I am not a published author, but sometimes I write things, and from what people tell me, it’s pretty good. But what I am is a writer. When you pick this hobby, you are also picking a lot of doubt and imposter syndrome, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
A writer is someone who writes. Not some who is published or writes 2000 words per day. Someone who writes. I would love to get paid for this, and I would love to write thousands of words per day and go to conventions and sign copies of my book for people. But none of those things are why I started writing.
I started writing because I love reading, and after reading enough, I realized that I had stories I want to tell. So I grabbed a pencil and a few pieces of paper, and I started writing. That was about fifteen years ago. Since then, I’ve written on and off frequently, but life frequently got in the way. That changes a few years ago when I started this blog and committed to getting better. I would like to think I have succeeded so far. I still have a long way to go, but I’m also proud of how far I’ve come.
I would never have been able to get to this point where I actually feel good about my work if I hadn’t picked up a pen and started dumping word vomit onto a page fifteen years ago. Now I’m getting better and more comfortable with sharing my work.
So if you want to start writing, all you need to do is start. Write because you want to and because you have stories to tell. Accept that your writing won’t be perfect, and start writing. You’ll be happier that way. Confidence will come with time.
This might seem like a bit of a repeat. After all, we just learned about a few natural weapons, right? Sort of. I talked a bit about how snake venom works, but I think it’s worth our time to learn a bit about toxicology. How do poisons work? How are they administered? Can toxicity be quantified? We’ll get to those answers in a minute. But before we start, let’s get two disclaimers out of the way. First, I am not a doctor and nothing you read here should be considered medical advice. Second, some fields distinguish between toxins and poisons. For the sake of simplicity, I will be using them interchangeably.
How do poisons work? Like we saw with snake venom, poisons work by interfering with the natural processes that happen constantly in your body to keep you alive. If you think about it we are really just a leather sack filled with water and chemical reactions. If anything interferes with those systems then we’re in for a bad time.
Death is in the dosage. Molecules that we need to sustain life can be toxic if we have too much, and molecules known to cause death might not hurt us at all if we have too little. Determining the amount and duration of exposure that results in toxicity can be tricky, but it’s an important consideration.
Two important considerations are acute versus chronic toxicity. Does the poison kill you immediately (acute), or over time with repeated exposure (chronic)? One measure of toxicity is LD50, often denoted in terms of milligrams per kilogram, which is defined as the median dose that kills 50% of the test population. Chronic exposure is something that workers in many industries need to worry about, but the assassins in your crime novel will be more concerned with acute exposure.
But measuring toxicity can be difficult. After all, it’s hard to find willing human subjects. The easiest way to test potential toxins is to see what they do to cells in a petri dish (in vitro). These experiments can reveal a lot, like the mechanism of toxicity (eg. does it block cell receptors or bind to DNA?) but cells in isolation are a poor model for living systems. Sure, maybe a chemical is toxic to liver cells, but if it never leaves the lungs after being inhaled then its effect may be limited. Large multicellular organisms are more than just individual cells, they are complex systems comprised of many cells with many functions. Toxins may then target a specific organ or grouping or organs depending on how the body processes them.
The best way to test toxicity is to use live animal models, but for obvious reasons, not everyone has the time, resources, or inclination to perform those tests.
How Bad Are Heavy Metals?
Mercury and lead are often thought of as extremely toxic, and for good reason, there are a great deal of environmental and health risks that arise from heavy metal pollution. However, just because something contains a heavy metal does not automatically make it dangerous.
The properties of metallic compounds vary greatly depending on their structure, makeup, and reactivity. For example, heavy metal chlorides may be toxic, but heavy metal oxides may be considerably less so.
Water solubility is a big factor here. If a compound cannot dissolve in water it’s going to have a hard time reaching target systems in the human body where it can do the most damage. But factors such as pH and any reactions the metals might undergo once inside the body can also play a role.
By now it should be clear that toxicity is hard to predict. It’s not just a matter of what a molecule contains, but what reactions that molecule undergoes inside the body which determines how dangerous it is and what kinds of damage it inflicts.
This is a problem for researchers because not all of the chemicals found within a lab will have been fully studied in terms of toxicity. Because of this, it’s easier to assume everything is dangerous and behave accordingly. That said, there are a few things that can be done to predict a molecule’s hazardous effects.
After a few years in the field, most chemists can intuit the reactivity of molecules based on their structure.
Reactions that occur once released into the environment.
Reactions that occur within biological systems.
For these reasons, predicting toxicity is not as straightforward as one might think, although knowledge of structure and reactivity can give us some clues. There have even been attempts to take known reactivity data, feed it into computers, and generate toxicity predictions. These efforts are unfortunately hampered by a general lack of data in many cases and the number of environmental and chemical variables that need to be considered. Even so, progress in this area is being made.
Arsenic – a poison that was favored by Agatha Christie, rat catchers, and stylists alike. Arsenic and arsenic-containing compounds have found many uses over the years as rat poisons, pigments, medicines, and more. Because of these many uses arsenic was once easy to come by and could be bought at many pharmacies. The really dangerous form of arsenic is arsenic oxides. Once inside the body, it disrupts the production of ATP, the molecule that our bodies use for fuel. Arsenic (III) oxides are similar in structure to the phosphates that our bodies use to make ATP and so our bodies try to use them instead. Without a regular supply of energy, cell death soon follows.
Capsaicin – do you really need to know why peppers feel hot on our tongues? Do you care? Maybe peppers won’t drop you dead, but the mechanism is fascinating and very useful to science fiction authors. Capsaicin targets neurons, specifically the vanilloid receptor. In practice, they cause the same sensation as heat. So they hurt, but they could hurt more if controlled by a mad scientist. This is actually my favorite toxin here, because in real life it is relatively harmless, but could be used by a writer in a lot of interesting ways. An alien plant for example, could have a much nastier variety of capsaicin for explorers to stumble upon.
Cyanide-cyanide is a classic. No spy would be caught dead without their cyanide capsule. Like arsenic, cyanide disrupts the production of ATP. In this case, however, it functions as an inhibitor that prevents the enzyme cytochrome c oxidase from doing its part in the ATP cycle. It should be noted, that in this case when we say cyanide we actually mean hydrogen cyanide (HCN). Cyano groups (CN) are common in many areas of chemistry, and hydrogen cyanide has many industrial uses.
Sarin – famous as a chemical warfare agent and a neurotoxin. Sarin acts quickly and can strike you dead in under ten minutes. Sarin is not too different from some of the snake venom we looked at a while back. Like our example there, Sarin works by inhibiting signals sent by nerve cells, but the mechanism is different. The key to sarin’s effectiveness is the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Sarin permanently binds to receptors and prevents muscle cells from correctly interpreting the acetylcholine signal. The victim’s muscles are then unable to process acetylcholine, hindering their movement, and the victim dies from asphyxiation soon after. Sarin is an organophosphorus chemical that evaporates quickly and is incredibly deadly.
Agatha Christie was famous for using accurate portrayals of real poisons in her mystery novels, so much so that an entire book was written about it. By doing this she was able to give her readers the chance to deduce the murderer and the means of murder before she revealed it. The clues were all there for anyone who wanted to puzzle it out.
Whatsmore, knowing what a poison is and what its other uses help to build more plausibility into your story. A worker at a chemical plant might have ample access to hydrogen cyanide, just like a pharmacist in Victorian England would have no trouble sourcing arsenic on the down-low. And of course, for you writers of science fiction, knowing about the mechanisms and effects of real-world poisons allow you to ground your fictional toxins in real science.
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.