A Spacers Life (For Me)

Spacers are, in a way, a nation unto themselves. Even with a Bulgarin Drive, journeys between stars take months at best. Away from the rare corridors where local gravity fields align just right they take years.

All this time the spacers are traveling at the speed of light, or faster, within their Bulgarin bubbles. Time passes differently for them, thanks to relativity they age much slower than their planet-bound fellows, and the worlds they return to are often very different from the worlds they left.

These differences have led to spacers developing cultures of their own. Few ever really return home, most sign-on expecting their journey to be a one-way trip, a way of paying their passage to a new world. Others make the conscious decision to leave the society they have known and live the rest of their now extended lives on ships travelling between the stars.

Faced with these long stretches of time, many choose the comfort of a stasis pod when possible, but not every ship has enough space, and at least a few crew members need to be awake at any given time. With all these long periods spent alone, away from companionship and any likelihood of rescue, spacers have learned how to take care of themselves and keep themselves entertained in the vastness of space.

Reading Material

The average ship has thousands of micro floppies loaded with everything from textbooks to the latest smut. Even private ships regularly take on new media at every time they stop. Bulgarin transmitters can only send some much information in a single burst. Spacers get to read the latest from each world they visit, long before the locals at their next destination have ever heard it.

But paper books are expensive. Most media is transmitted of micro floppys or other digital storage media. Spacers (and most locals) choose to use digital books instead, which project the words onto a sheet of transparent plastic.

These devices are surprisingly sophisticated, with buttons that allow the reader to move forward and backward in the book, and to set a limited number of bookmarks.

Spacers are known for their voracious information appetite. Most ships make it a priority to procure more material for their library at every port of call. In this way even privately owned ships serve to keep the disparate segments of humanity connected culturally.

Technical Tools

Space is huge and filled with tech, tech that tends to break from time to time. Portable interface terminals like this one are a spacer’s best friend.

Terminals are small and handheld, able to be clipped onto a belt or other piece of clothing. Each terminal is able to connect to a wide array of machines including satelites, life support systems, reactors, and more through a standard connector. Once plugged in the terminal displays a set of standard metrics like CPU usage, temperature, and error codes. The menu, which can be navigated by the arrow buttons in the bottom left, allow the user to to do a variety of things internally.

These hand terminals even give the user the ability to type custom commands or lines of code, although this is not the most user friendly option. Larger portal terminals with dedicated keyboards and graphic user interfaces are generally preferred for those more complex tasks.

Explorer’s Kit

All ships, no matter what their purpose, carry basic scientific equipment on board including Ultraviolet/Visual Light spectroscopes, mass spectrometers, and nuclear magnetic resonance instruments. Even if it it not their purpose, any ship might encounter unknown environments that they need to evaluate to determine their safety.

A basic spacer’s sample collection kit.

For things that cannot be easily carried back into orbit, spacers often bring handheld units able records local conditions. These units come equipped with a myriad of basic sensors and can be connected to various attachments such as voltage probes. Data collected with these hand-held sensors can be stored and timestamped on microfloppies

A basic handheld sensor package.

For Safety’s Sake

Radiation from distant stars, nuclear weapons, and leaky reactors are a constant danger. Most ships require their crew to wear radiation badges at all times. The badges are painted with specialized chemicals that cycle through colors as the amount of radiation increases. These colors provide a handy guide for spacers trying to quickly assess the safety of their surroundings using a handy guide.

Green = Good

Yellow=Be Careful

Red = Get Out

Black = You’re probably dead already.

The presence of breathable air is also of importance to all spacers. In response to this danger most spacers also carry small atmospheric field tests. The rods inside are chemically treated to change color in the presence of various gases.

I Submitted My Writing!

(And I won a prize)

It’s been a goal of mine for a long time to submit a piece of my writing to something. I did try a flash fiction contest with little luck, but the contest that I’ve really had in mind for the past three years has been an annual writing contest held by the school of humanities at my university.

Every year, students are invited to submit works of poetry, fiction/drama, or non-fiction. There are three potential winners in each category, although the judges reserve the right to not award any prizes in a particular category. Graduate and undergraduate students also compete separately, so in a way, there are actually six winners per category.

Anyway, I’ve been telling myself I would enter this contest ever since I started graduate school here three years ago. Every year so far, I’ve either forgotten, or I’ve felt that I didn’t have anything worthy of submission. This year, however, was different. A friend reminded me about the award, and I set about polishing a pair of short stories that I had been working on for a while (contests are allowed two submissions per category).

So I did it. I polished both stories, and I hit the submit button. Then I spent about three weeks frantically checking my email.

To be honest, I felt that my chances of winning something were pretty good. It still felt great when I got second place. It was amazing.

The past several years I have grown a lot more comfortable with sharing my work. I’ve even gotten to the point where I am honestly proud of my work. Still, it’s great, fantastic even, to have this kind of affirmation.

Anyway, I won second place in Graduate fiction. I was over the moon. The story that won was “Einherjar” it’s the second entry into an anthology that I’m writing titled “Tales from the Golden Fleece Inn.”

I am actually very proud of what I have done with this series so far. By focusing on vignettes, I really feel like I’ve managed to bring these characters to life. Honestly, I have focused more on the banter than the plot, but I am happy with the result.

The moral of this story is to submit. Don’t be afraid of putting yourself out there. The more you do it the better it will get.

And if you want to read the story that won second place you can find it here.

Organized Labor and its Lessons for Fiction

For the past several weeks, commentators and labor activists have been waiting to see how the union vote at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama would turn out. We’ve heard for several years about the working conditions inside Amazon facilities, and the pandemic only brought more attention to the situations that warehouse workers have to deal with. It really shouldn’t be surprising that Amazon employees would start to unionize. I also don’t think it was a surprise that this effort was voted down.

Except for a few groups like police unions, I think labor organization can only be a good thing. Wealth inequality is a big problem on both an individual and societal level. Anything that urges people to advocate for their own well-being and community is a good thing. 

​I also think that this outcome carries with it a lot of lessons. Union leaders are already talking about how they intend to change their strategy in the future with a new emphasis on public relations and national-level campaigns instead of local votes and agitation.

I’ve written before about what I believe the purpose of small businesses should be, but as a writer and worldbuilder, I see a lot of lessons to take from this. As much as many “centrists” and commentators on the right like to complain about politics in television and video games, it needs to be remembered that art is inherently political in all its forms. The creator’s beliefs are bound to find their way into the finished product, even if they did not mean to do so when they first started.

I myself prefer to design settings that are roughly analogous to our world’s 19th and 20th centuries, and if they aren’t directly analogous, there is still a heavy influence.

I tend to do this because I have always had a fondness for steampunk and dieselpunk and gunpowder fantasy. Classic sword and sorcery are still fun, but I like to see fantasy tropes played out in a more modern context and to put characters in environments of intense chance. The industrial revolution generated huge amounts of wealth for the upper class, allowed cities to grow, and pushed workers to organize. Old class systems declined in prominence. New ones rose to take their place. Established oligarchs fought to keep their positions while the lower classes fought to bring them down or replace them. And of course, as we see time and time again, every time a Republican is elected to office, common people can be convinced that their oppressors are their friends.

I am especially interested in this right now because it just so happens that labor unions are a major part of my current WIP. In it, the Whalvian Empire is going through a period of political and economic turmoil after its victory over several of its neighbors. My protagonist is put into a position where many in his company town have decided to unionize. He is torn between his desire for safety and stability and his sympathies for his fellow workers. Reading these articles has already given me a lot of new thoughts about what kind of internal conflicts and pressures our fictional characters might have to wrestle with.

What does the public think of unions?

Unions in America are weak. Many of the things we enjoy today are thanks to unions, but public support has fluctuated over the last fifty years. Fewer people are members of a union or know someone is. Negative biases and misconceptions need to be overcome by organizers both among workers and the general public.

Do the workers feel like the union understands their concerns?

One thing that stood out to me in one NYT article was a quote from a Black woman working in Amazon’s warehouse. She said that the union reps tried to connect Black Lives Matter to their labor organizing efforts. This individual said that they did not feel that racism was a concern in their workplace. Obviously, one anecdote does not give us a full picture of what the working environment is like with respect to race. However, effective campaigning relies on figuring out what potential supporters are concerned about and focusing on how that can be addressed. People are much less likely to care about fixing problems that don’t seem relevant to them.

Do workers feel like they have something to gain?

I was glad to see that workers were taking steps to unionize, but I’m was not surprised to see it voted down. There is a lot that could be done to improve the conditions inside Amazon warehouses, but the pay and benefits that come with working with them are superior to those offered by other employers in Alabama.

In the United States, the days of hiring armed Pinkertons to deal with strikers are long gone, but that doesn’t mean workers who attempt to unionize are not putting themselves at risk. There are basically no protections for workers who are working to organize. If those workers feel like they are already better off than their neighbors, then it’s unlikely they will want to put their job security at risk.

Are workers being told the truth about unions?

Employers have a key advantage. They can require employees to sit through “info sessions” about why unions are bad. They can make employees fear for their jobs. And depending on the employee, this may all reinforce preexisting biases.

Does the government protect workers?

In the wake of this defeat, unions are already talking about adopting a new strategy that focuses on high-profile endorsements and a public relations campaign to influence policy creation. I think this is a good choice. There are a lot of misconceptions about unions, and while I support workers unionizing, we as a country really need to do more to establish an acceptable baseline for workers.

But what does this have to do with speculative fiction? Why don’t you get off your soap box?

Okay, fair. I just spilled a lot of ink to share my own thoughts about current events, but that is because it’s a conversation worth having and because an artist’s environment will influence their art.

And it should influence their art. I generally dislike overanalyzing books in search of deeper meaning, but I think the context of the author’s beliefs can still add a lot to a reader’s understanding. I also think that pitting characters against relatable challenges makes the experience more meaningful for the reader.

A world of wizards and mind control and other fantasy elements would make the experience of workers and striking workers very different. But in the end, people just want a few things. They want safety for themselves and their families. They want to be able to put food on the table. And they (should) want to build a better future for their children.

Real-world events lack the allure of fantasy but trying to understand them yields dividends in inspiration. Fiction changes minds and writers have a big role to play in shaping public opinion.

Animals That Should Have Been Domesticated

Creating fictional animals is hard, but there is another way. Instead of inventing your own animals, just use animals that are dead.

And no, I don’t mean the dead cat that you saw run over in the road. I’m talking about the world’s megafauna. The massive animals that once roamed this world and are now long gone. I know I’m not the only one who has ever looked at a picture of one of those beasts and thought “I wish I could pet that.”

When I see one of those pictures I see a lost opportunity. I see a creature that could have lived alongside humans. Horses and dogs and cats are great, I love them. They have their place in fantasy and I don’t think that they can be replaces. At the same time, why create new fantastic creatures when we can draw on Earth’s past? So here are three extinct animals that I think would have been really cool to have as pets.

Ground Sloths

Modern sloths are cool but I am not sure what they could be used for

Listen, I know that sloths seem useless now. Cute, but useless. But I really think that they are capable of great things. Imagine those claws! Imagine that size! I’m not imagining these things as a mount (but they could be) but imagine how useful those claws would be for diggin or pulling our tree stumps, or how the giant sloths could help to carry heavy loads. A traveling merchant with a ground sloth would be really cool.

Saber Tooth Tigers

I wonder if those teeth could be turned into knives…. Photo from Wikipedia

The decline of megafauna is often linked to the spread of humanity because we tend to kill everything. One thing that may have suffered from the decline of megafauna is the the saber tooth tiger that hunted them.

Now I know, a big cat with teeth that big can be scary, but imagine if we befriended them. They were suited to hunting big things, we were (are) suited to hunting everything. That doesn’t mean we don’t need help. Sure, dogs are great, maybe the greatest, but imagine a giant house cat with giant fangs charging towards your enemy. That beats any dog.

Woolly Rhinos

I’m just saying, one of these would be way scarier than a horse.

Everyone loves a rhino. If you’re like me as a child you only got to learn about the rhinoceroses that are native to far off lands. You might also have been upset to learn that we used to have an animal as ubiquitous as the woolly rhino right here in North America.

If bread in sufficient numbers these animals would have been so much better than horses. They come with horns! Just imagine for a second the rohirrim mounted on rhinos charging into ranks of unprepared orcs.

What extinct animals do you wish were still around today? Let me know in the comments!

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Five Months with the Drop Alt

There are a lot of mechanical keyboards out there. Many of them are “for gamers,” and you can find a keyboard with that gamer aesthetic for under $100. However, if you start looking for enthusiast keyboards, the prices can quickly get into hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

Why are these so expensive? It’s really a matter of supply and demand. Enthusiast mechanical keyboards are a niche market. Many designs are either made by small companies or by enthusiasts. Many of these kits also need to be assembled by the user. The selection and soldering of components can take a lot of time, knowledge, and tools. So if you have a few thousand dollars you can pay someone to build it for you.

Luckily, as the hobby gains steam, there are more and more options for people who want to dip their toes in the mechanical keyboard ocean. One of these options is the Drop Alt.

What is the Alt?

The Drop Alt is a hot-swappable mechanical keyboard, which means that the switches can be added and taken away without soldering. They just pop into place. As soon as I learned this, I was sold, I ordered the high-profile version without switches, but a low-profile variant is available as well.

Once I had the board picked out I went with switches. I knew I wanted linear switches, switches that press down without a built in “clicky” sound of a tactile bump. I settled on the Gateron reds. These switches were great, but I eventually swapped them out for Gateron blacks. This was just due to personal preference, I knew by this point that I like linear switches but I wanted a switch with more actuation force. This is the great thing about the board being hot-swappable. If you aren’t sure what kind of switch you like you can try another.

The keycaps I picked out were the the Drop + Matt3o MT3 /dev /tty keycap set.

I picked these out because I liked the color scheme and I have been extremely happy with them. The PBT plastic that they are made of is durable and the keycaps themselves are nicely contoured for comfort during extended writing sessions.

Mods

One thing I knew going into this is that some enthusiasts have complains about the sounds that some of the keys on the Alt make. Most of these issues relate to the stabalizers, the metal bars that help hold larger keys like shift and enter steady. They default stabalizers on the Alt have been known to rattle. Now, this may or may not bother you, but eventually, it started to bother me, and so I decided to make a few modifications.

The first thing I did was lube all of the stabilizers so that they would move more smoothly. I used a small paintbrush and some Teflon grease I keep around for my trombone slide, but many recommended some kind of krytox grease.

Then I did the bandaid mod. This was considerably more annoying to do, so I only did it on the space bar, which was the one that still annoyed me the most when I was done lubing the stabilizers. The bandaid mod is simple. All you do is cut the pads off of a couple of bandaids and place them between the base of the stabilizers and the circuit board to cushion the stabilizer’s impact against the circuit board when you type.

These mods might sound complex, but they really aren’t. I just made them difficult because I did them impulsively and didn’t really think about what my plan was before I started.

Is the Drop Alt Worth Buying?

In my opinion, absolutely. I wanted an excellent keyboard, one that I could customize to my liking and occasionally tinker with. I was not disappointed. If you don’t want to dip your toes into assembling your keyboard, you might be interested in something like the RK61, but I whole heartily recommend the drop alt.

Buy the Alt if you want:

  • To experiment with different types of switches.
  • To customize your typing experience without a soldering iron.
  • To have a quality mechanical keyboard that you will likely enjoy for years to come.
  • To have something that you can both enjoy and occasionally tinker with.

If you go with the high-profile variant I recommend getting some kind of wrist rest as well to enhance your typing experience.

Three Titles that Prove Academics Do Have A Sense of Humor

Even for academics, it’s easy to assume that academic publications and conferences have to be dry, stuffy affairs where everyone pretends not to be bored out of their minds. In many cases, this is true. Fun and passion are thrown to the wayside and replaced with “formality” and “professionalism.” Luckily for us, there exists an elite cadre of academics who try to inject some fun into their work.

Now I realize that some older academics dislike this disregard for decorum, but I think that it’s a good thing. For two reasons.

  1. Fun titles grab a reader’s attention.
  2. Many people pursue advanced degrees out of a passion for the field. There’s no reason that passion can’t be put on display.

So let’s all take a moment to appreciate these three wonderful academic paper titles.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Flow Chemistry

I’ll be straight with you. This is not the only review paper titled “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to ___” that you can find. But it is the first one that I have come across. Other papers following this theme include subjects such as virology and particle imaging.

I like this so much because these are all review articles. Articles meant to describe the state-of-the-art and serve as an introduction to the important work being done in a particular field. Someone trying to familiarize themselves with a new field will read these reviews first. And familiarizing yourself with a new field is hard. That’s why I like these titles so much. It’s the equivalent of the authors offering novices in the field a kind reassurance of “DONT PANIC.”

Rocks are heavy: transport costs and Poaleoarchaic quarry behavior in the Great Basin.

I learned about this paper just the other day while listening to Tides of History. In short, rocks are heavy and because their weight influences how they are prepared at the quarry before being taken to their destination. If home is far away, more work will be done on the rocks at the quarry to reduce their weight. It’s a great reminder of how important practical and seemingly mundane concerns have shaped human history.

Will Any Crap We Put On Graphene Increase Its Electrocatalytic Effect?

This article is a perspective. It’s similar to an op-ed in many ways. The authors did collect data to help make their argument, but the article is in many ways an opinion. In this case, their opinions concern graphene.

Graphene is an allotrope of carbon and is a popular thing to study these days. What makes graphene so interesting is its electrical conductivity. By adding other elements to graphene, a process known as doping, scientists can change these conductive properties. Doped graphenes are frequently studied for use as catalysts.

The authors of this paper basically argue that just about any element appears to increase the electrocatalytic efficiency of graphene and that many researchers who publish these results are looking to increase their publication count rather than contribute to their field. In order to make this point, the authors took bird droppings, added them to graphene, and observed an increase in its electrocatalytic effect.

I love this article. You can almost taste how salty the authors are.

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Win A Free Mug

I love coffee. I love mugs. I have far too many mugs. That shouldn’t be a surprise though, writers are basically required to own too many mugs and drink far too much coffee. Coffee is to writers what ants are to anteaters.

To celebrate the sacred bond between writers and their coffee, I have decided to hold a giveaway.

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Are you any good at Dungeons and Dragons?

Take this short and humorous quiz to find out!

Welcome to your Are you any good at D&D?

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The King hires you to slay a fearsome dragon, what is your plan?

Science for SciFi: Peer Review

When a research project reaches completion, the investigators often write up their results in a peer-reviewed journal. Once the investigators decide what journal is most appropriate for their research, they submit their paper, if the editor of the journal decides that the research has merit and is a good fit for the journal, they begin the peer review process.

For many scientists, the peer review process can be stressful and drawn out, sometimes for all parties involved. But the peer review process, despite its faults, is vital to ensuring that honest, quality research gets published.

It’s also likely to be a major source of stress for the scientists in your novel.

There are A LOT of memes about Reviewer 2 out there. Source

Article Anatomy

Each publisher and journal will have its own formatting guidelines. These are the essential bits. Sometimes results and discussion will be a single section and not separate.

Abstract – in science we pack the conclusions into the headline. Abstracts vary in length but are normally about a paragraph. An abstract’s job is to convince someone to read the entire article and to help put what follows into context. Writing an abstract is hard, in just a few sentences you need to explain why the research matters, how it was done, and what conclusions were made.

Introduction – this is (for me) the most fun part of the article to write. The introduction explains the basic principles of an article. An introduction should explain the motivations behind the research and what gap the research aims to fill.

Experimental/Materials and Methods – every journal puts this section in a different place within the article. For someone interested in learning the impact of the research this section is fairly boring, for someone who wants to judge how reliable the data is or replicate certain techniques, this section is essential. Experimental contains a list of what tools and materials were used, who manufactured them, and how they were prepared.

Results- this section explains the collected data in excruciating detail. The data is often supplemented by a variety of graphs and other diagrams.

Discussion – here is where the authors get to explain what the data means. This section is filled with explanation and interpretation.

Conclusion – these are short. Almost as short as the abstract. A conclusion should be short and sweet.

References – any claim that is not common knowledge for the audience or data gained from the research needs to be cited. This might include established experimental techniques, general background information, mathematical formulas, computer code, and so on.

How To Read An Article

How you read an article will depend on what you are trying to get from it. If you are trying to discern the salient points you will probably read the abstract to decide if you care about it. Then maybe the introduction, then the discussion and conclusion.

If you want to explain how the authors reached those conclusions you will spend a lot of time reading the experimental and results sections. You will want to know what they did, understand why, and try and see where the project’s weak points are. This can take a good deal of time and may require multiple readings of a single article.

If you want to know the current state of the field, then a single research article just won’t do. You might find many other sources from the reference list at the end of the article, but you’ll quickly find yourself falling down a rabbit hole. If you are new to a field, you will want to find a review article. A review article is meant to summarize the current state of a given field or subfield and will highlight that field’s important developments. These articles may have hundreds of references.

The Review Process

Once the authors submit a paper, the first thing the editor does is decide whether the article is suitable for their publication. Basically, does it fit the focus of the publication and does it have a large enough impact? Some journals are “high-impact” and some are not. But that is a discussion for another day.

If the paper makes it past this stage the article is sent to a set of reviewers. These reviewers are chosen because they are experts in the field. They are the authors’ “peers” and are likely to have the knowledge needed to evaluate the quality of the research.

These experts comment on the experiments, the data, and may suggest changes that need to be made before the paper is ready for publication. This is where many of the Reviewer 2 memes originate. Authors may often feel that a reviewer’s comments are unreasonable, or that they are trying to manipulate the authors for their own benefit. The good news here is that authors can respond to reviewer comments, and if they can convince the editor that the comments have been addressed then the article can be published.

The key thing to remember is that just because an article has gone through peer review does not mean that it is free of mistakes. A research article is the result of the best possible measurements and analyses that were possible at the time. Peer review means that a small group of experts has decided that the research has merit and that it is free of major flaws.

This doesn’t mean that there are no mistakes, that there is not a larger picture, or that better analysis or measurements won’t be done in the future. A single research paper tells just one small part of a larger journey of discovery.

Emotional Costs

The impact of one single paper is likely to be minuscule, but to the authors, it might well be everything. PI’s (principal investigators) are often established, professors. The other authors, however, are likely students. These students spend years working on a project that might result in just a handful of papers. For these students, the process can be very draining. No matter how “small” the project may be in the grand scheme of things, it has, by the time of publication, been a major part of their life.

For many in academia, publishing is everything. Publishing is how graduate students build a resume. And it’s how many professors achieve tenure. Research activity is frequently measured in publications and grants.

Scenarios

There are a lot of ways to write a scientist’s motivations. But based on what we have just talked about above I will provide a few examples. The examples in this list are for creative purposes only. These are WRITING PROMPTS, not recommendations or endorsements.

  • After years of “publish or perish” the character sees their self-worth only in terms of publications. They frequently overwork themselves and lose sleep in order to make progress.
  • Eager to increase their number of publications, the character divides their research into smaller and smaller chunks to get more papers out. This practice is sometimes called “salami slicing.” It’s frowned upon, but they hope that most observers will only see the publication count and not look much deeper.
  • Desperate to publish in a high-profile journal, the character begins to falsify or omit data. After getting away with it multiple times they think they are safe. Then, several years later, they are found out and their career crumbles around them.
  • The rat race of academia is too much. Fed up with the constant publish or perish mentality, the character decides to take a post at a teaching-focused institution. They publish a paper every few years, but what they really care about are the lives of the students they help shape.

Further Reading

I don’t have any book recomendations about the peer review process. However, peer review and publishing play big roles in the lives of scientists. So here are a couple books where you can learn about the history of science and the people who do it.

Science for SciFi: Poisons

This might seem like a bit of a repeat. After all, we just learned about a few natural weapons, right? Sort of. I talked a bit about how snake venom works, but I think it’s worth our time to learn a bit about toxicology. How do poisons work? How are they administered? Can toxicity be quantified? We’ll get to those answers in a minute. But before we start, let’s get two disclaimers out of the way. First, I am not a doctor and nothing you read here should be considered medical advice. Second, some fields distinguish between toxins and poisons. For the sake of simplicity, I will be using them interchangeably.

How do poisons work? Like we saw with snake venom, poisons work by interfering with the natural processes that happen constantly in your body to keep you alive. If you think about it we are really just a leather sack filled with water and chemical reactions. If anything interferes with those systems then we’re in for a bad time.

Measuring Toxicity

Death is in the dosage. Molecules that we need to sustain life can be toxic if we have too much, and molecules known to cause death might not hurt us at all if we have too little. Determining the amount and duration of exposure that results in toxicity can be tricky, but it’s an important consideration.

Two important considerations are acute versus chronic toxicity. Does the poison kill you immediately (acute), or over time with repeated exposure (chronic)? One measure of toxicity is LD50, often denoted in terms of milligrams per kilogram, which is defined as the median dose that kills 50% of the test population. Chronic exposure is something that workers in many industries need to worry about, but the assassins in your crime novel will be more concerned with acute exposure.

But measuring toxicity can be difficult. After all, it’s hard to find willing human subjects. The easiest way to test potential toxins is to see what they do to cells in a petri dish (in vitro). These experiments can reveal a lot, like the mechanism of toxicity (eg. does it block cell receptors or bind to DNA?) but cells in isolation are a poor model for living systems. Sure, maybe a chemical is toxic to liver cells, but if it never leaves the lungs after being inhaled then its effect may be limited. Large multicellular organisms are more than just individual cells, they are complex systems comprised of many cells with many functions. Toxins may then target a specific organ or grouping or organs depending on how the body processes them.

The best way to test toxicity is to use live animal models, but for obvious reasons, not everyone has the time, resources, or inclination to perform those tests.

How Bad Are Heavy Metals?

Mercury and lead are often thought of as extremely toxic, and for good reason, there are a great deal of environmental and health risks that arise from heavy metal pollution. However, just because something contains a heavy metal does not automatically make it dangerous.

The properties of metallic compounds vary greatly depending on their structure, makeup, and reactivity. For example, heavy metal chlorides may be toxic, but heavy metal oxides may be considerably less so.

Water solubility is a big factor here. If a compound cannot dissolve in water it’s going to have a hard time reaching target systems in the human body where it can do the most damage. But factors such as pH and any reactions the metals might undergo once inside the body can also play a role.

Predicting Toxicity

By now it should be clear that toxicity is hard to predict. It’s not just a matter of what a molecule contains, but what reactions that molecule undergoes inside the body which determines how dangerous it is and what kinds of damage it inflicts.

This is a problem for researchers because not all of the chemicals found within a lab will have been fully studied in terms of toxicity. Because of this, it’s easier to assume everything is dangerous and behave accordingly. That said, there are a few things that can be done to predict a molecule’s hazardous effects.

After a few years in the field, most chemists can intuit the reactivity of molecules based on their structure.

  1. Reactions that occur once released into the environment.
  2. Reactions that occur within biological systems.

For these reasons, predicting toxicity is not as straightforward as one might think, although knowledge of structure and reactivity can give us some clues. There have even been attempts to take known reactivity data, feed it into computers, and generate toxicity predictions. These efforts are unfortunately hampered by a general lack of data in many cases and the number of environmental and chemical variables that need to be considered. Even so, progress in this area is being made.

Famous Toxins

Arsenic – a poison that was favored by Agatha Christie, rat catchers, and stylists alike. Arsenic and arsenic-containing compounds have found many uses over the years as rat poisons, pigments, medicines, and more. Because of these many uses arsenic was once easy to come by and could be bought at many pharmacies. The really dangerous form of arsenic is arsenic oxides. Once inside the body, it disrupts the production of ATP, the molecule that our bodies use for fuel. Arsenic (III) oxides are similar in structure to the phosphates that our bodies use to make ATP and so our bodies try to use them instead. Without a regular supply of energy, cell death soon follows.

Capsaicin – do you really need to know why peppers feel hot on our tongues? Do you care? Maybe peppers won’t drop you dead, but the mechanism is fascinating and very useful to science fiction authors. Capsaicin targets neurons, specifically the vanilloid receptor. In practice, they cause the same sensation as heat. So they hurt, but they could hurt more if controlled by a mad scientist. This is actually my favorite toxin here, because in real life it is relatively harmless, but could be used by a writer in a lot of interesting ways. An alien plant for example, could have a much nastier variety of capsaicin for explorers to stumble upon.

Cyanide-cyanide is a classic. No spy would be caught dead without their cyanide capsule. Like arsenic, cyanide disrupts the production of ATP. In this case, however, it functions as an inhibitor that prevents the enzyme cytochrome c oxidase from doing its part in the ATP cycle. It should be noted, that in this case when we say cyanide we actually mean hydrogen cyanide (HCN). Cyano groups (CN) are common in many areas of chemistry, and hydrogen cyanide has many industrial uses.

Sarin – famous as a chemical warfare agent and a neurotoxin. Sarin acts quickly and can strike you dead in under ten minutes. Sarin is not too different from some of the snake venom we looked at a while back. Like our example there, Sarin works by inhibiting signals sent by nerve cells, but the mechanism is different. The key to sarin’s effectiveness is the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Sarin permanently binds to receptors and prevents muscle cells from correctly interpreting the acetylcholine signal. The victim’s muscles are then unable to process acetylcholine, hindering their movement, and the victim dies from asphyxiation soon after. Sarin is an organophosphorus chemical that evaporates quickly and is incredibly deadly.

Narrative Uses

Agatha Christie was famous for using accurate portrayals of real poisons in her mystery novels, so much so that an entire book was written about it. By doing this she was able to give her readers the chance to deduce the murderer and the means of murder before she revealed it. The clues were all there for anyone who wanted to puzzle it out.

Whatsmore, knowing what a poison is and what its other uses help to build more plausibility into your story. A worker at a chemical plant might have ample access to hydrogen cyanide, just like a pharmacist in Victorian England would have no trouble sourcing arsenic on the down-low. And of course, for you writers of science fiction, knowing about the mechanisms and effects of real-world poisons allow you to ground your fictional toxins in real science.

Sources

A Is For Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie. Kathryn Harkup.

Measurement and Estimation of Electrophilic Reactivity for Predictive Toxicology. Johannes A. H. Schwobel et al. Chemical Reviews. American Chemical Society. 2011.

Toxicity of Metal Compounds: Knowledge and Myths. Ksenia S. Egorova and Valentine P. Ananikov. Organometallics. American Chemical Society. 2017.