Science for SciFi: Jargon

a man doing an experiment

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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.

Common Vocabulary

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.

microscopic shot of a virus
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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.

crop chemist holding in hands molecule model
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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.

crop faceless person in outerwear putting on latex gloves
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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.

crop chemist using modern equipment during work process
I’m not sure what they’re trying to do in this photo. I have no idea why anyone would clamp a volumetric flask like that. Or why they would use an open flame instead of a hot plate (flammable vapors make an open flame dangerous in many labs). Still, it’s a good illustration of a pasteur pipette being used to add approximate amounts of a certain chemical.

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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.

crop unrecognizable cosmetologist taking test tube out of centrifuge for plasma in modern clinic
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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.

person holding silver round coins
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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 Isn’t Personal

Listen. Please, listen.

We’ve been friends for awhile and I want you to know that I don’t want to do this. I know it isn’t ideal, but I want you to know that it isn’t what I want. Honestly, it’s a little bit your fault. It’s my fault too. We share the blame really.

I should have hidden this better and you should have listened when I told you not to go snooping around. I told you not to look in the trunk ages ago, didn’t I? And you just went and looked in it anyway. I suppose it’s really all my fault. I’m the one who tried to hide it in plain sight. I should have warded it when I saw you express interest.

I know far too well the draw that the trunk’s contents can have. The effect that they have on people. I’m used to it, I’ve learned to resist. It wasn’t fair to expect you to as well, not when you had no idea what is inside.

But that’s all in the past. Water under the bridge.

I really wish I didn’t have to do this.

Dying from a knife wound isn’t so bad though. It’s definitely one of the better ways to go. I’ll just slide this blade through your ribs quick and then you’ll be gone. Poof. Quick.

If anything, this is going to be worse for me than it will be for you. I’m the one who has to hide your body afterwards. It will probably eat up my entire weekend. Before I do that, I need to make sure that what’s in the trunk wasn’t trying to hitch a ride on your psyche. I’ll have to perform some particularly tricky incantations to make sure it doesn’t gobble up your soul.

Actually, you know what? We’ll do those first, it’s safer that way. I may have to kill you, but that doesn’t mean I want to send you off to eternal damnation. We’ll send you off the right way.

Let’s get started…

What? Look. I don’t know what you want me to do. Neither of us have a choice here. The thing in the trunk is just too dangerous. You’ve seen it and now you’re vulnerable. As long as you know it’s in there it could use you to help it escape.

There. Is. No. Other. Way.

You are my friend; I don’t want to have to gag you, but I will if you make me. If you keep talking like this you will mess up my spell casting. If I get distracted it won’t be good for either of us. So be quiet, please.

Like I said. Knife is hardly the worst way to go. I’ll make it quick. And for what it’s worth, this isn’t personal. It’s just something I have to do.

Now Accepting Guest Posts!

I’ll be honest, this blog is a hobby and only attracts minor traffic, but it’s a lot of fun. Through my efforts to promote it on Twitter and Instagram I have met a lot of other great creators and streamers and it’s participating in this community that has been the most fun.

That is why I’ve decided to start offering opportunities for guest posts and collaborations. If you like this site and want to collaborate send me an email with your idea at charlesm@charles-m.com with the words GUEST POST in the subject line. I will check this email at least once every week, if I take awhile to get back to you just send me a message on twitter @expyblg.

I cannot offer payments and I don’t expect payment for any collaborations. This is meant to be a new way to interact with the larger community and hopefully support each other. With that said, I do have a few rules about what can be included in a guest post on this site.

The Rules

  • You should include whatever biographical information about yourself that you would like included with the post.
  • You may include links to your own blog, twitter, kofi, wattpad, instagram, patreon, twitch, redbubble, or etsy pages.
  • You may not include affiliate links, referral links, or anything that could be construed as spam.
  • Your guest post should relate to speculative fiction, writing, worldbuilding, gaming, or something related to these communities. Don’t hesitate to ask if you are not sure whether your idea fits.
  • You should email me before you start writing. If something doesn’t quite fit I’d rather not have to say no to someone who has already written an entire essay.
  • You may submit something that you have already posted on your own blog.
  • Commentary on current events or anything that could be construed as racist or discriminatory is not allowed.
  • All sources for material that is not your own should be properly cited.
  • Non-fiction posts should have references that support your arguments and provide links to further reading.
  • Submissions should be sharable in Google Docs.

Some (But Not All) Topics That Would Make A Good Guest Post

  • A short story, poem, game, or setting that you have made and would like to share.
  • A review of a book, board game, video game, movie, or television series that you enjoyed (or did not enjoy).
  • A guide for a writer trying to write a character who works in your career or field.
  • Explanation of a historical event or technology that may help worldbuilders.
  • Reviews of pens, keyboards, computers, notebooks, or other things that writers may like.
  • Discussion of your own scifi/fantasy inspired art and your inspirations.
  • Which D&D class is the best and why.
  • Simplified explanations of complicated topics for writers who want their characters to sound smart.
  • Guides to writing character backstories.

Gravity Wells Are Best Avoided

Jack hated landings.

He had been born in microgravity. He had grown up in microgravity. He had enlisted and spent, not accounting for relativistic effects, fifteen years Ship Time serving in microgravity. His job was simple, he went places, and he killed things. He had become an expert in boarding actions and close quarter combat in microgravity. For him, zero gravity was the default.  

Ships? Great. Space Stations? Perfect. Asteroids? Sure. Moons? If he had to. Planets? Hell no.

Planets had forests and animals and germs and far too many variables. He preferred the close, cramped struggle to the death where he could see his enemy and they could see him. Where all that would determine the outcome of the fight were his own skills pitted against those of his opponent. Planets had snipers and alien viruses and storms and earthquakes and well, you get the idea. In Jacks mind, gravity wells were something that humanity had evolved beyond and returning to them was pointless.

So basically, he really fucking hated landings.

He especially hated landings made in boxy little shuttlecraft that handed likes bricks in atmosphere while he was crammed into the shuttle with fifty other marines all of which were not suited at all for ground combat. He especially hated being sent down a gravity well as part of some hair-brained rescue scheme to protect some random colonists from an unknown assailant of unknown strength.

And he really, really hated landings made in a boxy brick-like shuttle that was hit by a surface-to-air missile that killed both of the pilots instantly, decapitated three of the soldiers sitting across from Jack, caused the shuttle to rip in half as it hit a low-lying cliff and come to rest in an alien corral forest in hostile territory far away from any possible backup.

When Jack came to he was hanging from his restraints inside the shuttle next to those of his fellows who had either been kills or incapacitated in the crash. He heard gunfire outside and from the sound of it someone had gotten the shuttle’s autocannons working and was making extensive use of them. He had no idea who they were fighting, no idea what was going on, but he knew what his job was. He undid his restraints, grabbed his low-velocity carbine designed for shipboard actions, not ground combat, and went outside to see what they were dealing with.

Jack hated landings.

How to Build a Country

A lot of us like to bang our heads against the wall trying to design sprawling worlds to rival settings like Forgotten Realms or Middle Earth, but attempting a project with such a large scope takes time and may very well lead to disappointment when progress doesn’t come as quickly as hoped.

The good news is that you don’t need to design and entire world. Plenty of interesting stories can be told that take place only in a single valley, forest, city, forest, or even house. If you are designing a setting for your stories to take place in the you need to be honest with yourself about the story’s scope. Figure how much space your characters need and stick to it, make a few one-line summaries about far off lands that you can expand on if needed. Doing this will help you keep your goals in mind and prevent your worldbuilding process from taking over your writing process.

When it comes to worldbuilding there are two basic methods; Top Down and Bottom Up. The process I am describing here is called Bottom Up, where you start by building up a small corner of the world and then expand in scale to fill in the rest of the map. If you have a story to tell and don’t need an entire world to do it, this is where you would start.

For me, if I am going to build a world Bottom Up then I prefer to start at the national level. Even if I only have need of one or two locations in it, I like to have an idea of where my characters might be from and a general idea of events elsewhere that may have an influence on the course of their lives. This approach also makes it easier to focus on a world’s minutia, if that’s what you’re into, rather than getting distracted by what might be hiding in distant lands.

This list of questions is meant to help focus the scope of a worldbuilding project, and help you to decide on what matters in your setting and what does not.

Where is the country located?

Where a nation is plays a huge role in its success and failure. Just as it is hard to become a major naval power without easy access to the sea, it is also hard to build significant influence abroad if your tiny kingdom is sandwiched between two giant superpowers.

Rivers create avenues for trade and enable farming, mountains provide natural barriers and refuges for outcasts, forests and swamps provide a ready source of timber and place to hide all the things that go bump in the night.

Once you know what stories you want to tell, you can design your geography to create the setup to make it possible.

Where are the people from?

Mass migrations and invasions are hugely influential in our own history and can create divides within a populace that can last for centuries. A small group that speaks one language ruling over a much larger population is a situation that is almost guaranteed to spark conflict. Migrations can also explain why certain languages are spoken, or why your country has five different holidays on the same calendar day.

Going back further, these migrations can play a vital role to constructing the country’s mythos. Perhaps these people were once nomads and settled down after receiving the sign from the gods. Or maybe some of your characters are refugees that have been taken in and are trying to survive in an unfamiliar and possibly even hostile land.

Where are the major cities?

When your farmers go to market, where do they go? Where are the train junctions? Where do people send their children off to school? Where do they go on pilgrimage? What are their industries?

Besides the obvious points that major cities are home to centers of military and political power, they may also be the centers of regional rivalries or home to minority ethnic groups. People from different cities might speak different dialects, wear different cloths, celebrate different holidays, or speak with different accents.

Regionalism is an important part of this. No country is truly homogenous. The monolithic nation states today only seem that way because of decades if not centuries of effort expended to create a sense of national identity. In reality separate regions within a larger country may be fierce rivals, and may even hate each other. Or may compete for lucrative contracts and trading partners. In a nation with less centralized authority, these cities may even enter into their own treaties with foreign powers.

What do the people believe?

Religion can serve to unit a populace around a core of shared goals and values, or it can serve to drive a wedge between different segments of the population. Deciding what people believe goes a long way towards explaining their motivations and their biases.

Similarly, consider whether this country as some sort of national mythos around its creation. Does it see its history as a long and drawn out struggle for freedom, or do its leaders preach a vision of the future in which they dominate the continent? Just like religion, founding mythis can act as powerful motivators.

Who is the government?

Few things tell you as much about a country as who gets to participate in government and there are lots of interesting spins that can be put to make an established system of government unique.

First decide who has the power, the people, hereditary nobles, the king, the church, the rich. The possibilities are nearly endless here and you are free to imagine all sorts of checks and balances, traditions and laws surrounding voting, and even past civil wars that have shaped politics in the country’s “present.”

Once you know who calls the shots, you can start to imagine who might be demanding a larger voice in government.

Who are the country’s neighbors?

I warned before against trying to create an entire world when you only need a small corner of it. That said, it’s important to know where the nation stands. A quick list of what countries border this one, who its allies and enemies are, and who buys what from who will help you get a clearer picture of that larger world.

If the country’s neighbors are likely to play a larger role in your story you might spend a few more paragraphs on past conflicts, customs, and clothing so that you can quickly create foreign characters for your protagonists or player characters to interact with.

Armed with this brief outlining you’ll be able to quickly incorporate one line references to far off places. Small details like this are a huge part of what gives a setting sense of size and depth.

Conclusion

Do you prefer this approach, or would you rather build your worlds from the top down?

There are many more questions that can be asked to facilitate this Bottom Up approach. Find me on twitter if there is one that you’re especially fond of or wish I had included.