the Little Red Reviewer

Cold Equations and Thought Experiments

Posted on: January 7, 2020

Hey, so sorry to tell you, but it already looks like 2020 is going to be a thinky year for me.  Thought experiments, taking things apart to see how they work and then trying to put them back together,   connecting things that are really obscurely connected, asking questions and not caring about the answer, and then getting bored and moving onto the next thinky thing.


Let’s start with a famous short story called “The Cold Equations” by Tom Godwin, published in 1954. The story is available to read free online, at Lightspeed Magazine.

If you’re not familiar with this story, you’ll want to go read it at Lightspeed before reading the rest of this post, because there are major spoilers ahead.    If you liked it so much you want to own it in print, Baen Books published a nice collection of Godwin’s short fiction*. I’m not at all ashamed to admit that “The Cold Equations” is the only short story in the collection that I’ve read.


“The Cold Equations” gets a lot of discussion because of how cruel the physics of the story is, does the stowaway  deserve what happened to her, engineering that’s too stupid to be negligent, etc.    Those reasons, and plenty more, is why we still enjoy talking about this story more than 60 years after it was written.


If any of that sounds interesting,  I recommend this excellent post (warning, major spoilers) on by James Davis Nicoll.  The Wikipedia page for “The Cold Equations” also has some interesting  material about how when editor John Campbell bought the story in the early 50s, he pushed the author to change the story so that it didn’t have a happy ending.


Many articles and think pieces online like to take this story apart because of, to misquote Derek Kunsken’s The Quantum Magician completely out of context, “the math was inescapable”.  (damn do I love that line)


To me,  “The Cold Equations”  is  nothing more than The Trolley Problem thought experiment with very thin veneer of a plot.  What’s the trolley problem?   To steal directly from Wikipedia:

And since you are barreling down the tracks at the speed of a well, speeding train, you only have a few seconds to make your decision.  nice, huh?

For a more entertaining introduction to The Trolley Problem, I recommend you watch season 1 and 2 of The Good Place**.  they  have a little too much fun visualizing  that you have a split second to make your decision.

Anyway, what does any of this have to do with “The Cold Equations”?

SPOILERS , if you haven’t already read the short story:

the  basic plot of the story is this:  A teen girl sneaks onto the supply ship,  because it is going to planet where her brother is, and she wants to surprise him.  The ship has exactly enough fuel and air for the pilot and the desperately needed vaccines and food to make it to the planet.  exactly enough.  more weight? more breathing? a detour?  not enough oxygen and everyone on board, and  the ship won’t make it to the planet.  So, the pilot has two terrible options: Shove the girl out the airlock and safely get cargo, food, medicine to the planet – the girl dies but people on the planet will live.  Or, let the girl live, and the people on the planet will die.   He has to explain this to the girl, and yes, she comes to understand what is going on.


It’s a classic Trolley Problem –  kill the girl and save the people on the planet,  or save the girl and let the people on the planet die?   Better make a decision quick, because you are running out of fuel and oxygen.

And of course I have a million questions:

Was there a “keep out” sign on the ship, did the girl see the sign? YES.

Are the people on the planet so dumb that they don’t have any stores of food or medicine, like no extra stuff, at all? What idiot sets up a ship with exactly enough fuel/oxygen to get somewhere with zero margin for error?  And this is where a plot with characters rams uncomfortably up against a thought experiment that isn’t designed to have a plot, or characters.

How come the only female in the story is made to look stupid, and she gets treated like shit?  My response is I wonder if there have been version of this story that are gender flipped (how does that change the dynamic?) or where both people on the ship are of the same gender.   How would it change the dynamic if the ship pilot is a woman and the stowaway is a boy?  Please, blow my comments section up with this!

Who is really at fault for the tragic ending?  Apparently the original version Godwin sent in to Astounding Magazine had an ending where the pilot figures out a way to save the girl,  and editor John Campbell kept sending the story back until he got the ending he wanted.  Did Campbell want an ending where an innocent teen girl is made out to look stupid and then she is killed?  or did he want a click-bait ending? Was he looking for click-bait that would keep people talking?


The purpose of science fiction is to ask questions and offer up some answers.  And if readers disagree on the answers, that’s ok!

the purpose of science fiction is to get us talking about things we might not usually talk about.  “The Cold Equations”  was and is wildly successful in getting people to talk, and keep talking. That’s an epic win, if I ever saw one.


On a lighter note,  “The Cold Equations”  has been  adapted for TV a few times, including episodes of The Twilight Zone, the (very) short film The Stowaway, and apparently Billy Campbell was in a made for TV movie version?   too funny,  I just watched The Rocketeer for the billionth time the other day!



* This book has THE MOST confusing cover art ever. I am not posting the cover art in this thread, lest the ENTIRE comments section be “what is up with that cover art?”  You can easily find it yourself on Amazon or google image search.


** did you really think I could get through a Thought Experiment post without mentioning The Good Place?  really?

6 Responses to "Cold Equations and Thought Experiments"

Sounds interesting. I’ll have to check this one out.


I’d love to know what you think of it!


It is ridiculous to stock a ship with exactly enough oxygen and whatnot to get you where you’re going. What if a little plastic doohickey breaks and you have to slow down for half an hour to fix it, now you’re gonna die? What if the pilot starts jogging in place to stay fit and breathes too hard? Anybody with sense puts in extra fuel and food in case of need. I get the whole ‘frontier’ thing but I think the story was deliberately constructed that way, which really undermines it.

Hey, what do I do with my posts? Do I just put them here? I’ve done like three so far 🙂

Liked by 1 person

You can link to your posts in any comments section, or put them in the big (and now very overgrown) comments section of the “Vintage Sci-Fi not-a-challenge” tab up top. If you post a link in any comments section, I’ll get a notification of it.

we’re a week in, time for me to do a round up post!

Oh, I totally agree! absolutely stupid engineering! and yeah, the concept is, if some doohicky fails, you die. I have vague memories that it is sort of hand wavium explained away that the company who manufactures these crappy ships are encouraged to not have anything go wrong, because if the stuff doesn’t arrive they’ll lose their contracts? (i might be thinking of something else?)

and this is what happens when you take a 3 sentence thought experiment, and try to cram it into a plot. Plots have people, and emotions, and consequences. thought experiments don’t have that stuff. fun, right?

Liked by 1 person

I don’t recall that particular hand wavium from the story, but I might have just missed it. It just doesn’t make sense as a world construction, IMO. Stuff goes wrong, esp. out on a frontier; therefore, people would prepare better. (I mean I just read Grapes of Wrath and before crossing the Mojave in a beat-up jalopy, the Joads, who have nothing, still stock up with water and gasoline and cross at night to give themselves a wide margin of error.)

OK, here’s my links so far.


I hear where you’re coming from. doesn’t make sense to not plan ahead, does it? it’s the whole “hope for the best, plan for the worst”, you engineer your stuff so that your back ups have back ups! and hope you might not need them.

Liked by 1 person

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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