I’m thrilled to have James Pailly as a guest today on Doorway Between Worlds. I’m a devoted follower of James’s blog Planet Pailly, where he shares knowledge about science in a way that never fails to make me laugh while I learn. James also writes science fiction, and I thought he might have some interesting ideas to share about how to communicate sciency concepts to readers. I was right! Here is our conversation about high school fears, molecular personalities, and the art of bringing science into science fiction.
On your blog Mission Statement page (I love that title, by the way – very science fiction!), you talk about how you’re working on improving your scientific knowledge, so you can grapple with its complexities in your writing. What prompted you to share that research on science with others through your blog?
First off, thanks for inviting me! I could never resist crossing a doorway between worlds.
I guess I started my blog because of a deep-rooted sense of insecurity. As a kid, I loved Star Trek and Star Wars, but I hated science class. Especially chemistry. Chemistry and I are old, bitter adversaries. So I grew up really wanting to write science fiction and knowing next to nothing about actual, factual science.
Most of my writing instructors reassured me that it didn’t matter. Good storytelling comes first; just make up the sciency stuff. But I couldn’t shake the fact that when it came to physics and astronomy and biology, I didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. I felt embarrassed by my ignorance, and that stopped me from writing anything at all.
I believe the best way to overcome that kind of insecurity is to face it directly. So in a moment of either extreme courage or extreme foolishness, I decided to teach myself science. In order to ensure that I’d stick to it for more than a weekend, I also decided to blog about my research. I figured regular blogging would keep me from getting lazy and that readers would hold me accountable if I made mistakes.
For the most part, it’s worked. There’s still loads of science for me to learn, but I don’t feel so insecure about my ignorance.
That’s fantastic. I’m ignorant in a lot of areas of science, too, and I love learning about all the different things you talk about through your blog. How did you end up developing the ideas for your various series?
I’ve had multiple special series come and go on my blog. Sciency Words is by far the longest running. The original idea was that I’d write brief, dictionary-style definitions of important scientific terms. Now Sciency Words posts are much longer and usually include what I describe as “highly technical scientific diagrams.” Like this one:
Image courtesy of James Pailly
The other currently active series is called Molecular Mondays. Every other Monday, I focus specifically on that subject I dreaded most in school: chemistry. This is another case of me directly facing my insecurities. I’ve tried to talk myself into canceling this series several times now, but the feedback I’ve gotten has really surprised me. Apparently I’m not the only one who struggled in chemistry class, and I guess people like to see that I’m not giving up on something just because it’s hard.
Yes! I am one of those who struggled with chemistry. I think part of the issue was that it wasn’t very relatable for me (as opposed to biology, which I did quite well in) – it felt abstract and boring. But your posts on chemistry are inspiring me to learn more. And your “highly technical scientific diagrams” are a big help in making it fun. Do you have a background in art? What do you see as the role of art in communication?
You know, the funny thing about studying art is that when you really get into it, when you’re learning to mix pigments and get them to adhere to a surface, you’re actually doing chemistry. With figure studies, you’re doing anatomy and biology. When you’re working with light and shadow, you’re starting to do physics.
I think a lot of science can feel abstract and boring, as you said. Chemistry is especially guilty of this. But once you get to know atoms and molecules, you find that they sort of have their own distinct personalities. Carbon makes friends with everybody. Helium just wants to be left alone. Oxygen’s super greedy for everyone else’s electrons, and most metals are sort of blasé about letting their own electrons go.
Images courtesy of James Pailly
That’s not really a scientific way of thinking. It’s sort of my artistic interpretation. I take a bit of creative license on my blog, but I think a little creative license can help make science feel less abstract and more familiar.
Applying character development to scientific concepts is brilliant. (I can imagine science teachers taking fiction writing classes to broaden their communication skills.)
Actually, one of my favorite teachers — my high school physics teacher — wrote two episodes of Star Trek, one for The Next Generation and another for Voyager. Now there was a man who knew how to turn science into good storytelling!
That is so cool! I wish my high school physics teacher had been a sci-fi writer. Although he had his own talents – he was a born comedian and a talented dancer. (He used to entertain us with some Russian dances if we asked nicely.)
I love that whole idea of cross-pollination between different knowledge areas. I’m curious – have you found that learning more about science has helped you with your original goal of improving your science fiction writing?
I have two science fiction projects that I’m actively working on. The first is called Tomorrow News Network. It’s a short story series about a journalist who travels through time, covering the biggest news stories in the galaxy before they happen.
I started writing T.N.N. shortly after I started blogging. The T.N.N. universe is filled with fairly standard Sci-Fi tropes: wacky time machines, emotionless cyborgs, sprawling space empires, etc. From the beginning, I’ve tried to fit my research in wherever I can, but T.N.N. is still what some would label “soft-core” science fiction.
Image courtesy of James Pailly
My other project is still in the world building stage, and I’m sort of approaching it in the opposite way to how I approached Tomorrow News Network. This time, I’m starting with my research — specifically my research on planetary science, orbital mechanics, and chemistry (of course) — and I’m fitting in traditional Sci-Fi tropes wherever I can.
The result is a universe that feels much more grounded in reality. At least, I hope so. Also, with all the omnipresent hazards of space travel hanging over my main characters, I think this is a universe that will feel a whole lot more dangerous.
I’m so glad it’s been a worthwhile endeavour for you. I can’t wait to see the results! Before we wrap up our conversation, I was wondering — do you have any recommended resources for those who are interested in writing in the sci-fi genre?
A lot of science fiction writers seem to skip the research part of their work. I’m not saying you have to go research-crazy like I do, but you can find a lot of cool story ideas buried in scientific literature. Real life science is often weirder and more wonderful than anything you could possibly imagine.
So I’m going to repeat a piece of advice from Isaac Asimov (at least, I think it’s from Asimov). He told new science fiction writers to get a subscription to Scientific American. They’re one of the best at making science accessible without oversimplification.
Of course, the world has changed a bit since Asimov’s time, and now you can find quality science journalism all over the Internet for free. You’ve got websites like Live Science, Universe Today, and Space.com (although these websites are sometimes guilty of oversimplification). Magazines like Popular Science and Scientific American post a lot of their articles online too.
And if you feel like diving into the more technical stuff, check out Google Scholar. It’s Google for academic papers (as opposed to regular Google, which searches the entire Internet). Actually, Google Scholar is an amazing resource no matter what subject you’re trying to research, and I’m surprised by how few people seem to know it’s there.
Thanks, James! I used to love reading Scientific American, and I need to get back to it.
Finally, just for fun, I have to ask: Which do you like better? Star Wars or Star Trek? (Or something else? I’m a Babylon 5 person myself.)
Oh jeez, you’re going to get me in trouble. Okay, I’d normally pick Star Trek, but… the trailer for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story just came out. I’m pretty excited about Star Wars right now.
I think we all are! Thanks so much for being such a great guest, James, and sharing your thoughts with my readers. You’re welcome back any time!
Do you have a question for James, or a comment on our interview? Please leave your thoughts below – we’d love to continue the conversation with you!