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:
The first astronomy book I ever read was The Nine Planets by Franklyn M. Branley when I was six years old. What caught my interest in astronomy at that young age were the pictures in the newspaper of Jupiter as the Voyager spacecraft made its flyby. My parents got me a telescope and I started looking at stars and planets in my backyard. I was hooked.
I learned a lot about astronomy since then, almost all of it from Isaac Asimov. But I have never taken a formal astronomy class.
Recently, however, I discovered that I needed to bone up on this subject. Many science fiction writers are also working scientists and in writing their stories, they have a clear advantage of a lifetime of familiarity with their area of expertise. I am not a scientist and I sometimes make amateur (and silly) mistakes in a story. Editors have been exceedingly kind and helpful in pointing these out to me. And since I want to learn from my mistakes, especially when editors prompt me to do so, I felt it was time that I really brushed up on my astronomy–a crucial skill for a science fiction writer to have.
So I contacted my friend Michael A. Burstein–who does have a science background, who has taught science and edited science texts (to say nothing of having written outstanding science fiction)–and asked him to suggest a good text for me to start with.
Michael suggested Astronomy Today (7th edition) by Chaisson and McMillan and this evening, I placed an order for that text book. When it arrives, I plan to go through it at a nice steady pace (on weekends, during my “research time”) in order to make sure that I am really understanding what I am reading, not just whipping through it. It is my hope that not only will I come away with a better understanding and appreciation of astronomy, but that it will help to make me a better science fiction writer.
Yesterday, Ken Jennings had an blog post about how schools are starting to ban wikipedia use.
He makes some good points. I agree with them and reiterate them here with some of my own thoughts added.
Ken points out that this is really nothing new. Teachers have been telling students not to use the encyclopedia as a source since the dawn of time. But what are we really teaching students by “banning” the use of wikipedia or an encyclopedia? It seems to me that we should be teaching students the different functions between first and secondary sources. Encyclopedia have value. They summarize vasts amounts of information. They provide good, general introductions to subjects. And as Ken points out, a encyclopedia like wikipedia can provide up-to-date information on subjects, or provide good general introductions to subjects that are not normally covered by other sources.
Banning wikipedia implies that there is no value to it. It is better to teach the value of sources. Why are primary sources the best? What purpose do they serve? I would argue further that with the budget cuts that school and public libraries face, it is getting more difficult for high school students to find primary sources in their libraries. When I was in high school in Ms. Thatcher’s chemistry class, I grew very interested in chemistry, in particular, how quantum mechanics relates to chemistry (which wasn’t well explained in our class). I discovered that the definitive book on the subject was written by Linus Pauling. The book, The Nature of the Chemical Bond was not available in the high school library. Nor was it available in my public library. So I settled on various encyclopedia articles on the subject. Now, granted, I wasn’t writing a paper or citing sources, but even if I was, I would not have been able to get to the primary source given the resources available to me at the time. The encyclopedia provided a general overview, while citing primary material (and one of the first books cited, was Pauling’s book).
Teach kids to make good decisions about their research and they will make the best use of all of the tools available to them. There will always be kids that are just plain lazy. But I don’t think banning a source of information to prevent the lazy kids from using it does anyone any good. (You might as well ban the whole Internet, Cliffs Notes, any every other possible summary of information on a given subject.)