Thursday, June 9, 2011

Verisimilitude: Getting Science Right

Reading thuRsday

I attended a panel, at the 2011 LTUE conference, on Archeology in Science Fiction. The presenters were credentialed archeologists and they gamely fielded questions from the audience about the scientific plausibility of various plot points.

As someone who also trained in the dusty science, it was fascinating to listen to the questions. The audience understood that contemporary archeology looks nothing like an Indiana Jones adventure. Nevertheless, the issues they raised betrayed a simplistic hope for drama and excitement.

Real science is less exciting than you think and more thrilling than you can imagine. Every wet lab I've been involved with has had to mix flasks of colored water for the photographers because real chemistry and biology usually happen in clear or slightly tinted liquids that make for dull pictures. But when you understand what's actually happening in the reaction vessel, it blows your mind in a way pictures never could.

One of the questions to the panelists was, "What's the coolest thing you've ever found on a dig?"

The coolest thing I found during a dig was a tiny pearl button, perhaps a quarter inch in diameter.

I trust you're suitably disappointed: how could a little button compare with the Staff of Ra or perhaps a respectable pile of treasure?

But context changes everything. We were excavating a federal army outpost in southern New Mexico that was occupied for about ten years before the civil war. The button, which came from a dress--perhaps one that belonged to an officer's wife--spoke volumes about army logistics out on the frontier. (Following the Mexican-American war, the trade routes running south to Mexico shifted to the east in territories occupied by the U.S.)

The key point about science is that most of the time it's like a mystery where once you understand the context, one key piece of evidence unlocks the puzzle. It's rarely about drama because science is fundamentally about being as certain as possible that you know what you think you know. Drama, in contrast, flourishes in uncertainty.

To give the science in your fiction a degree of verisimilitude, approach it like a mystery, not a thriller.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

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