Any science fiction writer who tries their hand at hard science fiction usually ends up doing some back-of-the-envelope calculating and figuring. It comes with the territory. Having a background in astronomy or physics often helps. It can be fun, calculating the acceleration of a spacecraft, figuring how long it will take to get from point A to point B. But for someone like me, who is mostly self-taught in these disciplines, the figuring and calculating don’t always come naturally and I get itching just to write. Still, I want the stories to ring true even to those who do have science backgrounds, so there is a balance that I have to strike: time spent on the research and calculating and time spent writing.
That’s where WolframAlpha comes in. For those who don’t know, WolframAlpha is a computational knowledge engine based on the technology developed in Mathematica. Since it was released more than two years ago, I find myself using it more and more in place of those stray envelopes. It comes in hands for a number of reasons:
- It contains a vast database of useful information that I can embed in my queries
- It can take that information and compute it various ways
- It produces, neat, clean output that is useful
- It is less prone to making a calculation error than I am
- It speeds the process so I can get the answer I’m looking for and get back to writing
I thought it might be interesting to some people to see how I’ve been using WolframAlpha in the context of my current work in progress, “Rescue”. The story is best classified as a hard-science space opera and part of the story involves spacecrafts traveling out to the trans-Neptunian object Pluto and back to Earth (or in the close vicinity of Earth). The story takes place several centuries in the future and the first thing I needed to know was when Pluto would be at one of it’s closest approaches to Earth since the distance from Earth to Pluto can vary enormously over the course of its centuries-long orbit. So I turned to WolframAlpha and asked the following question:
What is the distance from Earth to Pluto?
WolframAlpha produces a lot of information, but the information I most cared about was the orbital properties (and in particular the nearest distance from orbit center):
Next, I needed to find a time when Pluto’s was at one of it’s closest points to Earth, but several centuries in the future. After a few hits and misses of asking, I finally came up with this question to ask WolframAlpha:
What is the orbit of Pluto in January 2229?
WolframAlpha told me that the distance from Earth to Pluto would be 30.3 AU, which is almost as close as it gets. In addition, it produces a nice picture of the entire solar system in January 2229:
I also needed to know something about the velocity and distance a spacecraft could achieve at various G’s of acceleration. This is the kind of thing I used to to on the back of the envelope. Anyone who has ever taken a physics class knows that the formula for calculating velocity is v = at, that is, velocity = acceleration x time. But I saved some time by asking WolframAlpha:
velocity after acceleration at 1G for 7 days
And WolframAlpha responded with:
This is precisely the type of information I was looking for. From here, I could tweak the values in my question to get an answer I was looking for that would fit the needs of the plot in the story.
WolframAlpha is great for this type of thing and it has so much scientific data embedded into it that it can be used for things other than just astronomy. There’s chemical properties, tree growth rates, engineering properties (loads, etc.). But I find it particularly useful for the astronomical stuff. It’s fun to use and it’s fast. I can store the results very easily in a Research folder in Scrivener within the my writing project, and then refer to it whenever I need to.
If you are writing hard science stories, or are just looking for a useful computational tool, I’d recommend checking out WolframAlpha.