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.

Khan Academy

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…

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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!



21 thoughts on “Getting the Science Right

  1. I’ll add another vote for PLOS One. I’ve used it on occasion, and everything in my areas of interest has been solid.

    I like WattsUpWithThat for climatology. Yes, it has a bias, and is very up-front about it. It also has lots of straight science, links to articles, and on occasion links around pay-walls. Anthony Watts and Co are good about tagging things so you can skip the politics and opinion if what you want are links to climatology and weather.

    1. Add a thumbs up for WUWT here. Yes, biased – but, unlike other such sites, Anthony will give some time to the opposing viewpoints. The comment policy is refreshingly open, also – and the back and forth there, by people who are equally highly qualified, can be more valuable than the post at times.

      Note: I have also found and bookmarked several interesting sites (such as the ongoing exoplanet survey) through WUWT. It is not 100% about climate; Anthony (and Charles the Moderator) are interested in a wide variety of things.

  2. If you know the field you want to study, you can find colleges who have posted course requirements. If you look further, you can find course descriptions or even syllabuses. Topics and text books are a good starting point.

    You can find material put up by professors for college courses if you search hard enough, and a lot of those won’t be in collections of open course ware.

    If you can get into a good university library, there is a lot you can learn from just checking the stacks. What is shelved in the same area as the text book? If you have a library card, you can find old texts that are still useful, but aren’t in high demand. Check the section at the front where the author tells the course he wrote the text from, and what kind of courses he thinks the book can be used for.

    There are a lot of subjects you can study on your own this way. The main thing going to college gets you is immediate guidance, quick pointers, structure, and certification. And maybe networking, depending. It is absolutely possible to go to college and utterly screw up the networking side. If you want to avoid the toxic university environment, it is simply a trade off between spending more time on your own, and not being in a position where the left can as easily screw you over.. The thing that is difficult to do on your own is research that advances the state of the art. You simply can’t duplicate the ‘plugged into the literature’ of a good active research faculty. But, you can find faculty and active researchers through the literature. Many of them will help you if you have good questions.

    There’s a lot of stuff hidden behind a log on. But a lot of government sponsored stuff can be gotten for free if you know where to look. The current state of the literature can be difficult to survey without access through a university library, but some universities will sell you a library card.

  3. May I suggest a source for those interested in forensics? {} While not a science page, Dr. Lyle has a blog that covers many aspects of forensics and related subjects for writers. He is an author as well as a scientist.

  4. For looking backwards in time, you could do much worse than James Burke’s “The Day the Universe Changed”.
    The phrase “paradigm shift” has thankfully fallen out of bizspeak boilerplate, but the concept is real, and looking back at genuine instances of it is, I think, useful to wrap your brain around.
    The documentary series he did on his book is freely available for streaming. The book is probably out of print.

    It’s not as much a geeky nerdgasm as his Connections series 1-3, though. Which is more about how disparate information is pieced together in unexpected ways to create scientific advancement.

    1. Connections, series One, was my introduction to a lot of things, and I remember it fondly. And of course, I can’t hear ” O Fortuna” without thinking of the Luddites. 🙂

  5. The fun thing is that history can change, radically, too. And not in the Ministry of Truth sense.

    The first excavators of Carthage argued that the infant bones on the sacrificial were not actually sacrifices but too young to be buried in the family graveyard, where they found no infants. Subsequently we have found infants in family graveyards, and also both bones of much older children on the sacrificial grounds. Plus stelae actually about the sacrifice of a child to the gods, often with an inscription to brag that the child was actually the child of the sacrificer (thus lending weight to the Roman assertion that Carthaginians would buy the children of poor for sacrifice — it was a bragging point when you didn’t).

  6. as usual, this one goes in the reference library if for no other reason than the links embedded in it. I’ve got a file just for this sort of post.

  7. And there have been books that I went, “What the…?” and then quickly went to front to check publication date and then went, “Oh, alright…” but had the book had the SAME text but a publication date much closer to *NOW*… well, (virtual) Wall Time.

    Heck, I recall a book about.. it doesn’t matter.. but a radio had its frequencies changed by swapping crystals… and up to and into the 1980’s, that made sense. By the 1990’s? Synthesis and keyboard. By now, one might need a USB cable as “front panel” might be impossible (what keypad?) or is just that big of a pain.

  8. Isaac Arthur (YouTube channel) has drastically changed how I think about solar system development and colonization.

    One example: Why would you colonize a planet? Without super-cheap, efficient propulsion, why escape one gravity well just to dive into another one? It’s also much more resource efficient to chop a planet (or large moon) into pieces/parts to build rotating cylinders. Most of a planet just sits under ones feet doing nothing but providing mass for gravity.

    Vaguely on-topic: Unit consistency! I still have difficultly visualizing light units (light-second, light-minute, etc…), but switching between “two light-seconds away” and “six billion kilometers away” is really confusing. Unit inconsistency! People on different planets are not going to have the same days and years (and weeks and months might not even exist without a moon). Don’t belabor this one, but try to make it clear that “day” is fairly arbitrary. This mostly matters for “ship time” and its relationship to not-ship time. That going from planet A to planet B in vehicle X involves at least three time systems is often completely ignored.

    How does that work on Earth, now? Does an aircraft carrier adopt a time-zone or does local time change as it moves around the world?

    Related: Is it always possible to establish an orbit around a planet such that ship time, whatever it may be, is always synchronized with ground-under-the-ship time? Drastic differences would result in really high orbits, which seems fine; barring being so far away time-lag becomes an issue, or really low orbits, which doesn’t if one’s ship doesn’t like (tenuous) atmosphere.

    1. “How does that work on Earth, now? Does an aircraft carrier adopt a time-zone or does local time change as it moves around the world?”

      It maintains two clocks. One is set to Greenwich Mean Time, also known as Zulu or GMT. That clock never changes and is used as a constant time for all the US military world wide. That way, when the JCS says this plan, regulation, etc. goes into effect at 1200 Zulu, the carrier in the Atlantic looks up it’s position, determines timezone, and knows when it will happen local time, so it knows if the planes will take off before or after dark, etc. That adjusted local time is used for its’ interactions with the locals. You won’t invite the mayor to dinner with the captain using Zulu time.

      Look at Weber’s Honorverse books for an example of how this works for a spacecraft keeping track of multiple planetary times.

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