19 Jan 2018

Getting the Science Right

By Joan Marie Galat

How far will an author go to get her facts straight? In my case, it was a nearly-4000-kilometre round trip from my home in Alberta to Laramie, Wyoming. The program, called Launch Pad Astronomy, is a week-long workshop designed specifically for science-writing authors. It was established to make sure writers present science accurately when creating stories or writing nonfiction.

Whether you are reading a book or watching a movie, television show, or other media, it is not hard to get caught up in the story and assume it reflects genuine scientific principles. Launch Pad helps writers avoid presenting or creating misconceptions. Here are a few examples of how science can crop up in creative writing, followed by an explanation of why the scientific reference just won’t work. You will see how easy it is for even a well-intentioned writer to misstep.
  • It was 6 am, too early for the courier to arrive with the first copies of Joan’s new middle-grade (and up) book: Dark Matters-Nature’s Reaction to Light Pollution. She took one last glance at the rising Full Moon and turned inside.
    SCIENCE FAIL: The Full Moon only rises at sunset.

  • It had been dark for several hours. The courier was lost. His GPS battery was dead and his charger not working since it fell into a milkshake. Pulling over, he looked for the brightest star in the sky, certain the North Star would guide him home.
    SCIENCE FAIL: The North Star is not the brightest star in the sky.

  • The courier remembered he needed to call his mother for her birthday. His cell phone was dead and the charger — well, you don’t want to know. Not wanting to admit his shortcomings, he decided upon an excuse. He would say he burned his hand when picking up a meteorite that had landed when he was searching for the North Star.
    Photo credit: NASA/SETI/P. Jenniskens

    SCIENCE FAIL: It’s not common to find meteorites within seconds of them landing on the ground. Little is known about the immediate temperature of new meteorites, however scientists generally believe small rocks from space will be cool or only slightly warm upon striking the Earth.
Other common misconceptions abound about why seasons occur, the strength of gravity on the Moon, the direction a comet's tail will face, and other topics. The Smithsonian’s “Science Done Wrong” offers additional compelling examples.

Next time you read a book or watch a movie, consider whether the science is accurate and conduct a bit of research of your own to find out what is fact and what is fiction. If you’re a fellow author, consider applying to attend Launch Pad Astronomy. It is an experience you won’t want to miss.

Joan Marie Galat is the author of more than a dozen books, including the Dot to Dot in the Sky astronomy and mythology series. Science talks have taken her from the Arctic Circle to South Korea. Check out her book trailers and speaker demo.

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