The fact the phrase “Let’s Talk about Science” is running through my head to the tune of Salt-N-Pepa’s “Let’s Talk about Sex” is probably a fair indicator I’m not qualified to talk about science. But, you know what? Science is the new sexy. It’s hot. And I’m going to talk about it.
At the moment, I’m listening to a series of lectures presented by one of our sexiest scientists, Neil deGrasse Tyson. It’s called The Inexplicable Universe: Unsolved Mysteries. First of all, Tyson is a wonderful orator. He’s engaging and personable and his enthusiasm for his subject matter is infectious. Second of all, I haven’t listened to a lecture in about…well, it’s been a long time and we all know my math is spectacularly bad.
(here’s where I digress a little)
Sadly, my inability to cope with math is probably the reason I’m not a scientist. Yep, I thought about it. The idea of solving puzzles for the rest of my life held a lot of appeal to teenage Kelly. I didn’t really like biology but I loved chemistry. At the end of tenth grade, I applied to take Chemistry II. I was turned down because of my C average—and I get that math failures in chemistry can be really, really bad. But my advisor did ask why I wanted to continue studying something I wasn’t very good at. When I answered that I enjoyed it regardless, she suggested I try physics. I did, and I loved that too. I got another C, but my teacher, bless his heart forever, allowed me to advance to honors level physics in my senior year. Why? Because he knew I was trying really hard to get the math right, and most of the time I did. I could do pages of equations without missing a beat. Unfortunately, they were usually the wrong equations. He also understood that I loved the subject and that was why I tried so hard.
No college would have accepted me into a science program with my grades, but that wasn’t the point. My interest in science was encouraged regardless, and I am forever grateful. I’m also thrilled by the steady influx of science into our everyday culture. We have more science fiction on TV than ever before. Kids are reading it. Kids are practicing it! Have you seen The Martian yet? You should, because beneath all the science (not dumbed down but thankfully edited for cinema audiences), it’s an incredibly human story.
(okay, I’m back on topic)
We’re all interested in science, whether we develop a lifelong fascination with it or not. One of the first questions a child asks is “Why is the sky blue?” It’s a proven thing. It’s also a very human thing. Once we establish and become familiar with our immediate area, we look out and we look up. We’re endlessly curious about what’s over there, what that tastes like and why things like the sky change color—and don’t fall down on our heads. My definition of science is asking questions and looking for answers, which is why The Inexplicable Universe is such a fascinating listen. There are so many questions we haven’t answered.
When you start reading about science and figure out how much of it is guesswork and how much of it is proven through experiments that are completely bizarre, you have to wonder how some of our most eminent scientists lived long enough to pen their theories.
In a lot of instances, it goes something like this: (omg, I made a flow chart)
- Okay, we know A exists because we can see it, but we don’t know why it does what it does. So, let’s say there is a force/particle/undiscovered something-or-other at work and test as if that exists too.
- Option 1: Nothing happens, so a different test is devised.
- Option 2: Boom.
- Option 2a: The explosion reveals new information, resulting in the need for further experiments.
- Option 2b: Really, there are endless options here…
- Option 3: Experiments confirm something is there. We still can’t see it.
- Option 3a: Name it, catalog it and devise a new series of experiments to further study it.
You’d be surprised how often Option 3a happens. Some of the best known things in the universe have never been seen. Their existence is proven, but no one knows what they look like. One of these things is the electron. Seriously, no one has ever seen an electron. We don’t even know what they’re made of. Current theory is that they’re so small, we may never see one. We may never even be able to describe how small they are. But we know they’re there. How freaking bizarre is that?
Think about how much of our understanding of our world is based upon something we can’t accurately describe.
Don’t be. I’m the sort of person who needs to touch something to figure it out. So it’s probably good I didn’t embark on a scientific career—poor grasp of mathematics aside. I’d have had a very frustrating life. But here’s where we get to the point of this ramble: I don’t necessarily to have to understand science to think about it. To read about it.
To write about it.
I write science fiction romance with my BFF Jenn Burke. Neither of us is a professional scientist. That’s okay! Back in 2008 I attended an SF Roundtable at the New York Comic Convention. I can’t remember all the authors there, but I do remember the question and answer that helped me decide I could write science fiction. The discussion/question began with the inevitable “How do readers react when you get it wrong?” They complain, of course. There are people whose entire existence is justified by pointing out how wrong you are. This led to the spin off question, and my reason for being: “So how do you make sure you’re getting it right?”
Reading, research, experiments, interviews, shoddy flow charts and something called the black box. If you don’t know how it works, stick in a box and say it works. Don’t describe the mechanism or the parts or, God forbid, the science, just call it a quantum celery actuator and tell us what it does. Forget the why. It’s a magic box.
The black box theory isn’t new. It’s a well-known thing used to…wait for it, describe the unknown. Hey, if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me. After feeling for a long time that I was not well-educated enough to write science fiction, I’d been given a remarkable tool, one that has been employed by such luminaries as Sir Isaac Newton.
Now, I don’t shove everything into multi-colored boxes and call them flux capacitors. I’m still interested in science, in exploring it and explaining it. When preparing to write a scene that will involve knowledge of some fundamental scientific concepts—such as how explosions appear in space, and how far we can tweak an atmosphere before it becomes unbreathable—I do conduct research and my method is actually pretty scientific. I extrapolate and backward engineer stuff.
I also make stuff up all the time because that’s what writers do. (It’s also what scientists do.) I assume my characters are far better at math than I am and I take a lot for granted. But for the big stuff? I don’t need to tell you how the engine of the Chaos works. That’s not going to further my plot. But I can make it stop and make it go. I can have it confound my engineer, and mess with the day of my crew. I can theorise and tinker. Because story telling is something of a science too.