Why the James Webb Space Telescope Matters So Much

In a world that feels like it’s been dominated by story after story of harsh, negative news, the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope, released earlier this week, mark a triumph of human innovation. As a science fiction author and professional scientist myself, it’s easy to geek out over this stuff. But it’s important to think about why this matters so much, not just to people like me, but to everyone.

The first image from the James Webb space telescope of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723, 4.6 billion light years away shows thousands of galaxies in unprecedented detail. Released on July 11, 2022, this image contains some of the faintest images ever detected in the infrared spectrum. It even makes use of a technique referred to as “gravitational lensing” where the collective gravity of the galaxy cluster draws in light from even further away, allowing astronomers to collect light from when the universe was very young.
Credit:  NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI (link).

10 Billion Dollar Price Tag

The cost of the JWST is estimated at about $10 Billion. That’s billion… with a B. There’s a lot you could do with $10 billion of public funding… build new hospitals, fix up roads, give single person on the planet a buck and quarter. I mean, sure, the image up above looks pretty and everything. But 45% of the people in my home city don’t have a family physician. In fact, in 2011, the US Congress nearly scrapped the whole thing. So why should taxpayers (from the participating countries) foot such a hefty bill… just for a fancy telescope?

A Revolution in Our Understanding of the Universe

You only have to look at the success of JWST’s predecessor, the Hubble space telescope, to see how advanced scientific tools like this facilitate leaps and bounds in human knowledge. The Hubble was launched into orbit in 1990. At the time, no one had observed a single planet outside of our own solar system and no one had even heard of dark energy. Today, we have direct evidence of over 5000 exoplanets (largely thanks to the Kepler space telescope and many ground-based telescopes). Hubble was used to make the first measurements of the atmospheric conditions on an exoplanet and has provided the first visible-light images of an extra-solar planet. Before its launch, the age of the universe had a relatively high uncertainty… somewhere between 10 and 20 billion years. Now it’s far more precise… 13.8 billion years. And not only that, it has shown us evidence of an ever-expanding runaway universe driven by an unknown “dark energy.” Suffice it to say, the list of scientific contributions is long and continues to grow.

So if we now have a tool that is even more powerful, by a factor of 100, it will unlock even more secrets from the universe. We’ll learn more about how stars form, how galaxies interact, and we’ll gain even more insights into the nature of dark energy and dark matter.

Understanding these things is about far more than satisfying our innate curiosity about the universe and our place in it (although there is that too). But our understanding of the physics underlying the universe is based on models. The more extreme data we can collect, the better those models get. And all of our technological innovation is based to one degree on another on an accurate understanding of the fundamental physics of the universe. Even your phone’s global positioning system (GPS) wouldn’t work without an accurate understanding of general relativity.

Investment in Basic Science

Consider investment in basic science research from a financial point of view. While these things can be difficult to measure, numbers from the National Institute of Health (NIH) suggest that investment in basic science research provides a positive return of a whopping 43%! The Human Genome Project, for example, is estimated to have provided nearly $1 trillion of economic growth, a 178 fold return on investment! Every dollar $1.00 invested in basic science research by the NIH has stimulated an additional $8.38 of industrial investment in the following years.

The point is to consider the long game. Every coach worth their salt will tell you that the way for an athlete to get into the big leagues is to start early and built solid fundamental skills.

The System Works

During the launch of the JWST, the teams involved predicted 344 points of failure. The fact that it launched and deployed flawlessly is not only a testament to human ingenuity, creativity and resourcefulness, but in a time that’s plagued by political cynicism, misinformation, and anti-science rhetoric, it provides a beacon of hope that collectively we (humans operating within publicly funded systems) can accomplish great things. We now live in an age where it’s now possible to study the chemical composition of an exoplanet that’s 1,150 light years away.

And we found water.

Using its Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS) the JWST was about to measure light from the exoplanet WASP-96 over a period of 6.4 hours as it transited in front of its sun. The light collected gives astronomers a “transmission spectrum” and based on the relative dimming of light at specific wavelengths, the chemical composition of the exoplanet’s atmosphere can be determined because different chemicals will vary in how much light they absorb or scatter.
Credit:  NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI (link).

Finding Value in Casual Summer Reading

This week the bell rang for the last time at my youngest son’s school. The kids cleared out their desks and he came home with a back pack full of construction paper projects, math books and graded science papers that had been lining the inside of his desk for the better part of the year. It’s summer vacation and he’s excited about going to see his grandparents on the west coast.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Summer is in full swing. The nights are short and warm. The grass is green. It all makes me a little nostalgic for the summers of my childhood.

I never considered myself that much of a reader as a kid, or at least that wasn’t how I would have defined myself. But I can’t help remembering long, lazy summer days in Ontario cottage country, sitting by the lake, with no TV, no computer, no “devices,” just reading.

On some days the book didn’t even matter. It was casual reading. No pressure. No essay on symbolism due the next morning. No pop quiz to prove I’d gotten through the assigned chapters.

It started with Archie I think, and the gang at Riverdale. We could pick those up at the supermarket when we went into town.

I used to read the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure like a total coward. I’d stick a finger in the page at every decision point so I could go back if I didn’t like the outcome. As a kid I went through those by the pile. Along those lines there were also the “Micro Adventure” books written in second person. They had little computer programs in BASIC that you could type out on a Commodore 64. Well… someone could. I was stuck at the cottage. No computer.

My sister had the foresight to actually pack books for our trips the cottage. Her stash of books wasn’t necessarily the first pile I went for, but I got through my share of Nancy Drew, the Babysitters Club and maybe the occasional Sweet Valley Twins. We don’t talk about Flowers in the Attic.

One summer we went camping up and of course, it snowed in July. It’s funny the details you remember about a trip like that… shampoo frozen in its bottle, a station wagon that wouldn’t start, and leaches in the lake. That trip I picked up my first horror book from the campground general store… from one those squeaky metal turning displays. I stayed up past midnight, tucked into my sleeping bag, reading by flashlight as my breath fogged up in front of me about a kid who had the power of astral projection.

As I got older, I started reading magazines. I had so many Popular Mechanics and Popular Science magazines I should have had a subscription to each. Of course, I was also an avid reader of Inside Kung Fu, because there was short period in my life where I was planning a career as, you know, a ninja.

I picked up a book on the Bermuda Triangle by complete serendipity. It was probably an old library discard, but my mom told me I could pick any book I wanted and somehow that one ended up in my hand. It was full of pseudo science and crackpot theories, but below the surface it carried a message that resonated deeply with me… that there was more to the world than what they taught us in school. Ultimately that book led to later popular, but more mainstream science books like Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time.

That was how I found my way to a career in physics.

In the end, there’s tremendous value in reading. Casual summer reading, those books that you dust off from the closet and pull out just to pass a rainy afternoon, or to relax before you go to bed, can lead to unimaginable places.

Photo by EYu00dcP BELEN on Pexels.com

First Command: The Experience of a 1st Time Author, One Year In

My first novel debuted one year ago, and it’s been quite a ride. Here’s what I’ve learned from my experience as a first time author.

First Command – On a training mission, astronaut cadet Cassi Requin and her crew crash on an alien world. With their flight instructors locked in stasis, Cassi is promoted into her first command–rank, authority, and responsibility. Pursued by pirates, Cassi leads her crew across the hostile terrain to a remote survey station and their only hope for survival.

Write the Book

It took me a long time to put the book out there. There were of course some practical hurdles. Number one was writing the thing. I love writing. Even so, First Command took several years to go from that first day I started typing draft one to publication. My first big tip for writers seeking to publish their work: get it written. You can’t publish something that doesn’t exist. You can only publish what you complete.

Often that means you have to accept that your first draft won’t be that great. In fact it may not even be good. But once it’s done you can jump into editing. And you can make it amazing.

Hire an Editor

Hiring an editor in no way absolves you of self-editing. In fact, what I found was that in preparing to sent the manuscript to an editor, I would forcefully go through multiple self-edits before sending it off. I spent time reading chapters to my writing group and my family. Again, not to get it perfect, but I wanted to make sure my editor was spending her time on the all the things I couldn’t catch myself.

Professional editing can be expensive, but this is one area where it really pays to make the investment. It’s like you get a university-level course in the craft of writing, and you’re the only student. And even more importantly, it give you an independent set of eyes on your work that will give you the feedback you need to hear, not just the feedback they think you’ll want to hear.

It’s important to spend time searching for an editor who will work well with you, and who can offer what you’re looking for. There’s basic stuff, like the difference between developmental, line and copy editing, but you also have to consider knowledge of the genre, jiving with your style, balance between criticism and pointing out what you’ve done well, and how well they understand the story you’re trying to tell.

Here’s one secret: Many editors will do a test-edit of your first thousand words or so for free. They can give you a critique on your work and tell you what they’ll help you to focus on. When you’re ready for an editor, this can help you figure out which one is going to be the best for you.

Putting Together a Cover

People judge books by their covers.

A cover becomes a focal point of your marketing. It’s what potential readers see when they’re searching for that next great read. What’s critically important about covers is that they need to tell people what kind of read they’re in for. First Command is a science fiction story featuring astronaut cadets and so it was important that the cover convey both science fiction and a young adult demographic. The team at Miblart suggested the main character, Cassi, with her helmet off, in front of a crashed spacecraft on an alien world. I went with an illustrated cover because there was generally more freedom than with models and photoshop, and illustrated covers are quite common in the genre.

On the left is one of the concept drawings for First Command‘s cover, courtesy of Miblart. Seeing cover art for the first time was a big deal for me. It’s like part of my imagination stepping into the real world.

Starting a Business

First Command is published by Megavoltage Publishing, a business I started in 2021. I’m not a “business” person. But even then, I knew if I was going to put books out into the world, I wanted to do it as professionally as possible. I can’t offer a whole lot of advice on this aspect of the process, but if you’re thinking about striking out as an independent author, there is this dimension to it. Business license. Taxes. Book keeping. Marketing.

I do commonly hear the advice from successful independent authors to: treat it like a business.

The caveat I would attach to this is that it’s important to establish for yourself what you define as “success.” For many independent authors, that means supporting themselves full time with their writing. But that’s not the only definition of success. For some people it simply means sharing their stories with their target audience.

Marketing is tough, because it put you in a position where you have to talk up yourself and your work and this goes against so many cultural lessons that insist people be humble.

Another tip on this front is to get really good at summarizing your work. Blurbs, elevator pitches, tag lines, log lines, tweets, social media posts, and even casual conversations when someone asks what your book is about… condensing your work down into a few simple sentences, or a single concept can be a brutally challenging task. But when you do it well, that makes it so much easier for people to find your work.

Biggest Surprise

So far the biggest surprise for me has been how much of an emotional effect my work has had on people. As a writer I generally aim for my work to resonate with readers, and I’ve had a so much positive feedback it has been at times overwhelming. I’m always so grateful to hear from people who’ve enjoyed my work.

This is a beautifully written story whose characters are really likable.  It is evident that James took great care with this story and with the characters and all their histories, their conflicts and their weaknesses, in order to forge a strong narrative that drew me in and made me really care about these people!  Each character was developed so carefully and beautifully, and in such a way that they were exactly enough, and no more.  The challenges they faced were extremely visual, emotional and really stressful but all this within a framework that was believable and backed up by either real science or by some really compelling sci-fi.  James is disciplined in his writing and the result has me believing that I really understand the challenges, limitations and customs of this time, these places, these people.  I also appreciated the opportunities he took to suggest the greater good in mankind as well as in individuals, and he did it with a gentle nod, instead of a judgemental shove, as I’ve seen in some movies over the years.

– Amazon Reviewer

Keep Going

One final lesson I’ve learned is the importance of persistence. As a writer you have to keep going, keep pressing forward, and keep writing.

I’m currently working on a sequel to First Command. It’s already been through one round of edits and I’m feeling good about it, that it’s a worth successor. I don’t have a release date yet, but I’m aiming for later summer, or early fall. I’ll be posting here for sure when it goes up for pre-orders.

What is a Black Hole Anyway?

When it comes to the universe, gravity runs the show.

Even light can be pulled by gravity.

It’s not a strong effect, quite subtle in fact. Usually we need very, very strong gravity from really, really massive objects like stars, to observe the effect. But it’s there.

Gravity traps us on the surface of the Earth. If we want to escape and break out into space, we need sufficient kinetic energy to overcome it. In simple kinematic terms, this can boil down to obtaining a single velocity… the escape velocity. Exceed the escape velocity… you’re free. Move at less than the escape velocity… you fall back to the Earth.

But light has a finite speed: 299,792,458 meters per second (or about 186,000 miles per second).

Gravity can keep getting stronger.

So if you keep adding mass to a body, eventually its gravity can get so strong that the required escape velocity is faster than the speed of light. Since nothing can go faster than light, nothing can escape!

That’s a black hole.

Here’s a Very, Very Brief History of Stars

Stars start out as blobs of hydrogen. The more hydrogen that collects, the more gravitational pull the object has. The more gravitational pull it has, the more hydrogen it collects. Eventually that hydrogen gets squeezed together with enough pressure to overcome the electromagnetic repulsion of the positively charged hydrogen nuclei, and you get a nuclear fusion reaction, releasing light energy and generating helium nuclei… a star is born. Over billions of years, the hydrogen is used up. If the mass is larger enough and the gravity is strong enough, the helium nuclei can fuse into heavier elements like carbon, nitrogen and oxygen and this can keep going until fusing the nuclei no longer releases any energy (that happens at about iron).

The light energy produced by the fusion reactions produces and outward force that balances gravity. This allows the star to maintains a stable size. But when all the light elements (the fuel) is used up, that outward pressure is no longer there. The star collapses in on itself.

There are barriers to the complete collapse. When matter is compressed, electrons slowly fill their available quantum states. Once that happens, the matter exerts an outward pressure, called the electron degeneracy pressure that can balance against the inward compression due to gravity. But if the star has more than about 1.4 times the mass of our sun, even this can be overcome and the matter gets crushed down into one giant nucleus supported by neutron degeneracy pressure. The outer material rebounds off the degenerate core in a very violent explosion–a supernova.

If the star is massive enough, the gravitational force can overcome even this. And the star keep shrinking, concentrating more and more mass in a smaller and smaller volume. Eventually, you reach a state where you have enough mass concentrated into a small enough volume, that the gravity around it is too strong for even light to escape–the black hole.

A view of the massive object the the center of the Messier 87 (M87) galaxy… a black hole. In 2019, the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) collaboration released the first image of a black hole. This image, published in 2021 by the same group, shows the black hole in polarized light. The polarization arises due to the magnetic fields close to the black hole’s edge.
Credit: EHT Collaboration (https://www.eso.org/public/images/eso2105a/)

Anatomy of a Black Hole

By its definition, you can’t actually “see” a black hole. But you can certainly see the light from the space and matter around it, and its effects on that light, as in the image above. This particular black hole and the center of a galaxy about 55 million light years away from us, is estimated to be about 6.5 billion times the mass our sun. All around it, matter is being pulled in and smashed together generating light. In the center, the gravitational force is so strong that light can’t escape, which is why there’s a black spot. We’re looking at a void. The light around it is reddish because the light that is in fact far enough away from the hole to escape still has to climb out of a gravitational energy well. In doing so, it loses energy and shifts toward the red side of the spectrum.

Black holes themselves are pretty simple things. They have three properties: mass, charge, and spin, and otherwise don’t seem to have and distinguishing features, (aside perhaps from differences in the matter accreting around them). They have an event horizon. This can be thought of as it’s surface, the boundary beyond which light can’t escape.

That said, in a very recent paper, a group of physicists looking at quantum gravity have suggested that matter inside a black hole may leave a subtle quantum signature on the gravitational field around it. This is exciting because in quantum mechanics, there is a fundamental idea that information cannot be lost. But if everything inside a black hole simply disappeared, that rule would be violated. This new ideas, sometimes referred to has the black holes having “hair” reconciles these ideas.

Gravitational tides are also worth mentioning to. A tidal force arises due to a difference in force at two separate points. Here on Earth the difference in gravity between your head and feet is extremely small, arising from difference between your head and feel relative to their distance from the center of the Earth. But near a black hole it can be substantial, enough to stretch you out quite violently. Physicists occasionally refer to this phenomenon informally as “spaghettification.”

At the black hole’s core is a singularity–a place where matter is compressed into an infinitely tiny space. Here, our concepts of space and time break down. Some physicists argue that there’s a Plank limit to this, that there’s a fundamental granularity to the universe and that nothing gets smaller than about 10-35 meters, so it’s not technically infinitely small. Interestingly, you can find solutions to general relativity for a rotating singularity that enable backward time travel. Others have argued that you can produce wormholes connecting different places in spacetime, and you might even generate white holes elsewhere in the universe that spew forth all that swallowed energy at the speed of light. The truth of the matter is that no one really knows. And no one is likely to know.

Why a Spaceship Can’t Be Invisible

If you’re a science fiction fan, you’ve likely heard of the Romulan cloaking device, a fictional means of making a spaceship invisible. While the the device works by way of technobabble, the basic idea is that it transports electromagnetic radiation from one side of the cloaking field to the other. It makes for a very interesting plot device, effectively turning any spaceship with such a device into an intergalactic submarine.

Why can’t a spaceship be invisible?

In my upcoming sequel to First Command, I explore a similar idea… a hostile spacecraft that can’t be seen.

But hard science fiction fans tend to scoff at this notion. An invisible spacecraft is scientifically implausible. It can’t be done.

Why is that? And is there any way around it that doesn’t resort to techno-magic?

Black Body Radiation

With sufficient instrumentation, you should be able to see just about anything in space (provided there’s nothing in the way). This is because all objects with a temperature above absolute zero radiate energy. This energy is called black body radiation because it’s given off even if the object in question has no other means of generating or reflecting energy.

Example black body spectra for terrestrial temperatures from Planck’s Function (I’ve written the function out at the bottom of this post, if you want to get your nerd on). These examples fall in the infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum.

In this graph, I’ve generated a plot of specrta–intensity of the frequency of light radiated from an object at a given temperature. Each curve corresponds to a temperature encountered here on Earth. The coldest recorded natural temperature, for example was about -89.2°C (-128.6°F) recorded in July 21, 1983 in Antarctica. What the graph shows is that as temperature increases, so does the overall energy radiated (the area under the curve), and spectrum shifts to the right–toward higher frequencies. For terrestrial temperatures, these emissions are in the infrared section of the electromagnetic spectrum. When you get up to several thousand Kelvin in temperature, the emissions are visible light. Our sun, for example, has a surface temperature of 5778 K, and obviously is the source of our light here on Earth.

Contrast

The reason we can see anything at all generally comes down to an imaging concept called contrast. Simply defined, contrast is the relative difference in signal intensity of an object from it’s background.

An example of contrast. Moving left to right, the difference in gray values from the background increases. The darker objects are easier to see.

Space itself has a temperature: 2.7 K (−270.45 °C/−454.81 °F). It’s not absolute zero. But it is pretty close. This background is pretty much the same in any direction. No matter where you look, the only electromagnetic radiation (that’s not coming from an actual object like a star or a planet) is in the form of very low energy microwaves. It’s like setting the background in the image above to nearly pure white, and that makes even the light gray squares stand out even more.

See?

So basically, any object with any thermal energy at all, even liquid nitrogen at 77 K, will stand out. Living humans give off infrared radiation. Stars give off visible light. Therefore any given spaceship will be visible (or at least detectable) to any other spaceship.

This means that even if you have a perfect ‘camera-screen-ship-in-between’ system like the Romulan cloaking device that will transmit light from back to front, you still have the radiation coming off of you due to your temperature to worry about.

So is there any way to hide a spaceship without resorting to techno-magic?

Samarium Nickel Oxide

Recent scientific work has discovered a very interesting property of NiSMO3, a crystalline oxide that can be made into an ultrathin film. In a 2019 paper from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, researchers showed that when samarium nickel oxide heats up, it undergoes a transition from an insulator to a metal. As it does, it’s emissivity (the tendency to emit thermal radiation) goes down. Over a relatively broad range of temperatures from about 105 °C to 135 °C, there is no change in thermal emission.

This fundamental property of matter appears to be circumvented!

In principle, objects could be covered with a thin layer of this substance to mask their infrared signature.

Of course making something that’s 135 °C look like it’s 105 °C is a lot different than making something that’s several thousand Kelvin look like 2.7 K. But in science fiction we’re allowed some leeway to extrapolate from existing science. There is certainly some potential here anyway.

Here’ a link to a video explaining samarium nickel oxide.

Other Options

There are some other strategies to consider too in a game of intergalactic hide-and-seek..

Infrared radiation can be blocked. All you really need is some aluminum foil (a conductor). Of course you can’t just wrap your ship in aluminum because someone would still see the aluminum (or the heat coming off of it). But the point is that you can hide behind something that can be seen… a planet, a star, an asteroid, etc. Space is full with a whole lot of nothing, but people are usually most interested in the rare spots where stuff actually is. So hiding behind something is certainly an option.

Space is really big. When two ships are far apart, it takes time for light from one to reach the other. If a ship that’s ten light minutes away suddenly turns to attack you, you won’t actually see that happen for 10 minutes. That’s not invisibility proper, but it does give rise to some interesting strategic games if you’re writing suspenseful space combat.

Resolution limits what you can see a far distances. Just about every image produced with modern technologies is made up of pixels. A given pixel value corresponds to the average amount of light incident on it. An object that is further and further away is made up of fewer and fewer pixels until eventually it’s just averaged over a single pixel. Eventually you just don’t see it at all.

Hacks. Since we need technology to detect infrared light, there’s always a risk that technology can be corrupted. It’s not too much of a jump to imagine that specific objects could be artificially masked out of existence.

Invisibility in Space?

By it’s most proper definition: no. It’s not going to happen.

But there is some absolutely fascinating science that suggests it may not be as impossible as we may have first thought.

Get Your Nerd On…

If you want to nerd out for a moment, the relationship between the frequency of the emitted electromagnetic radiation, referred to as ν, and temperature T, is this bad boy right here…

Planck’s Function

In 1900, the German physicist Max Planck showed that this empirical formula describes the intensity of a segment of the light spectra emitted from an object of temperature T (in Kelvin) into a solid angle. For reference, h is Planck’s constant (4.1357 x 10-15 eV s), c is the speed of light (2.9979 x 108 m/s), and k is the Boltzmann constant (8.6173x 10-5 eV K-1). Here’s the like to the Wiki article for more information.

Writers Do THIS To Make Your Characters Resonate With Readers

You may have heard of the SMART acronym for setting and achieving personal goals. Any goal should be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-constrained. It (or some version of it) is repeated like a mantra in self-help literature and workshops. But as a writer, I’ve found this can be useful tool for developing stories, characters and even writing blubs.

Photo by Markus Winkler on Pexels.com

A story in its most basic form is about a character trying to obtain a goal. In striving for that goal the character changes (or maybe the world around them changes). From the experience of the struggle within the story, the reader grows in some way. And that’s one of my goals as a writer–to write stories that people gain something positive from.

So how does a SMART goal work for a character in a novel?

Specific

A general goal might be “survive a crash landing on an alien planet.” Okay, sure. That works for a while. But simple “survival” can quickly get bogged down, because in any absence of immediate threat, there’s nothing for the character to work toward, there’s no strategy to play out that the reader can think about, to agree or disagree with. At any point that binary switch might flip, regardless of what action the character takes. And that can lead to reader apathy. The key then is to define goals as specifically as possible. So you throw in a safe spot for the characters to get to. Maybe another downed spaceship, but one with a working radio. The characters them survive by getting to the safe spaceship.

A specific goal can also be articulated quickly and succinctly, so the reader knows exactly what the character needs to accomplish. At the end of the story, the reader will also have a clear understanding of whether or not the goal has been met.

Measurable

One of the staples of post-apocalyptic fiction is usually a character or set of characters trying to get home. In high fantasy fiction, it’s often a quest. Journeys like this can be measured in miles or leagues or at least kingdoms passed through on the way to the volcano. In romance ,the goals is usually development of a relationship (meet-cute, first date, setback, reconciliation, commitment) . If you look at the Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen needs to survive a game of elimination that is scored in lives lost.

The point here is that your readers need to have some means of marking progress toward the goal. This will allow the reader to track what works and what doesn’t, understand when there’s a setback, and contemplate strategies for moving forward.

Attainable

Here’s one where there’s some subtle differences between personal goal-setting and setting goals for your characters. In real life, you need to assess your circumstances and make sure your goal is actually achievable. In fiction, things can be a little different.

In fiction, the reader has to be convinced that character has a shot at obtaining the goal. They have to know that whatever traits and flaws that character possess, somewhere inside that character has the tools necessary to get the job done. That’s not to guarantee it will happen. Like the first scene in an action movie where the hero takes down some thugs just to prove how awesome they are, it’s kind of boring if it takes too long. Conclusions can’t be foregone.

But neither can the goal be so impossible that the reader will no longer suspend disbelief. If the goal is too lofty, the reader starts to think the only way it will happen is if the writer is going to pull a fast one, a deus ex machina, and then the game doesn’t seem fair.

So long as there’s a question in the reader’s mind as to whether the goal will be achieved or not, they’re going to be along for the ride.

Relevant

Here’s where it pays big time to know your genre well and read as much as you can. Your character’s goals need to be consistent with reader expectations. (This R can also stand for research.)

It’s important to remember that character goals can change as the story progresses too. In some stories, the initial goal as the character understands it, may be the exact opposite of what that character needs for growth. When you’re revising and you’ve identified the theme of the story, it’s important to go back and revisit initial goals. Do they make sense in the context of the greater story? In the context of the genre?

Is the goal consistent with your other priorities in life? If it’s a smaller, short-term goal, does it jive with your bigger picture, and longer-term goals? The R can also stand for research, making sure that you understand the details of what you’re planning to pursue and this can in turn help to determine how realistic the goal is.

Time-Constrained

Ticking clocks add suspense.

In addition to knowing what the goal is, the reader also needs a sense of time and how urgently the goal needs to be met. Readers care a lot more about a character caught in a traffic jam when she’s on her way to an interview that starts in 15 minutes. The time limitation starts a game of strategies. What should she be willing to risk to get there? A ticket for driving too fast? Should she run a red light? Hop out of the van and take the kid’s bicycle in the back? A reader thinking in these terms is completely engaged in the story.

So that’s it. That’s a handy tool to have in your writer’s toolbox. As a side note, if you can write all of this out and put it together in a few hundred words, that also makes for a decent method to answer that dreaded question: so what’s your story about?

Overcoming Fear for Writers

Whether you’re publishing independently or submitting your manuscript to an agent, putting your fiction out into the world for other people to see requires a tremendous amount of courage. Even attending an in-person writer’s group for the first time and talking about your writing with other people can be challenging.

Putting together something as complex as a novel requires an enormous investment of time and mental energy. People put their hopes, dreams, and desires into their fiction. They infuse their stories with their ideas, many of which can be deeply personal. And so when someone makes the decision to take their work from the privacy of their own files and subject it to public scrutiny, they are exposing a vulnerable part of themselves.

It’s not unlike walking across the grade eight gymnasium-turned-dance floor in front of all your classmates to ask someone to dance. You’re suddenly open to rejection, ridicule, judgement, and in many ways even worst possible reaction: indifference.

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The easy advice to give, and I hear it a lot, is simply to grow a thick skin.

But advice like this does a disservice to the industry. By limiting the works of public fiction to only those writers who can put up with a certain level of criticism, we’re denied all the great stories from writers who can’t overcome this barrier.

Worse, it can propagate attitudes where people believe it’s okay to treat other writers poorly if their work is not up to a subjective and often arbitrary standard.

So here are a few (hopefully constructive) tips on overcoming fear.

Figure Out Your Goals as a Writer

First off, it’s totally fine to write for the sake of writing. People write for all kinds of reasons: to relax, to play with ideas, escape from reality, work through a tough experience, etc. And there’s nothing that says what you write needs to ever been seen by anyone else.

It’s also okay to want to publish ‘at some point’ but that doesn’t have to be now.

One of the best tips for overcoming anxiety around putting your work out there is to have an honest conversation with yourself about what you want to accomplish by doing so, and defining when you want to do that.

Establishing a timeline for yourself can be quite empowering, even if when that timeline is the simple recognition that you’re not ready yet.

Read. A lot.

One of the best pieces of advice for any writer is simply to read. Read the classics. Read what’s hot. Read as much as you can in your genre. Read whatever interests you. But read.

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The point is that through immersion, you learn. You learn what other readers a looking for. You learn the tropes of your genre. You develop an eye for what works, and what doesn’t.

If you compare a person who’s read a hundred books in a given genre, with someone who’s only read one or two, it’s far more likely that the avid reader is going to be better at critically assessing their own writing quality, because they have a much larger frame of reference.

Proofread and Revise Your Work

Maybe this one is obvious.

But it’s important to understand that the works from your favorite authors that you end up pulling off the shelf, or downloading into your e-reader is never a first or second draft. It’s probably not even a fifth or sixth draft. While all authors vary in their process, those who can write something near perfect on the first or second draft are a very rare breed (and among those who do the draft is often meticulously planned out ahead of time).

It’s easier to find courage in presenting something to the world that’s been thought through, reflected on, and reviewed than the first thing that went down on paper.

(The irony of any errors in this post is not lost on me.)

Go Slowly with the Sharing

There are different ways to start sharing your work. You don’t have to publish it publicly just to get feedback.

Finding a writer’s group or a critique group can be a good way to start. Once you’ve met a few other writers and learned a little bit about where they’re at on their writing journey, you can start sharing your work with ones that are willing to give you feedback at a level you’re comfortable with.

Open Conversations

When you do give your work to someone else for feedback, remember you can have an open conversation about what kind of feedback you’re looking for. If you’re not ready for it to come back all marked up with red ink, then say so.

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It’s okay to say that you’re just looking for the positives to begin with. Ask whether your reviewer can identify things that work, parts of the story or characters that resonate with them and why.

You can always progress to more critical feedback as time goes on. And when you want more critical feedback, remember to ask for specifics. How can I get better at…. suspense, dialogue, imagery, character arcs, etc.?

Sometimes I’ll hear a phrase along the lines of “Tear it to shreds.” While perhaps brave, I often wonder if that’s what the writer really wants. How do you grow from something that’s been shredded?

Rather, it’s better to focus on your goals and ask questions like: What recommendations do you have to get this from it’s current draft, to something people will pay me for? What areas of my writing could use the most improvement?

Offer to Give Feedback

There’s no shortage of writers seeking feedback on their work. Even if you’re afraid to put your own work out there, you can still offer to review things that others have written.

In fact, you can learn a lot from reviewing other people’s work. I’ve spent a lot of time on various writing sites and critique groups. When fifty percent of the fantasy novel opening chapters that you read start with a prince or princess waking up and looking out over their kingdom, you very quickly learn that this is not a unique opening.

Be kind with your words.

Do your best to offer the kind of feedback that the author is seeking.

Find an Editor

One final tip is that can really help with overcoming fear as a writer is to seek professional feedback.

Of course finding and hiring an editor can be tricky (and expensive). It’s very important to find an editor who: (i) understands your goals as a writer, (ii) is well-versed in your genre and has some credentials behind the advice they give, (iii) is willing and able to give you critical, but constructive feedback at a level that you’re ready to hear, and (iv) that you can trust.

A good editor won’t just tell you what’s wrong with your writing, but will give you suggestions on how to make it better.

If nothing else, editors act as buffers between you and the rest of the world. If you write something that’s “really bad” they can identify it and flag it before it goes out and they won’t ever say another word about it.


“No matter what anybody tells you. Words and ideas can change the world.”

Robin Williams (Dead Poets Society)

On Writing Blurbs

Love writing, but hate writing blurbs? Here are some tips to upgrade your blurb and get your book into the hands of those readers who are going to love your work.

One big reason for so much writer anguish with blurbs is that writers are attempting to summarize their 80,000 word manuscript in 200 words or less. But here’s a big secret: the goal of a blurb is not to summarize your story. The goal is to sell your story (in an honest and helpful way).

A person reading the blurb has either picked up your book and flipped it over, opened it up, or clicked on a link. Something (probably your cover, title or ad copy) has piqued their interest. That potential reader now wants to know if your story is going to be worth the investment of their time and money. What they are looking for are flags to make that decision.

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Start With Research

Identify the top market category(ies) you want to market your book under. Read through the blurbs of as many of the top selling books in that category as you can. Pay particular attention to the books that are the first in their series (many sales for the later in series books are the result of read-through), and for books that have had staying power, those ones that have been in the top 100 for months or even years. Look for the common traits in their blurbs. Things to take note of: how the characters are described, flags that identify the genre, how the main problem is summarized, hook phrases, word length, and what you particularly like about them.

Remember, when writing your blurb, it’s unlikely to be the only one that the reader sees at that time. After reading a dozen or so, which ones do you remember and what stands out about them? Keep this in mind as you craft your own blurb.

Who is the Main Character?

Choose a single character to define the story around. I know this can be a challenge for an ensemble cast, but you can always tweak and add later. Start with one character with whom your target audience is most likely to resonate with.

Once you have your character, identify two traits of this character. The first is something familiar, identifiable, or accessible. What trait or experience does that character have that readers are going to most closely identify with? A longing for love? Getting bullied in school? Training for a competition? It doesn’t even need to be something the readers themselves have actually experienced, but something they’ve likely read about before, or something they seek when reading your genre. If you’re working on an action-thriller, it might just be that the character is associated with a familiar agency: the FBI, CIA, or the US Navy SEALs. If you’re a military science fiction writer, it might be that your character is a space marine, starship captain or cyborg.

The second is something unique. What’s different or uncommon about this character? Identify a trait that’s going to pique a potential reader’s interest, something that stands out, that’s going to be memorable about that character. What makes the character different from “normal” people in your story’s world? What makes the character different from other characters in the genre? This is the flag that you can plant that will help make this character memorable. Note that it doesn’t need to be absolutely exclusive. There are lots of dogs in the world that are large and have auburn-tinged fur, but Clifford the Big Red Dog is pretty memorable.

Examples
Harry Potter… unloved orphan (familiar/identifiable]) who discovers he is a wizard (unique [at the time]).
James Bond… an agent of the British Secret Intelligence Service (familiar) with a license to kill (unique).
Jon Snow… an unloved orphan (I feel like I’ve mentioned this before) with a dire wolf (unique).
Jason Bourne… a CIA black ops agent (familiar for readers of the genre) has lost his memory (unique).

Clearly Define the Genre

For some genres or stories the setting is critically important. In historical fiction, readers need a frame of reference for the time and place. In post-apocalyptic fiction, readers want to know how the modern world ended. In a fantasy story, readers want to know what that fantasy element is–the presence of magic and some hints at how it’s used. In a blurb, the genre needs to be shown and shown quickly, often boiled down to a single sentence. Here’s a great example:

“In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. The Capitol is harsh and cruel and keeps the districts in line by forcing them all to send one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV.”

– Excerpt from Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games blurb (Scholastic Press)

Here, in the space of two sentences the author defines this unique world and sets up the core challenge facing the main character. We don’t actually learn much about the setting details, but it’s clear that this is a story about an alternative world where a character is going to have to survive these games. The reader knows exactly what kind of story they’re in for.

Avoid Too Many Fictional Proper Names

In that example the author uses a few proper names: North America, Panem, Capitol. Here there’s only one that’s objectively unfamiliar to anglophone readers. But if you’ve ever read some fantasy or science fiction blurbs you will have seen those that include a pile of unfamiliar terms. Each new word requires mental effort on the part of the reader to keep track of. It’s like a little hill to climb. If you present a reader with too many hills to climb, they’ll put the book down and move on.

What Major Challenge Does The Character Face?

Be specific here. One problem I see frequently when people first start writing blurbs is the use of vague language. I think this comes from a desire not to give too much away. But if the reader can’t identify what problem the character faces, they’re not very likely to be interested because they won’t understand what the story is about.

Isolate a single challenge. If you’re writing something like epic fantasy, there may be many different challenges, but a blurb can only be so big (ideally no more than 200 words). Choose one.

The challenge should be easily defined in a single sentence. It’s okay to approximate something that’s complex. It’s okay to skip over details. Remember, you’re not trying to give the reader a synopsis of everything that happens. You’re trying to give them enough information so they can make an educated decision on whether this is a story they will enjoy.

Now that you have a challenge, how do you present it?

Identify Why This Character Must Face This Challenge

One option to try is to emphasize why the character must face the challenge. People tend to find stories much more appealing when characters are forced out of their comfort zone, where they are forced to make compromising choices, where they take actions that they wouldn’t normally take. That’s where there’s the greatest potential for disaster. But that’s also where learning and growth happen. That’s where reader is most likely to get the greatest bang for their buck.

Emphasize Choices the Character Faces, Decisions They Make, and Actions They Take

Think about character agency. You’ve got an interesting, approachable character and an intriguing problem that the character must confront. Now, what does that character do? Use the active voice here.
Jon Snow chooses to join the Night’s Watch. Katniss Everdeen volunteers as tribute.

At some point in the story, the character will need to assume direct responsibility for the outcome. Identify and articulate this point.

Avoid Questions

Questions, when they are directly put to the reader, are an opportunity to put the book down.

If the answer to the question is obvious… asking it can come across as pretentious, or lecturing, and that can turn a reader off. Also, the reader may not agree with the intended/obvious response. If they don’t believe that love conquers all, or power corrupts, or whatever the obvious answer is, they’ll put the book down.

On the other hand, if the answer to the question is not obvious, the reader may not know it, or feel as if they have to work to figure it out. It’s another hill to climb. If they feel stupid for not getting it, they’ll likely pass on the story.

I’ve seen some blubs that hit the reader with question after question. Avoid this, unless you want the reader to feel as though they’re taking a quiz.

The Hook

This is a catch phrase, often bolded, at the beginning of the blurb. It’s main purpose is to get the reader to read the rest of the blurb. It also serves as a kind of slogan for the book, something easily identifiable that will make it resonate in the reader’s mind.

Ideally the hook should be unique to the book. Avoid clichés.

Even though the hook should be the first thing a reader sees, it helps to write it last. Generally it’s easier to boil down the bigger blurb into a single idea, than vice versa.

Examples
Winning means fame and fortune. Losing means certain death. The Hunger Games have begun… – The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins

Six days ago Astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first people to walk on Mars.
Now, he’s sure he’ll be the first person to dies there. – The Martian, Andy Weir

Winter is coming. – Game of Thrones, George RR Martin

Seek Feedback

Blurbs are short. People can read them quickly and give feedback without too much of an investment of time.

If you haven’t already, join a few social media writers’ groups where posting blurbs and giving/getting feedback is encouraged and post your draft. Keep in mind that no all feedback will be positive, and not all people will agree. But often you can tap the hive mind of the online writer community to help identify any major flags that are keeping you from getting sales.

On Character Names

Notice any patterns in this list?
James Bond
Jason Bourne
Jack Bauer
Jack Reacher
Jack Ryan
John Rambo
Johnny Ricco
John McClane
Jon Snow

Aside from the fact that they all start with the letter J, there’s a certain pattern in the naming that seems to resonate in the action hero genre. Ian Flemming, for example, is reported to have named his iconic spy after the American ornithologist James Bond. At the time Flemming was looking for a name that was plain and dull sounding. He wanted to create a neutral, anonymous figure at the center of stories that were otherwise full of exotic action. At the same time, the character needed to be a blunt instrument wielded by a clandestine government department.

So you end up with James, which following WW2 was one of the top 20 names in the UK (in fact it appears to have been in the top 20 for the last century)–a common name that could be nearly anonymous. But then this was coupled with Bond. That last name can evoke images of either money, or shackles, perhaps both at once. It is a single blunt syllable. It resonates so well that the line:
“Bond. James Bond.”
has become an instantly recognizable institution in and of itself.

Going back to that list, I see quite similar patterns emerging… a common first name coupled with a blunt one or two syllable last named that evokes action. It might almost be a comic book onomatopoeia : Boom! Bam! Bang! Look at the Mission Impossible franchise. The lead character: Ethan Hunt.

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Here’s another list, this one of heroines from science fiction and urban fantasy:
Katniss Everdeen
Honor Harrington
Kris Longknife
Ellen Ripley
Beatrice “Tris” Prior
Hermione Granger
Annabeth Chase

There’s a similar pattern. Though in some cases it’s mixed up, you still have one part that at least feels “common” and another part that’s more exotic, that evokes a more vivid imagery.

This kind of pattern resonates with readers on a deeper scale because on one hand there’s something about the name that’s familiar, making it accessible. On the other hand there’s some contrast that gives it a unique flare, making the name memorable, and in many cases even aiding the characterization.

One other piece of advice that’s important in naming characters is that no character exists in a vacuum. As an author you have to consider the entire cast of your book. One trick a lot of authors use is to avoid having any two characters, at least main ones, with names that start with the same letter or that sound similar. This helps the reader to avoid confusion. (Interestingly George R.R. Martin turns this on its head and uses a small number of names and similarities between them to turn a relatively small number of names into a massive ensemble cast. I don’t recommend trying this for most writers though.)

Beyond the book you’re writing, no reader reads in a vacuum either. That’s why it’s so critically important for authors to read in their genre and learn who the popular characters are.

Gray, Sievert, Rad… a Sci-Fi Writer’s Guide to Radiation

In recent years, there has been an explosion of post-apocalyptic fiction and one of most prominent aspects of many of these settings: nuclear fallout and other forms of radiation either as a primary antagonist or at least a constant challenge for characters that arises from these settings. Radiation is mysterious, it can be dangerous, and a convenient plot device for writers. So many characters that were created at the dawn of the “atomic age” following the second world war have “radiation” as a part of their origin story. Spiderman… bitten by a radioactive spider. The Incredible Hulk… the result of a gamma radiation experiment gone wrong. Godzilla… seems to use radiation to heal. But what is radiation really?

Radiation

Even among physicists the term “radiation” can have slightly different meanings in different contexts. Generally it refers to the propagation of energy, usually as an electromagnetic field, through space. Optical light, microwaves, infrared, ultraviolet… etc. As a subset of that, and what I’ll be focusing on here, is ionizing radiation–where there is enough energy in packets of that radiation to knock an electron out of an atomic orbital. If you want to impress your friends at parties, the energy threshold where this starts to happen is about 4 eV (315 nm) and that’s in the ultraviolet portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. Everything to the left of that in the figure below is ionizing… x-rays, gamma rays, cosmic rays (not shown). This can also include fast moving sub-atomic particles… when that’s the nucleus of a Helium atom after a particular mode of decay in a radioactive isotope, you’ve got an alpha particle. If that’s an electron, we call it a beta particle. Sometimes in radiation medicine protons, helium or carbon ions for cancer treatments that take advantage of the specific charge and mass to target precise depths in the body.

The electromagnetic spectrum from gamma rays to radio waves, logarithmically increasing wavelength left to right, with the visible spectrum highlighted in colour.
Source: Philips Ronan Gringer, https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/30/EM_spectrumrevised.png

Measuring Radiation

Over the years, radiation has been measured in different quantities. Currently the most common currency is called the Gray–defined as 1 Joule per kg of the medium exposed to the radiation. This quantifies radiation absorbed dose. In the past we used use the rad–which works out to about 0.01 Gy. The Gray was officially adopted in 1975. You might also see another (outdated) unit called the Roentgen (or R), which has (had) a more technical definition that refers to the about of charge produced in air in a free air ion chamber, but this was abandoned because as people became able to produce higher energy sources, the measurements were impractical.
A concept called effective dose also comes into play when we’re talking about human exposures and the risks associated with them. Not all physical doses are created equal. To a cell, for example, a heavy, charged alpha particle blasting it’s way though does a lot more damage per unit energy absorbed than a speeding electron. It’s kind of like the difference between a bullet and cannon ball. To account for the relative amount of damage created by the specific type of radiation absorbed dose is translated into equivalent dose. Then, we have a system that also normalizes risk depending on which tissues were irradiated. The risk of developing cancer after having your whole body irradiated is different if the radiation only goes into your hand as opposed to your whole body. Putting this all together, yields effective dose which is measured in Sieverts or Sv.

Background Radiation and Common Effective Doses

Radiation is all around us. Cosmic rays, radon gas, potassium 14 in bananas… every day we’ve got photons and other particles passing through us (and doing damage to our cells). This is referred to as background radiation. Cumulatively the dose from background radiation adds up to about 2.4 mSv of effective dose per year or 0.0024 Sv/yr. Of course this can vary. There populated parts of the world, such as Ramsar Iran, where the background doses have been measured up to about 260 mSv/yr, though I believe average doses are closer to about 6 mSv/yr. Over the years a considerable amount of scientific attention has been paid to the residents of Ramsar and for what it’s worth, numerous health metrics have demonstrated that there doesn’t appear to be a significant increase in cancer rates in such areas.

In most places the background dose is about 2-3 mSv. I use 3 mSv as a handy reference. You go about your daily life receiving this level exposure, you’re unaware that it’s even there and generally doesn’t cause too many problems. So it’s useful to use this as a normalizing standard. Below, I’ve added a table with some approximate effective doses.

EventEffective Dose (mSv)Fraction of Background
background (annual)2.4 1
dental x-ray0.0050.002
mammogram0.20.08
CT scans5 – 202 – 8
lethal dose (whole body)4,0001667
Effective doses are approximate, for the purposes of general public education and writing cool science fiction stories.

How Radiation Interacts with Humans

From the point of view of a human cell, radiation can be thought of like little bullets zipping through water. Inside that cell you have a coil of really important material… your DNA… it encodes all the relevant information for building the body and enables the cell to do what it does. That DNA is the sensitive component of the cell.

As radiation travels through the cell it interacts either directly or indirectly with the water-like medium inside. As atoms of the medium become ionized they generate highly reactive chemical species called free radicals and these can diffuse, interact with the DNA and damage it. To a cell, damaged DNA is a big deal.

In fact it’s such a big problem that cells have evolved mechanism to constantly scan for it. An analogy that I sometimes use is that the DNA is a like a library of information. It’s critical for the cell to operate, so critical that every book in the library has two copies. That library hires an army of editors who work day and night constantly comparing each book to its companion. You can have minor DNA damage where maybe a letter gets replaced or a sentence gets cut. Those are pretty easy for the editors to fix. Repair of the damage is often on option. But sometimes you get more severe damage where you have pages torn out of both copies of the book! That’s an analogy to something called a double strand break where both of the helixes in the DNA double helix are severed.

When that happens the cell has a few options. Often, if there’s enough damage it will trigger a process referred to as apoptosis-programmed cell death. In the analogy that’s like burning the library down if one book is out of whack.

Unfortunately sometimes the repair happens, but not… perfectly. This leads to a change in the code. When this happens, in most cases, it’s relatively inconsequential. But sometimes that damage can linger and cause problems much later on… manifesting as something like a cell that can’t control its reproductive cycle… cancer.

What Happens To Characters Who Survive Nuclear Blasts?

Assuming of course we’re talking about radiation exposure and not the percussive blast itself, for reference the increase in cancer risk as a result of radiation exposure is roughly 4%/Sv for adults. In radiation protection this is applied in a linear fashion: an exposure of 0.5 Sv results in a 2% excess risk, an exposure of 2 Sv results in an 8% excess risk. But of course this is a simplification. When you really look at it, there things such as the age of the person exposed come into play (a young person has more time to develop a cancer than an older person), and there is a lot of debate as to what happens when doses are relatively low, like in the tens of mSv range. But the 4%/Sv can give you a rough ballpark for determining downstream risks to any characters

And as per the table above, the lethal dose that would kill about half of the exposed people to it (without major medical intervention) is about 4 Sv.

From a medical point of view, it’s the rapidly dividing cells in the body that are effected first. The GI tract is often affected, so high dose exposures will result in horrible consequences like diarrhea and vomiting. Your red blood cells are also pretty sensitive, which can lead to an effect where circulating cells are wiped out leading to major fatigue, but then as “stored up” cells are released into circulation characters may temporarily recover for 24-48 hours or so. But if no new cells are being made, they crash pretty quickly afterward.

As the dose goes up, the symptoms get more severe. When you get into exposures upwards of dozens of Sv, you end up with neurological complications and even with medical intervention such exposures are very difficult to survive.

So in the end… unfortunately there’s no evidence of radiation leading to superpowers, at least not that I’m aware of. That said, it can be used for some pretty amazing things, like curing cancer. But that’s another blog post.