Nerd Moment

Tonight’s post is not exactly about writing.  Instead, it’s a shout-out to Paul Shawcross, the Chief of the Science and Space Branch at the White House Office of Management and Budget.  (Wow, he has a long title!)  He wrote the clever White House response to the petition for the USA to build a Death Star.

The man really deserves some credit for understanding his audience.  Even the title of the article (“This Isn’t the Petition Response You’re Looking For”) is a blatant reference to the Star Wars movies.  He did a great job with the response, too.  He started with the reasons why it wouldn’t be feasible (my favorite is “The Administration does not support blowing up planets”) and then continued to describe the many very cool ways that the government and private citizens are involved in space exploration and science.  And of course, there are Star Wars references sprinkled throughout.

Are you totally confused?  There is a website called We the People, affiliated with the White House, that allows US citizens to create and sign petitions.  If they reach a certain number of signatures in a set amount of time, the appropriate expert from the White House will respond.   Even if no one really took this petition seriously, the people running the site made a committment, and they stuck to it!

The concept is cool and this response is well written.  I had a nerd moment when I read it, and just wanted to share.

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Some blogs to share

Today I want to share a couple of science-related blog posts that I enjoyed recently.

Bad Astronomy on Slate.com has an interesting discussion about the much-hyped Maya Apocalypse.

This video is a great take on the planet Saturn from a very excited British guy.  (He’s also got a fun one about the moon!)

Why? Because Science has a fun recipe for a diamond, if you’d like to make your own.  (Hope you have a lot of time!)

Enjoy!

Even Non-Fiction Needs Stories

I am greatly enjoying the non-fiction book that I am currently reading.  It was mentioned in an earlier post, thanks to its intriguing first sentence, and it has lived up to the promise of that opening line.

It also led to a realization for me: stories are important in non-fiction.

Obviously, these stories aren’t made up.  (Otherwise it wouldn’t be non-fiction, right?)  True stories can be just as captivating as imaginary ones, and peppering a non-fiction text with them helps bring the reader along and illustrate important points.  In the case of this book, I’ve read about Las Vegas showgirls, a battle between an eagle and a cormorant, and some of the earliest attempts at human flight.  The stories can be personal tales of the author, like the encounter with a murre in the middle of the road.  (“That’s how I found myself walking down a country lane in pitch darkness, talking soothingly to the seabird chewing on my hand.”)  They can also be true stories of others, as in the oft-repeated tale of Frank Chapman’s birding excursion in the streets of late-1800’s New York City.  On this trek, he documented over 40 native species; the birds were not on branches, but dead and mounted on hats.

Storytelling is our main way of communicating with each other, and the use of stories in non-fiction shouldn’t be surprising.  It turns out the best science (or history or any other subject) writers are as good at turning a tale as some novelists.  Theirs just happen to be true.

A Great First Sentence

My life is now in boxes, inside a large box, ready to leave before me to head to my new home in South Dakota.  This means that I finally have time to sit down and slow down for a minute, which tonight meant cracking open a new book.

This book, Feathers by Thor Hanson, promises to be the non-fiction book I’ve been looking for about the link between dinosaurs and birds.  (Science nerd, remember?)  More importantly, it has an awesome first line.

“Vultures made me do it.”

This is a great first sentence for a non-fiction book.  It immediately promises the touch of humor and personal approach that signal a book that will be enjoyable to read.  Plus, how many of us have an opportunity to say vultures made us do anything?

I’m going back to the book, and I let you know if it lives up to the promise of its first line.  🙂

The Stuff at the End of a Book

If you read fiction, you know that a novel usually ends on the last page of the book.  There might be a little snippet of the next book in the series, or a page about the author or the typeface, but that’s about it.

Nonfiction is different.  I just got done reading a large non-fiction book about biology.  The book part ended on page 614, but the last page of the book was 673.  That’s right, 69 pages of extra stuff.

What is this extra stuff, and why didn’t I read it?  In this case it was a list of suggested readings, references and citations from throughout the book, and an index.  These are reference materials, necessary for the book, but not really sit-and-read type things.  These are common things to find at the end of non-fiction (which I have been reading a lot lately) but which are usually not needed for fiction.  (A notable exception is Michael Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead which includes both real citations and fictitious ones.)

This makes me glad that I don’t write non-fiction.  🙂

Writing Like a Scientist

You have to be in the right frame of mind to write scientifically.  When someone is writing up a thesis or dissertation or scientific journal entry, they usually have a lot of material to review.  That tends (at least in my experience) to get your mind in the right place for the scientific language and concepts to flow.

When you are faking a scientific paper, however, you have to find an interesting balance.  You need to write scientifically, but make up everything you are writing at the same time.  Thus, you must tap both the creative and the logical parts of your brain simultaneously.

I started writing a fake scientific article to accompany Dragon back when I first wrote Dragon, but never finished it.  Somehow (I’m going to blame it on my reading science non-fiction a lot lately) I managed to find the balance.  Tonight I finished the draft of the excerpt of an article that I want to include as an appendix to Dragon.

It was actually kind of fun.  Want a sample?  Here you go:

An excerpt from “Genetic analysis of the lack of hybridization in interracial crosses of Khai” by Spencer O’Neal, Ph.D. (Columbia University)

“This characteristic of the Khai genotype to remain intact between generations may also shed some light on the handful of documented cases (Rams and Rams, 1994; Reyes, et.al, 1976; Barnil, 2004) of interspecies breeding producing viable offspring.

“The mechanics of the interspecies breeding have not been studied in great detail, but Petri and Frees (1981) did an extensive review of the known literature of these crosses.  Any offspring of a Khai/human cross would be given a haploid chromosomal set from their human parent and a diploid chromosomal set from their Khai parent.”

That’s just a little taste, but it gives you the flavor.  What do you think?

The “I Think” Statement

My dad knows a lot about a lot of things, but I have always been the science nerd of our family.  This means that I was the one asked anytime someone had a science-related question.  This was especially true with my mom.

Starting in late elementary or early junior high, if my mom asked me a question I wasn’t sure about, I’d start with something I knew and extrapolate the rest of the answer.  Ok, so it wasn’t extrapolating, it was more like a mildly educated guess.  (Sometimes more educated than others.)  And she’d believe me.

At some point at the end of one of these fictitious answers, I mentioned that I didn’t really know, I just made it up.  After a brief talk in which the frequency of this behavior was discussed, my mom asked how she’d be able tell if I actually knew what I was talking about or I was just guessing.  I can’t remember whose idea it was, but we settled on the phrase, “I think.”  I was to add this to the end of the sentence whenever I didn’t really know but had an educated guess on the answer.

Now, as an adult, I know better than to simply make up the answer.  “I don’t know” is an acceptable response in my line of work, and I use it without fear.  However, in my family, the “I think” phrase persists.  In fact, if someone questions the validity of an answer, we have a typical response: “Is that an ‘I think’ statement?”

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