Rockets are expensive. Not only are they limited by the weight of their fuel, but also by their cargo capacity and reusability. While commercial entities like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic have been unveiling new systems that promise alternative ways of reaching low orbit or reusing rockets, there are still a lot of limitations that prevent space travel from becoming ubiquitous in the short term.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. Space flight does not have to be easier for good scifi, in fact, I would argue that it should be hard. It helps to impose limits on the characters and promote conflict. A thriving space industry could still be expensive and thus impose limits on who goes to space and why.
That said, once your setting is to the point where colonies throughout the solar system are becoming viable I think that it’s time to start exploring other ways of getting to orbit. I think rockets will always have a place, but forms of mass transit will make the entire endeavor a lot easier.
Orbital elevators are a staple of science fiction. How it works is that a giant tether is built connecting the surface of a planet to a station in orbit. The tether is then held taught, allowing elevators to move up and down its length.
One of the primary challenges with an elevator is making a material strong enough to build the tether in enough quantities to make it work. A lot of authors choose to use some kind of carbon allotrope and this part might require you to invent your own very special flavor of carbon fiber or synthetic diamond. Remember that the tether will need to be much, much thicker than you think it will need to be.
My favorite part about this concept is that it allows a world to have regular trips to orbit and back in an environment that might resemble a modern airport or train station. Elevator pods could have large cargo areas and multiple passenger areas divided into economy, business, and first-class. You could have observation windows and restaurants. All the trappings of comfort or the lack thereof.
An elevator is probably best in a setting where space travel has become common enough for such a project to be profitable. A single planet will likely only have one or two placed in neutral or autonomous regions or controlled by a specific faction. Of course, the resources needed to build one might limit which worlds have a space elevator and which do not. If your setting involves multiple star systems it is likely that only the most developed of them will have one.
It goes without saying that such a large piece of infrastructure will make a very tempting target. If destroyed an elevator could cause immense damage to any settlements built around its base and cripple and the economies of multiple factions in a given system.
For worlds that are not yet capable of a project as massive as a space elevator but still need regular surface-to-orbit transit, skyhooks may be the perfect solution.
You can think of a skyhook like a satellite that spins as they travel along the edge of the atmosphere. Its hook can latch onto craft flying in the upper atmosphere and accelerate them into orbit, and can also grab craft in orbit and bring them down into the atmosphere.
These are a good in-between stage between rockets and elevators for travel and could probably be set up a lot faster than a full-sized space elevator could. Which would make them perfect for worlds with some orbital traffic but not enough for a full elevator. Or they could be an option for planetary factions that do not want to rely on a space elevator that someone else owns. Or in instances where orbital infrastructure needs to be set up quickly. I’ll talk about a possible scenario for that in the next section.
An Invasion Scenario
Surface combat in the far future is likely to be small-scale and asymmetric. There isn’t much use in landing millions of ground troops when ships in orbit can turn a continent into radioactive glass. But we seem to crave depictions of ground-based combat anyway.
Let’s say a planet is host to an environment that is hospitable to humans or contains some vital piece of infrastructure that would be destroyed in a bombardment and that this necessitates the use of ground forces on a large scale. The first wave of troops could be brought to the surface with a combination of capsules and landers that glide down through the atmosphere much as the space shuttle did. Some of these crafts might be designed to return to orbit with a variety of energy-intensive designs. Since we all know that military objectives beat concerns like cost and efficiency any day.
If the planet already has extensive orbital infrastructure, which it probably does if its world attacking, these initial forces would work to establish beachheads and try to capture any space elevators that might be present. The attack on a space elevator could very well commence on both ends since it would be hard to use if the people at the other end of the tether were waiting to shoot you as soon as the door opens.
But perhaps the space elevator was destroyed or the planet really doesn’t have the infrastructure. Once landing sites are secured, ships in orbit could deploy prefabbed skyhooks to provide the infrastructure of occupation. From that point on if the locals continued to resist the war would probably resemble something like the conflicts in Vietnam or Afghanistan. Massed tanks and infantry make for awesome illustrations but are nothing a few “rods from God” couldn’t fix. In the long term, the construction of a new space elevator could be seen as the ultimate mark of ownership of the planet. A massive, sprawling symbol that the invaders are there to stay.
Further Reading (And Watching)
I realize that this post is less technical than previous Science for SciFi entries. I chose to do this because I am not a physicist nor am I an aerospace engineer. Instead, I wanted to highlight a few interesting concepts in science fiction and point you all towards some resources that can be an inspiration for your next story of a planetary invasion. If you liked this content consider supporting it by signing up for my newsletter or exploring my page of recommended products on Amazon.
For a start, Atomic Rockets is a great site for anyone who wants to dig into the physics of science fiction and learn how science has been incorporated into many great science fiction classics. For a fun and straightforward explanation of skyhooks, you can look to Kurtzgesagt on Youtube. The same channel also has a great explanation of space elevators.
For the past several weeks, commentators and labor activists have been waiting to see how the union vote at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama would turn out. We’ve heard for several years about the working conditions inside Amazon facilities, and the pandemic only brought more attention to the situations that warehouse workers have to deal with. It really shouldn’t be surprising that Amazon employees would start to unionize. I also don’t think it was a surprise that this effort was voted down.
I also think that this outcome carries with it a lot of lessons. Union leaders are already talking about how they intend to change their strategy in the future with a new emphasis on public relations and national-level campaigns instead of local votes and agitation.
I’ve written before about what I believe the purpose of small businesses should be, but as a writer and worldbuilder, I see a lot of lessons to take from this. As much as many “centrists” and commentators on the right like to complain about politics in television and video games, it needs to be remembered that art is inherently political in all its forms. The creator’s beliefs are bound to find their way into the finished product, even if they did not mean to do so when they first started.
I myself prefer to design settings that are roughly analogous to our world’s 19th and 20th centuries, and if they aren’t directly analogous, there is still a heavy influence.
I tend to do this because I have always had a fondness for steampunk and dieselpunk and gunpowder fantasy. Classic sword and sorcery are still fun, but I like to see fantasy tropes played out in a more modern context and to put characters in environments of intense chance. The industrial revolution generated huge amounts of wealth for the upper class, allowed cities to grow, and pushed workers to organize. Old class systems declined in prominence. New ones rose to take their place. Established oligarchs fought to keep their positions while the lower classes fought to bring them down or replace them. And of course, as we see time and time again, every time a Republican is elected to office, common people can be convinced that their oppressors are their friends.
I am especially interested in this right now because it just so happens that labor unions are a major part of my current WIP. In it, the Whalvian Empire is going through a period of political and economic turmoil after its victory over several of its neighbors. My protagonist is put into a position where many in his company town have decided to unionize. He is torn between his desire for safety and stability and his sympathies for his fellow workers. Reading these articles has already given me a lot of new thoughts about what kind of internal conflicts and pressures our fictional characters might have to wrestle with.
Do the workers feel like the union understands their concerns?
One thing that stood out to me in one NYT article was a quote from a Black woman working in Amazon’s warehouse. She said that the union reps tried to connect Black Lives Matter to their labor organizing efforts. This individual said that they did not feel that racism was a concern in their workplace. Obviously, one anecdote does not give us a full picture of what the working environment is like with respect to race. However, effective campaigning relies on figuring out what potential supporters are concerned about and focusing on how that can be addressed. People are much less likely to care about fixing problems that don’t seem relevant to them.
Do workers feel like they have something to gain?
I was glad to see that workers were taking steps to unionize, but I’m was not surprised to see it voted down. There is a lot that could be done to improve the conditions inside Amazon warehouses, but the pay and benefits that come with working with them are superior to those offered by other employers in Alabama.
In the United States, the days of hiring armed Pinkertons to deal with strikers are long gone, but that doesn’t mean workers who attempt to unionize are not putting themselves at risk. There are basically no protections for workers who are working to organize. If those workers feel like they are already better off than their neighbors, then it’s unlikely they will want to put their job security at risk.
Are workers being told the truth about unions?
Employers have a key advantage. They can require employees to sit through “info sessions” about why unions are bad. They can make employees fear for their jobs. And depending on the employee, this may all reinforce preexisting biases.
Does the government protect workers?
In the wake of this defeat, unions are already talking about adopting a new strategy that focuses on high-profile endorsements and a public relations campaign to influence policy creation. I think this is a good choice. There are a lot of misconceptions about unions, and while I support workers unionizing, we as a country really need to do more to establish an acceptable baseline for workers.
But what does this have to do with speculative fiction? Why don’t you get off your soap box?
Okay, fair. I just spilled a lot of ink to share my own thoughts about current events, but that is because it’s a conversation worth having and because an artist’s environment will influence their art.
And it should influence their art. I generally dislike overanalyzing books in search of deeper meaning, but I think the context of the author’s beliefs can still add a lot to a reader’s understanding. I also think that pitting characters against relatable challenges makes the experience more meaningful for the reader.
A world of wizards and mind control and other fantasy elements would make the experience of workers and striking workers very different. But in the end, people just want a few things. They want safety for themselves and their families. They want to be able to put food on the table. And they (should) want to build a better future for their children.
Real-world events lack the allure of fantasy but trying to understand them yields dividends in inspiration. Fiction changes minds and writers have a big role to play in shaping public opinion.
Creating fictional animals is hard, but there is another way. Instead of inventing your own animals, just use animals that are dead.
And no, I don’t mean the dead cat that you saw run over in the road. I’m talking about the world’s megafauna. The massive animals that once roamed this world and are now long gone. I know I’m not the only one who has ever looked at a picture of one of those beasts and thought “I wish I could pet that.”
When I see one of those pictures I see a lost opportunity. I see a creature that could have lived alongside humans. Horses and dogs and cats are great, I love them. They have their place in fantasy and I don’t think that they can be replaces. At the same time, why create new fantastic creatures when we can draw on Earth’s past? So here are three extinct animals that I think would have been really cool to have as pets.
Listen, I know that sloths seem useless now. Cute, but useless. But I really think that they are capable of great things. Imagine those claws! Imagine that size! I’m not imagining these things as a mount (but they could be) but imagine how useful those claws would be for diggin or pulling our tree stumps, or how the giant sloths could help to carry heavy loads. A traveling merchant with a ground sloth would be really cool.
Saber Tooth Tigers
The decline of megafauna is often linked to the spread of humanity because we tend to kill everything. One thing that may have suffered from the decline of megafauna is the the saber tooth tiger that hunted them.
Now I know, a big cat with teeth that big can be scary, but imagine if we befriended them. They were suited to hunting big things, we were (are) suited to hunting everything. That doesn’t mean we don’t need help. Sure, dogs are great, maybe the greatest, but imagine a giant house cat with giant fangs charging towards your enemy. That beats any dog.
Everyone loves a rhino. If you’re like me as a child you only got to learn about the rhinoceroses that are native to far off lands. You might also have been upset to learn that we used to have an animal as ubiquitous as the woolly rhino right here in North America.
If bread in sufficient numbers these animals would have been so much better than horses. They come with horns! Just imagine for a second the rohirrim mounted on rhinos charging into ranks of unprepared orcs.
What extinct animals do you wish were still around today? Let me know in the comments!
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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.
I’ve been working on a new setting. It’s a grimdark science fantasy setting inspired by Frank Herbert’s Dune. I will not offer specifics at this time.
But I have had ideas for a planet. A planet that is relatively young and dominated by volcanoes and magma flows. This planet is called Corsan.
The humans on this planet care most about the valuable ores that are continuously pushed to the surface by the constant eruptions. The ruling class live in large citadels, anchored to the planet’s crush by deep pylons.
From their citadels they reap the profits of an army of slave and convict workers who are forced to work the dangerous lava fields. These workers are in turn watched over by an army of cloned janissaries.
Constant eruptions make mining easy, and this planet excels in the production of weapons and ships. But this planet’s population remains low. Too low to risk open war.
What scares the rest of the Empire is this world’s willingness to depend on clone soldiers.
Clone is not the right word, but the best word. The Citadels do not just grow soldiers. They grow servants and maids and gardeners and whatever else they need. These clones are very expensive, which is why House Gravin refuses to use clones in the mines.
To do this they do not draw on any one genome. They pick and choose from the specimens that enter their prisons. Because of this their clones are not true clones. Their clones are amalgams of those who pass through. From one batch to the next there are subtle differences introduced by the engineers. But no matter the differences all are unflinchingly loyal to House Gravin.
The most concerning part of this is therefor not the number of clone soldiers, but the potential of the clone soldiers if House Gravin ever decides to grow more.
So why does this planet matter?
Well, it doesn’t. Not in intrinsic worth at least. House Gravin buys criminals from other houses. These criminals are then set to work in House Gravin’s mine for a much shorter term than they would have served otherwise. But the real value is in the genes.
House Gracin depends on cloned soldiers. Something that most other houses would not want to risk. By bringing in greater amounts of genetic stock the House’s gene wizards have more choices to choose from.
There are some places on this planet that remain free. Escaped prisoners and occasional escaped clones have found refuge in the poles of the planet. In these relatively cool areas they have made their home in the empty magma tubes. They sell ore to smugglers and hunt native insectoid lifeforms for sustenance. Their lives are hard, but they live their lives the way they want to.
House Gravin is brutal, but I think I could imagine brutal-er. This setting is still in its early phases, and there is a lot of room to grow. What kind of house would you imagine? Let me know on twitter @expyblg.
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.
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 email@example.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.
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.
The best thing about Star Wars is that there is a backstory for every background character, every ship, practically every grain of sand. In the movies, books, and comics we get to see so much more than the lightsabers and the big shiny battleships, and its the inclusion of all these mundane elements that helps make the Star Wars universe feel so lived in. So here in no particular order are the five best mundane pieces of Star Wars lore.
1. GR-75 Medium Transport
I just love these ships. Science fiction needs more purpose-built ships that do just one thing well. The GR-75 has a simple design that suits its purpose well, and the visible cargo pods inside its hull are a great feature that draws comparisons to the container ships of Earth while also giving it some measure of modularity. I especially like their use by the rebel alliance as troop transports and support ships. It helps to show how desperate their situation is. I can’t help but think the modularity afforded by the GR-75’s cargo pods could lead to one being made into a capable commerce raider.
Broken down and malfunctioning technology is a common feature of all science fiction. No point in having all those big shiny ships in your setting if they don’t break. The Hydrospanner is a small but vital bit of fluff included in both Star Wars Legends and Canon to explain how spacers manage to loosen and tighten bolts on their ships. Why? Because bringing a wrench into space would just be silly! But seriously, I love that so much detail has been provided on such a tiny tool, so much so that besides an article on Hydrospanners, Wookiepedia has an entire article on a specific model of Hydrospanner. Because of course we need to know the entire history of the tool in the hero’s hand.
3. Moisture Vaporators
Not only do they explain how humans and other species are able to survive on Tatooine, moisture vaporators explains why anyone would bother to try farming in the first place. With all the sand people, sarlacs, and krayt dragons about there needs to be something valuable in the desert to make people live so far away from the cities and it turns that thing is water.
The iconic mounts of the Tusken Raiders are such a great part of the Star Wars universe. In Legends the Banthas were found throughout the galaxy. In the current canon (at least as far as I know) Bathas are found only on Tatooine. They’re a wonderfully mundane way to explain how the planet’s natives get from one place to the other and they’re so believable in their design.
Myself and probably everyone else who is going to be browsing Wookiepedia already knows what pajamas are, but I love that the good folks who update the site included a page on them just in case.
Like these listicles? Want to see more in-depth worldbuilding content? Come yell at me on twitter @expyblg or drop a comment. You can also buy me a coffee to help keep the content coming.
The first thing I do with every setting is I decide on two or three countries that I want there to be. I imagine what their economies and governments will be like, and I decide if I want them to be naval power, a steppe empire, an isolated enclave, or whatever else. Then I get to work on the map and I design the map so that themes I want for each country are complemented by its surroundings.
I benefit greatly from hindsight here. While the future of a nation is not predetermined, its geography can play a huge role in its development, and I can draw on the events of the past to design the geography and conflicts I want for my setting. So let’s look at a few examples.
A Small Country with a Big Impact
Land mass doesn’t always correlate with influence. It can help of course. Russia for example is huge and benefits from a wealth of natural resources. But Britain is smaller than some US states and yet at one time it ruled much of the world. Give a small nation a resource or circumstance that it can exploit and it can play a huge role in world events.
Waterways are one of my favorite ways to do this, and we can look to Turkey, Panama, Egypt, and Iran for real world examples. Istanbul’s location on the Bosporus allows whoever owns the city to control the sea lanes that pass through it. This brought the Ottoman Empire into conflict with the Russian Empire on multiple ocassions. Russia was denied the warm water ports it craved for as long as it lacked control of the city, and Ottoman control of the straits allowed them to cut off Russia’s connections with the allies in WWI. The other countries meanwhile control major canals or straits vital to world trade, and their ability to constrict that trade gives countries that might otherwise be only a regional power a way to exert influence on a global scale.
Technology and political convenience can also grant influence to an otherwise small country. Imagine if Google had been founded in Cuba. More likely though, in a world where superpowers are vying for influence, a small country that happens to have something that a superpower wants can extract a lot of concessions from them.
The weakness of this later approach is that the benefits a country reaps will be be greater in the short term than the long term. Sea-lanes have been vital for centuries, but technological superiority or political priorities might shift in a matter of decades. Of course this could be a conflict as well and you could choose to focus on a country that is struggling for relevancy in a changing world.
A Big Country with a Big Impact
Big countries with lots of resources and ample space have a lot of room for population growth. The hard part is their size. With such long borders and so many people inside them there bound to be lots of neighbors to pick fights with and lots of internal dissidents. The country better have a robust communication infrastructure or it’s going to be hard for orders from the center to reach the periphery.
The type of government is going to be important here. Are the leaders able to address the needs of the people? Are they able to keep the peace between all the different regional factions that are bound to be present? A large country with a lot of resources can have a big role in world affairs, but without a strong foundation and internal stability it’s bound to fall apart if enough pressure is applied from the outside.
One of the challenges with a such a large country is that there’s a lot of detail to be fleshed out, but there are also plenty of small stories that can be told. Or you could write up a few vague descriptions and leave the Big Country as a boogyman that your characters sometimes have to deal with.
The Isolationist Island
Island nations are perhaps the only nations in the world that actually have a decent chance of keeping all foreigners out. A coastline can be fortified and defended in a way that no land-based border can.
This isolation may not be complete. There may for example be designated ports where foreigners are allowed to trade, but if the island has enough natural resources they may be able to keep their isolation going for a long time.
The problem of course is that it’s easy for the world to pass them by. Sure the citizens might be happy living on their island, safe from the problems of the world, but before long the world is going to come knocking and the island might very well find itself out-matched.
There are a lot of opportunities for story and conflict here. Perhaps the island is experiencing a civil war and trying to hide that fact from outsiders. Maybe the island regularly sends agents out into the world to gather information and new technologies and your character is one of them. Or maybe the island has suddenly been thrown open to the world and its people have to adjust to a new and possibly frightening reality.
The Island Superpower
Maybe an island nation wants to isolate itself from the rest of the world, or maybe because of its small landmass it lacks the natural resources it needs to compete in the modern world. Luckily for them both goals can be achieved through a powerful navy and an aggressive foreign policy. Why buy when you can take? And why tell everyone to stay away when you could just sink every ship that drifts to close to your shores?
The sea is a natural focus for any island nation, it’s the only way for any would-be invaders to reach the island after all. With a strong seafaring culture and a little know-how it could easily grow into a naval super power. Because it’s power depends on naval supremacy however, it may sometimes get dragged into conflicts it would otherwise stay away from. Britain in the early twentieth century entered into a naval arms race with Germany thanks to their policy of always having the biggest navy. The arms race was expensive and helped to ratchet up tensions between the two countries. For Germany building a strong navy was just part of joining the international community of major powers, for Britain making sure they outpaced everyone else in naval development was a matter of survival.
You might also write this as an isolationist island nation that has decided to become a superpower, or at least a major power like Japan did in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. An island superpower might grown out of a previously isolationist nation that has decided that it must grown and expand in order to be able to compete on the international scene.
Again here there are lots of opportunities for conflict. Isolationist factions might dislike the large navy and feel that it does nothing but get the country involved in foreign affairs. Traditionalists might pine for a return to the “old ways.” Some might think they country isn’t aggressive enough. Or the formerly downtrodden might see all this shipbuilding as a chance to see the world and make their fortunes…at the expense of whoever they might run into.
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