Science to fiction

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When I left research in 2018 to try my hand at fiction, it felt like I was making a huge course change in life.

The decision itself, the one to leave research, was simple. After all, the science of climate change—which I’d been working on—was settled, and more research would bring ever-diminishing returns on that. On the other hand, putting energy into fiction as a means of making climate science more enjoyable to talk about was a way to keep working toward greater sustainability. Still, I had no idea what challenges I’d face, and that uncertainty made the switch itself feel very dicey.

Now, for the record, there’re a fair number of science-y folks who have some book idea or other floating around in their noggins. This is how it goes—we work at our benches, or desks, or some field site or other, and in the back of our minds we think about the things we’d do if we weren’t so busy with our research. Maybe we’d find a little piece of land, buy a farm, keep a few chickens, have some buddies over now and again to bottle the latest batch of ale. Something like that. And we’d write a novel. That kind of thinking isn’t too uncommon as these sorts of fantasies go. Minus the farm, and the brewing, I took the plunge.

Fiction writing was new. A challenge. A good thing! And, as it turns out writing fiction really isn’t so different from basic scientific practices. That? That revelation, to me, surprised me to such an extent that I decided to blog about it.

Why did this revelation surprise me so? I think it’s because way back when, during my ‘formative years,’ there were science kids and there were humanities kids. I was the former not the latter. I recall a high school English teacher telling me, “You can’t write.” (her declaration of my lack of potential followed some writing assignment I’d turned in. It was full of castles and dragons. I suppose it was poorly written?) Anyway, maybe in part because of that exchange, I internalized that people are one, or the other. Sciences, or humanities. Different skill sets, I thought, and me, I was wired for science.

Obviously, a human being is not one or the other.

But at the time I guess I decided my strengths were in science. Yet, we all have some drive to tell stories, and we all have some drive to think logically. Mathematically. Scientifically. I’ve met writers with a heavy research bent, and for sure there are researchers who have great, largely developed ideas for novels. But nevertheless, scientific writing and fiction writing still seemed worlds apart to me, two fundamentally different things.

I mean, you could, at this moment, surf away from this blog to learn about the role of sirtuins in cancer and aging. You could. Your life might even be better for it, and some of you probably will. But my guess is that for many of us, the thought of reading about sirtuins right nowholds little appeal, despite the importance understanding cancer and aging.  No. If you wantto read something, it’s more likely a book from the New York Times bestseller list.

Fiction, baby, that’s where it’s at, that’s good reading! Good fiction is different than science writing. It transports us, gives us characters, we live their lives and trials. Fiction entertains, spurs passion and conflict.  Good fiction makes an eight-hour flight across the Atlantic pass in a blink. It provides a point of discussion between readers. With a bowl of soup and blanket, good fiction turns a rainy afternoon into something wonderful.

A research paper doesn’t. Of course, it never really tries to—research serves a different purpose in our lives. Research distills data, contextualizes it into a field of study, a body of work; it provides the next chapter of a ‘science story’ that stretches back centuries.

Research reflects our best understanding of how the universe works.

Whoa. The freaking universe. And how it works. That’s actually pretty cool.

So, fiction and science are both awesome in their own ways, each serves a purpose, and it seemed to me when I took up fiction writing, that my experience with scientific writing wasn’t particularly relevant. (After all, JI had it on good authority that I can’t write, certainly not about castles and dragons.)  But I gotta say—piece after piece of my scientific training has fallen into place as a usable tool in fiction, and that’s been one hundred percent gratifying to discover.

Here’s a short list of those relevant skills.

 

First. Self-discipline.

Anyone who’s built a career for themselves has learned self-discipline, and that’s true in research for sure. Scientific writing means working on a grant application (with a deadline), a conference presentation (with a deadline), a classroom module (with a deadline), a research paper—often with a deadline. Eventually, scientists learn to plant themselves in front of the screen and just get the words down. Because there’s a deadline. It’s a practice, and you learn discipline.

That discipline is invaluable in fiction writing. Maybe some writers don’t need it, maybe they can fall into ‘the zone’ and write a story effortlessly in one fell swoop. There are even accounts of this sort of thing, but they’re rare and barring that sort of experience, getting the word-mush out of the brain and onto the paper requires typing. It requires discipline. The chance of some grand inspiration striking on any given day is very low.

 

Second. Rewrites.

And getting the word-mush into concrete form is great, but a first draft is hardly ever anything to write home about. Hey, at least it’s on paper! But it needs work. Word-smithing, clarification, grammar and syntax, more forceful rhetoric, and so on and so forth. It might even need structural work.

In writing up a science article, sometimes you see a problem in the Results section and realize it actually has more to do with the set up you put together in the Introduction. You thought you were writing a paper on basal productivity in a peat bog, and you came to realize you were actually writing about ecosystem hierarchies. So all the data you thought you needed about carbon capture never really belonged in this article the first place. And that other data, the stuff you set to the side because you had the wrong idea of your paper’s thesis, does.

Same thing can happen in fiction. Some people have a term for this, they write ‘to discover the story.’  You might think you’re writing about global politics and how they impact every single person alive, but it turns out the real story, the one that matters, which you were writing all along without realizing it until you did, was a story about Uncle Ned trying to save his farm. So, you cut chapters and swap characters. You drill down into the anguish of Ned’s failed corn crop. The entire story becomes different. But you couldn’t have found that story until you wrote the first draft, and then rewrote that draft.

 

Third. Research.

Maybe research should be first on this list, not third. I don’t know, but either way there’s gonna be research involved no matter which kind of writing we’re talking about. In science, research is foundational, it goes without saying that a huge part of the scientific method is research. Testing hypotheses, doing experiments, that’s research. Less obvious, especially to new students (hello, past me!), is the need for library research. Literature searches, finding all the pertinent work ‘out there.’ Nothing’s worse than a poorly-researched or error-riddled science paper. Unless it’s a poorly-researched novel!

It’s important to get details straight, in science for sure, and also in fiction. You’ve written a portal fantasy and the elves can shoot three arrows at a go? Great! Readers still expect the arrows to follow the physical laws of the universe—don’t go having the arrows circumnavigate the globe, because even in elf-land that wouldn’t be realistic. Or if your elf kills an orc, readers expect the orc corpse to follow certain rules.  (It’s true! Orc corpses follow the same rules as human corpses, in case you were unaware.) Don’t go making your orc-corpse cold and stiff straight away. How long does it take for a corpse to grow cold, anyway? I have no idea. You’ll need to research that, and you’ll need to use those facts instead of the ones you made up.

 

Fourth. Ninety percent of the work will be discarded (or invisible).

So, okay, Hemingway even had a term for this—the iceberg theory. Basically, the final written version of a story is a small fraction of what’s in the author’s head. An author knows character motivations, histories, relationships. An author knows setting details that are never explicitly laid out. An author knows all the ins and outs of their magic system. The totality of that knowledge gives a novel realism, it’s beneath the surface, invisible but there, and only a small percentage of what an author knows makes it into the written story.

In science, same thing. You do twenty experiments and find that two or three really hit the mark. They are so elegant, the data so clear and clean, theseare the ones that end up forming a paper. Those other seventeen or eighteen still exist—they are still part of the scientist’s thinking. They might even make it into Supplemental Materials, online. But really, who looks at the Supplemental Materials?

Learning to leave those experiments out of the spotlight was very hard. First paper I ever wrote, I tried to include every single one. Each had cost me blood, sweat and tears; each had been paid for by the US taxpayer and each seemed worthy, to me, of inclusion. Nope, too bad, wrong approach. Learning to set ninety percent of my work to the side, in the interest of concise communication to move the larger conversation forward, was essential to writing good science and absolutely invaluable in fiction.

 

Fifth. Collaboration.

Any good piece of science involves multiple experts, and they have contributing students and postdocs. Papers are usually written by authors, plural. Earning a PhD requires working with a mentor, teaching students, networking at conferences, and on and on, until the whole beautiful process brings together people from altogether different fields of study!  Imagine combining atmospheric modeling with microbial nutrient cycling, or cell signaling cascades with assortative mating. A cross-disciplinary match-up can lead to new ideas, like making vaccines from soybeans.

It’s the same thing in fiction. People say writing’s a solitary pursuit, and yeah, okay. But it’s also true that collaborating with writing partners, finding mentors, taking classes and attending conferences and workshops, seeking online support or local writing groups, using alpha readers and beta readers—these things all contribute to a final product. Look at the acknowledgement or dedication in the last book you read. The author recognizes the people in her life that impacted the story, and the list is often long. And when a piece of fiction is picked up for publication, it’s edited, just like in science. Another pair of eyes to improve the final product.

 

So. In a nutshell, that’s some of the overlap I’ve discovered. This is far from an exhaustive list, and for sure there are differences between science writing and fiction. But the bottom line is that the skill set from one has been so incredibly useful to the other, and the transition from a career in science to fiction ended up being fairly straightforward.

What an incredibly comforting discovery! And you know what—at times I even entertain the notion that my high school English teacher might have been mistaken.

Four very hot years

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Last year was the fourth warmest year on record. 2016 was the warmest and 2017 the second warmest. Four of the five hottest years on record have happened since 2014. 

The science on climate change is settled, has been for a long time. Articles in the 1800s  describe the effect of civilization on the environment–how the emission of carbon dioxide into the air creates a greenhouse effect. Articles from almost 200 years ago!

“The establishment and progress of human societies, the action of natural forces, can notably change, and in vast regions, the state of the surface, the distribution of water and the great movements of the air. Such effects are able to make to vary, in the course of many centuries, the average degree of heat; because the analytic expressions contain coefficients relating to the state of the surface and which greatly influence the temperature.”  –Fourier, 1827.

“The highest effect of the sun’s rays I have found to be in carbonic acid gas. … An atmosphere of that gas would give to our earth a high temperature; and if, as some suppose, at one period of its history, the air had mixed with it a larger proportion than at present, an increased temperature from its own action, as well as from increased weight, must have necessarily resulted.”  –Eunice Foote, 1856.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_climate_change_science

Forced warming has been understood since long before we grew addicted to oil. Think about that!

As a personal issue, climate change got into my head in the early 1990s. It’s also why I switched my personal research goals to planetary science. Previously, I was on the human genome project, and I taught pre-nursing majors at local colleges (these things are important, too).  But the global threat of climate change on ecosystems and human well-being–to me very little else seems to hold much of a candle in terms of degree of systems-level threat.

And the science is settled. So why do governments fail to enact sufficient policy?

I have a few ideas about this. Sometimes I think it’s down to guilt, or simple biological drive, or maybe denial. Maybe it’s the time span of a human experience vs. the time span of a measurable geological process. We can measure climate changing over, say, a decade. (Not true forty years ago–the rate of change is accelerating.) But we live and breathe in work weeks and seasons, holidays and school years. We don’t think in decades.

In biology, animals are ‘consumers.’ Every consumer generates carbon dioxide as part of their biology, and humans do this more than most because we also have fire.

Increasing the number of consumers (especially fire-makers) compared to producers (otherwise known as plants, which absorb carbon dioxide and convert it to sugars) has a spiraling effect on the mass balance of carbon in our world and air. The carbon cycle.

Maybe the reason we aren’t acting in ‘big enough ways’ regarding climate change is because the information about the problem is scientific instead of emotional. I don’t know, but it’s one idea.

The author Ursula Le Guin has said that science fiction writers tell lies, create fictions to reveal truth, with an intent not of predicting the future but of describing how things are. By this thinking, the lies of fiction reveal the truth of being.

Maybe through fiction, authors can move hearts in a way that scientists cannot. Maybe fiction is the means through which we will decide to act on the science of climate change. Fewer gallons of gas, keeping the thermostat down, insulating homes better, smaller family size, buying local, growing our own food, recycling, voting on climate, reforesting, restructuring our economy, demanding transparency in the energy sector, developing and using carbon-free energy sources. There are so many ways to become carbon-less, or carbon negative. We are innovative. We care, all of us. With luck, writers might make a difference where, to date, science seems to have gained too little traction.

All the little beasties

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Recently, a friend remarked to me about the microbes in our guts. She mentioned that the small intestine has no bacteria, that only the large intestine does. (that’s wrong.) I think that’s a misconception she has because of this idea ‘out there’ of gut overgrowth—the idea that too many bacteria (or yeast) flourishing in the small intestine is an unhealthy sign.

I don’t know much about overgrowth in the small intestine. But I for sure know about the human microbiome. It’s a fascinating topic and the numbers of bacteria and archaea in and on us are staggering. The mass is staggering, and their roles in our bodies (and in the world) are too.

You’ve probably heard that 90% of the cells in our body (in the space that our body occupies) are microorganisms, and only 10% are human cells. OK. This is disgusting. But take a breath, because microorganisms are tiny compared to human cells. A human egg is the size of the period at the end of this sentence, and although a human egg is a very large cell (about four million cubic microns), even average-sized human cells are still freaking big, like four thousand cubic microns.

Bacteria, on the other hand, clock in at one single cubic micron.

So, OK, there could be ten times as many bacteria (and archaea… and fungi and protists and small mites and worms and other lovelies in and on us), but each of our cells is several orders of magnitude bigger than any prokaryotic cell. So, in the end, only about 1% of our mass is not what we think of as ‘us.’ A few pounds.

(Tangent… But what if–wait, what if cells, are us? Oooh.  If we are no more than cells working together, why would a human cell contribute to consciousness, awareness, ‘being human,’ any more than a prokaryotic cell? Whoa. You know what, there’s research about this too… but…  too big a topic. Maybe later.)

OK. Guts and bacteria. So, there’s the small intestine and the large intestine, and these are divided into segments (like the duodenum right past the stomach, and the jejunum further down). There’s a duct near the stomach (the bile duct) and the appendix too.

And the whole intestinal tract is over twenty-five feet long. Here’s WebMD’s pages on the intestines.

So depending on where you look in the glorious mess of guts inside the human body, the distribution and numbers of microbes changes. Near the food (incoming!) or the bile, or where there’s no oxygen, or in the colon where digestion is over, the make-up of microbes changes. The numbers change too. Here’s an article with the numbers.

We’re covered in bacteria, inside and outside. What’s in our mouths is hugely diverse, hundreds of species, and different from our neighbors’ mouths. The stomach and duodenum are diverse places too—they get first crack at food, and that matters to the microbial community! There’s lots of different Proteobacteria in these niches. By the time digested food reaches the large intestine the community is down to the diehard phyla that thrive in anoxic environments—Bacterioidetes and Firmicutes in this case.

There’re different populations on our skin, in our underarms, our genitals, our belly buttons. The secretions of our eyes and ears shifts the microbes there. Our sinuses are moist and salty places that Staphylococcus loves. Our nails can feed fungi (a eukaryote). Toe jam. Need I say more?

If you removed every human cell from the space that body occupies, you would still see an outline of every surface of that body, an outline from the bacteria and archaea.

And they outnumber us ten to one!

And that’s why microbial ecology is so fascinating. 🙂

Puzzles and Science

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When I was a kid we used to get something in the mail called Games, which is now online. My mom was so excited when she first discovered that magazine. We might have even gotten the inaugural issue, I don’t remember for sure, but I do know we got Games every month for years, and that she really looked forward to it. Hard.

It was filled with puzzles. Mom had always done the crosswords and acrostics and riddles and whatnot that the newspaper sometimes put in after the funny pages, but this magazine was different. Thick. Filled. She went straight for the crosswords, and then the logic puzzles, and then whatever else looked good.

I went for the mind twisters and optical illusions and riddles. They had a page of doodles, really simple ones, barely more than glorified stick drawings, and the idea was to identify the common item that the doodle represented.

Here’s an example I remember, and you can try to guess what this is. Hint: it’s an everyday item looked at in a unique way. I’ll put the answer (upside down*) at the end.

                      __o_____________

I know, right? You can see why we were so excited to get Games every month!

The best part was how much she liked the magazine. Mom was busy. I had seven older siblings, and most of Mom’s time was spent taking care of us. Her few hobbies, here and there, those came and went. But this magazine? It wove through the years in a permanent way.

And I think … this is part of the reason I eventually got my degrees in science (Biology, then Genetics). I liked puzzles, and I had (still have) this attraction to them. There’s a sense of something clicking when the answer falls into place. Find the clues, test the ideas, figure out how to explain something, whether it’s a disease, or an environmental threat, or a genetic trait, or something to do with landing a spacecraft on Mars or looking for life on Europa or deciphering some grand universal theorem that holds everything together.

There’s no message here, just recollections. If you have a favorite game or puzzle I’d love to hear about it.

 

*I don’t actually know how to blog letters upside down. Sorry.

Answer: This is a door! You’re looking at it from the perspective of a housefly sitting on top and peering over the edge, down at the knob.

 

 

Welcome

Hello!

Jim Thompson has a fantastic quote:

There is only one plot — things are not what they seem. 

There’s a little window that cracked open here on the internet. This window didn’t exist twenty years ago, certainly not thirty years ago, but the contractor came out, found a nice piece of wall far away from the door, made a big ol’ hole and installed it. It’s a lovely window, wide and clear and lots of beautiful faces on either side. The world smiles back and forth across it. Hello!

That’s a roundabout way to say that I’m starting a website. I’m Patty, I live in southern California, here’s a picture. (It’s only photoshopped a little bit. Guess there’s room to learn some photography, too.)

Boney