David L Clements does a better job of introducing himself than I could have done, so…
Before I get down to business I must thank Ian for giving Rocket Science contributors a chance to strut our stuff on his blog!
But now to the real stuff. And it is the real stuff I’d like to tell you about today, because I’m one of the non-fiction contributors to Rocket Science because, by some measures, I am a rocket scientist, or at least a rocket payload scientist.
I’m an astrophysicist, and I work on observational cosmology and extragalactic astronomy. To find out more about the astronomy I do you’ll have to buy Rocket Science. What I want to write about today is the experience of being a working scientist who also writes science fiction.*
Some people might think I would be looked down on by real scientists for writing science fiction, but that is definitely not the case. Many of my colleagues are SF readers themselves. I’d classify some as fans, though they don’t usually go to conventions (I’m hoping to get some to the 2014 Worldcon if London wins the bid). I already get them to give talks to our yearly Science For Fiction workshop, which is largely populated by SF writers. Sometimes I even sell books I appear in to colleagues, and they were all impressed when a story of mine ended up on the back page of Nature – see here. Things might go differently in different fields or departments, but my colleagues and I in astrophysics are used to thinking about wild things like supermassive black holes and habitable exoplanets.
Perhaps SF is why they went into astrophysics, because we certainly do some very SFnal things. We really do seeing things nobody has ever seen before. When we first started getting data from the Herschel satellite I spent several minutes looking at the first large-scale image on the huge screen on my desk thinking – and maybe saying to myself – “My god it’s full of galaxies” because it was!
There are many SFnal moments like that, whether they come from data, from going on a tour of clean rooms where satellites are being built, from visiting an observatory high up on a cold mountaintop, or when you get invited on television to discuss new results that you only half understand.
And that’s where things get odd, because I can see myself as a character in an SF novel. I’m not sure who’s writing it – Niven or Benford, Stross or Meaney – but I think we’re in the opening chapters, setting the scene before the real plot kicks in. I just hope the tentacled things don’t get me before the end!
So that’s what being a writer doing science can feel like. Maybe I’ll tell you how being a scientist affects the fiction I write if Ian allows me back onto his blog. Then we might get onto the novel-in-progress and how I try to get real cosmology into science fiction.
* At this point I should probably point out that my first submission to Rocket Science was a piece of fiction which Ian rejected for perfectly valid reasons and with many more helpful comments than I had received from Asimov’s or Analog for the same story. You get a five star rejection service from Mr Sales!