Friday, January 18, 2008

Hard Science Fiction Ideas or How to Research Research

Science fiction writer James VanPelt* has written a helpful column for aspiring science fiction writers, "Generating Hard Fiction Ideas Painlessly":
So, do you need a degree in science or math to write hard science fiction? Nope. Numerous hard science fiction authors write their stories without that background. I’m one, for example. My college degrees are in English and history. Fred Pohl and Ray Bradbury didn’t attend college. Connie Willis was an elementary school teacher before her science fiction successes. Admittedly, though, the non-science or math authors will have to work a little harder to not write laughable hard science fiction. They need to cheat a bit. They may need help coming up with ideas, and they certainly will need help for the science that is not at their fingertips. Fortunately, the help is no farther away than the nearest bookstore.
He gives several suggestions for books, including one based on the excellent NPR program, Science Friday.

Jeremiah Tolbert responded with his own request:
Someone with access to the big primary biological sciences literature should post reviews/summaries in laymen's terms of each issue. Nature, Science, and more. People could volunteer and write in summaries for any primary literature they want. Group blog the literature. Get it out there in the web, in a format that science-interested people can understand. Because I think there's a barrier still between that level of academic knowledge and the web population. I'd like to see a gateway giving me a glimpse at what's going on. I don't know where the local unversity's science library is, and I can't afford to subscribe to those magazines (who can?).
Now my gut response to this is "Why aren't you reading what's already on the web?" Tolbert doesn't have comments on his blog, but I did comment on Futurismic, which quotes his request:
There are already people who blog about science breakthroughs - ScienceBlogs and Nature network being a good placed to start. Also, both Science and Nature have news sections that summarize the latest research in relatively non-technical terms.

Nature and Science are published every week, but the peer-reviewed science they publish is really just the tip of the iceberg, since they try to have articles in a wide range of fields and only publish relatively short reports. To really be up on the biological sciences, you have to keep tabs on the more specialized journals too - PNAS, Cell, Neuron, Genes & Development, EMBO Journal, Journal of Cell Biology, Journal of Biological Chemistry, Nucleic Acids Research, Journal of Molecular Biology , are a few of the big ones that come to mind. It would be a full time job to summarize every paper that came out in layman’s terms - and a bit of wasted effort, since most articles wouldn’t be of general interest anyway. The good news is that Science and Nature cover the hottest findings in their news sections, and the blogs usually pick up that info too. So the information is already out there for the reading if you are interested.

I suppose the issue is whether the news sections of Science and Nature are sufficiently non-technical for the layman. I'll confess that it's hard for me to judge, since I'm not a layman myself. However, the biggest science stories are distilled further yet by popular science magazines like Scientific American, Science Daily, Discover, Live Science, and Seed. If listening is your thing, there are lots of science podcasts to choose from, such as Science Friday, NASA Podcast, New York Times Science Times, not to mention the podcasts from Nature and Science Magazine, and many others. And if you like your science raw, you can always subscribe to the EurekAlert science press release service, which often combines science described in layman's terms with sensationalist prose.

Those sources are only the tip of the iceberg, of course. There are lots of other news sources and blogs that cover the latest science research daily. The problem is not that the information isn't out there, it's that there is so much that it's difficult for one person to take it all in. I subscribe to many science news sites and blogs and the best I can do is skim through the headlines, reading the articles that catch my eye. I'm not sure what more Tolbert wants, other than a distillation of the distillation that's already available.

The amazing thing is that all this information is out there for anyone who is interested enough to read it. A decade or two ago you would have had to go to the library or subscribe to the journals and decipher the technical language yourself (does anyone else remember using Current Contents?). Now, with so much information readily available at your fingertips, there is no reason not to be aware of the latest research.

One practical suggestion: don't try to visit every web site and every blog "in person" so to speak. The only way to really keep up is to subscribe to the feeds for the news sites and blogs so that you can easily browse through the headlines. Personally I use the Lite version of NetNewsWire, but there are many other options, including Google Reader, Bloglines and NewsGator. Most web sites have an orange-colored button to click to subscribe, like I do in the right sidebar. Anyone can keep up with the latest news in bioscience by putting a little effort into it.

ETA: I should have also mentioned ResearchBlogging.org, which aggregates blog posts on peer-reviewed research. That way you can get the best of science blogging without the politics, jokes or cat photos, if you are so inclined.

* You can read VanPelt's short story "A Flock of Birds" at SciFiction.

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7 comments:

Jeremy said...

Sorry about that. I had to turn off comments because my blogging software couldn't handle the hundreds of spam a day I was getting. The livejournal version of the same content is where most people content.

All your points are good ones. I should have looked to see what was available before I rambled on. I used to subscribe to many of those feeds (I'm a huge fan of RSS and track about 250 websites a day, including yours!), but for some reason, I left many of those feeds and I can't remember why. Thanks for reminding me of them. I think I'll add them back to my reads.

I will say that I used to subscribe to a lot of biology-related Science Blogs, and I ended up getting really disappointed with the amount of time many of them spent railing against creationists. Huge amounts of energy wasted on idiots, and I just didn't care about what the crazy creationists were saying this week. PZ Meyers was particularly bad about this. I killed several feeds because of this. What I would love to read, personally, are scientists discussing research, what it means, and so on. Nature and Science are good sources for that, but isn't a lot of their good content behind a pay firewall?

As far as podcasts, I listen to ScienceDaily. I'll have to check out some of hte others you've mentioned.

Again, thanks for all the information.

arvind mishra said...

Very useful discussion,thanks Peggy !
An information explosion is already upon us and it really becomes difficult sometimes to sort out useful from the trash.

Peggy said...

Jeremy: I didn't mean it as a criticism - I know what a PITA spammers are. I mostly wanted people to know I wasn't commenting here and on Futurismic because I didn't want to engage you directly. I'm glad you stopped by to comment.

I think the problem is the sheer volume of information. It can be really overwhelming. The only real alternative, though, is to depend on the regular main stream media for science news, and in my experience that's not very satisfying, since they only focus on the "sexiest" stories and pretty much regurgitate press releases without analysis of comment. Maybe the solution is to get a science-literate intern who knows what interests you to separate the wheat from the chaff. I'd love one of those myself :-)

As for the creationism issue, I understand and appreciate the fight. Creationists are both well-funded and communication savvy, so that a Google search by a person with casual interest in evolution topics are as likely to pull up creationist pseudoscience as real science. Getting more solid information out there on the web is a good thing. And the fight against the attempts to teach creationism in science classes is an important one, IMHO. American students deserve better than a watered-down version of biology, crafted so that it doesn't offend some peoples' religious beliefs - and they absolutely should not be learning that divine intervention is scientifically equivalent to modern evolutionary synthesis. The trouble is that much of the public doesn't have enough background or interest to fight the insidious creep of religion into the science classroom. I believe science bloggers can help put public pressure on education officials, so their contribution is important.

All that having been said, I understand why you might find it boring. Maybe someone will put together a feed of "science only" posts.

Peggy said...

Arvind and any other non-US readers: I mostly know US and UK sources of science news. Can you recommend any non-English sources of science news?

Andrew Sun said...

I would like to name some chemical journals that may provoke sci-fic ideas because chemistry sci-fic are so rare:

Chemical Communications
Nano Letters
Angewandte Chemie Internation Edition

arvind mishra said...

There may be some, Peggy,but I am afraid I do not know any of them worth recommending at least in any Indian languages including even English.There are some Hindi[ Indian Lingua franca] blogs like this one-http://www.abhivyakti-hindi.org/vigyan_varta/vigyan/index.htm but they lack originality and always depend on western sources for their reportings. There are some others bent upon reporting herbal tit bits not of much importance insofar as the philosophy of science is concerned.
arvind

Peggy said...

Andrew and Arvind: Thanks for the suggestions

Here's another resource I should have mentioned: ResearchBlogging.org , which aggregates blog posts that are about peer-reviewed research. That sounds like what you might be looking for Jeremy!