[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
Hugo and Nebula Winner

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How I Did Research for
The Oppenheimer Alternative

Robert J. Sawyer

I have often said that I write my novels to support my research habit. Never has this been more true than in the case of my twenty-fourth novel, The Oppenheimer Alternative.

For my novels set in the future, no one can really gainsay my predictions until the calendar catches up with them. Likewise, when a reader remarked of Caitlin Decter, the main character of my WWW trilogy, "I don't think Caitlin would do that," I was able to truthfully rebut, "Actually, I am the world's foremost expert on Caitlin, and I can assure you she absolutely would have."

But for The Oppenheimer Alternative, in no way am I the world's foremost expert on its title character, the tortured physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, nor on any of the other physicists who people the novel's pages, including Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, I.I. Rabi, Kurt Gödel, or Richard Feynman. For most of them, definitive biographies have already been written and many of them gifted us with their autobiographies as well.

[The Oppenheimer Canadian Alternative Cover][The Oppenheimer Alternative US Cover]

So, the first thing I had to do was become extremely conversant with the existing nonfiction works about these storied personalities. I started with the major works — Richard Rhodes's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Making of the Atomic Bomb and Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin's American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, also a Pulitzer Prize winner.

But I knew I had to go way beyond just those two works. In total I ended up acquiring 133 books as research for my novel. Most I bought new (albeit as many as I could as ebooks — more on that in a moment), but a large number of the crucial titles are long out of print. I normally don't buy used books — as an author myself, I'm loath to do a colleague out of their well-deserved royalties — but in this case, there was little choice. [Click on any of the pictures below for a larger version.]

[Research Books]

For those, the great Canadian company AbeBooks, headquartered in Victoria, came to the rescue. Originally the "Advanced Book Exchange," AbeBooks is the go-to place on the Internet for used and collectible copies of out-of-print works (and, yes, you can find in-print work there, too); most used book listings on Amazon are taken from AbeBooks, and there's usually a better assortment to be found on the later.

I was an early adopter of ebook technology and do most of my reading that way, but for research purposes, getting ebooks is particularly helpful. I took all 100+ ebooks I'd purchased related to The Oppenheimer Alternative, stripped them of their digital-rights management, and used the free ebook-management software Calibre to convert them from their native format to plain text. (Actually, I don't use completely plain text. Calibre offers three different text-conversion options: plain, MarkDown, or Textile; I prefer Textile as it preserves as much of the original formatting information as possible.)

Note that I only did this with books I'd actually legally bought; please don't pirate or share in-copyright works. That said, if you're a researcher like me and need to strip off DRM for your personal use, get Calibre set up on your computer, then Google the words "Apprentice Alf" and all will be revealed.

I spent thousands of dollars on research materials for The Oppenheimer Alternative; the best of the books are listed in this bibliography, which also appears at the end of the novel.

Books that I had to acquire in hardcopy, of course, couldn't initially be searched electronically. I came to greatly appreciate a really well done index. Although electronic texts are easily searchable, a search for "Kitty" (J. Robert Oppenheimer's wife) will miss passages that refer to her as "Mrs. Oppenheimer" or simply "his wife," or happen to employ her rarely used full first name, "Katherine," but a proper index will flag all those passages under a single index heading.

One of the great many reasons I continue to use WordStar for DOS is that it has excellent cross-file search capabilities. I dumped all my text versions of ebooks into the same folder and used WordStar's ProFinder companion program (written by Jetson Industries for MicroPro, it shipped exclusively with WordStar versions 5.0, 5.5, 6.0, and 7.0) to search through them all in a matter of seconds.

One of the beauties of ProFinder is that it doesn't just search for the term you type in; rather, it also searches for any synonyms you've established for that term, by first consulting its plain-text USERSYN.PF file. If you search on the first term in a line, it'll search on all the others in that line, too. Using the example above, I'd established this synonym chain so that searching on Kitty would find all the other versions I mentioned above:

Kitty,Mrs. Oppenheimer,Mrs Oppenheimer,Oppie's wife,Oppenheimer's wife,his wife,Katherine

(Note that this finds her regardless of whether a reference spells her honorific the American way, with a period, or the British way, without.)

At each search, ProFinder lets you turn on or off the proffered synonyms, so if "his wife" was turning up too many false positives, I just turned it off when my search included books that weren't exclusively about J. Robert Oppenheimer. (Click the picture for a bigger version, if you like.)

[ProFinder Synonyms]

ProFinder allows for searches on up to three terms (including optional synonym chains for each), and shows you which files contain which ones. For instance, if I was looking for references to the original choice of target for the second atomic bombing, which was the city of Kokura, and also to Leo Szilard's petition against any use of the bomb, I could quickly find which works contained all the necessary terms, and look only in them. Selecting a work opened the file for viewing with the search terms highlighted and easy hot-key navigation between them; one more keystroke, and the file would be opened for editing inside WordStar itself.

[ProFinder Hits]

Some books I only had in print versions but needed to digitize so I could search inside them quickly. For those, I have two different workflows. If the book is one I still want to keep the print copy of, I use my CZUR Aura Book Scanner (I have the original model, which has been supplanted by the new Pro version). It scans books a double page at a time, and automatically compensates for the curvature of the pages in toward the spine, producing fully flat scans.

[CZUR Aura Scanner]

And for those books whose physical copies I'm willing to sacrifice, I cleave off their spines with my Flexzion Guillotine, which is specifically designed for that task.

[ProFinder Hits]

Then I dump the separated pages in batches of fifty sheets into the autofeeder of my Fujitsu SnapScan, which scans both sides of a sheet simultaneously. (I have SnapScan model S1500, which I acquired in 2014; there are even better models available now, of course.)

No matter which scanning method I used, I either then export to plain text or to PDF. If the latter, I then use the built in OCR function in the full Adobe Acrobat Professional product to overlay hidden searchable plain text on top of the scanned images. Acrobat Professional also lets you index a collection of PDFs for easy searching by keyword (although its search capabilities are nowhere near as sophisticated as those of ProFinder, written in 1988, has).

I also used Acrobat Professional's OCR abilities to produce searchable versions of graphic PDF documents found on the web, such as the scans of transcripts of Oppenheimer's security-clearance hearing.

I have a large collection of writerly reference works available on my hard drive, all of the available from a handy toolbar I created in my Windows taskbar. Many of these were originally CD-ROMs since turned into virtual discs, from back in the days when such things were easily available. Some of the dictionaries, including Merriam-Webster's 11th Collegiate and Unabridged can be subscribed to online, but I prefer the speed and many features of my disc-based versions (and I still keep a Windows XP system on hand to run the complete Oxford English Dictionary on CD-ROM (now virtualized), which won't run at all under later operating systems).

[Reference Menu]

Encyclopaedia Britannica, World Book Encyclopedia, and Encarta Encyclopedia haven't been available on CD-ROM for years, and so are not up to date, but they're still very useful for writing about historical figures and times.

Way down at the bottom of the menu above, you'll see that one of the thesauri is Microsoft Word for DOS 5.5 from 1990, which (as my colleague James Alan Gardner let me know) has one of the best electronic thesauruses ever produced (although the one in my beloved WordStar for DOS, licensed from Microlytics, is also excellent). And you'll see there are both the DOS and Windows versions of Stephen Glazier's famed book Word Menu; neither software version is still on the market, sadly.

Of course, I did lots of online research, too. My usual web browser is Google Chrome, but I also have Firefox installed on my computers with it set (via the extension LeechBlock) to only be able to access Wikipedia, and I have Firefox's default search engine (the one that's consulted when you type something in the address bar) also set to Wikipedia.

When I wanted to concentrate, I'd often shut off Chrome's access to the Internet (via the wonderful extension WasteNoTime), but this let me still refer to Wikipedia in Firefox no matter what degree of lockdown I'd done in Chrome without going down the rabbit hole of visiting other sites once I was online.

I populated Firefox's bookmarks bar with links to the entries I most often had to return to, editing the article names to short versions, so I could fit more of them on the bookmark bar: "Hearing" is the entry on the Oppenheimer security hearing; "Mars" is the subsection of the entry on the red planet about "early telescope observations;" "TMP" is the entry on the Manhattan Project; and so on:

[Wikipedia bookmarks]

Also of great assistance in my online researching: Pocket, a service that lets you save articles from all over the web for reading later, while letting you format them to your taste. Although there are some competing services, Pocket is my read-later service of choice because it not only lets me read articles on my computer and my phone but also on my Kobo Clara HD ebook reader. There's a free version of Pocket, but I pay for the premium version, which keeps the original versions of articles (your "permanent library," as Pocket calls it) and allows full-text searching of article contents. Here's a sampling of the articles I saved about Leo Szilard:

[Pockets articles]

The action in The Oppenheimer Alternative takes place over a period of thirty-one years, from 1936 to 1967. To help keep track of the relative ages of the characters, and who was still alive as the timeframe moved later, I created an Excel spreadsheet. Here's a portion of it:

[Ages spreadsheet]

I spent well over a year of full-time work researching The Oppenheimer Alternative, and am thrilled that the experts have given thumbs up to the results:

  • Gregory Benford, physicist at UC Irvine, says: "The feel and detail of the Manhattan Project figures is deep and well done. I knew many of these physicists, and Sawyer nails them accurately."

  • Perimeter Institute physicist Lee Smolin, the author of The Trouble with Physics, agrees: "I know the history of this period well and I'm one or two degrees of separation from many of these people. Sawyer's portrayals ring true to me."

  • And Dr. Doug Beason, former Associate Laboratory Director, Los Alamos National Laboratory, adds that "The Oppenheimer Alternative is incredibly realistic: the characters, locations, the era, and even the science. I felt like I was back in Los Alamos — and I should know: I worked there!"

I thoroughly enjoyed writing The Oppenheimer Alternative, in very large measure because its subject matter was such a meaty topic to dive into. Whatever I choose to write next will likely also take years, of which a large part will be doing research. And that makes me happy.

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