I wrote a short explanation of how superconductors work a few months back. Then I came across this excellent write-up over on The Conversation that explains why high-temperature superconductors would be so revolutionary.
Physicists hunt for room-temperature superconductors that could revolutionize the world’s energy system
Waste heat is all around you. On a small scale, if your phone or laptop feels warm, that’s because some of the energy powering the device is being transformed into unwanted heat.
On a larger scale, electric grids, such as high power lines, lose over 5% of their energy in the process of transmission. In an electric power industry that generated more than US$400 billion in 2018, that’s a tremendous amount of wasted money.
Globally, the computer systems of Google, Microsoft, Facebook and others require enormous amounts of energy to power massive cloud servers and data centers. Even more energy, to power water and air cooling systems, is required to offset the heat generated by these computers.
Where does this wasted heat come from? Electrons. These elementary particles of an atom move around and interact with other electrons and atoms. Because they have an electric charge, as they move through a material – like metals, which can easily conduct electricity – they scatter off other atoms and generate heat.
Superconductors are materials that address this problem by allowing energy to flow efficiently through them without generating unwanted heat. They have great potential and many cost-effective applications. They operate magnetically levitated trains, generate magnetic fields for MRI machines and recently have been used to build quantum computers, though a fully operating one does not yet exist.
But superconductors have an essential problem when it comes to other practical applications: They operate at ultra-low temperatures. There are no room-temperature superconductors. That “room-temperature” part is what scientists have been working on for more than a century. Billions of dollars have funded research to solve this problem. Scientists around the world, including me, are trying to understand the physics of superconductors and how they can be enhanced.
Understanding the mechanism
A superconductor is a material, such as a pure metal like aluminum or lead, that when cooled to ultra-low temperatures allows electricity to move through it with absolutely zero resistance. How a material becomes a superconductor at the microscopic level is not a simple question. It took the scientific community 45 years to understand and formulate a successful theory of superconductivity in 1956.
While physicists researched an understanding of the mechanisms of superconductivity, chemists mixed different elements, such as the rare metal niobium and tin, and tried recipes guided by other experiments to discover new and stronger superconductors. There was progress, but mostly incremental.
Simply put, superconductivity occurs when two electrons bind together at low temperatures. They form the building block of superconductors, the Cooper pair. Elementary physics and chemistry tell us that electrons repel each other. This holds true even for a potential superconductor like lead when it is above a certain temperature.
When the temperature falls to a certain point, though, the electrons become more amenable to pairing up. Instead of one electron opposing the other, a kind of “glue” emerges to hold them together.
Keeping matter cool
Discovered in 1911, the first superconductor was mercury (Hg), the basic element of old-fashioned thermometers. In order for mercury to become a superconductor, it had to be cooled to ultra-low temperatures. Kamerlingh Onnes was the first scientist who figured out exactly how to do that – by compressing and liquefying helium gas. During the process, once helium gas becomes a liquid, the temperature drops to -452 degrees Fahrenheit.
When Onnes was experimenting with mercury, he discovered that when it was placed inside a liquid helium container and cooled to very low temperatures, its electric resistance, the opposition of the electric current in the material, suddenly dropped to zero ohms, a unit of measurement that describes resistance. Not close to zero, but zero exactly. No resistance, no heat waste.
This meant that an electric current, once generated, would flow continuously with nothing to stop it, at least in the lab. Many superconducting materials were soon discovered, but practical applications were another matter.
These superconductors shared one problem – they needed to be cooled down. The amount of energy needed to cool a material down to its superconducting state was too expensive for daily applications. By the early 1980s, the research on superconductors had nearly reached its conclusion.
A surprising discovery
In a dramatic turn of events, a new kind of superconductor material was discovered in 1987 at IBM in Zurich, Switzerland. Within months, superconductors operating at less extreme temperatures were being synthesized globally. The material was a kind of a ceramic.
These new ceramic superconductors were made of copper and oxygen mixed with other elements such as lanthanum, barium and bismuth. They contradicted everything physicists thought they knew about making superconductors. Researchers had been looking for very good conductors, yet these ceramics were nearly insulators, meaning that very little electrical current can flow through. Magnetism destroyed conventional superconductors, yet these were themselves magnets.
Scientists were seeking materials where electrons were free to move around, yet in these materials, the electrons were locked in and confined. The scientists at IBM, Alex Müller and Georg Bednorz, had actually discovered a new kind of superconductor. These were the high-temperature superconductors. And they played by their own rules.
Scientists now have a new challenge. Three decades after the high-temperature superconductors were discovered, we are still struggling to understand how they work at the microscopic level. Creative experiments are being conducted every day in universities and research labs around the world.
In my laboratory, we have built a microscope known as a scanning tunneling microscope that helps our research team “see” the electrons at the surface of the material. This allows us to understand how electrons bind and form superconductivity at an atomic scale.
We have come a long way in our research and now know that electrons also pair up in these high-temperature superconductors. There is great value and utility in answering how high-temperature superconductors work because that may be the route to room-temperature superconductivity. If we succeed in making a room-temperature superconductor, then we can address the billions of dollars that it costs in wasted heat to transmit energy from power plants to cities.
More remarkably, solar energy harvested in the vast empty deserts around the world could be stored and transmitted without any loss of energy, which could power cities and dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The potential is hard to imagine. Finding the glue for room-temperature superconductors is the next million-dollar question.
I do too. One of the great joys of science fiction on screen is watching giant capital ships pound the snot out of each other. I’m here today to talk about how you can make that happen in your own work!
There are a lot of ways for space combat to take place in science fiction that depends heavily on technology levels and on how much you decide to treat space like an ocean. In a hyper-advanced setting like that found in the culture novels, combat will take seconds at most and will be handled entirely by AI. Then there’s the other end of the scale where ships pull up next to each other to exchange broadsides. I’m going to choose to talk about space combat in a setting like The Expanse or Revelation Space. Universes where there are some fantastical elements but are also grounded in reality.
Shootouts Across Space And Time
Space is really big. It’s had to really describe just how big it is. The human brain really isn’t designed to comprehend the sheer scale of space. And when I say big I mean big,you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.
With the scales involved, it’s worth considering what distances combat between ships takes place at. It’s had to hide in space since space is very cold and ships are very hot surprise attacks are bound to be difficult unless the side doing the surprising has time to set a trap. In most situations, your characters will have advanced warnings of their attackers. This doesn’t mean that you can’t have tension though. Two ships could be barreling towards each other for days or weeks before they get close enough to exchange their first blows. And that’s where time and space come in.
With spacecraft moving as fast as they do it’s not enough to know where a target is, but where it will be. Remembering the fact that light does not travel instantly it’s important to keep in mind that a ship’s view of where its target is is actually where it was.
These distances and information delays mean that your characters might need to wait hours or days to find out if the missile they just fired ever hits its target. Or if shots have been fired in their direction.
Doing Damage The Conventional Way
There are a lot of possible weapons but I am going to focus on the three that the expanse uses; missiles, rail cannons, and point defense cannons (PDCs). Lasers are cool too and should be considered, I’m a fan of grasers myself, but a lot of the same limitations for the other three will apply to lasers too.
In the case of all three, it’s important to remember that humans will have very little to do with their aiming and firing. Humans will pick targets and perform maintenance, but it makes much more sense to leave the actual operations to computers.
Missiles are going to be very useful, especially if they allow the warheads to be replaced with other payloads and come equipped with sophisticated targeting and guidance computers. Missiles have a few things going for them
They can survive a lot more gees than a human can so they’ll probably catch up to whatever they are fired at.
They can be programmed to take complex paths to their targets.
They can adjust course midflight.
Components can be adjusted to change yield or pupose (ex. makeshift sensor pod).
They don’t need to actually hit their targets, just get as close as the given payload requires.
Missiles aren’t perfect though. Their engines are probably going to create a fair bit of heat, although cold gas thrusters might be useful in some cases. Most of a target’s PDC’s are going to be aimed at them in an attempt to blow them up before reaching effective range. There are ways to get past this. But a lot of combat between capital ships is going to be either firing missiles at long range or trying to detect and intercept missiles at long range.
I know, I know. Shouldn’t these be outdated? Shouldn’t missiles be so much better? Well, yes, they should. But strangely, depending on the technological capabilities of your setting, a solid projectile fired at relativistic speeds actually works pretty well.
Compared to missiles they are going to give the users less control after firing, but they are going to be harder to detect and harder to hit. Sure the enemy can look at where your cannon is pointed, but with the speed of light considered will probably be a few minutes old. That’s a lot of time to adjust your aim. And on account of not having a tail of hot plasma or ions, it’s going to be a lot harder to detect.
Now, a great deal of how useful rail cannons are will depend on the technology available in your setting. Here are a few examples.
Energy is plentiful and components are compact. This allows a ship to have multiple cannons that are each able to fire projectiles at relativisitc speeds.
Energy is plentiful but components are bulky. A ship has one or two rail cannons that are large and obvious to attackers. May or may not fire projectiles at relativistic speeds.
Energy is not plentiful and components are bulky. A ship can only fire ocassionally. The one or two railguns on board need time to charge their capacitors between volleys.
Point Defence Cannons
Remember what I said about giving AI control of the weapons? PDCS are probably entirely controlled by AI. Missiles and rail cannons at least have humans picking targets and maybe picking approaches, but PDCs need to be much faster than that.
PDCs need to fire a lot of small projectiles quickly. The idea is to increase the odds that they hit the missiles or boarding shuttles that they are meant to be intercepting. The projectiles might be mildly explosive, the equivalent of flak shells, or simple solid slugs. And that’s really all I have to say about that. Here are some examples of different use cases.
In order to disable or indimidate another ship the crew manually desigates a handful of PDC bursts.
Where sensors are not able to track missiles in real time, the crew selects different interception algorithmns based on what parts of the ship they think are being targeted.
Dedicated to the mission above all else, the crew instructs the ship’s computers to prioritize the PDCs to cover only the most critical systems.
With limiting sensing and control technology PDCs are programmed to fire in a wide cone aimed by a human opperator.
Computers and sensors are advanced enough to track individual missiles and aim grounps of PDCs at them.
Adding Sci-Fi Flavor
Everything up until now has been very mundane (remember I said no lasers). Now I’m going to add some fun twists to the three weapons systems above, because if you can imagine a way to kill people, us humans will probably try it eventually. These will all be various degrees of scifi hardness.
Hydrogen Foam – I’m stealing this idea from a fantastic series called Revelation Space. Here’s how it works. Hydrogen is a gas and it really wants to be a gas. But under intense pressures hydrogen can form a liquid or even a solid. Because hydrogen wants to be a gas, if you compress it into a liquid it’s going to expand violently the first chance it gets.
Nanite Nets – if you make a net that is a few microns thick and spread it out in front of a ship moving at a significant fraction of the speed of light then the ship will have a bad time. At lower speeds, a wide nanite net could do a lot of mischief from subtle sabotage to dissolving through the hull to hack into computer systems and get the intel without ever risking a single member of the attacking crew.
Monomolecular Shards – imagine a lot of ultrathin graphite sheets broken into shads and released to form a dense cloud These could be dispersed in a cloud by a fleeing ship and wreak havoc for a pursuing ship that is not paying attention. A bit like futuristic caltrops.
Drones – there are a lot more things a ship could launch besides missiles and railgun slugs. One idea I particularly like is a cloud of autonomous weapons platforms that could carry their own PDCs, racks of micro-missiles, sensor equipment, maybe even boarding parties. These drones could maneuver around a target and potentially be harder to hit than a complete ship.
In the next part, we’ll talk about armor, damage control, and what a destroyed ship might look like. Follow me on Twitter at @expyblg for updates!
Rubber-forehead aliens are basically a meme at this point. They make perfect sense in terms of production costs and limitations imposed by special effects technology at the time. The good news is that writing for print gives us far more options than would be possible otherwise. I think that they make it easier to relate to characters on screen but making all of your aliens look like humans with a few extra bits glued on requires a lot of worldbuilding to explain away. If you try to explain it that is.
The point of this post is not so much to provide an explanation of how life on other worlds could work but rather why it’s so hard to envision what life on other worlds could be like. This is because a) I am not a biochemist and b) it’s somewhat difficult to pin down just what “life” is. Once you’ve wrapped your head around this second idea and thought about some of the strange chemistries that are possible on alien worlds you will feel much freer to imagine strange new forms of life.
At this point, you are probably getting ready to type an angry comment or tweet along the lines of “WHAT DOES HE MEAN? OF COURSE WE KNOW WHAT LIFE IS. I’M ALIVE AREN’T I?” It’s actually a lot more complicated than that. Here on Earth we still have trouble deciding whether viruses are alive. Sure they can infect hosts and they use the same DNA/RNA coding that we and the rest of life here on Earth do, but they lack the machinery needed to make copies of themselves so they have to hijack ours. NASA has a definition of life that they use in the search for extraterrestrials and it’s probably the best one available to us, but there are still likely to be some who disagree with the definition.
“Life is a self-sustaining chemical system capable of darwinian evolution” – NASA
I’d be interested to hear whether readers think that viruses are included in this definition or not.
The reason that the definition of life is so hard to pin down is that we only have our own world to serve as a reference. In our solar system of eight planets and who knows how many planetoids and moons only one body, Earth, is known to support life. Yet there are two other planets, Mars and Venus, that might have once supported life and several moons that could even harbor life this very moment (I’m looking at you Europa).
We can look around at our own planet and describe how life works here. We can explain how DNA works, how organisms obtain energy, and how one organism gradually evolves into another over time. We know all that but we still do not know how life began on this planet. Without knowing how life began it is hard to definitely say whether a planet could support life or not. We tend to get excited when we find planets around other stars that could support conditions similar to those here on Earth, but when we talk about whether a planet is in a star’s “Goldilocks Zone” what we are really saying is that the planet could support life that is like us, and that’s a little arrogant I think.
Fortunately, our knowledge of chemistry and physics allows us to envision other ways in which life might arise. We are, after all, just bags of chemical reactions that happened to develop egos.
Excuse Me, Is This Life Organic?
These days a lot of people think that if something is organic it was produced from “natural” materials or grown without the use of certain fertilizers or pesticides. What they don’t realize is that oil is both organic and naturally occurring, but you wouldn’t want to eat it. When scientists say something is organic all that means is that it is composed of primarily carbon and hydrogen along with a smaller proportion of other elements.1
We and all the living organisms that we know of here on Earth are built out of carbon. Our DNA, our proteins, our hormones, our cell walls. Every bit of biochemical machinery that makes us is built on a scaffolding of carbon. Organic compounds are so prevalent in living things that the distinction between organic vs inorganic chemicals was originally based on whether they had come from a living thing or not.
Carbon is useful in all these ways because each carbon atom can form up to four bonds with other atoms. Carbon can form long chains with other carbon atoms and can also form double and triple bonds not only with itself but with other elements important to Earth life including both oxygen and nitrogen. Silicon is often suggested as a possible substitute for carbon on alien worlds, but silicon is less versatile than carbon and many of its compounds are unstable. This combined with the prevalence of carbon among molecules found in space does not bode well for silicon’s chances. There is however the clay hypothesis that has to do with the beginning of life on Earth.
Another point in carbon’s favor is that by now many complex organic molecules have been detected in space in molecular clouds around stars and on the surfaces of comets. Many of them being the same molecules used by living things here on Earth. With ready-made materials out there in the cosmos, why not take advantage of them?2
Water? I Hardly Know Her
Water is a really great solvent for life on our planet. Besides being everywhere and thus the most logical choice for life solvents, its properties allow both acid and base chemistry to take place. When we begin to consider different temperatures, pressures, and chemical makeup, a number of other solvent options become clear.
All it takes is a solvent that allowed for acid-base chemistry to take place. Water allows this, but there are other solvents that could, under different conditions, or with different commonalities. Waters is ubiquitous on Earth, but it doesn’t have to be on other planets.
Take a look at different solvents. Or familiar gases that would be liquid at other temperatures. The possibilities might surprise you.
Eating Sunshine (And Other Things)
Here on Earth, most ecosystems arise from the energy provided by the Sun. Just about everything either harvests light through photosynthesis or eats something that does. But even on Earth, we know that this is not the only option. In the deepest parts of our oceans, we have found extremophiles that feed off the heat and chemicals released by volcanic vents.
That is just on Earth. There are many sources of energy in the universe including gravity and magnetic fields. Alien life forms could catalyze the synthesis of vital metabolites using alpha and beta particles released by radioactive minerals to catalyze reactions or construct molecular machines on their cell membranes that harvest hydroelectric power.
The Galactic Habitable Zone
It’s weird to think that there might possibly be a shortage of resources on a galactic scale but once you get an idea of how elements are made it begins to make sense.
Basically, there is a band with indeterminate boundaries somewhere between the center of the galaxy and the edge that makes up the galactic habitable zone, a region that is determined by metallicity, the age of the stars, and how often stars in the area go supernova.
The center of the galaxy with its high concentration of stars is considered unsuitable for life, as the frequent supernovae release bursts of radiation that would sterilize nearby worlds and make the development of life difficult, if not impossible. Meanwhile, the edge of the galaxy is full of younger stars that have not had time to transmute the heavier elements that life needs.
All this results in an uncertain band looping around the galaxy where planets are more likely to be habitable. The boundaries of this band are uncertain, but
Turning The Weirdness Dial Up to Eleven
A lot of us tend to base alien species on the species we are familiar with here on Earth. A quick look at some extinct species will show that there are many, many variations on how weird life can get just on a single planet. Just because it didn’t happen HERE doesn’t mean it can’t happen SOMEWHERE.
In all honesty, it just depends on how strictly you want to adhere to known science. You could have aliens with bones like ours with gelatinous flesh or stationary mollusks that spend their days exploring complex algorithms in their minds.
Hard science fiction is all about finding plausible explanations based on what we know now. That doesn’t mean it can’t be weird.
If anything should be clear by now it’s that nothing is. The Milky Way is a big place and we can envision so many possibilities that it is just about impossible to anticipate all the possible variations of life. In fact, I came across so much information while reading this post that I wasn’t able to include it all in this one post. So stay tuned for future posts on the origins of life, panspermia, and whatever else catches my eye in the process.
Unfortunately for myself and other inorganic chemists. Our field is literally defined as “not organic” which makes it more than a little hard for someone to guess what we do.
I’ve come across a wealth of information on this topic and it’s all incredibly facinating. Enough so that I’ll probably have future posts on both on possible origins of life and on the wonderful hydrocarbons that have been found out there in the universe.
Some of these resources may be behind a paywall. Consult your friendly neighborhood librarian for help. Or in the case of research papers, it never hurts to email the author, they may just send you a copy!
Astrobiology: The Study Of The Living Universe by Christopher F. Chyba and Kevin P. Hand. Annu. Rev. Astron. Astrophys. 2005
Astrochemistry: From Astronomy to Astrobiology by Andrew M. Shaw
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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.
Fun titles grab a reader’s attention.
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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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.
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.
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…
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.
This is a weird topic to write about. Here I am starting the third year of my PhD and I still feel like I know nothing. It’s a fun combination of Imposter Syndrome and the Dunning Kruger Effect. Still, I would like to think I’ve learned a few things about surviving grad school at this point.
Now, to be fair to my imposter syndrome, I am in no way an authority on these topics. But as someone who has several labor-intensive hobbies and doesn’t want the degree to consume their entire life, I’ve learned a few tricks that have helped me make time for my hobbies and still make progress towards my degree.
Get Some Sleep
This is one that I am REALLY bad at. I’ve always been a bit of a night owl. Left to my own devices I’ll stay up all night and sleep until noon. It’s hard, especially if you’re like me and a burst of motivation always hits you right before bed time. But it’s worth it to develop good sleep habits. As hard as it is, if you start going to bed earlier you’ll feel more rested and you’ll be able to wake up earlier. This last bit is important because it makes you feel like you have more time in the day and you wont catch yourself staying up late trying to squeeze out a few more drops of productivity. An all-nighter wont make you more productive, it will just make more tired.
Make Time for Other Things
I have a lot of hobbies that work often gets into the way of. Some semesters are going to feel more hectic than others, but you should still make time for your hobbies. Even if it’s just a few minutes before bed you’ll be glad you did. What’s even better is if you try and make time every evening and on the weekends for the things you enjoy. It’s really hard to feel good about your work if it’s consuming your life. Plus the things you work on outside of work can make your work better. Reading and writing as hobbies have made me feel much more prepared for presentations and research papers. But don’t think your hobbies need to also make you better at work.
Be Realistic About How Long Something Will Take
When I first joined the lab I’m in now I constantly felt unproductive. No matter what goals I set for the day I never met all of them and I felt terrible about it. That changed when I realized that it wasn’t that I was doing poorly in lab, it was that I wasn’t blocking out my time effectively. I wasn’t giving myself enough time to complete each task and the result was that I felt like I wasn’t getting anything done.
I fixed this by setting one big goal for each day in the lab and a few of what I like to think of as stretch goals. When I go into lab I normally have one experiment planned. I go in thinking “today I will complete this reaction” or “I will do x number of titrations.” Those are my main objectives for the day and I devote most of my energy to those. If I find myself finishing these early or having to wait for a reaction to finish I work on my stretch goals. These are things that are nice to get to in a given day but don’t need to be done right then. Stretch goals might be cleaning glassware, doing a literature search, or processing data.
Once I started doing this I instantly felt more productive. I was being more honest with myself about how long something would take me to do and I didn’t feel like I needed to do more once I got home. You will also find that you get faster at a lot of these tasks as you gain more experience.
Make Your Laziness Work
Some mornings when I get into the office the last thing I want to do start work in the lab. All I want to do is sit at my desk and sip my coffee. So that’s what I do. I sit down, turn on my computer, sip my coffee, and use that time to see what’s new in the world of science. For me that normally means looking at few American Chemical Society publications. Specifically Inorganic Chemistry, Organometallics, Chemical Reviews, and Accounts of Chemistry Research. I normally have a few keywords I’m looking for in the titles. Anything with the words cobalt, iron, or spin crossover get at least a quick glance. Or a quick download to the folder of files I tell myself I’ll read eventually. I have found a lot of great references that I’ve ended up citing later this way and learned about new fields that I hadn’t heard of before. Not only will doing this help you stay up to date on the latest research, the more time you take to read and review material in your field the more comfortable you’ll feel talking about your own work. It always feels great to whip out a relevant paper in the middle of group meeting that no one else has seen yet.
Listen to Your Undergrads
Universities have tons of social events, clubs, and resources to be taken advantage of. You probably don’t realize a lot of them are there. Talk to and listen to not just your fellow graduate students, but undergrads and staff too. Even if the undergrads in the section you’re a teaching assistant make you pull your hair out its worth listening to them talk. Remember, many of them are on campus 24/7 while you may only be there for a few hours. You can learn a lot about other departments and the resources available on campus if you listen to them while giving them zeros on their lab reports.
Oh yeah, sometimes they have some good research ideas too.
Cultivate Your Social Skills
You don’t need to become a complete extrovert, but it pays to talk to other people around campus. After spending all day on experiments it helps to know a few people down the hall who might want to grab pizza with you. Or they might call you up if they have an extra concert ticket. More practically, it helps to have people you can go to for help whether it’s help studying or getting access to an instrument in their lab. Science is collaborative and in most jobs you’ll have to work together with other people so it pays to get started now.
Remember That You Know More Thank You Think You Know
In graduate school you’re surrounded by competent people. So much so that it’s easy to think that they know more than you or know their project better than you will ever know yours. It’s important to remember that if you are in a graduate program you already have a bachelors. You knew enough to get one degree in your field and now you’re working on another. You know your project better than anyone and you know a lot more in general than you think. The more you talk about your work and your field the more confident you’ll feel. Even if it’s hard at first.