I want to be a scientist when I grow up. Do you ever write about science in your stories?
—JaQuise Stewart, St. Paul, Minnesota
I’m happy you’re still planning on becoming a scientist, JaQuise. I like thinking about the man you’ll be when you enter the field you choose. Probably what I like best about scientists is that they’re serious problem solvers who like to figure things out and put their ideas to work.
I have to admit that, though I’ve taken science courses in school, I don’t know nearly as much about scientific fields as I would like to. In wondering about how to answer your question, I took a mental trip through my stories and tried to think if science does play any role. Here’s what I came up with. Suite Harmonic is set in New Harmony, Indiana, which is a place that was home to a lot of people who had a serious interest in science, geology in particular. If you ever have a chance to go to New Harmony, you should visit the Granary, which has all sorts of scientific instruments that geologists used in the mid-19th century. It was built for David Dale Owen, a geologist whose father’s fame attracted many scientist and artists and thinkers to New Harmony.
I also thought of one of my short stories, “The Temple of Amun,” which has a civil engineer as the main character. Engineers aren’t scientists exactly, but they need to know a lot physics and math for their work. This particular character helps design huge projects like the Three Gorges Dam in China. When I was doing research for the story, I learned a few terms that a civil engineer might use. They were sometimes big and odd. I remember aufeis and sewage lagoon and interstitial pores. I liked their strange and unexpected sounds, and so I used them in the story.
There’s also Time Stamp, another of my novels, which has a minor character who’s a radiologist, a doctor who uses x-rays to diagnose what’s wrong with people or radiation to treat cancer. I once heard a radiologist say he had studied from a book called On the Trail of the Invisible Light. I loved that title and thought there was the idea of a story in it. In fact I bought that book, which is very big and technical, and I always intended to read it. Instead, I did something easier. When I was writing Time Stamp, I borrowed that phrase—the invisible light—and had the radiologist contrast the light that we can only imagine to the light that lets a photographer take pictures.
I’ve just remembered this, too. One of the reasons that Nell in The Second Magician’s Tale is an astrologer is that I was fascinated that, in the Middle Ages, astronomy—the study of stars and the universe—was really just astrology. People made all sorts of diagrams of stars and tried to predict how people would or should act based on their positions. Astronomy today isn’t fanciful in that way. It’s based on things people can observe and calculate scientifically.
Of course, anyone who writes stories is always on the lookout for things for characters to know, so science does pop up now and then even for writers like me who don’t have a scientific background. There are writers that do, though. One of the writers I admire, Andrea Barrett, draws on science for many of her stories. In fact, she wrote a short story about Linnaeus, the botanist who developed the categories for naming different organisms. It’s a really wonderful story and, though it’s about a scientist, it does have a kind of magic.