Using Pseudoscience to Beef Up Your Technobabble

All good genre fiction needs its technobabble. However wacky and unreal you want to make your universe is okay so long as it is backed up by consistency and enough internal logic to make your readers suspend their disbelief for a few hours.

History is full of discredited theories and failed hypotheses. Some were just plain outlandish when they were first proposed and still are, others seem to make sense at first but fall apart under scrutiny. Even though they have been debunked or misrepresented, these five examples of pseudoscience may serve as starting points for those worldbuilders looking for a way to justify their strange tech and magic spells.

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

Linguistic relativity began as the idea that the language a group speaks influences the way that its members look at and think about the world. Forms of the hypothesis varied from declaring that language determines the way the speaker looks at the world to merely influencing a speaker’s world view. Debates about this topic have been going on since Plato’s time but for the most part the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis appears to have been discredited.

Arrival used the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis to explain the alien language that changed its user’s perception of time. Source

Even so, the idea that language can influence a speaker’s mind is incredibly compelling and gives us a great starting point for explaining magical languages without necessarily invoking true names. Might some industrious wizard have designed a language to shape its speaker’s mind to better accomodate to spell casting or to lessen the risk of magical misfires? What I like best about this idea is that it allows for competing magical traditions. I love magic systems built around true names like in Earthsea but they make it hard to imagine different cultures having different approaches magic. Using something like Sapir-Whorf lets us have different cultures each with their own magical languages, or schools of wizards devising languages optimized for their particular niche.

Phlogiston

There was a time when people thought that combustable materials contained a unique element that was released when burned. They called it Phlogiston. Unlike the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which sounds convincing at first, the flaws with Phlogiston theory are immediately apparent. That said, it would provide a great explanation for all manner of steam punk goodness.

Need an explanation for why those little brass cylinders are able to power your automatons? Just use Phlogiston! All you need is for some mad scientist to find a way to extract and bottle phlogiston and you have a ready made battery for all your science fiction needs.

Quantum Physics

Unlike the other examples on this list, quantum physics is a very real but also very misunderstood part of science. I personally cannot think of anything that is misrepresented to a greater degree in science fiction than quantum physics, and I’m not sure many people actually understand it either. At a certain scale, we’re talking protons and electrons and even smaller, classical physics no longer describes what we are able to observe. Quantum physics describes interactions on this subatomic scale. That’s it.

We can only calculate the probability of an electron being somewhere and not its exact location. I’ve often wondered if this could be used to explain the Heart of Gold’s infinite improbability drive. Source

Yet it has been used in many works (and by modern day snake oil peddlers) to explain many apparently magical effects. And if you’re writing genre fiction then that’s perfectly okay! Quantum physics has a lot of weirdness to it that is unintuitive for most and science fiction is all about science that has yet to be discovered, so don’t feel bad if you use quantum entanglement or tunneling to explain away your new warp drive. The audience wont mind.

Luminiferous Aether

It was once thought that light needed some medium to travel through on its journey between the Sun and Earth. In the nineteenth century there were some who proposed that some luminiferous ether existed between the planets that allowed light to travel. This was of course disproved, but like phlogiston it holds lots of potential for writers of steampunk fantasy.

What might the ether do if it could be harnessed? It could hold the key to powering giant brass spaceships, or be tamed to craft constructs from hardened light.

Vitalism

There was a time when it was thought that living matter was fundamentally different from inert materials. This was disproved when urea was successfully made from inorganic starting material. That said, the idea that living things contain a “vital spark” is hugely useful in fantasy fiction.

One doctor once tried to determine weigh souls by placing terminal patients on a scale as they died. Like any mad science experiment it was packed with flaws. Maybe your characters will have better luck. Source

Immediately it provides a power source for spells, justification for ghosts, a way for enlightened characters to sense the presence of others, and has lots of avenues to be exploited by the villains. What happens when a character’s vital spark is stolen? Can illnesses affect their spark? Does losing their spark kill a character or just make them husks of themselves? Can sparks be recycled?

Conclusion

There are plenty of other examples of pseudoscience that I could have referenced here. Just one example could be the topic of an entire book. These are just a few that I personally find to be especially interesting. The point I am really trying to get at is that history is filled with misconceptions and while they turned out to untrue in our world the “what if?” part of worldbuilding allows us to explore settings where the unreal is real. Many of these ideas are specific to particular eras in our own history, most of the examples I have used would not be our of place in our 19th or early 20th century. In many cases they show a desire to better understand our world and a desire to fit classifications and causes to observable phenomena. Crackpot theories and pseudoscience show a world where science is advancing, it’s up to you the writer to decide how accurate they are.

Have a favorite superstition that I didn’t mention here? Find me on twitter @expedition_blog to let me know!

Everyday Carry: My Five Favorite Pens

1. Jotter XL

I love Jotters. I love the simple design, the refill options, the affordable price, and the history. Parker has been making Jotters since 1954, meaning there are plenty of variations on the classic design for anyone who just isn’t happy with the standard. But despite my great love for these pens they sometimes feel a tad small in my hands, so when the Jotter XL came out I was ecstatic. The XL takes the same refills as a standard jotter and shares the same design language, but according to Parker’s website the pen is 7% larger than the standard model. This may seem like only a small change but makes a huge difference in how it feels to hold. For me it creates the perfect ergonomics for what was already an almost perfect pen.

$28.64 on Amazon

2. Rotring 800 Ballpoint Pen

Rotring’s ballpoint version of their 800 mechanical pencil was something I waited awhile for. Their industrial aesthetic and sturdy build quality make them easy favorites, even if the price can be a little eye-watering. Even the box has a great design. All the writing utensils in this series come in a slim triangular box that immediately sets it apart from other pens. My one complaint is that sometimes the barrel feels a little too small in my hands, but the knurled grip greatly offsets this.

$39.49 on Amazon

3. Lamy 2000

In some ways Lamy seems to me like the Apple of pens. Their products are well built, fun to use, but sadly proprietary. Lamy ballpoint cartridges are a pleasure to write with but are not the parker-style refills that come in most of the pens I have. That said, Lamy makes some of my favorite pens like the Lamy 2000. It’s got a simple design and hefty feel and comes in several variants if you’re someone who needs a multipen or just likes having the complete set.

$48.89 on Amazon

4. Cross Tech2

A lot of pens nowadays come with a built in stylus that I’ve never found much use for. But I am a sucker for finishes that Cross puts on their pens and the stylus point on the end looks good aesthetically. It’s just a good, quality pen with a nice feel and a great finish.

$13.19 on Amazon

5. Pentel Energel

I love to see variety within a product line, it helps to satisfy my urge to collect. And Pentel’s Energel line does the job splendidly. The pens come in multiple colors, nib sizes, and price points. You want to just spend a few bucks on a pen to take notes with in class? Energel has got it. You want a fine point for scribbling in the margins? They’ve got that too. They even have a more upscale model with the same refill if you need something that works as a gift or looks good in meetings. Like the Pilot G2s or parker-style refills, this is a line that has a lot of versatility, with a well-made cartridge that can be used in a wide number of formats to suit your use-case and preferences.

The Energel 3 multipen is just $6.71 on Amazon and easily one of my most used pens.

Writing on an iPad

I have been steadily moving away from Apple products for years. I traded in my old iPhone for a Samsung three years ago and my macbook for a windows laptop last year. So it was something of a surprise when I found myself looking at iPads when they were on sale at Best Buy. I had been wanting a tablet for awhile. Since I go away for weekend trips a lot I wanted something lighter that I could take with me to get some work done (but not too much!) and also keep up with writing. At first I was torn between a Surface, the Galaxy Tab S6, or an iPad. As much as I like windows it doesn’t seem as tablet friendly as I would like and I didn’t really want a secondary device that could run too many of my work programs. As for the Galaxy Tab, I was intrigued by Dex and the included pen but I just couldn’t bring myself to make what is honestly a luxury purchase without being sure that I would get software updates for the foreseeable future. In the end I decided on an 11-inch iPad Pro with 256 Gb of storage, 2nd gen Apple Pencil and an Apple Keyboard Folio.

Now that I’ve been using this iPad for a couple weeks I’ll be sharing my thoughts on its capabilities as a writing machine.

There were a few uses I had in mind:

    – Reading books on Kindle and Google Books
    – Taking notes in class
    – Referencing text books and rpg rule books
    – Writing on the go

In all of these categories it has done great so far. The bigger screen makes Google Books a much more pleasant experience and digital textbooks feel so much more natural when read on a tablet versus a computer screen.

When it comes to taking notes this things works even better than I had hoped. I’ve long resisted digital note taking, but I’ve gotten tired of carrying so many books with me and I’ve been looking for ways to slim down my every day carry. Being able to keep everything on an iPad has significantly lightened the load, and the apple pencil is probably the best stylus I’ve ever used. There are a lot of note taking apps available for the iPad, but I’ve just been using OneNote since it syncs with all my other devices through Office365.

As for writing I was pleasantly surprised. Some reviews I read were critical of Apple’s own keyboard case but I liked its slim profile and not having to worry about pairing or charging it. The key travel is acceptable, not huge, but each key does have a satisfying click when you press it. I might not end up writing a full novel on it, but for the amount of use I intend for it to get it works perfectly. But if that’s not your thing and you want a keyboard case that offers function keys, then products like the Logitech Smart Folio can be found for less money and are well-reviewed online.

The newly added mouse support provides a non-touch option for interacting with the device. You can now link a Bluetooth mouse to your iPad under the assistive touch settings. It’s not what I would choose to use as my primary means of controlling the device, but it makes editing text a whole lot easier.

Mouse support is far from perfect but can be good for productivity tasks

One thing I did not expect to find myself doing on this tablet was much gaming. Seeing as I have rarely given much thought to mobile games I was not expecting to recognize so many titles on the app store. I immediately purchased Rome Total War and so far it seems to run surprisingly well. Now I just need to protect my wallet and keep from buying KOTOR or Stardew Valley or else my productivity will take a nose dive.

Overall I have been incredibly happy with this purchase. It’s always a little nerve wracking to make a major purchase, even if you have given it a lot of thought before hand. I have hardly even begun to utilize the device to its full capabilities and already it has proved its worth. So if you’re like me and wondering whether you can make much use of a tablet I’d consider going to the store and trying them out. They are a lot more capable than you might think.

Note: I may earn from qualifying purchases made through amazon affiliate links.