Writing Tips: Some Science Facts for Better Sci-Fi

Hi all!

Welcome to sci-fi month!  We’re starting out with some science knowledge from our resident biochemist, Leandra Ranger, to help make your sci-fi stories more realistic.

Happy Writing!

Leandra and Gwen

On Discovering New Elements (and a bit on Radiation):  If you want your characters to discover unknown elements, you should first be aware of what makes an element unique.  Elements are composed of positively-charged particles (protons), negatively-charged particles (electrons), and neutrally-charged particles (neutrons).  The number of protons in the atom determines which element it is.  If you look at the periodic table, the number on the top of each block gives the proton number for that element.  We have discovered every element with 118 protons or less, and anything above that is likely to be highly unstable (as a side note, one type of radiation occurs when an atom ejects a proton that can then interact with other atoms-like ours!) and would quickly decompose into another element. If this doesn’t suit your story, your characters could develop a rare isotope (when atoms have different numbers of neutrons, causing them to have different weights; some combinations are more stable than others) or an ion (which is a charged particle that forms when atoms lose or gain electrons; lost electrons generate a positive care equal to the number of electrons lost; same but negative for gained electrons).    

On  the Genetic Code:  The genetic code is weird, guys.  Most of the code (called introns) does not have any affect on us physically (that we know of-this may be a good place to start a story!).  Of what does (extrons), a lot of it still remains a mystery.  What we do know is that changing it around can have unpredictable effects.  What does this mean for your story?  Well, if you have a character who is messing with code, having knowledge of how to cause one effect does not necessarily mean they know how to cause similar effects.  This is especially true as the effects get more complicated.  For example, just because a character knows how to splice avian DNA into human DNA to give humans advanced vision does not mean that he can give them wings.  Additionally, there is a good possibility that this addition will have negative health effects.  

On Brain Use:  There is a common Hollywood trope that humans only use 10% of their brains and that unlocking the other 90% will grant powers.  Unfortunately, this is completely false.  We do use all of our brains.  The rumor likely came from an (old and possibly outdated) paper that states that much of the brain is made of a certain cell whose function we did not quite understand, but that definitely does something. (Thanks Avery Grey, who will be guest writing for us in a couple of weeks, for this tidbit!)  

On Sound in Space:  As some of you may know, there is no sound in space.  Sound, which is a wave like those in the ocean, needs a medium (normally, air) to travel through (like ocean waves travel in water).  Without a medium, sound cannot travel, our airs cannot pick up the nonexistent vibrations, and we cannot hear.  Of course, inside a space helmet, with trapped air, we can hear, and radios can work, but, if there is no atmosphere, sound will not be travel.  


Research Tips:  So how should you further your scientific knowledge beyond the basics here and in your high school classes?  Firstly, find a scientist friend and ask them!  Keep in mind that science is a wide field and they will not be an expert on everything, but they can give you a place to start.  If you want, you can also contact me by either commenting on this post with your questions or using the form under the “Contact Us” tab.  Also, libraries may have old textbooks you can look in for free for more basics (though they may be outdated).  From there, you can use Google Scholar to look up scientific papers.  Normally, the abstracts are free and provide excellent summaries of the information found at a bit of a more layman-friendly level.  

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