Researching your novel (part 4: science)

Posted by on Aug 4, 2010 in Writers, Writing Resources | 8 comments

To continue on in the researching your novel series, I’m going to wrap it all up with an area close to my heart: science.  It’s often poorly researched in stories and film, and it’s often completely mis-portrayed.  I’ll try to keep the rant to a minimum.  Also, keep in mind that I teach an entire workshop on this subject, so this is very condensed.  Moving on…


Understanding Science

Science is broad, so simply labeling your character as a “scientist” is not enough to convince your savvy readers.  Specificity is key.

It gets worse. You probably know the scientific method – heck, we all had to learn that in school – but did you know that no one in science is allowed to prove a hypothesis? We’re only allowed to reject a null hypothesis and then say the data supports our alternative hypothesis.  Yeah, no proving anywhere.

And me oh my, how it gets ever more tangled! Have you heard of research proposals? NSF? Impact factors?

“Holy crow, Susan! Stop barraging me with your jargon!”

Well, here’s the thing: all this jargon is what science is built on, and to have the science of your novel seem real, you have to understand how the scientific community operates.  How science operates.

A Few Terms to Know:

I know it can be overwhelming.  There’s a reason scientists go to school for so long…


What to Research for Your Novel

First off, you need to select the time period you want your scientist to be from.  Are we talking Aristotle or Sagan?  If it’s historical science you’re delving into, the rules change.  Head here to look into researching a historical novel.

Next, you need to select a broad field of study.  Marine science?  Evolutionary biology?  Astronomy?  Now, you’re going to have to get even more specific.  Consider that a scientist typically attends university (4 years), a Masters program (2 years), a PhD program (5 years), and a few post-doctoral positions (3+ years) before finally settling in a place of work.  By that point, this scientist is pretty specialized in one itsy-bitsy aspect of  their field.

Example: my M.Sc. supervisor (40 years old) worked primarily with only one species of shark (Greenland sleeper shark), one aspect of its life (it’s diet), in one place in the world (Canadian Arctic), and with only three methods for analysis (pollutants, stable isotopes, and fatty acids).

So, when you see the scientists in movies who seem to know every aspect of science, know that it’s total bull s***.  (However, total bull s*** can often work well in stories…so…don’t let that scare you off from an all-knowing mad scientist.)

Next, where does your scientist work?  Is he/she a government employee?  A museum employee?  Or does he/she work in academia?  How about commercial labs?  Or, is he/she a lowly lab intern working for a summer job?  An M.Sc. student cramming in classes, lab work, field work, and teaching?  Lots of choices…

Now, let’s sort out what equipment this scientists needs.  They could be working in a lab on über expensive lab machines.  They could be at sea every other month recording catch records on fishing boats.  They could be sitting at a computer all day running data through advanced statistical models.  Or maybe they’re in a greenhouse working on their experiment.

You get the idea — the what quesiton is entirely dependent on the when, the field, and the where.

Finally, we need to figure out how a day-in-the-life for this character looks.  Needless to say, the typical day for a university archaeologist will be completely different from the pharmaceuticals employee.


Where to Research

  1. Ask a scientist.  This is the most straightforward approach, and probably the best way to get the answers you need.  Most scientists I know are friendly people.  They’ll be flattered you want to know more about what they do.  Prepare some questions to ask (e.g. what’s your research focused on?  where did you study?  do you work primarily in a lab or in the field?  what’s your average day look like?), and set up an appointment.  You can call, talk in person, or try to ask through email.  Just remember to thank the person profusely afterwards.
  2. Google.  Search for the scientist you’re interested in, and see what you can find.  Keep in mind, you might end up with a lot of jargon to sort through…  An example: I looked up algal biochemist.
  3. Museums.  If you’re near a natural history, archaeology, or astronomy museum, you might be able to find the info you need.  At the very least, you’ll learn a lot about the subject matter you’re interested in.
  4. Library.  We always end up at the library because that’s where you’ll find the broad (and maybe specific too) information for the field you’re interested in.  As always, ask the librarian for help!

A Few Sites to Peruse

  • A day in the life of various scientists — this is a really great intro to different scientific fields, different daily routines, and different research areas.
  • Web of Knowledge — this website is often available at libraries or university facilities (otherwise, it costs).  It’s a staple to many researchers, offering access to gazillions of peer review publications.
  • Google Scholar — an easy way to see the newest research in certain fields.  Keep in mind, you won’t be able to read most of the publications (they’re not usually free) and the terminology may be super advanced.  Nonetheless, it’ll give you an idea of the specific fields and research areas out there.
  • A Short History of Nearly Everything – This book is a fabulous introduction to natural history, physics, geology, evolution, and on and on.  It’s hilarious, well-written, and interesting to non-science-geeks (trust me, even my sister loved it, and she’s anti-science).
  • ME! — If you want to know anything about marine biology, fisheries, or ecological modeling, then ask away.  I’ll give it a shot.

Final note

Scientists are scientists because they’re passionate people.  Why else would we devote so much of our lives to studying one thing?  Scientists aren’t just boring dudes in lab coats or all-knowing kooks.

Scientists can be pretty cool people who have a lot to say, have experienced some really unusual stuff, and know how to party.  So now is your chance to break the mold and write a story with science that’s accurate and science that’s sexy.  If Carl Sagan can do it in Contact, then so can you.

-S.

  • http://www.iantregillis.com Ian

    So, when you see the scientists in movies who seem to know every aspect of science, know that it’s total bull s***.

    This is one of my biggest pet peeves on TV and in the movies. I think in general there’s a perception that scientists don’t perform research according to the scientific method, but rather they perform FEATS OF SCIENCE. (We scienticians are skilled in many forms of scientry.)

    [Reply]

    Susan Reply:

    Scienticians…scientry… Hahahaha. Your comments always make me laugh.

    And yeah, I don’t know how many times I’ve screamed at the show The Fringe. Have you ever seen it? It’s infuriating. I don’t mind stepping outside the lines of real science — I can suspend disbelief for a good yarn — but I CANNOT accept how the show’s scientist “conducts” science and postulate theories and knows physics/immunology/medicine/chemistry/neurology/every-ology and does it all without a single Kimwipe in sight.

    [Reply]

  • http://www.iantregillis.com Ian

    I bailed on Fringe halfway through the 1st season, mostly because of scheduling. As much as I like John Noble’s acting, I couldn’t stick with it.

    My favorite example of egregious television science is an episode of Sliders (the last I ever watched), wherein the resident string theorist synthesizes an antibiotic. Because science is all about application, right? String theory, microbiology, at heart they’re just different aspects of the same thing. Like you, I’ll put up with a lot for the sake of a good story… but sometimes I fail.

    [Reply]

  • Sue

    So the Professor in Gilligan’s Island wasn’t a realistic scientist?

    [Reply]

    Susan Reply:

    Hahaha…not quite. Although, I forgive that professor because he’s just so cool…

    [Reply]

  • http://www.iantregillis.com Ian

    I always figured the Professor was like the George Washington Carver of coconuts. We never actually find out what his research specialty was prior to the ill-fated three-hour cruise. So, it’s possible he did many years of research on possible uses of the coconut, which just happened to serve him well on the island.

    [Reply]

    Susan Reply:

    I just tried to explain to my French husband who the Professor was…and then I tried to explain Gilligan’s Island. It didn’t translate well.

    And ya know, I just wikipedia-ed the Professor. Turns out he was supposed to be a high school science teacher who specialized in botany. Er… Okay.

    [Reply]

  • http://www.iantregillis.com Ian

    My high school never offered a class on coconut botany. Damn the luck!

    I vaguely recall that in the later TV movies wherein the castaways are rescued from the island (with the help of the Harlem Globetrotters, iirc), the Professor actually becomes a university professor. Or he hangs out on a campus, at any rate.

    [Reply]

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