to be at the top of her peak or his peak, but for me I don't feel like I'm demonstrating well if I can't do the steps myself. 

So if I were teaching dance, of course I would be doing more dance, but I think if I had to make a choice, as tough as it would be I would probably go with math as what I'd teach. 

Question: Is there a specific benefit of excelling both science and the arts? 

Catherine Asaro: For one thing, it's very satisfying. For another, you get paid a lot better as a scientist than as an artist. I actually make a living as a writer, but it goes up and down and enough of a living to pay a mortgage on a house, and buy a car, and send a child to college oversees, no it's not enough of a living for that. 

In other arts, for example music, I also sing and play concerts. And for people who are doing acting, and playing instruments, it's really hard to make a living unless you happen to be one of the people that hits really big. Whereas in science, once you get the degree, if you're reasonably good at what you do, you can pretty much get a well-paying job. So I would say the benefit of doing both is that when the arts side goes down as far as whether the economy goes bad or I don't happen to get a contract this term or whatever, you still have income from your work as a scientist. 

But I think from a more creative point of view, the two complement each other. A lot of my writing has mathematics in it just because for me it fits so well. When I think about math it gives me an idea for the writing and when I think about the writing I go “Wait a minute, that gave me an idea how to solve a problem that I was working on in the physics or the math.” As to how that happens or why I couldn't tell you. 

Question: What’s the biggest challenge in working in both arts and sciences? 

Catherine Asaro: I would say that both ask of you a lot of time. If you want to excel in either, it's not enough just to be profoundly talented because no matter how talented someone is and I sometimes see that with my math students. I'll get someone who I know has the potential to do brilliant work, but you also have to want to put in the time to do it. It has to be the thing that excites your passion, because it takes hours or work. You know, we talked about prodigies in music, well yes, they're prodigies because not only are they good but they play the piano for hours a day. 

Same with my daughter who was sometimes called a prodigy as a ballet dancer, yes she was very good but the reason she was dancing professional at such a young age was because she put in six, seven hours a day sometimes dancing. And science is the same; if you want to get a degree, getting a physics major is not an easy curriculum. Getting a degree in math, going to graduate school and getting a doctorate in a scientific or mathematical subject, it's a big time commitment. And then when you go out into the world to work, you have to keep up on all the research. You have to do your own work. 

If you're at a university you could be spending 70, 80, 90 or more hours a week on your job. So I would say the biggest challenge is finding the time to do both and do them well. 

Question: What advice do you give your daughter about her own artistic and scientific pursuits? 

Catherine Asaro: I remember very much telling her when she would say, "Maybe I'll just quit ballet. Maybe I'll just quit math." I'd say, "Well you could do that." And she also was playing the piano excessively too. I said, "You're doing a lot, and it might help you to balance things better." I said, "But you know I quit dancing when I was in college and I've always regretted it. I was able to go back and pick up the, some of the techniques so I can still dance." I said, "But I wished I hadn't." And she said, "Okay, I'll think about it." And she thought about it, and she decided when she would periodically think about eliminating one of those things. She usually decided not to. What we told her was, we would support whatever she wanted to do. If she wanted to keep doing all three we would find ways to help her balance. If she wanted to drop something we would be supportive of that too.

And in fact, she did, when she was 6 years old. This is when it started coming up. It was pretty young. She was doing the both the ballet and gymnastics. She is very talented physically for coordinated-type exercises. And the coach said, "I think she can be a really good competitive gymnast." 

And so they were training her to do that when she was 6-years-old and she was going many hours. And she said, "Mom I don't think I want to do this." She said, "I like the performance part of dancing more than the competitive part of gymnastics." And I said the same thing to her then. I said, "If you decide it's really what you don't want to do then we'll drop it because you shouldn't put that much pressure on yourself if you don't feel it's what you want to do." And the thing I usually always told her was think about it for a few days and so she thought about it. 

And in that case she came back and she said, "I'm pretty sure it's not what I want to do." So she stopped doing gymnastics and I don't think she ever went back to it after that. Another thing that she always wanted to do was singing. She didn't have much time so she hasn't done a lot of it.  But it's the same I told her with that. Never feel that you're not able to do something if you want to. I said, "Don't put pressure on yourself to do it if you don't feel you have time or you don't feel you're ready, or you're not sure whether you want to do it or not." I said, "Just the thing to remember is don't do anything that you want to do because you think you won't be able to do it." 

I said, "Always try. It doesn't matter if you're not the best in it, that's okay. As long as you enjoy it." So I think that was probably the best advice I gave her was, don't limit yourself. 
Recorded on June 7, 2010