Today’s post is about a personal revelation I recently had.  You see, I spend a lot of time researching for this blog, making sure I understand what I’m talking about, and doing my best to explain it all clearly and concisely.  And all this work, in theory, is supposed to benefit my science fiction writing.

But I don’t want to write hard Sci-Fi.  I used to think science fiction existed on a spectrum from hard science fiction, where everything is super scientifically accurate (and here’s a full chapter explaining the math to prove it), to soft science fiction, where everything’s basically space wizards and technobabble magic (lol, who cares if unobtainium crystals make sense?).

I’ve since discovered another way to think about science fiction, and I find that to be more useful.  But sometimes I’m still left wondering why am I doing all this extra work?  What’s it all for if I’m not trying to write hard Sci-Fi?

Recently, I was talking with a new friend, and somehow the conversation turned to quantum physics.  I swear I wasn’t the one who brought it up!  My friend had seen a video on YouTube, and I felt the need to disillusion him of the weird quantum mysticism he’d apparently been exposed to.  I was doing my best to explain what the Heisenberg uncertainty principle actually means, and I ended up digging into what I remembered about the math.

Mathematically speaking, the momentum of a quantum particle is represented by the variable p, its position by the variable q, and the relationship between p and q is often expressed as:

pq ≠ qp

I don’t have the math skills to explain how this non-equivalency equation works.  I think it has something to do with matrices.  My high school math teacher skipped that chapter. To this day, I still haven’t got a clue how a matrix works.  I just know it’s an important concept in quantum theory.

But by this point, my friend was staring at me with a sort of dumbstruck awe, and he said: “Wow, you really do understand this stuff!”

That brought me up short.

“No, not really,” I said, feeling slightly embarrassed. I couldn’t help but recollect the famous line attributed to Richard Feynman: If you think you understand quantum theory, you don’t understand quantum theory.

So I told my friend about this blog and about my writing, and how I use the research I do for my blog to flesh out the story worlds in my science fiction.  And then I said something that I don’t remember ever thinking before or being consciously aware of, but as soon as the words were out of my mouth I knew they were true: “I just want to make sure I know enough so that I don’t make a total fool of myself in my stories.”

And that’s it.  That’s the answer I needed.  I’m okay with stretching the truth if it suits my story.  I’m okay with leaving some scientific inaccuracies in there.  I just don’t want to make a mistake so glaringly obvious to my readers (some of whom know way more about science than I do) that it ruins the believability of my story world.

And now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to writing.  The fiction kind of writing, I mean.  And on Wednesday, we’ll have story time here on the blog.

### 15 responses »

1. Steve Morris says:

Story time, yay! (BTW, physicists say that p and q do not commute, which means that if you measure p and q you get a different answer depending on which you measure first, and that this is a fundamental fact, not a limitation of any measuring equipment. It follows from the Schrödinger equation. You probably knew that.)

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• J.S. Pailly says:

That all does sound familiar to me. I have to admit, my memory about this subject is a bit fuzzy. It’s been a while since I really read up on quantum theory. It’s probably time I did a refresher course on it.

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2. I think there’s also something to be said for a sci-fi writer having a love of science, which I have to admit powers my own research more than story prep.

On making mistakes, I’m resigned to the fact that those are going to happen. As I’ve learned more science, I’ve increasingly caught published sci-fi writers making those mistakes. But since their sales don’t appear to have taken any hits, it appears that as long as the mistakes aren’t basic ones, it’s okay.

Although I’m sure those authors hear about them anyway. Actually, I suspect when sci-fi fans catch an author in an obscure error, it makes them feel smart, which is why they probably continue reading that author.

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• J.S. Pailly says:

Yeah, it’s those basic mistakes that I really want to avoid. I also don’t want to reinforce popular misconceptions about science, so I want to make sure I don’t fall for those misconceptions myself. But I tend to fall into the trap of trying to be a perfectionist, and I need to stop doing that.

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3. I found myself coming here to find a post that sparked an idea a few weeks back, just to make sure I got the science right. What ever your reasons, I’m glad you write this blog!

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• J.S. Pailly says:

Thanks! I guess I just get too caught up in worrying about how readers might judge my work. Honestly, that’s the biggest thing that’s holding me back as a writer, I think. It’s time for me to get over that fear.

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• Right there with you; it’s an awakening I’m having myself. I used to pore over sentences and ask myself if it sounded “right,” like “Will people be fooled into thinking I’m a real writer if I say it THIS way?”

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• J.S. Pailly says:

Yup. That sounds like me too. What will the writerly people think? What will the sciency people think? Those sorts of questions keep popping into my head, interrupting the flow of what I’m trying to do.

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• I think most writerly people probably read other people’s stuff and are intimidated and discouraged by it.

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5. kutukamus says:

Really, pq ≠ qp sure sounds/looks like the [ever-changing] relationship between [the same] two people. Then again, even the mere name quantum scares me. 🙂

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• J.S. Pailly says:

I think I get what you’re saying. I love the elegant simplicity of pq ≠ qp, which is probably why that equation sticks in my head.

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6. “I just want to make sure I know enough so that I don’t make a total fool of myself in my stories.”

That hits the nail on the head, all right. Sometimes it’s a balance between serious science and good storytelling (usually using the good storytelling to offset the lacks in science), and the successful stories strike that balance well–the reason why over-the-top adventure dramas like the Star Wars and superhero movies can get away with so much.

A writer can be good with science, or not so good; but their primary job is to be a storyteller, and they have to make sure their knowledge of science (or any subject, for that matter) doesn’t throw the reader out of their story.

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• J.S. Pailly says:

I’ve been told many times over that most readers won’t know the difference and don’t really care about scientific accuracy in science fiction. I guess that might be true for a general audience, but I’m pretty sure avid science fiction readers are a little more scientifically literate than most people.

So I think it’s a matter of knowing your audience. You don’t want your readers to lose their suspension of disbelief. With Sci-Fi readers, that means getting the science right, or at least not making a total mess of it.

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