My First Scientific Paper

As a follow-up to yesterday’s post on how to read a scientific paper, I wanted to share the story of my first attempt to read such a paper myself. I was doing research in preparation for the 2015 Mission to the Solar System, and I’d found a paper titled “Thermal Stability of Volatiles in the North Polar Region of Mercury.”

I was under the impression this paper was sort of a big deal as far as Mercury exploration is concerned, so I felt I ought to read it. Previously I’d only read the abstracts of papers, and occasionally the conclusions. I’d never before tried to read a scientific paper in full.

It didn’t go well. Not at first. The paper was only four pages long, but it felt like forty and may as well have been four hundred. I was particularly confused by the usage of the word volatile, as in volatile chemicals. I thought I knew what that meant. Turned out I was wrong, and it took awhile for me to figure out what volatiles really are.

I must’ve read the paper straight through three or four times before something in my brain clicked. And then…

I got it! I actually got it! NASA had found water (a volatile) on Mercury! I’d already learned about this from another source, but the fact hit me with a new weight. Suddenly I not only knew about Mercury’s water, but I also knew where the water was located (frozen inside dark polar craters), why it hadn’t melted or sublimated away (at the poles, crater rims shield it from sunlight), and how NASA had found it (by bouncing radio waves off the ice sheets).

Maybe this will sound silly, but reading that “Thermal Stability” paper was a life-altering experience for me. I’ll never forget that moment of revelation when all that sciency stuff started making sense. For the first time, Mercury felt like a real place to me. For the first time, I “got” how NASA does what it does.

And most importantly, I learned that even though I’m just a science fiction writer and don’t have any kind of scientific degrees, I can still read and comprehend scientific publications. Which means I can bypass the unreliable science reporting I saw on T.V. or the Internet and go straight to the source for my scientific knowledge.

9 thoughts on “My First Scientific Paper

  1. Some papers are easier (better written) than others, and it helps if you become familiar with the field. Gosh, I haven’t read a real scientific paper (excluding computing stuff, which isn’t real science) in about twenty years, so I salute you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I do a lot better at this point with space-related papers. I already know most of the terminology, and I’m familiar with the key concepts. But with any other topic it’s like I’m starting all over again.


  2. I had a similar moment recently when I was looking at a neuroscience paper and realized I was actually able to mostly follow it. Apparently all that neuroscience reading is starting to pay off.

    (On the other hand, a while back I tried to read a paper about Kerr black holes and had to slink away in utter defeat.)

    So I agree with Steve that there is a lot of variance in papers. Some authors are interested in clarity and actually try to minimize the inside-baseball jargon. Others seem like they’re attempting to write in code so that only intended parties will be able to parse their verbiage.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have a hard time getting people to understand just how much fun these papers can be. It is a really, really good feeling when you suddenly decode all that scientific jargon and understand it.

      But yeah, there are some papers that are harder to get through than others. I recently suffered through a very math heavy paper, with a lot of math-related terms that required even more math to understand. I still felt like I got something out of that paper, but not as much as I’d have liked.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Most scientific articles are nearly unreadable. Go right to the summary and conclusions part and concentrate on those. The rest of the paper is merely an attempt to demonstrate that they did the experiment correctly. I don’t even bother to read the math.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Basically, yeah. I guess I still find it useful to know how the experiment was done. And a lot of times, if I read the whole paper, I pick up surprising little tidbits of information that I can use in stories.


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