Are Scientific Papers Worth Reading?

Hello, friends!

So over the course of the last few months, I’ve been learning about metascience.  I’ve been reading lots of metascientific articles and papers, and I’ve been watching a few metascientific lectures on YouTube.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with the concept, metascience is the scientific study of science itself, for the specific purpose of identifying fraud, correcting errors in the scientific process, and making science overall a more accurate and trustworthy thing.

Before I go any further with this topic, I think it’s extra important for you to understand who I am and what my perspective on science (and metascience) is.  I am not a scientist.  I have no professional or educational background in science.  What I am is a science fiction writer who wants to do his research so that science (as I portray it in my fiction) is accurate.  Well, somewhat accurate, or at least somewhat plausible.  At the very least, I want to make sure the science in my stories is not laughably implausible.

In order to do my research (as a science fiction writer), I have challenged myself to read peer-reviewed scientific papers.  I try to read at least one peer-reviewed paper each week.  As you can imagine, this is not easy.  These papers are packed full of jargon (some papers define their own jargon; most do not) and a whole lot of math (the kind of math where you see more of the Greek alphabet than Arabic numbers).

And now I learn, thanks to metascience, that the peer-review process is deeply flawed, and that science has way more problems than I ever realized.  There’s a lot of fraud going on, and also a lot of laziness and complacency, and scientists are not double checking each other’s work the way that they should.  That last problem—scientists not double checking each other’s work—is commonly known as the replication crisis.  It’s a problem which this article from Vox.com calls “an ongoing rot in the scientific process.”

No branch of science is immune to these problems, but I can take some solace in the fact that some branches of science seem to be more afflicted with problems than others.  Fields like medical science, computer science, and engineering (i.e.: the big money-maker sciences) are far more prone to fraud than fields like cosmology, astrophysics, or planetary science (i.e.: fields that I, as a science fiction writer, take the most interest in).  But still, as I said, no branch of science is immune.  Lazy and/or biased and/or unscrupulous researchers are everywhere.

And yet, despite some very valid concerns, I intend to keep reading these peer reviewed papers.  Why?  Because my alternative would be to get most of my science news and information from the popular press.  When it comes to science, the popular press has an annoying tendency to dumb things down, to gloss over boring (but important) details, and to hype up hypotheses that are the most likely to attract clicks and views but are the least likely to actually be true.  If I wrote my Sci-Fi based solely on what I read in the popular press, the science in my fiction would be laughably implausible.

I’d rather struggle through reading a peer-reviewed paper once a week.  Those papers may not be perfect, but reading them will get me much closer to the truth than relying on any other source of information currently available to me.

WANT TO LEARN MORE?

If you’d like to learn more about metascience and the replication crisis, I suggest checking out some of the links below.  These links are organized from “easiest and most accessible” at the top to “most technical” at the bottom.

How to Make Me Absolutely, Positively, Unambiguously LOVE Your Story

Hello, friends!

So as part of my writing recovery plan, I’ve been re-reading and re-watching some of my favorite Sci-Fi books and films.  The point of this is to remind myself why I wanted to be a Sci-Fi writer in the first place.

Last weekend, I re-watched 2001: A Space Odyssey.  I like that movie.  I like that movie a lot.  But I don’t love it.  Not in the way that I absolutely, positively, unambiguously LOVE Star Wars, or Alien, or The Martian.  And that’s got me wondering: what differentiates a story that I, personally, love from a story that I merely like?

Obviously this is a subjective thing, but still there must be a pattern to my preferences.  And now I think I’ve finally figured out what that pattern is:

  • First off, a story needs good world building.  There must be enough vivid detail (and also enough internal consistency) that I can picture myself actually living in the story world.
  • Next, I have to feel like I really know the protagonist.  I have to feel like know her or him well enough that we could be best friends.
  • And lastly, there needs to be a serious threat: something big enough and scary enough that I feel genuinely frightened, either because this fictional world I now live in is threatened or because my new best friend is in danger.

Again, obviously, this is a subjective thing.  But if you are telling me, J.S. Pailly, a story and if you want me, J.S. Pailly, to absolutely love your story, then you need to nail all three of those bullet points above.  Witty dialogue, clever plot twists, hyper realistic science, insightful allegories about modern life—I’m happy to see those things in a story, too; but the three bullet points above are what really matter to me, personally.

In the case of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the world building is excellent.  Just change the title to 2061, and I can totally believe this is what the near future will look like.  As for having a serious threat, well… I really, really, really would not want to be trapped alone on a spaceship with HAL.  Would you?  Where 2001 falls short for me is its protagonist.  We never learn much about Dr. David Bowman—certainly not enough to make me feel like I’m B.F.F.s with him.

Looking at other movies that fall just a little bit short for me: the villain in The Fifth Element doesn’t scare me much, and the world building in Gattaca has always felt a bit flat to me.  Each of these films ticks only two out of three of my boxes, and thus I like them—I like them a whole lot, in fact!  But I don’t quite love them.

But of course, different people come to a story wanting and expecting different things.  I’ve told you which buttons a story has to push in order to make me absolutely, positively, unambiguously love it.  What about you?  What differentiates the stories you love from the stories you merely like?

Sharing Some Science Love

Hello, friends!

You know, spending time on the Internet can be a truly disheartening experience.  But there are good things on the Internet too.  For me, I love finding and interacting with other people who share my enthusiasm for science (and also science fiction).  So today, I’d like to spread some of that science love around.  Here are a few of my favorite science or science related posts that I’ve seen in the last week or so:

First up, Fran from My Hubble Abode has a great post about the history of the Crab Nebula.  I’ve found that the best way to learn about science is to learn about the history of science: to learn the stories about how we figured all this science stuff out.  Turns out the Crab Nebula played a much bigger role in the history of science than I thought.  Click here to learn more!

Next, I’ve mentioned before that I’m a bit of stamp collector.  Well, Stamp of the Day recently shared a neat stamp from Germany commemorating Weltraumlabor (Spacelab), which was a joint project between NASA and the ESA back in the 1980’s and 1990’s.  Click here to check it out!

And Twinspiration has a cool post called “6 Space Activities for Children.”  I think some of these activities could be fun for adults too, especially if you’re stuck at home in these COVID-ful times.  Anyway, if you’re looking for fun ways to teach your kids (or yourself) about space, click here!

Lastly, on a more serious note, speculative fiction author Del Sandeen recently wrote a thought provoking article for Uncanny Magazine about the Black Lives Matter and Black Voices Matter movements.  For anyone who wants to see more representation and more diversity in science fiction and fantasy, this article is well worth a read.  Click here!

If you enjoy any of these articles/blog posts, please be sure to leave a comment letting the author know.  And if you have some science you’d like to share, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below!

Until next time, keep it sciency, my friends!

I’m Escaping from Prison. Want to Join Me?

Hello, friends!

For this first blog post of 2020, I’d like to share a quote from one of the greatest authors of all time.  As you know, lots of people take a pretty dim view of fantasy and science fiction, and they take an even dimmer view of those of us who enjoy those genres.  J.R.R. Tolkien had the perfect response for those people:

Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home?  Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?

J.R.R. Tolkien

Of course Tolkien found his escape in a world of Hobbits and magical rings.  Me?  I find my escape in outer space.  Here on Earth, we humans have created a world of money and politics, of materialism and egotism and self-centered posturing, of winning and losing and grinding each other into the dust.

Okay, maybe it’s not all bad.  There are pleasant things about this world we humans have made for ourselves too.  But still, can you really blame me if, from time to time, I choose to think about or talk about or write about what it would be like to get the heck off this planet?

I know some people will still judge me for my love of science fiction and my obsession with space exploration.  They’ll call me foolish or childish.  That’s fine.  People can say what they like.  I intend to keep dreaming and keep wondering and keep exploring the universe in my own semi-imaginative way.

And friends, you are welcome to join me on this adventure, if you want.  All you have to do is click the subscribe button!

Next time on Planet Pailly: why can’t scientists agree on what the word metal means?

Origin Stories: The Hype About Hyperspace

Hello, friends!  Welcome to another episode of Origin Stories, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we trace the origins of popular concepts in science fiction.  Today on Origin Stories, we’re making the jump into:

HYPERSPACE

As you know, nothing can travel faster than light.  Or it least, not in our universe.  But what if there were another universe next door to our own where the laws of physics were different, where faster-than-light travel were possible.  Wouldn’t that be convenient?

At least that’s how the concept of hyperspace was first explained to me.  I can’t remember if I picked that up from a Star Wars novel or an episode of Babylon 5.  Either way, I remember having an instant dislike for this idea.  It’s always seemed to me to be a little too convenient.

But then I started researching this post and learned that hyperspace is—or at least used to be—a much more interesting concept.  Let me explain by telling you a story:

Once upon a time, there was a happy little square living in a two-dimensional world with all his two-dimensional friends.  Then one day, this square met a rather extraordinary circle, a circle that had strange and mysterious powers.  The circle could grow larger or smaller at will, expanding out to a certain radius or shrinking down until it completely disappeared!

“What are you?” the square asked in awe.

In a booming, god-like voice, the circle answered: “I am a sphere.  As I pass through the two-dimensional plane of your realm, you perceive two-dimensional cross sections of my three dimensional form.”

This is the story of Flatland, by Edwin Abbott, published in 1884.  Or at least that’s part of the story of Flatland.  Our protagonist square also encounters one-dimensional beings living in a one-dimensional world (Lineland) before learning about the world of three dimensions (Spaceland) from the sphere.

Flatland was one of many books published in the late 1800’s toying with other dimensions.  Another is, of course, The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, which postulates that time might be the fourth dimension.  But other writers assumed the fourth dimension would simply be another spatial dimension.  And just as the protagonist of Flatland struggled to understand the third dimension, we humans, as three-dimensional beings, can never fully comprehend the fourth dimension.

A linguistic convention soon emerged.  If you wanted to talk about a four-dimensional sphere, you’d call it a hyper-sphere.  If you wanted to talk about a four-dimensional pyramid, that would be a hyper-pyramid, and a four-dimensional cube would be a hyper-cube (or a tesseract, as Charles Howard Higgins proposed calling hyper-cubes in 1888).  And where would all these hyper-shapes exist?  Why, in hyper-space!  Where else?

According to Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, it would still take a while for hyperspace to make the jump from mathematics and philosophy into the pages of science fiction.  Initially, the term seems to have retained its esoteric, philosophical sense of a world beyond our limited human perception.

Are we not justified in supposing, […] that the boundary lines of space and hyper-space may not be so rigidly drawn as we have supposed?

“Invisible Bubble” by K. Meadowcraft, 1928.

But Sci-Fi writers quickly started exploiting hyperspace as a plot device to allow faster-than-light travel.

Well, in this hyperspace we are creating, matter cannot exist at a velocity lower than a certain quantity […].

“Islands of Space” by J.W. Campbell, 1931.

Speeds, a mathematician would hasten to add, as measured in the ordinary space that the vessel went around; both acceleration and velocity being quite moderate in the hyperspace it really went through.

“Legion of Space” by J. Williamson, 1934.

I’m still not a big fan of hyperspace, or at least I’m not a fan of consequence-free hyperspace.  If you’re going to pop out of normal space—whether you’re entering another universe where the laws of physics are different or you’re taking some sort of four-dimensional shortcut—I feel like there should be some side effects, either for you or your spacecraft (or both).  Otherwise, hyperspace just seems a little too easy, a little too convenient.

At least that’s how I feel about it.  But what do you think?  Am I being too picky?  Am I overthinking things?  Or do you also roll your eyes whenever hyperspace comes up in science fiction?

The Carbon Chauvinist

Professor Kessler had precious little patience for this new generation of young people.  They were obsessed with their implants, obsessed with their ridiculous bio-augmentations. Those projector lenses were constantly shining in their eyes, and those little audio dots were always clipped to their ears.  Who knew what they were actually looking at at any given moment?  Who knew what they were actually listening to?  Even in class, you could never be sure.

“Eh-hmm…” Kessler grumbled, standing in front of his blackboard.  Kessler had refused—adamantly refused—to let them install holographics in his classroom.

“Hmm… eh-hmmm…” Kessler tried again. Finally, the last two students stopped talking and took their seats.  But Kessler knew they’d probably keep pinging each other over Lin-Q or Alphazed or whatever the latest fad communications service happened to be.

Kessler turned, picking up a piece of chalk, and started writing on the board: Earth, Corillistrad, Delte Majoris…

“This is Galactic Political History 101,” Kessler said, continuing to write planet names on the blackboard.  “As some of you must surely be aware, there are billions upon billions of planets out there.  The galaxy is unimaginably vast.  And yet at the same time, you will find that the galaxy is also quite small.  Yes, quite small indeed.”

Kessler finished writing—there were only fourteen planets on his list—and turned his attention back to the room full of students.

“Write these names down.  Memorize them.  These are the only planets with oxygen atmospheres.  These are the only planets where complex, intelligent life can exist.  The entirety of galactic civilization lives on or near one of these fourteen planets, and thus out of the many billions of worlds in the cosmos, only these fourteen planets are of any real importance.”

To Professor Kessler’s surprise, a hand went up.

“Hmm… yes?  Yes, what’s your question, young man?”

“What about chlorine?”

“Yes… what about it?”

The young man laughed awkwardly. “Well, I mean, there are planets with chlorine atmospheres too, aren’t there?  And there’s life on those planets, and a lot of important stuff must be happening there, right?  With the chlorine breathers, I mean.  Wouldn’t that be part of galactic political history too?”

Kessler grimaced a smile.  “Quite.  Well, wouldn’t that make things interesting!  There certainly are some… things on those chlorine worlds.  Very strange things.  The result of a peculiar form of inorganic chemistry, or so I’m told.  But are those things truly alive?  Does inorganic life truly qualify as life?  Well, if you ask me…” Kessler chuckled “… I don’t think it does.”

There was an audible gasp from the whole class.

“Is it okay for him to say that?” someone whispered nervously.

Kessler shook his head and turned back to his blackboard.  Young people. There must be some discussion thread going around—something on Nova-Net or Techu-Techu or one of the other activist platforms.  This whole generation of young people gobbled up that sort of nonsense about alternative forms of life.

Fourteen planets.  There were only fourteen planets in the whole galaxy that were worth talking about, and that was the lesson plan Professor Kessler intended to stick to.

Origin Stories: Who Invented Science Fiction?

Welcome to Origin Stories, a new special series here on Planet Pailly where we take a closer look at the origins of popular Sci-Fi concepts.  For this inaugural episode of Origin Stories, we’re going to get kind of meta and look at the origins of:

SCIENCE FICTION

Many people will tell you that Mary Shelley was the first science fiction writer.  When Shelley wrote Frankenstein, she took much of her inspiration from the recent discovery of galvanism: the discovery that electricity can stimulate muscles contractions, even in dead animals.

When people label Shelley as the first science fiction writer, a lot depends on what you mean by science fiction.  If science fiction means fiction inspired by contemporary science, fiction that extrapolates from contemporary science to build its plot, then yes: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (published in 1818) is the earliest clear example of that.

But does that mean Shelley invented the whole science fiction genre?  I’m not so sure.  I don’t feel like Frankenstein is truly a genre-defining work.  I mean, I wouldn’t look at Dune or Star Trek and say, “Oh yes, this is just like Frankenstein!”

In 1926, Hugo Gernsback launched a new magazine called Amazing Stories.  In this editorial from the first issue of Amazing Stories, Gernsback explains that he wanted his new magazine to focus on “the scientific type of story” or “scientifiction,” as Gernsback wanted us to call it (not sure if that’s pronounced scienti-fiction or scientific-tion).

Gernsback defined scientifiction as “a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision,” and he cited Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe as the great luminaries of the genre. To quote from this paper published in Science-Fiction Studies:

While the importance of Hugo Gernsback in SF may be debated, critics of all schools can accept him as the first person to create and announce something resembling a history of SF.  Some critics before Gernsback discussed earlier works now seen as SF, but they did not treat SF as a separate category and did not distinguish its texts from other forms of non-mimetic fiction […]

If someone were to ask who invented science fiction, I don’t think I could give credit to just one person.  Mary Shelley wrote what we now recognize as the first science fiction novel; Hugo Gernsback was the first to identify science fiction as its own distinct genre.  Any origin story for science fiction would be incomplete without mentioning those two names, at least!

But there were many other writers writing science-inspired tales between 1818 and 1926.  Science fiction was not invented all at once; it grew and evolved slowly through the 19th and early 20th Centuries.  Which is a good thing for me!  It means we’ll have plenty more to talk about in future episodes of Origin Stories!

P.S.: Special thanks to @MaxN2100 over on Twitter for suggesting I do a series like Sciency Words, but with Sci-Fi concepts. Now you know the origin story of this Origin Stories series!

Where Science Meets Fiction

We like to keep things separate.  We like to separate church and state, fantasy and reality, the left brain and the right.  But Science Fiction is a special case.  It’s one of the rare places where we allow two seemingly different subjects to mingle: science and art.

We live in a society where science is becoming increasingly important.  We know about atoms.  We talk about our genes.  We worry about germs and energy and the environment.  These are parts of our everyday world where, only a century ago, they were strange, alien concepts only an educated minority understood.

It’s only a matter of time before we add things like space travel or artificial intelligence to that list of everyday experiences.  There’s increasing evidence of bacterial life on Mars, and scientists are starting to suspect life may exist on some of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn.  We may soon learn that we are not alone in the Solar System, and that will cause a huge change in the way we think about ourselves.

Science Fiction has turned scientific language into a form of artistic expression.  It gives voice to our hopes and fears for tomorrow.  This is only natural given how much science has penetrated our daily lives.  Art is, after all, a reflection of the culture we live in.

Ultimately, that is what this blog is about: science and art blending together.  The line that separates them is slowly disappearing, and in the future what we call Science Fiction won’t be Science Fiction anymore; it will just be fiction.