SFWRITER.COM > How to Write > On Writing: Science
by Robert J. Sawyer
Secret Weapons of Science
Okay I admit it. I've got an arts degree. There, the cat's out of the bag: despite the cosmology and relativity and paleontology and genetics in my novels, I haven't taken a science course since high school.
But, hey, I'm not alone in that among practitioners of hard SF. Look at Fred Pohl, who writes about artificial intelligence and black holes and quantum theory. He never even graduated from high school. And, yeah, sure, Kim Stanley Robinson, who is detailing the terraforming of our neighbouring world in his Red Mars trilogy, is indeed Doctor Robinson but his Ph.D. is in (gasp!) English literature.
So how do we non-scientist SF writers keep up with science? Well, I can't speak for everyone, but I rely on six secret weapons.
First, and most important, there's Science News: The Weekly Newsmagazine of Science. You can't get it on any newsstand (although many libraries carry it). I've been a subscriber for thirteen years now, and I credit it with fully half of the science in my novels and short stories.
Science News is published weekly, and each issue is just sixteen pages long you can read the whole thing over one leisurely lunch. Aimed at the intelligent lay person, it contains summaries of research papers appearing in Nature, Science, Cell, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Physical Review Letters, The New England Journal of Medicine, and hundreds more, as well as reports from all the major scientific conferences in Canada and the United States, plus original feature articles on topics ranging from quarks to the greenhouse effect to Neanderthal fossils to junk DNA. There is simply no better source for keeping up to date.
(Of course, the key is to actually make use of the material. Both Michael Crichton and I read the same little piece in Science News years ago about the possibility of cloning dinosaurs from blood preserved in the bellies of mosquitoes trapped in amber. Me, I said "Neat!" and turned the page; Crichton went off and made a few million from the idea.)
Science News is published by Science Service, Inc., 1719 N Street NW, Washington, DC 20036, (202) 785-2255. Canadian subscriptions are US$50.50 for one year; US$84.00 for two years; US subscriptions are US$44.50 for one year; US$78 for two years.
My second secret weapon: Time magazine. Yup, that's right: Time. Each year a few issues will have science cover stories. Buy them they're pure gold. You won't find better introductions to scientific topics anywhere. Recent examples: The Chemistry of Love (February 15, 1993); The Truth About Dinosaurs (April 26, 1993); How Life Began (October 11, 1993); Genetics: The Future is Now (January 17, 1994); How Humanity Began (March 14, 1994); When Did the Universe Begin? (March 6, 1995); and In Search of the Mind (July 31, 1995). Not only will each one suggest many story ideas (the novel I just finished, Frameshift, owes a lot to the two 1994 issues I mention above), but they will also give you all the background and vocabulary you need to write knowledgeably about the sciences in question.
In fact, I find that magazine articles tend to be better than books for giving me what I need quickly and efficiently. And that brings me to secret weapon number three: Magazine Database Plus on the CompuServe Information Service, the world's largest commercial computer network.
MDP contains the full text of over two hundred general-interest and specialty publications, many going all the way back to 1986. Among the titles of obvious use to SF writers are Astronomy, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Discover, Omni, Popular Science, Psychology Today, Scientific American, Sky & Telescope, and, yes, good old Science News and Time.
A year ago, when I was writing my novel Starplex, I needed to learn about "dark matter" that mysterious, invisible substance that we know, because of its gravitational effects, constitutes ninety percent of our universe. Well, in less than a minute, MDP provided me with sixty-nine citations of articles on that topic, ranging from lay discussion in the newsmagazines The Economist and US News and World Report to twenty-one articles in of course Science News. There's no charge beyond normal CompuServe connect-time for generating such a bibliography. You can then either head off to your local library and dig up the articles there for free, or you can download the full text of any that interest you for US$1.00 a pop. To access Magazine Database Plus, type GO MDP at any CompuServe prompt. [Note: sadly, Magazine Database Plus went out of service in August 1999; I miss it a lot.]
My fourth secret weapon is being a couch potato. When you get tired of staring at your computer monitor, go look at your TV screen. The Learning Channel has several truly excellent science series that they repeat ad infinitum (PaleoWorld and The Practical Guide to the Universe are tremendous; Amazing Space isn't quite as good).
My fifth secret weapon is Richard Morris. Never heard of him? Well, he writes science-popularization books. He's not as famous as Carl Sagan or David Suzuki or Stephen Jay Gould, but he's better than all three of them combined. His slim, completely accessible books Cosmic Questions: Galactic Halos, Cold Dark Matter, and the End of Time (Wiley, New York, 1993) and The Edges of Science: Crossing the Boundary from Physics to Metaphysics (Prentice Hall, New York, 1990) will suggest enough story ideas to keep any hard-SF writer going for a decade or two.
Still, once you've read all the magazines and books, and watched Tom Selleck tell you about cosmic strings, nothing beats talking to a real scientist. Secret weapon number six is the knowledge that many scientists are SF fans. I've never had any scientist I approached refuse to help me. If you don't know any scientists personally, call up the public-relations office of your local university, museum, or science centre and let them find someone who you can talk to.
And when you do have your story or novel finished, ask the scientist if he or she will read it over to check for errors. I'd never met Dr. Robert W. Bussard (inventor of the Bussard ramjet starship) or Dr. Dale A. Russell (curator of dinosaurs at the Canadian Museum of Nature) when I asked them to look at the manuscripts for my novels Golden Fleece (which features one of Bussard's ramjets) or End of an Era (which is about dinosaurs), but both instantly agreed and provided invaluable feedback. Of course, when your story or book does see print, do be sure to send a free autographed copy to anyone who helped you out. But that's not a secret weapon . . . it's just the golden rule.
More Good ReadingA more-modern approach: How Rob did the research for his 2020 novel The Oppenheimer Alternative