Thursday, May 22, 2014

Worldbuilding: The March of Science in the Fantasy World

Today's required reading: The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean.

It's a look at chemistry through the lens of history, The Disappearing Spoon talks about every element on the periodic table, its properties and its history, not to mention the history how the periodic table itself came about.  I found it a fascinating read, and the history of science in general is a subject I feel gets something of a short shrift, both in academia (in study of history or science) and in worldbuilding.

Until this century, science was something someone-- anyone with the time and inclination-- could putter around with.  There were, of course, men (and women) of scholarship working out of universities.  But there was plenty of science being done, more or less, by the bored and wealthy as a hobby.  A lot of discoveries came about through trial and error of people filling up their spare time.  X-rays, for example, were discovered by someone who was just messing around with different stuff to see what would happen.  When said messing around resulted in a picture of his bones, he was convinced he had actually gone insane, and in order to prove to himself that it wasn't real, he kept repeating it over and over, and then showed it to his wife (who fainted dead away).

Most science was done with the time honored tradition of the following steps.
  1. Poke something.
  2. See what happens.
  3. Poke it again and see if it happens again.
Secondary worldbuilding tends to ignore science and the history of science.   I've been guilty of it as well.  History in secondary worldbuildingn tends to be mostly about kings and nations and wars.  But the history of a civilization is more than that.  When looking at your world's history, ask yourself: Who was the Socrates of this world?  Who was the Pythagoras?  The Isaac Newton?  Galileo?  Kepler?  Pastuer?  Curie?

Will this stuff come into play in what you write?  Probably not.  But it's always more interesting when you know it.

Another thing to think about, in a fantasy setting-- is magic studied like it's a science?  Does the advancement or understanding of magic have its own history?  Does your world have, say, a Pythagoras, Newton or Galileo of magic?*

The other good reason to read The Disappearing Spoon?  Little bits of science trivia you just might apply in your worldbuilding.  Here's a free one: copper is a natural disinfectant, killing bacteria.  Water piped through copper pipes won't have bacteria, nor will copper coins or doorknobs.


*- As an old-school D&D player, I always loved all the "Bigby's ____ Hand" spells for just that reason.  I just imagined this semi-scholarly mage who kept working, tirelessly, to perfect Giant Hand magic. 


Teresa Coffey said...

Fascinating! I'm editing right now and looking to add another layer or two to my world building. The Disappearing Spoon sounds like something I need to read. Thanks for sharing this resource.

Dr. Ellis L. (Skip) Knox said...

Thanks for the reference. I heard the author interviewed, told myself to read that, then promptly forgot about it. Sometimes I think I need to be online 24x7!

I've got my own take on your comments. My magic has a history. It develops from a time when it seems to be unpredictable, dangerous, and highly individual, to a subject that is studied "scientifically". In fact, I even have a Scientific Revolution.

I'm a historian by profession, so this comes as no surprise: every aspect of world building benefits if the author understands its history.