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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Reactions that occur once released into the environment.
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.
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.
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.
Everyone wants to be a wizard, right? You know, the squishy caster who cowers at the back of the party and throws fireballs through every open door?
Magic is at the heart of the fantasy genre, so it’s no surprise that writers and worldbuilders spent a lot of time designing their magic systems. It’s hard.
Designing a magic system is all about finding a balance between power and plot. The magic should empower characters and in some cases it may even resolve conflicts, or cause them.
The hardest part of designing a magic system is making it feel like it’s an integral part of the world. Magic is more than just a tool, in a world where magic exists it would become an integral part of religion, culture, maybe even science.
There are many, many varieties of magic you could make for your world. But one of the first things you should decide is whether you want a soft magic system or a hard magic system.
Soft Magic Systems
Soft magic is, well, magical. Soft magic systems have few defined rules and may not have formal spells. A practitioner of soft magic might be Gandalf for example. We know Gandalf is incredibly powerful, but we don’t really know what his limits are. Much of this is because he uses magic rarely, but you get the idea.
A soft magic system might draw power from creativity, psychic energy, or feelings. The limits of the caster may be defined by their physical or mental stamina. Soft magic systems are best for settings where the magic may be rare. In order to preserve the suspension of disbelief, a small number of practitioners who appear rarely or use their power sparingly. Otherwise the magic becomes a crutch and the audience will begin to lose interest.
Hard Magic Systems
Hard magic is hard because it has hard, defined rules. You could think of these magic systems as a bunch of “if then statements.” For example, Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn features practitioners who know that if they consume x metal they will gain y power.
Hard magic systems are great for settings where magic is common and will be used frequently. Set rules let your audience know what to expect, but they don’t have to be boring. Let’s say you magic has five core rules and each of these rules is used by most characters in just one way. This doesn’t mean your characters are limited to just five spells. New uses for magic can be interest by new combinations or applications of these five rules.
Which One Is Better?
I tend to prefer soft magic systems myself. I’m a big fan of The Force and of the magic of the Farsala Trilogy. But that doesn’t mean soft magic systems are the best. Hard magic can also be incredibly interesting. Just because magic has defined rules does not mean that it can’t be “mystical.” Rules don’t have to be explicitely shown to your audience. If your magic is consistent your audience will begin to pickup on what the rules are. In this case the rules are more for your own use to make sure that you do not get carried out.
In the end, whether you should go with a hard or soft system depends on your story and your story’s needs. How common do you want magic to be? How powerful? Who uses it? What is it good for?
What’s the best magic system you’ve seen? What was so great about it? Let me know in the comments below!
A room-temperature super conductor would revolutionize the energy industry and how we build electrical devices. But what is a superconductor? Why do we care whether it works at room temperature or not?
In short, a superconductor is a material that can conduct electricity without resistance.
Resistance is an important, and useful quality of many materials. Some things are just less conductive than others. Obviously for wires we want a low resistance, but for other components a higher resistance may be required. It’s the context and the application that mattes.
And there are some really cool applications for superconductors. But the equipment required to keep them at temperatures cold enough to maintain their superconductivity limits their use. But they have such potential!
Let’s get one thing out of the way first. When someone says “low-temperature superconductor” they mean superconductors that become superconductors at liquid helium temperatures. A “high-temperature superconductor” works at liquid nitrogen temperatures. The temperature at which a conductor becomes a superconductor is called its critical temperature.
So how do they work?
Gui et al. described superconductivity as “…a competing balance between stable geometric structures and unstable electronic structures.”1
A greatly simplified explanation of how superconductors work is that they enable the formation of Cooper pairs. Cooper pairs are pairs of electrons with opposite spins and momentum. These electrons are so strongly pairs that they move through a superconductor without resistance as their interactions with the atoms they encounter are too weak to break them apart.
Researchers seek to create new superconductors by searching for new combinations and arrangements of atoms that result in improved superconductors.
The geometry of a molecule plays a massive role in it’s properties, and this extends to . This is because bonds between atoms are made by paired electrons, and pairs so electrons repel other pairs of electrons. Electronegativity, bond angle and length can thus influence the energy level of electrons around the nucleus and in the crystal structures that the atoms and molecule are a part of.
If we ever find a naturally occurring superconductor on another planet it will probably be an alloy or crystal structure caused by local conditions. We might for example find a rare allotrope of a previously discovered metal. So rather than mining it like in James Cameron’s movie about blue people, we would probably find a way to make it ourselves before too long.
Superconductors are already used to make the magnets in MRI/NMR machines where stronger magnets provide higher levels of resolution. They are also used to build the transistors used in experimental computers, and to build some maglev trains and superconducting power lines. However, as long as specialized cooling systems are required for these applications, we will not be able to reap the full benefits that superconductivity offers.
Once achieved, room-temperature super conductors would change everything, and could enable many of the technologies in your setting’s space ships. Perhaps the star drive is built around a superconducting warp coil, and in order to conserve reaction mass the ship is wired with superconducting cables, and superconducting antennas are used to pick up weak signals sent from distant stars.
“Chemistry in Superconductors” 2021. Chemical Reviews. American chemical Society.
If you’ve ever played Stardew Valley then you know how important it is to keep your energy up while you’re working in the fields. I’ve always thought that some of the things, like eating flowers to get energy, is a little weird. But coffee, now that’s REALISM.
I love Lego, and I love mugs, so this one seems like one I need to have. I am a little curious how it holds up to the heat, but it would still have a good display piece. Plus I could use all my spare pieces.
I don’t get some of these references, but I’m not an engineer. I do like to make fun of engineers though. Mainly because they can make more money with a bachelors than I will be able to make with a PhD. It’s okay though, I’m not bitter or anything. Unlike coffee.
I’ve been working on a new setting. It’s a grimdark science fantasy setting inspired by Frank Herbert’s Dune. I will not offer specifics at this time.
But I have had ideas for a planet. A planet that is relatively young and dominated by volcanoes and magma flows. This planet is called Corsan.
The humans on this planet care most about the valuable ores that are continuously pushed to the surface by the constant eruptions. The ruling class live in large citadels, anchored to the planet’s crush by deep pylons.
From their citadels they reap the profits of an army of slave and convict workers who are forced to work the dangerous lava fields. These workers are in turn watched over by an army of cloned janissaries.
Constant eruptions make mining easy, and this planet excels in the production of weapons and ships. But this planet’s population remains low. Too low to risk open war.
What scares the rest of the Empire is this world’s willingness to depend on clone soldiers.
Clone is not the right word, but the best word. The Citadels do not just grow soldiers. They grow servants and maids and gardeners and whatever else they need. These clones are very expensive, which is why House Gravin refuses to use clones in the mines.
To do this they do not draw on any one genome. They pick and choose from the specimens that enter their prisons. Because of this their clones are not true clones. Their clones are amalgams of those who pass through. From one batch to the next there are subtle differences introduced by the engineers. But no matter the differences all are unflinchingly loyal to House Gravin.
The most concerning part of this is therefor not the number of clone soldiers, but the potential of the clone soldiers if House Gravin ever decides to grow more.
So why does this planet matter?
Well, it doesn’t. Not in intrinsic worth at least. House Gravin buys criminals from other houses. These criminals are then set to work in House Gravin’s mine for a much shorter term than they would have served otherwise. But the real value is in the genes.
House Gracin depends on cloned soldiers. Something that most other houses would not want to risk. By bringing in greater amounts of genetic stock the House’s gene wizards have more choices to choose from.
There are some places on this planet that remain free. Escaped prisoners and occasional escaped clones have found refuge in the poles of the planet. In these relatively cool areas they have made their home in the empty magma tubes. They sell ore to smugglers and hunt native insectoid lifeforms for sustenance. Their lives are hard, but they live their lives the way they want to.
House Gravin is brutal, but I think I could imagine brutal-er. This setting is still in its early phases, and there is a lot of room to grow. What kind of house would you imagine? Let me know on twitter @expyblg.
Picture this. You’re an imperial guardsman in service to the Imperium of Mankind and the Tyranids have come knocking. They’re coming for you now. As you stand ready in your trench, lasgun in hand you wonder; what are they made of?
There are a few options.
Sugars are a lot stronger than they get credit for. When you think of sugar you might be thinking of the fructose and sucrose in our food. These are all longer chains of glucose, a small sugar molecule that is used by many living things as fuel and as an important building material. Even cellulose is a sugar.
And chitin is, you guessed it, a sugar.
It might seem strange to think that the white powder on your donut can be a part of the same material found in insect exoskeletons. But it’s really not that unusual.
Chitin is a polymer, more specifically a polysaccharide. It’s made of many smaller subunits of modified glucose. Along each unit is weak, but together they form long chains capable of aggregating to form materials that are much stronger than the individual parts.
Chitin currently has multiple uses in agriculture and industry. It can be used to make edible films and strengthen paper. Or it can be used by farmers to trigger immune responses in plants to protect against insects. There are also potential applications for chitin in medicine, biodegradable plastics, and building on Mars.
Now what if you live on a planet without trees and other plants? Maybe the natives consist of giant armored insects and walking mushrooms. What will you wear? You could kill one of the insects and wear it’s shell, but I like to think that you would be more creative. After a few years living on the planet you and your people might find a way to take the chitin plates of the local insects and spin them into durable fibers for making clothes and all sorts of tools.
If you read the first post in this series you’ll remember that proteins are how living things do stuff. Your hair and nails? That’s protein. You might think that because you can cut both with scissors that keratin is weak.
You’d be wrong.
Others in the animal kingdom put their keratin to much better use. Scales are made of keratin and so are claws and horns.
There are two kinds of keratin, alpha and beta. Keratin is a helical protein, it forms long strange and curls around itself. Alpha and beta refer to the direction of the curl. Mammals and certain fish have alpha keratin, reptiles and others have beta.
One thing that makes keratin especially strong is the disulfide bonds between the keratin strands. Bonds like this between polymer strands is called cross-linking. Besides being used in our bodies, cross-linking is often employed by polymer chemists to create strong and resilient materials.
Venom is used by many animals for defence and attack, and you do not want to be on the receiving end. There are three ways that venom can inflict pain; it can kill cells, it can target nerves, or it can target muscles.
Obviously there are many different kinds of venom. Not all will kill humans, at least not without a lot of it. But there are some horrifying ways that they can kill a human if they do. Venom can kill cells, target the nervous systems, or target muscles.
According to “Snake venom components and their applications in biomedicine” by Koh et al., neurotoxins are the most studied class of snake venoms. One of these neurotoxins are the alpha-neurotoxins which specifically target nicotine acetylcoline receptors.
Receptors are specific proteins on the outside of cells designed bind to specific chemicals. You can think of receptors as sensors on the outside of a cell and they are how cells communicate through chemical signals. By blocking these receptors, alpha-neurotoxins prevent the normal function of these nerve cells, and death follows soon after.
You might be surprised to know that while these toxins are deadly they also have uses in healing. Receptors are incredibly important in biology. It’s hard to understate just how important these are. Because these toxins are so specific to certain receptors they are very useful for for figuring out what those receptors do. For example, in biochemical research it is common to block a receptor and see what happens to the cells after they have been deprived of it’s use. This data then yields important clues to the function of that receptor.
But there’s more. When used in the right dose, these neurotoxins can reduce inflammation and pain. So these toxins can not only cause pain, but show us how to negate them. If they are used carefully.
Now let’s return to you, the guardsman. You’re stuck in your trench. First come the small beasts, ferrocious dog-like things. They’re soft and they fall easily to your lasguns but there are too many of them. They dive into your trench and tear your friends apart with their keratin claws. You think one is coming for you, but before it can sink it’s claws into you feel yourself picked up by a pair of chitinous claws.
You look up. Above you is gaping maw flanked by two horrible mandibles. A pointed tongue flicks out and pierces your skin. Your blood congeals and turns to jelly and slowly every fades as you are pulled into it’s jaw…
For the past year I’ve been playing a real time strategy game called Age of Empires II Definitive Edition with a group of friends on the weekend. Let me be clear, I am terrible at this game, but I have gotten less terrible as time went on. Here are five things I’ve learned.
1. Your friends will always hurt you.
There can only be one winner. Their are no true allies, no peace, just truces. Other players might be helping you at the moment, but at soon as they get the chance they’ll destroy your town center while you’re off fighting their battles.
2. Attack early.
This is a mistake I make a lot. RTSgames are about gathering resources. If you gather a lot of resources you can buy a lot of army. It’s easy to think that you have time at the begining to grow your strength, but you should always be prepared to fight. A handful of combat units in the early game is often enough to convince would-be attackers to find someone else to pick on. Why is this important? Because a small disruption in your economy can cause huge disruption later on. For this reason it’s also worth attacking your openent’s farmers and other workers if you get the chance. It will give you an excellent chance to move ahead.
3. Always hurt your friends.
Remember, there are no friends here. Once they have outlived their usefulness you should dispatch them quickly. It’s easy to get distracted by the bigger enemy. Use the time you have to position troops near your Ally if possible and do it carefully. If you unally and attack quietly you will have a brief window where the other player’s units won’t attack because they still have you set to “Ally.”
4. Don’t ignore the quiet ones.
Sometimes a player will find a quiet corner of the map and fortify. While the other players do battle they will build up their armies and their resources in order to sweep the map clean. Do not let them do this. Even if you are not in a position to make an all out attack, you should send scouts or raiding parties so that you know what they are up to and can be ready to respond.
5. Spain delenda est
Spanish villagers are stronger than the villagers of other factions, and as a game progresses there are multiple upgrades that make them even stronger. Rather than building a military a player using the Spanish can build up a large population and attack when their enemies have their guard down. If your friend picks Spanish just destroy them. Don’t wait, don’t show mercy. Kill all their people and salt the fields.
I like small businesses. I like shopping at small businesses, I like supporting small businesses, and my late father owned a small business that I worked in for many years.
Yet small businesses, or rather small business owners, have a way of grinding my gears. Loud complaints about the primacy of Amazon or credit card fees have always sounded disingenuous to me. Not that I don’t understand them. Competing with larger companies is difficult, and doing business can be expensive. But sometimes these complaints veer into “woe is me” territory when voiced by business owners who are honestly just bad business owners.
Summarizing all these thoughts was hard for me for a long time, mostly because of my own biases. Then, awhile back, I listened to episode 111 of Citations Needed.
The hosts of this podcast are very left-leaning, and not everyone reading this will agree with them. However, they make a few points that I think most people will agree with. That is, that much of the rhetoric surrounding small businesses, especially in politics, takes advantage of the fact that the public has a very different idea of what constitutes a small business. Furthermore, this rhetoric assumes that small businesses have a right to exist.
Do not get me wrong. I love walking down mainstreet and see healthy, vibrant, local shops and restaurants, but they are not good businesses simply because they are small. A small business can be just as bad for its employees and for its community as the big corporate chain that just moved in.
So, let’s keep in mind a few things.
Small businesses are not an inherent good.
Owning a small business does not automatically make the owner a skilled businessperson.
A small business does not inherently benefit its community.
Which leads quite nicely into what a small business should aim to do.
Fill some need in the community.
Provide opportunities for members of the community.
Contribute to the betterment of the community.
Business owners can be hardworking, yes, but they can also be entitled. Everyone likes the idea of supporting a small business and for good reason. It’s not some huge faceless entity with its headquarters on the other side of the country, it’s a small shop just down the street. But that does not mean that it deserves to exist.
For me, there are basically two reasons that I would judge as small business to be a bad business.
The first is one that does not fill a gap in its community. If a town has six dress shops does it need a seventh? What makes them superior to the previous six? Competition is a good thing, but if rows of cookie cutter businesses take up space that could be put to better use by better businesses.
The second is one where the owner does not properly credit, support, and compensate their employees. Money at small businesses is tight, often they cannot pay their employees as much or offer as many benefits, but they should offer something. Many businesses owners work hard, but few of them would be able to keep their businesses afloat were it not for their employees. If they cannot offer pay to their employees they should offer something. Community, mentorship, cammeraderie, flexibility. A business owner and employee should have a symbiotic relationship. They don’t both need to get the same thing, but they both need to get something.
The problem in both of these cases, are the owners who feel entitled. They feel entitled to have employees, they feel entitled to be business owners. They wrap their dreams on entrepreneurship so tightly around their identities that they fail to see that it’s their dream. Their employees don’t want to work misserable hours for misserable pay so that the business will succeed in ten years. Their employees need to eat.
Many new businesses go out of business quickly, many bad businesses stay in business longer than they deserve. Only businesses whose owners understand and value their place in the community deserve to stay in business. Rather than begging you not to support Amazon and other online retailers, small business should offer something more than online retailers. A book store should also be a gathering place. An art shop a place to get advice. A music store a place to explore new skills and talents.
Not all business live up to these standards. Too many expect the community to subsidize the egos of their owners. Inevitably, they blame Amazon and minimum wage and rent and taxes and credit cards fees when instead they should blame themselves.
But the fact is, business owners and employees and communities exist in a symbiotic relationship. A business is not just a chance to make money, it’s a chance to make a difference and contribute to the community.
Writers want their smart characters to sound smart. Making a character sound smart sounds hard. But really it just requires a surface-level understanding of the topics and an understanding of keywords.
As a scientist (a chemist) and a writer, I understand this challenge well. So I thought I would help by explaining some basic concepts, keywords, and tools used by scientists. This will be the first in a series of posts highlighting interesting parts of science (mainly chemistry) for writers looking to beef up their technobabble.
My own experience and knowledge of chemistry has biased much of this. My fellow scientists who are reading this and feel their favorite topics have been ignored can resolve this grievance by submitting a guest post or leaving a comment.
The “Three” Branches of Science
There are three basic branches of science, but each of them has many subfields and specialties each with it’s own quirks, norms, and standards. Do not mistake these fields as exclusive. Each field may have it’s own focus but in truth the are better at denoting specialties than limits. The lines that separate these fields are becoming blurrier as time goes on and science becomes increasingly interdisciplinary.
Physics – the “most fundamental science” according to Wikipedia. Physics aims to study force, energy, and motion to understand the fundamental laws of the universe.
Chemistry – the “central science.” Chemistry fills a space between physics and biology. Sometimes it is hard to determine where one begins and the other ends. In general, chemistry is concerned with reactions between different chemicals, or analysis of chemicals and their behaviors.
Biology – this field is concerned with the study of living things. Many think of counting fruit flies and dissecting frogs when they think of biology. Much of modern biology shares techniques with biochemistry as scientists have tried to pull apart the secrets of smaller and smaller systems.
Accurate – often confused with precise. To say that something is accurate assumes that there is a “true” value.
Aliquot – a very specific portion taken from a larger sample of liquid sample.
Amino Acids – amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. There are twenty common amino acids and all share some common structural features.
Atoms – atoms consist of a nucleus containing protons and neutrons, and are surrounded by a collection of “orbitals” where the atom’s electrons are found. An atom is composed primarily of empty space.
Atomic Orbitals – regions of space around an atom where an electron is likely to be. Orbitals that farther away from the nucleus contain higher energy electrons.
Bacteria – ubiquitous and mostly harmless microorganisms. Normally we only care about bacteria when we are sick. Bacteria inside our bodies perform many vital functions that are not completely understood.
Deoxyribonucleic Acid – nature’s data storage. DNA tells cells how to build the proteins that keep them functioning.
Elements – an element is a pure substance that contains only one type of atom (not counting isotopes). Elements can now be created artificially. Many of these are unstable and decay quickly, but some researchers have speculated about a potential “island of stability” hiding among the undiscovered high-mass artificial elements.
Evolution – the theory of evolution is a theory, as far too many would like to say. You can read more about that later. But it’s worth remembered that evolution is a fact. If you can’t wait a few million years you can watch it happen in a petri dish. The Theory of Evolution is simply out best explanation of how it works. Another vital thing to remember is that evolution has no pre-determined direction. “Good enough” is enough for nature.
Functional Groups – a segment of a molecule that determines is properties in a reaction. Examples of functional groups include hydroxyl groups, carbonyls, and much more.
Hypothesis – a hypothesis is an educated guess. A scientist takes known information and uses this information to predict what will happen in their experiments.
Inorganic Molecules – defined simply as “not organic,” inorganic molecules can contain both metals and non-metals.
Ions – ions are atoms that have lost or gained electrons and have a positive or negative charge as a result. Paired positive and negative ions form ionic salts.
Isotopes – isotopes are rarer forms of elements that differ in the number of neutrons contained in their nucleus. Natural samples contain a mix of isotopes in different rations depending on purity. Isotopes will vary in atomic mass and stability. These properties make isotopes useful in many applications.
Law – a law describes a known truth about the universe. Theories explain how laws work, laws do not change when a new theory is devised.
Light – both a wave and a particle. Light is a form of electromagnetic radiation. Light interacts with matter in a myriad of interesting ways. Scientists often take advantage of these interactions to study properties of matter that are invisible to the naked eye.
Molecules – molecules are built from atoms. Most things we interact with are some kind of molecule. Bonds within molecules are the result of interactions between electrons and atomic orbitals.
Organic Molecules – the components of gasoline are organic. Organic molecules make up all living things on earth and many dead or inert things as well. Carbon and hydrogen are the primary elements that make up organic molecules.
Peer Review – When a scientists completes a project they write up the results and submit it to a relevant journal in their field. The editor at that journal decides whether the topic is relevant to their publication. If it is, they send the article to reviewers, who are normally other experts in the field. These reviewers look at the article, comment on its merit, and specify what in the article needs to be changed or corrected. An article might go through multiple rounds of corrections before the reviewers decide it is worthy of publication.
Precise – often confused with accurate. Precision is about consistency. Repeated measurements of similar value are said to be precise. We can’t always expect to be accurate, so we aim to be precise instead.
Precipitate – a precipitate is a solid that forms out of a solution.
Proteins – these are how living cells do things. Proteins serve as structural elements, transport molecules, catalysts, and many other things.
Polymers – large chains of molecules constructed from smaller subunits called monomers. Polymers have many useful properties. Kevlar, nylon, spider silk, cellulose, and all plastics are polymers.
Redox Reactions – redox reactions are a huge part of chemistry and biology. The word redox comes from the two related reactions, reduction and oxidation, that are part of every redox system. A useful mnemonic is LEO the lion says GER. Lose Electrons = Oxidation. Gain Electrons = Reduction.
Ribonucleic Acid – DNA’s less popular cousin. RNA carries out several functions inside of a cell. For example, mRNA carries instructions from the nucleus to the ribosome.
Solutions – solutions are everywhere. Solutions have two parts; the solute and the solvent. The solute is a solid that dissolves into a liquid, the solvent. A good rule of thumb when making solutions is that like dissolves like. Polar compounds dissolve in polar solvents, nonpolar compounds dissolve in nonpolar solvents.
Theory – these explain how a particular phenomenon works and why.
Viruses – bits of DNA or RNA bundled up in a shell of proteins and sometimes lipids. Viruses can only survive for a short time outside of a host and reproduce by hijacking the machinery inside of host cells to make more of themselves.
Qualitative – qualitative measurements are somewhat vague. They care about quantities like bigger, smaller, lesser, greater, and so on.
Quantitative – quantitative measurements are exact. They yield a specific number and should have all kinds of statistical analysis to go alongside them.
Quantum – science fiction writers frequently abuse this word. Which is understandable, many trained and experience scientists struggle to grapple with quantum physics because of how unintuitive it is. At this scale the classical physics described by Newton is no longer adequate to model what we observe. So we have a separate branch of physics called quantum physics to describe the behavior of particles on the subatomic scale. Quantum physics is based on probabilities and energy. We can’t nail down the precise location of an electron, but we can determine where it is most likely to be.
Common Laboratory Tools
Balances – many people will recognize these as scales. Many classrooms still used old fashioned balances not unlike the scales found in a doctor’s office. Modern laboratory balances are electronic and can measure mass with a high degree of accuracy.
Dewar – a vacuum insulated container that can be filled with liquid nitrogen, dry ice, or ice water. A dewar is useful for a keeping a sample cold for extended periods.
Gloves – there are two reasons to wear gloves. To protect the scientist from the sample, or to protect the sample from the scientist. The same properties that make many chemicals useful also make them dangerous to human life. Just like many bacteria and viruses that are of interest to scientists are also dangerous. In other cases it is the scientist who could damage the sample. Humans are full of DNA, proteins, and all sorts of other things that could contaminate biological and forensic samples. Gloves are an important part of this. Another important thing to remember about gloves is that the material matters. Nitrile gloves are probably the most common but not all chemicals are compatible with nitrile. Some chemicals may breakdown nitrile or soak right through. Gloves made of other materials are available for those instances.
Glove Boxes – for samples that must be rigorously protected from oxygen, or for samples that may be dangerous to the user, glove boxes are the best option. Glove boxes are exactly what the sound like. A large box, with a glass window and a pair of large rubber gloves. The inside of a glove box is filled with an inert gas like argon or nitrogen.
Heating Mantle – chemists use heating mantles to drive chemical reactions by converting electricity into heat. Heating mantles are controlled by a variac that regulates the supplied voltage. Some heating mantles have a built-in variac, but in most cases the variac is a separate component. Heating mantles are often placed on top of magnetic stir plates.
Hot Plates/Stir Plates – hot plates are another option for heating solutions and materials in lab. Many have a built-in magnetic stirring function that can make a magnetic stir bar inside the reaction vessel spin.
Mortar and Pestle – a frequent component of imagined alchemy labs. Mortar’s and pestles remain useful tools in chemistry and biology labs.
Pipettes – pipettes transfer small volumes of liquids. Some pipettes are carefully calibrated, others are little more than fancy eye droppers.
Spatulas – spatulas are used to move solid chemicals from one place to the other. For example, from the bottle to a balance or from a weigh boat to a reaction flask. Metal spatulas will be common to most undergraduate, but some labs use disposable plastic spatulas.
Syringes – syringes are incredible useful. Biologists may find many uses for syringes in drawing blood or injecting drugs. Syringes are used to work on air free reactions. Syringes are fantastic for piercing septums and adding or subtracting aliquots with minimal interference from surrounding oxygen.
Common Laboratory Instruments and Techniques
Some instruments are available from commercial sources for thousands or millions of dollars. Others are so specific that they need to be custom built by the user.
Centrifugation – centrifuges separate sample components by density. The centrifugal force causes high density sample components to move outward and form layers.
Chromatography – chromatography separates sample components. All chromatography involves a mobile phase and a stationary phase. The mobile phase carries the sample through the stationary phase. As the sample interacts with the solid phase it becomes separated into its components. Many techniques pair chromatography with another analytical technique such a spectroscopy or mass spectrometry.
Electrophoresis – electrophoresis describes the movement of charged particles in an electric field. Multiple separation techniques use electrophoresis to separate sample components such as gel electrophoresis or capillary electrophoresis.
Fluorescence Spectroscopy – some molecules absorb light at one wavelength and emit light at another. Fluorescence is useful in many instances and especially in biology and biochemistry. The strong signal given by fluorescence makes it easy to distinguish from background noise. This is its main advantage over absorbance spectroscopy.
Infrared Spectroscopy (IR) -heat is transmitted through infrared waves. When those waves hit a molecule, parts of that molecule vibrate in characteristic ways. These vibrations are like finger prints for different functional groups.
Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy(NMR) – probably one of the most useful instruments in modern chemistry. Nuclear Magnetic Resonance takes advantage of the “spin” that is an inherent property of subatomic molecules like protons and electrons. Basically they behave like tiny magnets. An individual spin has a value of either +1 or -1 and when opposite spins are paired these spins cancel each other. Certain isotopes of common elements have an odd number of subatomic particles in their nucleus resulting in a non-zero spin. NMR works by placing a sample inside of a magnetic field. The unpaired spins then align with the field and the instrument hits the sample with radio waves of a specific frequency. The unpaired spins then flip as they absorb the energy from the radio waves and release energy as they return to their original orientation. The environment surrounding each unpaired spin affects the signal they emit, allowing us to determine the structure of molecules. Proton and Carbon 13 NMR are most common, but isotopes of Oxygen, Fluorine, Phosphorus, and more can also be targeted. Special, expensive solvents have to be used for liquid samples to avoid interferance. The same technology is also used in MRI except in this case the density of spins is used rather than the individual behavior of those spins.
Mass Spectrometry(MS) – another incredibly useful instrument in modern science. Mass spectrometry begins by injecting a sample, ionizing it, and shooting it at a charged plate. This results in peaks that show us the mass-to-charge ratio. Mass spectrometry can do a lot. So much that mass spectrometry research almost constitutes its own subfield, but it is useful to all other niches of chemistry.
Ultraviolent/Visible Spectroscopy(UV/Vis) – UV/Vis instruments are used to study a sample’s interactions with light in the visible and ultraviolet range. There are two basic types of readings we can get from this: absorbance and transmission. Absorbance is how much light the sample absorbs, transmission is how much light passes through the sample. Accurate readings depend on knowing the emission profile of the light source. Basic instruments assume that this profile is constant, more sophisticated instruments take constant readings of the light source. Interference in these experiments may come from fluorescence in the sample or form surrounding light sources.
X-Ray Spectroscopy – of all the electromagnetic waves X-Rays contain the most energy and are the most destructive. These high energy rays frequently ignore anything outside the nucleus. Various forms of X-Ray spectroscopy are used to determine the structures of solid crystals and identifying the elements and isotopes in a sample.