Tag Archives: STEM

The Philosophy of Science & Logic and the Steampunk Writer – Part One

Warning Science Ahead

When writing Steampunk narrative, it improves the quality of your prose if you understand some of the philosophy behind rational, scientific thinking. Contrary to expectations, rational thinking and science do not oppose poetry and lyrical prose. Most poetry follows quite a rigid set of rules; I recommend Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled and it supports my assertion. Most novels have quite a complex structure, even if you can’t spot it as easily as in the Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (nesting dolls). Prose depends on the underlying structures of the sentence and the flowers of rhetoric. All of these literary structures are to provide clarity while at the same time boosting the aesthetic quality of the texts. If Beauty is Truth, then science and rationality can be very beautiful.

Rocket for SCIENCE

So, today, let’s look at the some of the skills needed to think logically and rationally. These are skills that should help you develop a plot without plot-holes.

The Either/Or Fallacy:

In Western culture, we have a bad habit of seeing everything as a binary opposite: it’s black and white; you’re either with me or you’re against me; it’s my way or the highway. Real life has more shades, and not just of grey. When writing a Steampunk novel, unless it is for very young children, the good girls should have their flaws and the bad girls should have their virtues.

Reality is for those who can't handle Science Fiction

The Side Issue:

It is best to avoid having a side issue to derail the actual aim of a course of action or an argument in your narrative. Politicians favour this strategy, deflecting a question onto a different topic that really doesn’t answer the question. When writing, don’t let too many side issues take the impetus from the main thrust of the plot, unless your putting in red herrings to a mystery. A side journey should always lead back to the main storyline.

Science = Magic without the lies.

Questioning Everything: 

Don’t assume your reader knows all the details of the science you are supplying. Don’t assume you know all the details, unless you’ve done a lot of careful research. Science is all about never assuming you know all the facts, and comes with the expectation that there is always something new to discover. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series has dozens of examples, but my favourite one is his constant questioning of idioms; for example ‘getting on like a house on fire’ might mean people screaming and running away.

Bring Back Science

Cause and Effect: 

One of the main forces driving a plot along is cause and effect. This happened, and it caused this new event to occur. However, some writers can get confused about cause and effect, and make assumptions. Example: the tidal forces of moon controls the tides. The moon controls werewolves. Therefore, werewolves are controlled by the tidal forces of the moon. This may be true, but it is highly unlikely. Further investigation will be needed to find the real causes of any event.

Sweeping Generalisations: Everyone’s favourite sort of fallacy, because it is often mistaken for hyperbole. All women are bad at maths. All men are brutes. All cats are selfish. When you are writing, you have to be alert that you are not misrepresenting a fact because of generalisations. It is also lazy writing, as it can often create stereotypes of your characters. When making a statement, try to keep it accurate. Too many generalisation can build up within a plot to create contradictions, which will lead to plot-holes.

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Filed under Plot, Steampunk, Steampunk Genre, Steampunk Themes, writing

The Sirens of Science

Jemma Simmons, Abby Sciuto, and Osgood

Jemma Simmons, Abby Sciuto, and Osgood

They talk about the muses whenever they talk about the Fine Arts, and yet the muses were also supposed to inspire the sciences – not that Science was called Science at the time. In reality, the only muse to have anything to do with science was Urania, great-granddaughter of Uranus, who was the muse of Astronomy. Her sister muses were all in charge of dance and ballads and epic poetry, music and poor all Urania went in for star gazing.

So, it seems only right and proper that Science gets to have proper muses, or as I prefer to think of them, sirens. But instead of luring men to their death with sultry songs, Science Sirens lure men and women into a world where logic and rational thought triumph over ignorance. These are some seriously attractive women.

I was inspired into thinking about Science Sirens by some of the more interesting scientists decorating our television screen: Abby Sciuto from NCIS, Osgood from Doctor Who, Penny Garcia of Criminal Minds, and Dr Jemma Simmons from Marvel’s Agents of Shield. These aren’t the only portrayals of smart and sassy scientists of the female variety, but they are my personal favourites. And before you jump all over me for including Penny, who is a technical analyst with no formal degree, she is also a genius hacker and I am not one to hold a person’s lack of a formal education against them. All four of them have been given interesting lives outside of their interest in Science.

Osgood was probably the closest to a stereotype, but then again, she has the most limited screen time of the four characters as well. She is a science advisor for Alien technology (and a Doctor Who fangirl), so I’m running with her being the Siren for Astrophysics, Quantum Physics, and Xenobiology. Her role as a science advisor also makes her the Siren for Science Writing.

Abby is the Siren for Forensic Science and Chemistry, of course. She has a PhD in Chemistry, and degrees in criminology and forensic science. I’m tempted to plonk a few more sciences on her plate, as in television land every science is an expert in multiple fields, but that is quite sufficient for any demi-goddess. Her laboratory – in the basement – can be where science deniers can meet a face worse than death – Abby explaining to them why they are wrong.

Penny can be the Mathematics and Computer Science Siren, and I see her surrounded by a halo of computer screens. As computer science is a very broad field, and one that broadens further every day, she might have to have supporting cherub or two to assist her (Kevin might make a good cherub). People tend to confuse computer scientists with computer technicians, so she also needs a sword to discourage time-wasting requests.

Gemma has her degrees in bio-chemistry, so she is automatically the Siren for Biology and Organic Chemistry (biology and chemistry is a big enough field to need two muses without overlap). Again, she has suffered from a bit of ‘expert in everything’ characterization, but not as badly as Abby. Her cherub-assistant would most certainly have to be Fitz.

Can you imagine the team these four would make? But we are missing an engineer. Oh, Kaylee Frye from Firefly would be perfect! She has a natural talent for mechanic and engineering, and if someone said to her that girls are supposed to bad at anything mechanical, Kaylee would be sweet and polite and tell them to go soak their heads. Her temple music would be the clang of her shiny tools.

So there we go, five STEM muses to coordinate with the traditional muses. I’m sure that poor Urania must be tired of hauling the load all by herself. This new team of women are ready to inspire a love of Science in the hearts of even the most rational minds.

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Emily Warren Roebling: a Steampunk Feminist Persepective

It isn’t often that science and engineering is the background of a love story. Then again, Emily Roebling was a remarkable woman. Emily Warren Roebling was the wife of Washington Roebling, who was  Chief Engineer during the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. Her poor husband developed decompression sickness while working on the bridge. Emily took it upon herself to learn bridge construction, and then took over much of the chief engineer’s duties, including day-to-day supervision and project management, and liaising with the men doing the construction, while she fought for her husband to retain his position as chief engineer (the Brooklyn Bridge has been his father’s project to begin with). At the same time, she was her husband’s nurse – he was to suffer from the effects of decompression sickness for the rest of his life, remaining partially paralysed. It was only due to her intelligence and determination that the project was finished. After the bridge was completed, she travelled broadly and went on to complete a law degree at university. Sadly, her husband was to outlive her by over two decades; I’ll bet he missed his dearest Emily’s ministrations.

What I take from this story is that Emily and Washington were a team. When Washington’s health faltered, Emily was well able to step up to care for him and for his beloved building project. Real love is putting your beloved’s happiness before your own … and Emily certainly made that sacrifice. But I like to think that she found joy and satisfaction in the challenge of being the chief engineer in everything but name. I would love to write a such a married couple into my Steampunk novel. The Roeblings both needed to be extraordinary and unconventional Victorians.

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Filed under Science, Steampunk, Steampunk Feminist, Women in Science

Burning Bustles instead of Books: the Steampunk Feminist’s Perspective

Chained Books

“Peg, we must put a stop to this, or we shall have Mary in a strait jacket one of these days.” A comment made by Mary Somerville’s father to her mother, worried about the teenaged Mary’s passion for maths and science.

 When I was at high school, it wasn’t unusual for the girls to go off to do a parenting course called ‘Mothercraft’ while the boys were given an extra session of technical drawing. We were always separated by gender for domestic science and technical drawing. Too bad if you were a girl like me, who would have preferred to do tech drawing, and couldn’t understand why there wasn’t a subject called ‘Fathercraft’. Even now, girls and women are discouraged by lack of support and female role models in the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths). Yesterday, I attended an Ada Lovelace Afternoon Tea, followed by a lecture that was discussing just this topic. Often girls drop out of STEM courses because they are outnumbered by the male students, and subtly (or not so subtly) are made to feel like they don’t belong. This is happening in the 21st century, so imagine how much harder it was for a women in the 19th century.

Mary Somerville

Mary Somerville

We look back at Mary Fairfax Somerville and see her awards and achievements, and know she was respected in her chosen field. The word missing in that sentence is ‘eventually’. Mary Fairfax, as a child and young woman, was not supported in her studies in the same way that Ada Lovelace was. Her father was convinced her brain would overheat and she would go insane; this attitude worsened when Mary’s sister died and her death was partially attributed to too much studying. In fact, her first marriage was arranged by her parents to discourage her unnatural passion for learning about maths, science, astronomy and geology. As her husband’s chattel, Mrs Samuel Greig wasn’t allowed to pursue her research and it was the unhappiest time in her life.

It might sound cold, but her widowhood was the making of Mary. She went on to marry for love, to a William Somerville, who admire her vivid intellect and encouraged her in her studies. I cannot stress how unusual a man William was, a well-educated man who trained as a surgeon, who wasn’t indulging his wife’s interests as a doting husband, but supported them because he treasured Mary’s brilliance. At the same time, Mary became acquainted to many distinguished intellectuals and her reputation grew as she consolidated her studies by translating foreign science books, and by writing and publishing  science textbooks. It was through her friendship with Charles Babbage that she became Ada Lovelace’s mathematics tutor.

This was all achieved in an era when women were solely to function as wives and mothers, keeping house, raising children and given the occasional opportunity to socialize with other women. Women were not encouraged to obtain tertiary educations. With no women mentors or role models, Mary managed to glean her the start of her mathematical education from her brother’s math tutor, and from her painting master who introduced her to the mathematics of perspective, and this lead her to read Euclid’s Elements of Geometry. Which she read for fun. And she still managed to have a stellar career while living through two marriages, two widowhoods, six children and being considered potentially insane by her parents.

So, if you decide to have a women scientist in a Steampunk narrative, you have to make sure your woman isn’t easily discouraged. She can’t be the sort of person that would give up at the first hurdle. She has to be a goal-setter, a go-getter, able to shrug off opposition and still fight on. She can still be a perfect lady, but under that lace dress is a soul that is as hard as steel and as flexible as a willow wand. She wouldn’t be content to have someone take her books away and try to make her conform to any role other than the one she chooses for herself.

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Filed under Characterization, Feminism, Historical Personage, Steampunk, Women in Science, writing