Getting the Science Right
I’m tired. How tired am I? Well, I had a moment yesterday where I didn’t look closely enough as I wrote and scheduled a post and I have put my planned MGC post up on my blog. In my defense, the backend of wordpress sites looks remarkably similar. However! I will extrapolate out of my post there, on science giving us a window into the past and how that can spark a story, into something that has come up a few times recently. Namely: refreshing knowledge of math and science for those who have been out of school for a while, or have developed a new interest in it. As writers of science fiction, I would hope that this would be of interest to you, although it’s hard to say where to start, precisely. That you will have to determine!
There are a number of places where you can get brain-refreshing online that are reliable information sources and, best of all IMO, free. These are resources I was using as study aids while working on my degree (which involved four years of chemistry, something I’d never planned on, but it turns out that’s what I’m doing for a living now), but they can be used to assist anyone at a highschool level and going up, as I’ve also been using them for homeschooling resources.
Crash Course videos – fun, engaging, very high production quality, I often used these to help study for things like Anatomy and Physiology, in addition to my quizlets and notes.
Going up a few levels – and these are free courses, but some offer an option to pay for certificates or college credits, if you want that. EdX, which I found through MITx’s MOOC offerings, will give you some fascinating options if you want to deep dive into things like machine learning, artificial intelligence, high level math, and much more.
If, like me, you just want to be able to keep a thumb on the pulse of science news and odd information, there are some interesting sources I follow, from blogs to aggregators. I try to stay away from anything with a paywall, and unfortunately both Science and Nature are… ah, politically charged. Which is not a good bedfellow with actual science. So here’s a few I enjoy as a writer looking for story sparks.
- ScienceDaily’s Strange and Offbeat
- bioRxiv– an open source pre-print server for papers from all over. Excellent source for science unfettered by journal subscription prices.
- ChemRxiv – the same server for chemistry papers
- in the Pipeline – Derek Lowe’s excellent blog on drug discovery, chemistry, and glimpses into the industry life.
- Nature’s Poisons – a mostly dormant blog with amazing archives on all sorts of plant poisons.
- Powered by Osteons – a blog by a woman irritated at how wrong media can get human bones and anatomy.
- Strange Remains – forensic anthropology, mostly dormant but deep archives of strange crimes and their remains.
- Locard’s Lab – forensic science (why yes, I do have a bias in my reading, did you have to ask?)
- PLOS One – open-source science in a peer-reviewed format. Many sub-categories.
And of course, the easiest way to make sure you are getting the science right is to look at the literature. I just had a conversation with a research scientist this last week, discussing how he planned to go about designing experiments to track his research, and we both agreed the best way to go about it was not to invent the wheel (or in this case, the use of the GC-MS for detection of volatile substances) from scratch. It would be to look at the literature, at methods that had worked for scientists who had come before, then tweak that to fit his specific molecules of interest. As a writer, you probably don’t need to worry about the right kind of column for the GC, or headspace vials, or injection of gases, but knowing how to look at the literature is an important skill that isn’t taught, even at the undergrad level. Although it should be. I got it in my Epidemiology class, but nowhere else. And now that I think on it, this post is long enough. Is there interest in my covering it? If so, I’ll write it up for next week.
I will leave you with this, since it’s a thumbnail of finding useful stuff without running into paywalls.
If you search Google Scholar for a phrase – in this instance, I used spider venom, you will get a long, long list of results. Search string design is a whole ‘nother topic into itself, but I wanted to give you an idea of what you’re seeing here. The second column off to the right is where you can find the entire text of a paper, and in what format. Results with nothing in this column will require login access, either through an institution or library, or by you paying for it. Most of the time for the level of research fiction requires, you can get away with just looking for the open-source papers. My footnotes…
- Popular papers may be more solid. But not always. However, a paper that has been cited many, many times is more likely to contain science that other scientist respect as they are using it as a reference themselves.
- Ok, 1982 wasn’t that long ago. In terms of molecular biology, it’s eons. Sometimes an older paper is still solid, other times the science has moved on and left it in the dust. I’ve cited papers from the 1940’s, so you never know (also, why hasn’t anyone been doing research on Augochlora pura? My favorite little bee, forgotten and eschewed).
- You may have heard (or not) of predatory journals. There are sources out there you should not trust – they are pay-to-play, and the papers that get published there were rejected by higher-level journals, or never submitted to them at all because the authors knew their work wasn’t going to fly. Unfortunately, academia isn’t kidding about the publish or perish mantra and desperate scientists will do unethical things to pad their publication numbers. If you aren’t familiar with the journal/publisher name, give it a quick google. If i write more on reading papers with a critical eye, I’ll get into more detail on this.
Whew. This got longer than I’d intended! Any questions, class? LOL!