Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Putting the Science in Science Fiction: Part 3

I jumped the gun last week posting two lessons in this series on the wrong day. Then today, my rightful day, I almost forgot to post. Nevertheless, I have remembered, and I expect most people read these in the evening anyway.

We have seen how staying abreast of science fact can help you improve your science fiction writing and give you ideas for future stories. In this lesson, we will look at resources for this type of information.

Fact Checking is Your Responsibility

First, it is important to realize that readers of science fiction, contrary to popular belief, are highly intelligent and usually have some college education. Many work in fields related to science and technology. Misstating a scientific fact will compromise your credibility with those readers.

It is important, indeed vital, that you check your facts before going to publication. This is your responsibility as a writer. Do not count on your editor catching these types of things. Editors excel at catching grammatical errors, plot holes, problems with sentence structure. They are not experts at physics or astronomy. If you misstate the distance between the earth and the moon, your editor is unlikely to spot that. However, your readers will.

A simple internet search can answer most of these types of questions. However, be sure of who is giving you the information. Remember, anyone with a computer can make a web page. Always check the credentials of the source. Universities, government agencies, nonprofit scientific organizations, etc. are usually reliable. Sites run by a single individual may or may not be unless they are a recognized expert in the field.

Wikipedia: Uses and Warnings

My profession is that of college professor. Like most other instructors at the college level, I do not allow students to use Wikipedia as a source for their research papers. Why? It's quite simple, any reference source that anyone can edit regardless of their knowledge of the subject is not reliable enough for academic purposes.

Does this mean that Wikipedia is useless? Far from it. Wikipedia is generally accurate, particularly for noncontroversial topics. One researcher found that when errors were purposely inserted into articles they were usually corrected by other users within a few days. Of course, if you consulted the online encyclopedia between the error and the correction, you got bad information. Nevertheless, for a good overview of a topic or a quick reference Wikipedia can give you enough background to place your more verified research into context.

The most valuable thing about Wikipedia, though, is not the article you find, but the list of references at the end of the article. Most people posting articles on Wikipedia are careful to provide source citations for their information. These sources are found at the bottom of the article. You can compile a bibliography of mostly reliable sources from that list.

A Typical Search

Okay, I'm writing a story which features a cruise ship powered by a solar sail. Photons from the sun strike the sail pushing it a tiny distance, but they are hitting at several billion a second. Each tiny push adds to the previous push and with a large enough sail, you can create a propulsion system for a space ship. It has already been used experimentally in both a Japanese and a US satellite. But I need more information. So, what do I do?

First, I run a Google search looking initially for stories related to the current use of solar sails. That leads me to both NASA and the Japanese Space Agency websites as well as a few news sites. This gives me a background on the state of the art. I also want to go deeper into how these work.

I start with the NASA site and run a search. It brings up the stories about the NASA mission, but also information about the physics behind the idea. I then go to Space.com and run the same search. I find more information on some blogs by qualified science writers about both the theory and practical applications. I do the same at Popular Science, Scientific American and New Scientist. Each of these add to my knowledge about the subject. Also, many of the articles have links to research studies and other articles on the subject. They also include pictures of what such sails might look like and how they would be deployed. One scene in my book takes place in an observation lounge as the sails are deployed. So, knowing what that might look like helps me set the scene authentically.

This all takes time. Don't doubt that. I have probably spent 15-20 hours researching this. With Dark Side of the Moon,  which takes place in an underground lunar colony, I spent close to 100 hours studying what it would take to build and provision a space based habitat. The first part of my main character's trip took place on a “rockoon” a lighter than air vehicle which lifts the rocket into the stratosphere for launch. I also have a space elevator on the moon. An asteroid deflection system plays a role in the plot. Each of these took scores of hours to research. Yet, one of the comments I get from reviewers over and over is how realistic the story and setting seems.

If you want that realism, you need to do your research. Here are some links to get you started:


NASA TV It includes live streams from the International Space Station as well as programs about the future of space exploration

The European Space Agency. America is not the only player. ESA has been doing a lot of cutting edge space exploration.

The Russian Space Agency

Planetary Society. A Private Foundation promoting space exploration, colonization and the search for extraterrestrial life.

Popular Science

Scientific American Magazine  For more than 100 years the preeminent "popular" science magazine on the market. All articles are written by the researchers themselves.

The New Scientist. I've gotten a lot of my best ideas for “future” technology reading articles on this website.


Rhobin said...

Good posts and excellent advice, Terri. Your comments on sources is very especially important.

Jim Hartley said...

Good article. Personally, I don't really like doing research, I'd rather just sit down and write. But a lot of times you have no choice, and I suck it up and do it.

It's interesting how some of the much older SF (Space Opera) shows glaring errors that nobody worried about way back then. I've been rereading Doc Smith's "Skylark" series, and I cringe every time he tells me the spacecraft has an acceleration five times the velocity of light. The guy had a PhD, for Pete's sake, didn't he ever hear of dimensional analysis?

Terri main said...


I think we can be more forgiving when the resources are not so available. Back in the 30's, it could be an all day trip to go to a library. Today, it takes five minutes to check a fact online.

The more knowledge we have available, the more we expect people to access it.

Of course, I enjoy the research. I keep finding new information with each click. In fact, my problem is knowing when to stop researching and when to start writing. :-)