Science Fiction Writing: A Way to Learn about Real Science?

Last fall I posted an essay about the potential importance of reading science fiction as an educational tool  (Quixotic Quest: Science Fiction as Discovery Fiction by Russ Colson),  Since then, I have done a small research study and written an article on the potential importance of writing science fiction as a learning tool.  I have posted this article on my teaching blog because of its potential interest to teachers as a way to present science in a way that engages students in the process of making the ideas their own.  However, it may be of interest to science fiction writers as well.  Check it out!

Effect of writing science fiction on understanding of geological concepts—preliminary results of a study in progress.


Dr. C

(Russ Colson)

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Quixotic Quest: Science Fiction as Discovery Fiction

For some time I have been on a quest to get more science into science fiction.  I was reminded recently of how quixotic my quest truly is when I came across a publisher’s website that said they publish only fantasy and science fiction and so every story “must have some element of either magic or cool technology.”  Since when did technology become a stand-in for science?  Science is about the process of exploring how things work through observation and reasoning, not just the technologies—or culminating theories—that arise from that exploration. Technology can create a fine avenue to explore social science issues, but why don’t we have more physical science discovery and exploration in modern science fiction?

I have always thought that ‘my kind of story’ must be hard science fiction since I have such a passion for science in my stories, but I’ve begun to realize that hard science fiction is even more focused than other science fiction on cool technologies and fantastical theories rather than the process of discovery that exemplifies real science.  Even my favorite authors who have a great deal of expertise in science, like Alistair Reynolds, tend to drop science in as interesting facts about space, speculative theories, and amazing technologies to which humans must adapt.  Given that adventure stories are about exploration and discovery, and that science is about exploration and discovery, it seems that there should be a lot more synergy between the two in modern science fiction.

After growing weary of the ‘hard’ in science fiction, I recently decided to read some fantasy.  I chose The Stormlight Archive series by Brandon Sanderson.  Imagine my surprise to find more real science in those stories than I’d found in the hard science fiction!  Although the fantasy world is not quite consistent with the science world that we know of in ‘real life,’ there is a distinct effort to make things ‘make sense’ and to find reasons for why things behave as they do—key elements of science.  For example, in book 2, Words of Radiance, one passage involves the protagonist figuring out that a block of stone-like crem has been recently broken.  The crem accumulates during storms in a series of thin layers and the protagonist could see the layers in cross-sectional view, meaning it had to have been broken, and if it had been broken for very long those layers would be covered up by new layers of crem.  The protagonist solved the puzzle of when it was broken by considering cross-cutting relationships, a key investigative method in my own discipline of geology.

Wow!  Not only science, but geology!

Why can’t we get more of that investigative observation and reasoning into science fiction?

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that the science in science fiction trends toward amazing theories and technologies rather than the process of discovery.  Despite the urging from national science standards (in the USA), most science classrooms—and assessment tools—still emphasize facts that students know and theories that they explain more than the practice of science.

If you are a science fiction writer, you can play a part in making science education better!  Consider writing stories that focus less on technologies, theories and facts of science, and more on the exciting adventure of science discovery, the process of observing and reasoning to make sense of the universe!

I hope that my own science fiction novel, The Arasmith Certainty Principle, offers ingredients of real science as the protagonists discover what is going on through the use of observation and reasoning, although there are also elements of the fantastical with the unlikely theory of the Certainty Principle.  Science fiction doesn’t have to be all science, or even all realistic, but a bit more exploration and discovery through observation and reasoning would be good!

Dr. C

(Russ Colson)


You can read more of my essays on real science in science fiction or the classroom at

Putting Science back in Science Fiction

Assigning Blame for Public Science Skepticism

Is it Science Fiction? Or Fantasy?

At What Point Does Science Fiction Turn Into Fantasy?


Teaching Science and the Lost Adventure Story

Practicing Science: What does it mean and how can we do it in the classroom?

Science Teacher: Conveyer of Information or Practitioner and Mentor?


You can also check out our science fiction for the science classroom at


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Why do I write? Part 2.

Since the publication of my science fiction adventure, The Arasmith Certainty Principle, by Double Dragon Publishing in Oct 2018, I’ve had several of my college students share with me that they, too, hope to write novels someday.

I tell them to “Go for it!”, but I warn them that it is not an endeavor for the faint of heart—rejection is the norm in the publishing world and even the best books often leave a majority of people unmoved.  I myself am often unmoved by books others consider superb.  Nor is writing novels a sure way to make a living—out of the thousands, perhaps millions, of authors hoping to get their stories heard, only a few make enough money to even cover expenses, let alone make a decent living.

Why, then, do so many people want to write?

For me, writing novels began during a dark time of life when writing became an opportunity to explore my own soul, to leave behind the troubling world of hard realities and to find myself in the imaginary worlds of what could be.  Writing became a rejuvenating contemplation of life and spirit.

How did that rejuvenation arise from The Arasmith Certainty Principle?

At the time I began writing Arasmith, I’d had some hard knocks with friendships.  In exploring the evolution of my protagonist Jen Hewitt’s relationships, I reminded myself that, although relationships can be complex and sometimes disappointing, they have the potential to become the whole meaning and purpose for living.  Jen gave me an example of someone ready to love and be loved even when love was not her first inclination and when relationship carried substantial risk.

My difficult experiences with friendships had left me less willing than before to take a public stand.  Although Arasmith is intended as fun excursion into an unexpected adventure, it still brings its characters face to face with difficult choices.  In those characters and their choices, I found people ready to stand for what was right, even when they realized that they may not fully understand what is right or what the unforeseen costs of taking a stand might be.

When I read, I lose myself in other worlds.  But when I write, I find myself, by taking a different sort of journey entirely. For me, writing is an inner journey akin to journaling that helps me hold on not only to the person I have been in the past but to the person I hope to become in the future.

Read my previous essay on why I write at

The Arasmith Certainty Principle is available at the publishers website


Dr. C  (Russ Colson)

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A Couple of Guest Blogs

Since the publication of my science fiction adventure, The Arasmith Certainty Principle, by Double Dragon Publishing in Oct 2018, I’ve had the opportunity to write a couple of guest blogs. The first addresses some of my thoughts on what good science fiction should be about and the second offers a “page 69 excerpt challenge”. You can check them out below!

The Best of What We Might be Rather Than the Worst of What We Are

Good science fiction exposes human foibles!

Some science fiction writers have the ability to explore the problems and challenges in our present society, defusing our inherent tendency to take ideological sides by placing the story in a galaxy far, far away, or perhaps in another time or situation. For example, right now I’m reading the book The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal, a science fiction book that explores issues of racism, sexism, and religious prejudices within the context of a global catastrophe taking place in a revisioned past. I am finding the insights into our present social challenges to be sensitive to the complexity of real-life.

Read more at World of My Imagination!


An Excerpt from The Arasmith Certainty Principle

It’s always hard for an author to get a ‘feel’ for his or her own writing, so, in an effort to measure my own story, I recently played the Marshall McLuhan Page 69 game. Marshall McLuhan was a Canadian intellectual who supposedly said that if you want to find out what a book is like before you read it, turn to page 69 and read that page. I was somewhat surprised to find that page 69 (from the print version of The Arasmith Certainty Principle) faithfully captures some of the story’s juxtaposition of ordinary and extraordinary. Check out the excerpt below and see if you agree!

Read more at Tympest Books!

The Arasmith Certainty Principle is available at the publishers website

Dr. C (Russ Colson)

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Why Do I Write?

I began writing fiction novels in the early 2000s mainly for fun and as a bit of a therapeutic de-stressor during a rather difficult time in my life. Writing allowed me to explore my inner world in a way that took my mind into the realm of what could be. I wrote stories that I would like to read myself and that allowed me to escape into the wonder of existence and the adventure of relationship with characters that I liked.

Although I started out writing for myself, I soon realized that I would also like to give away some of that wonder and adventure to others. And yes, hopefully give away a bit of the therapeutic distressing as well.

As young people, we all have ambitions for what we might do or who we might become. Some people hope for fame or wealth. Power is always popular. For me, I think my driving ambition has always been to have something to give away that someone else wants. I remember once as a child wanting to ‘make friends’ and connect with other kids (yes, even introspective kids want to connect). One time, to try to connect, I offered my very favorite toy as a gift. Sadly, my hoped-for friend simply pushed the toy aside, not valuing it to the same degree that I had and not even recognizing my offering as a gesture of friendship. I’m still that little boy, hoping to give something away, and writing is something I have to give, sometimes valued and sometimes not so much!

With the publication of my first SF novel, The Arasmith Certainty Principle, by Double Dragon Publishing (check it out here!), I am once again offering my favorite toy.

Although The Arasmith Certainty Principle is my first published novel, it is my third published book. My reasons for writing my other books were somewhat different but still along the lines of hoping to give something away. With Learning to Read the Earth and Sky published by NSTA Press, I hoped to expand the appeal of Earth Science as an exciting way to explore our universe and also to promote my passionate belief that science is more about what we do—science reasoning skills that we can practice—and less about the facts or theories that we acquire through those practices. Although a bit more academic than my fiction, it was still something I hoped to give away to others. With A Little Book of Gardening in Northwest Minnesota, I wanted to share my joy in the spiritual journey of creating landscapes and growing plants, mainly for family and friends.

Often writers say they write because they must, driven by inner stories and ideas that demand to be revealed. Due to the difficulty of making a living through writing, publishers and agents often advise would-be writers to only write if they can find no way to escape that urge. But for me, I write because I hope to give something away, and if there are one or two who value my toys in the same way I do, then that is all to the good!


Russ C.

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A Science Fiction Book and New Short Story for the Classroom

After a few years of fishing for a publisher for my science fiction novels, I had by first novel, The Arasmith Certainty Principle, accepted for publication by Double Dragon Publishing this fall.  DDP is a small Canadian publisher, mainly of e-books.  As a small publisher, they don’t offer a lot of editorial or marketing support.  However, they have a reputation for nice cover art and honest and professional interaction with most of their authors.  Plus, the Double Dragon name has nice synergy with my work at Minnesota State University Moorhead—our mascot is the Dragon!  Thus, I chose to sign!

With a book now in the queue for publishing (perhaps October 2018) I decided it was time to get an author page a bit more formal-looking than the highly informal website I post for my college students who want to know a bit more about me.  After spending a month developing my website, I’m now conversant with HTML and CSS—until I forget it again.  My new author page can be found at  Feel free to check it out!

Meanwhile, the latest short story for the earth science classroom, Breaking the Ice by Justin Short, is now live at Issues in Earth Science. Please read it at Fiction for the Classroom, or check out the teacher resources, emphasizing the importance of students learning how to invent their own experiments rather than simply copy the experiments that a curriculum writer has invented for them, at Teacher Resources for Breaking the Ice!

Russ Colson

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Assigning Blame for Public Science Skepticism

I’ve been thinking a lot about public skepticism for science, perhaps a result of the present tense political climate. The depth of public skepticism is reflected in observations ranging from US presidential doubts about climate change to celebrity doubts that the Earth is in fact a sphere (NBA star Kyrie Irving’s claim back in February 2017). I am left to wonder, how can anyone think that the world is flat or that climate isn’t changing? Who’s to blame for such a failure of the public education system?

Teachers of course.

I coauthored an article in the Spring 2017 newsletter of the Minnesota Science Teachers’ Association accepting a type of blame on us teachers. The blame, though, rests not so much with failure to expose students to ‘true’ science as with failure to teach science in a way that compels trust in the results. We tend to teach our students to know and explain the theories rather than to understand the observational and investigative underpinnings of them, a problem that my coauthor and I examine in our recently published book, Learning to Read the Earth and Sky. If we teachers give our students the theories, but don’t engage them in the practices of science that allow them to test those theories, why shouldn’t we expect public skepticism?

If skepticism originates in the divorcement of science theory from observation and reason, then it occurs to me that science fiction writers can take part of the blame as well. Modern science fiction has very little science in it, that is, it contains a lot of ‘magical’ technology, weird jargon, and mystical properties of the universe rather than investigation based on observation and reasoning. Of course, science fiction is fiction after all. What should we expect? But when there is little effort to connect the ‘in theory’ statements in science fiction to observation and reasoning within the story, it leaves the subtle impression that science is just a different form of magic to be accepted on faith. Or not.

Something to think about.

Dr C.

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Putting Science back in Science Fiction

I was talking to my son this past weekend. My son teaches physics at Santa Fe College in Gainesville Florida, and our conversation turned to science education.   It’s such a delight to get to know my son as a professional colleague and to hear him expound on ideas—and expand on ideas—that I have grappled with for a lifetime.

At this point in the term, his class has left behind the ideas of force-acceleration-momentum and forged into less familiar concepts. He told about tutoring a student who was frustrated at not being able to find the right equation for a particular problem in the book. My son explained to him that the goal is not to memorize a basket of equations—or look them up in the book—but rather to understand basic principles from which the equations can be inferred and constructed.

I asked my son if the student believed that.   “Well, yes, I think he believed me, but I’m not sure he understood.”

Learning is a complex endeavor. My son and I agreed that each student has to figure things out on their own—they can’t just memorize the equations or accept the theories and models from the teacher. We agreed that there are many different ways to figure things out, many ways to put the pieces together in your own mind, but all the different ways of constructing understanding share one thing in common; when you finally figure it out, all the confusing mess of equations, laws, and strange observations come together in a coherent whole that makes perfect sense.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we had science portrayed that way in fiction—as a way to make sense of observations, as a way to figure things out—rather than as a basket of cool facts or weird events that happen like magic, defended by the story’s ‘science experts’ who claim that impossible events might happen ‘in theory?’

The problem is, our society, including science fiction readers and writers, appear to have lost interest in explanations and reasoning, limiting science to cool facts, wild technologies, and ‘theories’ that amount to little more than speculation. It’s not surprising that the general public adopts this view of what science—and science education—is all about.

A few years back in one of my earth science classes, I had students engaged in a debate about the age of the Earth. Students were free to use any type of evidence or line of reasoning to argue for either a ‘young’ Earth or an ‘old’ Earth.

One student made a particularly enlightening argument: “The problem with you scientists is that you try to explain things.”

I had no response. Explaining is, indeed, at the core of science. Trying to explain and understand what all the myriad observations of the world are telling us, to explain what they mean, is something I’ve given much of my life to doing. Although the student and I shared a deeply spiritual outlook, it had never occurred to me that some spiritual people might consider explaining things to be a net negative and in conflict with their worldview.

I realized that the ‘explaining things’ part of science sometimes comes into conflict with a part of our psyche that likes magical thinking. It’s no accident that fantasy fiction has gained precedence over science fiction in recent years.

Take Star Wars for example. Most people would view this as more fantasy than science fiction I think. However, when George Lucas tried to introduce a truly scientific element into the story—explaining the origin of the seemingly magical ‘force’—everyone hated it. The Midichlorians are no one’s favorite. Yet, the Midichlorians were an explicit effort to bring the story out of the realm of magic and into the realm of science fiction. The Midichlorians provided an observable and measurable correlation that offered an explanation for the power of the force. Correlation is a key element of science that allows us to make connections between observation and theory.

Given this negative reaction, it’s probably not surprising that there is little effort in science fiction to take observations and, like a mystery story, try to figure out what they mean. There is little effort to include the real process of science—asking questions, making observations, and constructing a mental model of what the observations tell us.

I would like to see more real science in science fiction. I’m not sure what that might look like in my field of earth science. Perhaps using cross-cutting relationships and stratigraphic principles to reconstruct past sequences of events critical to the plot of the story? Perhaps using experiment and reasoning to figure out the meaning of a series of strange events that are actually plausible? Perhaps showing characters engaged in real scientific research that leads unexpectedly into adventure, like the discoveries in the 1977 book Inherit the Stars (which came out the year I graduated from high school and may have set my expectations too high for science explanation in science fiction)?

More real science in science fiction; I don’t know for sure how to do it and still keep readers engaged. But I’d definitely like to see more of it.

Dr. C.

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Reviving my blog: Adventure in Science Fiction

Sorry for not blogging for so long—I’ve been writing a non-fiction book called Learning to Read the Earth and Sky, a book for teachers, or anyone else, who thinks about the nature of science and what teaching science is all about. Writing a book is a serious endeavor, and it takes serious commitment to complete it. For me, ‘serious commitment’ meant not maintaining my blog for two and a half years! Given my day job, which with research and teaching is rather consuming, and my other side projects, like gardening and writing science fiction novels, I didn’t have time to blog.

However, my coauthor and I sent our proofs back to the publisher this past week—it felt like sending my baby off to college—and so I can turn my mind to blogging. I’ve written a cross-over blog that picks up on the thread of adventure in fiction which I introduced in my last blog entry two years ago—”The Mars One Initiative–Is it Real?” Does our declining interest in adventure have an impact on our understanding of how to teach science? Check it out at “The Teachers Corner” — Teaching Science and the Lost Adventure Story.

Dr. C.

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New Earth Science Story with Teacher Resources

Our latest short story for the Earth Science Classroom (with teacher resources) is up at Issues in Earth Science – along with a great essay on the importance of asking questions–not just accepting the theories.

Cassie Morant loves puzzles, but can she put together the planetary geology clues fast enough to save the landing team from execution? Find out in Jigsaw by Douglas Smith.

Our Topic for Debate for Issue 4 is Theory in the Classroom.  Science teacher Patrick Schuette considers the importance of questioning theories in Hypothesis, Theory, and Law.

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