Welcome, one and all, to a very special guest post. Today, i’m welcoming sci-fi author and scientist J.S. Fields to the site to speak about scientific accuracy.
Science fiction is an integrated art, damn it
A science rant by J.S. Fields
My kid is obsessed with a certain NOVA episode from some three years ago that talks about the Kepler planets. In this video, a handful of scientists with exotic sounding titles theorize what life might look like on other worlds, from animal species to bacteria. It should have been really interesting, and it probably was, to my three-year-old, but my partner and I can’t stop screaming profanities at the TV.
The problem is, someone who is a PhD in, say, astrophysics, usually doesn’t know too much about marine life. Hell, even a botanist likely does not know the real ins and outs of wood anatomy. So, to theorize about life on other worlds, to go as far as discussing specific animals and plants, without having an expert within that ‘lane’, just rubs my academic brain in all the wrong ways.
So, I would like to take this moment, on record, to set the fine NOVA producers straight (hah!) on the one area of science I do know something about. Wood anatomy. I have a fancy PhD and everything (which is why everything is made from cellulose in my space opera series ARDULUM).
Kepler 22-somethingsomethingIcan’tremembernumbers is theorized to be a tidal locked world which, among other things, means it has constant wind always going in one direction. NOVA theorizes that the leaves on trees growing on this world would be black due to the red dwarf sun (my partner can rant against this for like half an hour… something about different types of chlorophyll even in green leaves…) and the big leaves would flow freely in the wind, like Marilyn Monroe’s dress. I might have added the last part. The computer renderings of said trees shows shrub like things with low branching stems, growing up towards… I don’t know what. Not the light, since they’d be growing in a perpetual sunset. Strike one.
I’m left to wonder if the producers of NOVA ever saw what happens to trees on the side of a road that gets a lot of wind, or a tree growing in a forest when the canopy has shifted. Trees want to maximize light for their photosynthesis and while they can take a fair amount of wind, they will eventually lean. Trees under wind lean. Wood under stress bends. Heck, wood not under stress, but under moisture cycling conditions, bends. Trees under constant wind are not going to have upright stems! Strike two.
We’ll make strike three the chlorophyll issue. Or not. I don’t sportsball, so who cares if we have two strikes or three? Not this science nerd!
So what would trees on this mystical tidal locked planet circling a red dwarf star look like? Leaving the leaf debate to those better qualified, the stems would likely start partially upright, just to get the tree some ground clearance. Competition, of course, will always be for the most light, and if you can get above the groundcover, you can get more sun. But at some point, that stem is going to have to turn. The move could be as simple as an elbow joint turn, or a complex twist as seen in forests with frequently changing canopy cover. Regardless, the eventual tilt of the tree, meant to increase exposure to the light, would also increase leaf and stem surface area against the wind. That would mean the trunk would have to be super stable, so would likely form reaction wood (which is abnormal wood that forms when a tree leans, and has pretty crappy mechanical properties). You’re not going to be building ladders and floor joists out of this wood, is what I’m saying.
Why does any of this matter? For one, if you’re going to tout yourself as a science program, you can’t rely on one or two general areas. If you want to speculate about water plants, get an expert in the field. If you want to talk about trees, get a tree physiologist or wood anatomist. Wild speculation has no part in this.
Two, and perhaps most relevant here, is that scientists speculating wildly outside their area of expertise have a lot of parallels with science fiction writers doing the same thing (I’m not talking about handwavium. Handwavium is legit). It’s frustrating for both scientists and lay people with expansive knowledge in an area to read a book (or see a show) that is supposed to be speculation based in our current understanding, and instead get sloppy conjecture. It throws us from the narrative as surely as bad grammar. It’s fine to get into the nitty gritty of some tech you know nothing about, but as with anything in writing, do your research. And even if you are an expert, have another expert check it over. That’s just good practice. And if you ever find yourself writing for NOVA, let them know that I would be very happy to come onto their show and fix their Kepler trees…preferably before my daughter reaches her 10,000th view of the program and starts drawing short, shrub-like trees growing up, up, reaching for…
I don’t know what.
Maybe better science.
J.S. Fields Links
books (space opera series with cellulose technology that actually is legit)