Monday, December 14, 2009

The Norway Spiral and the Difference Between Fiction, Lies, and Truth

It will never cease to amaze me how the world produces things far more odd than many of the bizarre sci-fi ideas I spend my time dreaming up. But unlike my personal ideas, the world's phenomena usually have straightforward explanations. As a space scientist, I'm used to seeing strange things in the sky and then working/waiting patiently until we have them figured out. In the mean time, speculation is fun, but can be damaging for those who don't possess the critical thinking skills to tell fact from fiction, or the skepticism to know a lie when they hear it.

Case in point, the latest wacko thing to be seen in the skies over Earth, over Norway, actually - a gorgeous blue and white expanding spiral. This was seen about three or four nights ago, and naturally caused quite a stir. It's one of those things I wish so very hard I could have seen in person. But since, for better or worse, we live in an age when almost nothing goes unrecorded, we have all been able to see the photos and movies of what transpired in the heavens that night.

When something strange like this happens, the response of the public follows a pattern. I'm surprised that people are not so well versed with this pattern that they do not immediately bypass the "aliens have landed" phase, but somehow that never happens. Although every time a weird thing is spotted, and people first think of doomsday or aliens, and then that is always debunked, people keep on doing it. I understand the desire to have something amazing happen. People love excitement. But then group hysteria sets and and they start believing their own stories. All sorts of stories were generated around this phenomenon - aliens landing, star gates opening up, the Hadron Collider cracking the space-time continuum, a black hole forming next to Earth, and on and on. Some fun ideas for science fiction, but all totally off base for science.

I make up science fiction stories. I also write science. There is a difference. Although they can play off of one another - science can be fed by open-minded creativity, and good stories often have a strong factual basis - they are not the same thing. As a scientist, when I see something odd in the sky, my first thought is to observe it as carefully as possible, then consider what possible phenomena that I am familiar with that might have caused it. Then I go to bed and wait for my colleagues who were at the telescope that night, or getting updates of satellite launches or whatever, to get their ideas on one page, along with the observations of whoever saw the strange thing. In two days to two weeks, a coherent story emerges, and then we can move forward. Getting too wound up before that happens only spreads rumors and biases you against the results.

What really happened was rather mundane in some aspects. A Russian missile test failed. This is sort of where the lie part comes in, since of course the failure of this test is being denied. Who wants to admit they had yet another missile fail on launch? People are somewhat naive to think that since it was denied, well, that wasn't how it happened then. Again, given the day and age, it is amazing anyone bothers to lie about such things. We knew perfectly well a Russian sub was scheduled to test a missile, and exactly where it would be. And then we see a suspicious spiral in the sky. This is not the first time, really, although it is the most spectacular. The photo of a trident missile having a bit of a malfunction shows that pretty clearly.

My point? Two things, I suppose. The first is that I do want people to have good critical thinking skills. I hope they can see something like this and realize that the universe is quite amazing enough without star gates opening up on top of us. People are too open to scams and cons if they do not develop the ability to see something odd and not jump to conclusions. The second point is that I do enjoy the wonderful pump to the imagination that comes from seeing something unexpected. It does kinda look like a star gate.  That is very cool. And I certainly want people to enjoy their sci-fi. I do.

I just don't want them to pay a price for not knowing where the science ends and the fiction begins.


Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Update: Vacations, Business Trips, and Fitting in Some Writing

My rate of posting has slowed down in recent days, what with Thanksgiving and then a week long vacation.  And I had a business trip thrown in there, as well.  It was a very productive trip, but I was working on science education from morning until night, with no opportunity for a little posting on the side.

All this has also impacted my writing schedule.  Vacations aren't something to gripe about, of course.  I think most of us who are writers tend to be Type A, and it is easier to do a working vacation than to take real time off.  So it is good to encourage ourselves to try to really unplug once in a while (even though I'm supposed to be 'unplugged' right now ...)  But the last month did see the production of two new drafts of sci-fi short stories, and part of a draft for a horror short story.  But I still need to get them finalized and cleaned up before diving into formal editing. 

My NaNoWriMo final count was 58K.  I was on pace for about 75K of material, which would have finished the novel, but then Thanksgiving reared its head.  I don't mind writing a lot of material in one day, so long as I basically have it already scripted in my head.  But I don't like to put down complete garbage text that's just going to get hacked out in the edits, anyway.  Still, I think that once I get it cleaned up and reading for editing, it will have enough of the good stuff to be a real draft novel.  Not sure how to target it, thought, since it bridges several genres.  But that's a problem for after it's written and edited.

I've also been examining a few new avenues for learning and networking.  Professional conferences and societies are great places for a scientist to keep up on the latest, to report new work, and stay in touch with colleagues.  But I have not tried to do the same as a creative writer.  I've been looking into what societies and conferences are key in my genres of sci-fi, fantasy, and even horror.  I've also been looking into general writing workshops in order to hone my editing skills.

And in the mean time I've been distracted by Avatar movie advertisements.  I don't usually run out to see a new movie until lots of reviews have come in.  But I think I might see this one early just for the eye-candy factor.  And as always, I'm wondering if it will be anywhere as good as the hype.  Which given the level of hype, might make that completely impossible.


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