Science and technology are fundamental elements of many literary genres. Unfortunately, the depictions of these subjects in books and movies are entirely fiction.
A classic example of this is in the movie Avatar, when the character played by Sigourney Weaver uses a micropipette. These hand-held instruments are used in a laboratory to move tiny, precise amounts of liquid from one tube to another. They’re a vital—and expensive—piece of lab equipment.
There’s just one rule for using a micropipette: they must be held upright. If you turn a micropipette upside down, the liquid that it just picked up will get into the mechanism. And that’s exactly what Sigourney Weaver did while using a micropipette in Avatar. Amusingly, the makers of that micropipette, Eppendorf, even chided them about it on Twitter. The amount of lab equipment that’s irreparably destroyed on-screen would give university accountants a heart attack.
Space explosions are another trope with no basis in real-world science. Space is a vacuum, so spaceships (and death stars) don’t explode in massive fireballs (fire requires oxygen). Realistically, a spaceship that loses hull integrity would decompress and implode. Oh, and you wouldn’t hear an explosion either, because sound waves also can’t travel through space’s vacuum.
Researching Your Writing: Source Reliability
These are just a few of the misconceptions that pervade popular science fiction. Many, if not most, could have been avoided if the writers spent some time doing research. During this crucial phase, not all sources are created equal. Let’s take a brief tour of the various places you might get information, from most accurate to least.
The most scientifically accurate sources are the papers published in peer-reviewed journals, but these can be pretty dry for the casual reader. I personally read a lot of scientific reviews, which summarize the current state of knowledge about a topic while drawing on that literature. After that, textbooks and reference books tend to be very reliable information, though these (let’s be honest) are prohibitively expensive.
Science media aimed at a general audience—such as PBS, The Scientific American, and National Geographic—lose some of the nuance, but are much more accessible to non-technical readers. Curated websites like Wikipedia are nice resources for casual reading and research, and tend to be updated as new discoveries emerge. Still, these are written and maintained by the general public, so use with caution.
You’ll note that social media ranks as #997 in terms of scientific accuracy. Remember, social media companies are for-profit organizations. You don’t pay to use them, because you are the product. An increasing proportion of the “sources” you may encounter have paid to show up in your feed or search results. Simply put, anything served to you by a social media network should not be treated as factual information. Especially when you’re performing research that you plan to use for your own work.
How and Why to Ask an Expert
All of the things I’ve discussed so far are passive research sources—that is, materials you go find and read on your own. However, one of the best ways to research your writing is to ask a real-world expert. I do this all the time. For the past few years, I’ve hosted guest posts from numerous experts for my Science in Sci-fi, Fact in Fantasy blog series. If I need spaceship design advice, I can ask a Boeing engineer. If I need to know something about brains, I ask my go-to neuroscientist.
This works well for two reasons: first, because real-world experts are usually versed in the current state of the art for their field. They don’t just read those research papers; they write some of them. Second, most scientists, engineers, and other professionals love talking about their work. All you need to do is find one and approach them the right way.
If you’d like to ask an expert for advice, here are some tips to make sure it’s a pleasant experience for all parties involved:
- Do your homework. Give some thought to the technical subject in question (and how it applies to your story) before you start the conversation.
- Briefly provide some context. In a few sentences, summarize your story and how the technical element comes into play. This will help the expert understand what you’re looking for.
- Be considerate of their time. Experts don’t exist for the sole purpose of answering writers’ questions, so don’t monopolize their time. Keep your interaction polite, concise, and respectful.
- Recognize that you might need a different expert. People who work in medicine, science, and other technical fields tend to specialize. You might find out in the course of conversation that you need a different type of expert.
You’ll probably get far more information from your research than you can actually use in your writing. It’s up to you to select the most important elements to convey on the page, and to leave the rest out. If you have to choose between telling a great story and being technically accurate, go with the former. Story should come first.
If you enjoyed this post, I highly recommend Dan Koboldt’s Putting the Science in Fiction. It’s a collection of expert advice from scientists, engineers, medical professionals, tech experts and more, who debunk the myths, correct the misconceptions, and help writers create more realistic yet engaging stories to satisfy discerning readers.