When you’re creating a new story world, it’s important to have a basic grasp of how science works so you can portray things realistically. The science and technology in science fiction and fantasy aren’t real, it’s true, but it makes your story a lot more believable if you base your world’s science on real science. Speaking as someone who works in the sciences myself, reading badly written science makes me cringe! So let’s figure out how to avoid that.
Here are some basics of science that are good to remember. When in doubt, ask someone who works in one of these fields, if you can!
- Plants absorb light energy from the sun, and use this energy to convert carbon dioxide and water into sugars. This sugar stores chemical energy, which the plant can use later. All of the energy that we get in our food comes from plants and the sun, and carnivores/omnivores can’t convert energy from sunlight.
- DNA is like the computer code of the body. It’s composed of four nucleotides (Adenine, Guanine, Thymine, and Cytosine), and different sequences of these nucleotides create different instructions to make things in the body. If computer binary (10101101001) is the base code of what makes computers function, DNA (AGACTAGTAC) is the base code of what makes the body function.
- Genes are sections of DNA that code for proteins (each three nucleotides signal the body to make an amino acid, and chains of amino acids make up proteins). Genes can be altered by changing their nucleotide sequence (so if genetic engineering happens in your world, that’s what’s going on. People are either changing the nucleotides in a section of DNA, or copying nucleotides and pasting them somewhere else in a gene to change the protein. Like I said, very much like computer code).
- Genetically altering an organism doesn’t make it toxic! DNA is not inherently a toxic chemical in itself (you eat tons of DNA in your food, because every organism has DNA. Your body breaks it down into amino acids again, which you use to make proteins). The only way genetically altering an organism would make it toxic is if you altered a gene, and made that gene code for a poison that the organism would secrete, or something.
- If you are brainstorming a genetically engineered organism and combining two species (i.e. humans and birds), look at the skeletal structures of each and compare them. If humans developed wings, for instance, they would develop on our arms, not out of our backs, because our arms are the evolutionary equivalent to bird wings (both are forelimbs). There are no joints to connect to in the human spine/back that would make wings sprouting out of the back make any sense.
- Cloning is really difficult and risky (not to mention the ethical quandaries!). If your story involves cloning, your society should be really advanced (and had a lot of trial and error until it perfected the cloning process), and you should think about the ethical issues of cloning animals and humans. It’s easiest to clone microorganisms, since they are the least complex. Cloned organisms also have a much lower survival rate.
- Natural selection drives evolution (and evolution is a real thing. The only “controversy” comes from creationists. We don’t understand all of the mechanisms behind evolution yet, and there is a lot of effort put forward into studying that, but evolution is definitely a thing that exists). Organisms that are born with traits that help them survive better are generally the ones that end up surviving (obviously). Since they survive and the other organisms without those traits didn’t, the traits that helped them survive are passed onto their offspring. For instance, if deer that are very fast are able to survive better than slow deer, deer will eventually evolve to be speedier, because that trait is favored.
- Evolution doesn’t happen within just one organism (i.e. an individual animal can’t magically evolve a new survival mechanism just because it’s threatened). Organisms with good traits survive, and then that trait is selected for in the population at large because of this.
- Ecosystems require all the different organisms within them to function correctly. So if one goes extinct or becomes endangered, the ecosystem becomes unbalanced, and all of its members are effected. This is especially in the case with keystone species - a keystone species is an organism that basically holds the ecosystem together. If it gets knocked out, the whole ecosystem collapses. Doing something to an ecosystem tends to have a chain reaction and unintended consequences.
- Habitat fragmentation is when habitat gets cut into little bits (i.e. if a forest is replaced by a parking lot, and only little patches of forest are left). Because there is not enough habitat let, and the patches are too small, this can cause many species to die out.
- If someone is traveling at the speed of light, time runs slower for them than on the planet they just left. For instance, if they leave their twin on Earth and fly at the speed of light for 50 years, they will be much younger than their twin when they return, since they haven’t aged as much.
- Atoms are made of the following: A nucleus composed of neutrons (no charge) and protons (positively charged), and electrons (which move around the atom at specific levels, based on their energy. They’re negatively charged). Neutrons, protons, and electrons are made of particles called quarks.
- Nuclear fission (breaking atoms apart to create two or more smaller atoms) releases a huge amount of energy, and atomic bombs use this technology (as well as nuclear power plants). Nuclear fusion (slamming atoms together to create one bigger atom) also releases a huge amount of energy, much more than nuclear fission. Nuclear fusion would be a great source of renewable energy, if we could figure out how to do it efficiently (this is how the sun produces its energy).
- You can’t hear sound in space, space is a vacuum. Sound is the vibration of matter particles (air included), and since there’s no matter in space, there’s no sound.
- Space is also really, really cold and has no protection from radiation. So if you were out there without protection, you would get hit with extreme amounts of radiation, freeze to death, and suffocate.
- Black holes are points in space where there is infinite density and gravity in a very small point called a singularity. Nothing can escape a black hole, not even light. Once you get sucked past a certain point called the event horizon, it’s all over. You get really stretched out (called spaghettification) and then condensed into the singularity. Supermassive black holes are in the center of most galaxies (including our own).
- Chemical reactions are when either an exchange of electrons (ionic) occurs between atoms, or atoms share electrons (covalent). Ionic bonds tend to happen between particles that are charged (i.e. Na+ [sodium] and Cl- [chloride] combine to produce neutrally charged NaCl [table salt]).
- Chemical reactions either release energy (exergonic) or require energy absorption to happen in the first place (endergonic). Exergonic reactions tend to happen spontaneously, and endergonic reactions need a dose of energy before they can occur. Exergonic reactions are the ones that produce explosions.
- If you light a balloon filled with hydrogen on fire, it will make a very loud explosion (my chemistry professor enjoyed doing this a lot).
- Chemicals that help other chemical reactions along are called catalysts (and in biology, there are certain kinds of proteins called enzymes that function as catalyst). Reactions are easier with catalysts.
- Radioactivity is when big atoms break apart into smaller atoms, releasing energy or particles (nuclear fission, basically). This can either be forced, or occur naturally (most of it occurs naturally). Radioactive atoms can release alpha particles (Helium atoms), beta particles (high speed electrons), or gamma particles (very high energy photons [light particles]). Alpha particles are the least dangerous, and gamma particles are the most dangerous. Radiation can cause damage to DNA and other structures in the body, which is why it makes people sick.
- Light can be both a wave and a particle called a photon. Confusing, I know!
- On the biggest, commercial farms (the ones who provide most of our food), crops have been bred to exhibit all the same traits, and to be clones of each other. This was done so that they would have the highest yield possible, and produce the largest and most nutritious crops, but this sameness also causes problems. A group of the same clone/genotype of plants is called a monoculture. If one plant in a monoculture is vulnerable to a pest, disease, or weather condition (like drought), the entire monoculture will be wiped out if that particular bad thing happens. This can cause drastic losses in the food supply and increases in prices. Genetic variation is default by nature, and if a pest/disease/whatever hits a patch of plants with genetic variation, some of them will die out, but it’s likely some of them will be resistant as well, and there will be less of a loss in the food supply. Unfortunately, this is not the norm.
- If you grow the same kind of plant in the same field year after year, the soil will eventually lose all its nutrients (different kinds of plants do different things in the ground to create or deplete nutrients - i.e. legumes [beans and related species] make the nitrogen in soil usable by other plants). Change around the types of plants you grow in a field year after year, to prevent nutrient depletion (i.e. grow corn in one field one year, and then grow soybeans there the next).
- Turning over the soil (tilling) is necessary to bring up new nutrients and mix up the soil, so it won’t be just depleted soil on the top. If you don’t till your soil, things won’t grow right.
- The main crops grown for survival are cereal grains (wheat, barley, corn, etc. which provide starch/sugar) and legumes (beans, lentils, soybeans, etc. which provide protein). Vegetables/fruits are also grown, although it is possible to survive without them as long as you have a basic diet of cereal grains and legumes. That’s not ideal, since vegetables and fruits provide water and a lot of necessary nutrients, but it’s possible (and quite common in poor areas).
- Some cities are trying out urban gardening, which helps provide local food to local people, and creates more jobs and generally helps at a local level. This is not common, however. There are also areas in cities called “food deserts,” which are often in the most poor/industrial areas, and the only food within a reasonable distance is unhealthy, non-nutritious stuff at a convenience store.
- Also, healthy food is a lot more expensive than unhealthy food, so there tends to be a class divide in regard to who can afford to purchase what.
Weather & Climate
- Climate change is also a real thing, whether caused by humans or not. The planet has traditionally cycled between hot and cold cycles throughout its existence, but human activities (such as CO2 emissions) have exacerbated temperature rise, since we currently appear to be at the beginning of a hot cycle.
- Areas with the most extreme temperatures are the most affected by climate change. The ocean and atmosphere are both warming, and the number of degrees may seem very small, but that’s because that number is averaged from all the world’s temperatures. So in someplace like Arizona, if the world is getting hotter, it is going to get even more extremely hot, because Arizona is prone to extreme temperatures. Same with drought. If a place already has problems with drought, even a small rise in temperature will make those problems a lot worse.
- Even a small rise in temperature also affects weather and storm systems. Storms have grown stronger and more violent because of climate change (this applies to hurricanes, regular thunderstorms, tornadoes, blizzards, anything you can think of).
- This rise in temperature also negatively affects the oceans - higher temperatures cause coral reefs to acidify, destroying that delicate ecosystem. The temperatures also are causing sea ice to melt, which will make the planet even hotter (the less ice [a white surface] there is to reflect sunlight, the more sunlight gets absorbed into the Earth, and the warmer it gets), not to mention destroying that ecosystem too.
- The melting ice also causes sea level rise, which will make landmasses smaller (and be a huge problem for cities on the coast, since they will be flooded or lost entirely).
This became a very long article, but I hope it's helpful! I obviously haven’t covered everything to do with science, but I tried to brainstorm the things that I thought would be relevant to a lot of common stories and genres people write. If you have any other science questions, feel free to ask our Tumblr. Best of luck!