18 July, 2008

Friday Favorite Science

There are a lot of love stories in science.

Some folks fall in love with a branch early on and stay faithful to it - they marry their childhood sweetheart, so to speak. Some of us go through a wild oats phase in which we make out with as many varieties as we can before settling down with one. Some of us practice polyepistimi and marry as many branches as we can get away with.

Placing myself within this metaphor, I'm a serial monogamist. I tend to love one branch of science thoroughly and deeply and then move on to the next. Not that I've ever fallen out of love with any of my paramours - quite the contrary. It's just the way my research goes: I need to read extensively in one area at a time to get enough of a feel for it to extrapolate into fictional reality.

I've met a lot of different scientific disciplines along the way. There hasn't been one I haven't fallen hard for, no matter what my first impression was.

Astronomy was easy: I'd been in love with the stars since childhood, even going so far as wanting to be an astronomer for a good long while. Astronomy leads quite easily into cosmology, which in turn leads to physics, and all three continue to be great loves.

They also fit in quite well with another childhood crush: geology. I love rocks. I won a prize at the fair for my rock collection. I had far more rocks than dolls. I was that kind of kid. So when I figured out that I'd need a good, solid grounding in geology to build a world, I was ecstatic. Finally, an excuse for my rock fetish! And it wasn't just rocks - there was all that plate tectonics, which had just been gaining momentum when I was a kid in elementary school, and had gone through all kinds of exciting changes since I'd visited it last. Sexy!

But you can't build a world with those alone. You've got to have some biology. And I'll tell you a secret: I hated biology. I remember only fragments of my public school biology education. Most of it involved learning about Mendel's peas and discovering that dissecting earthworms is about the most pointless task for a high school student ever. Maybe ours weren't preserved right, but all I could see was undifferentiated mush. Bo-ring.

So when I realized I couldn't get away with making all the aliens just like us, I was a little upset. This meant I had to study fucking biology. Ick.

You know what happened. I picked up a few books on biology - some Stephen J. Gould, a few others whose titles and authors are now obscured in the mists of time - and yup. Fell hard. Biology was fascinating. Evolution was so much more than natural selection and a few wayward peas. Ancient creatures should be every SF writer's dream come true: those little buggers were far more creative than we ever could be.

From biology, it was a short hop over to neuroscience. I love biology, but I'm passionate about neuroscience. The way the brain works makes for some utterly fascinating reading, I'm here to tell you. I've spent many a happy afternoon re-reading all of my Oliver Sacks and The 3-Pound Universe just for fun. And it makes psychology a lot easier to understand.

But you still don't have enough to build a world. I'd have to learn - ogods - weather. Fucking meterology. I'm from Arizona - we don't really have weather. I couldn't conceive of anything more dull. I didn't even figure I'd worry about it much. But I had to study it in college as part of physical geography.

It helped that the professor was the kind of man who'd once brought half an umbrella on camera when he was doing the weather report for the local news. Well, there was a 50% chance of rain that day - he'd wanted to be prepared.

After two weeks of Mr. Bennett's tuteledge, I couldn't only predict the weather, I didn't only understand it, I really enjoyed it. Meterology and I - we were great together! And it's a hell of a lot of fun to think about weather systems when you're world-building. Honestly, it is.

Weather systems are driven in part by the interaction of land and water. Had to study oceanography then, didn't I? And then there was...

But you get the picture. There's only one scientific discipline that could possibly accomodate someone as promiscuous as me: physical geography. All of my great loves are in there. If forced at gunpoint to pick my favorite branch of science, that's what it is, because then nobody gets left out. You can even sneak biology and all of its relatives in, because hey - biosphere, donchaknow? I'm sure I could manage to make a case for chucking computer science into that mix.

So there's my science love story. You've got one too, no doubt. What's your favorite science? How'd you two (or twenty) meet and fall in love?

Bonus points to everyone who knows what "polyepistimi" is supposed to mean. Whether that's actually how it should be is another story. Damn it, Jim, I'm a writer, not a linguist!

Oh, hey... philology. Where have you been all my life?


idahovic said...

I grew up on the southern coast of Oregon. I loved tide pools for as far back as I can remember. This led to an interest in oceanography and then to biology and then to paleontology.

I moved to SE Idaho and started dating a geology student and that started my love of geology. She's gone but the geology remains. (thanks Katie, wherever you are)

This is also the home of the Idaho National Lab so there's lots of sciencey types running loose and unsupervised. Meeting some of them sparked an interest in physics which led to cosmology and then to astronomy.

And because I ride a bike most everywhere I naturally had to learn some, and hence came to love, meteorology.

I can hardly wait to see what's next!

P.S. I'm also a fan of Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers.

Anonymous said...

Polyepistimi is a great word! And as a thanks to you for introducing it to me, I thought I'd share a link to my favourite bit of geology p*rn - the BBC's fabulous series Earth Story.