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STEM Tuesday — Serendipity Science — Writing Tips and Resources

“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but, ‘That’s funny … ‘ “ – Isaac Asimov

Serendipity science. In the high-brow world of “real” science, we often poo-poo the very idea of serendipity being even remotely involved in science done “the real way”. We like to think we are in complete control. We like to think we have all the answers or the best possible answers already tucked away in our magnificent brains. 

But we don’t.

Science is not about how much we know; it’s about how much we don’t know. We often get this backward. Science and STEM, in general, are about using what we know to find out what we don’t know in order to improve our understanding.

It’s about paying attention!

ESA/XMM-Newton/N. Webb (XMM-Newton Survey Science Centre), CC BY-SA IGO 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO via Wikimedia Commons (See note below the O.O.L.F Files for the image description.)

The scientific method we all memorized repeatedly throughout our academic experience is just a guidebook. It’s like a vacation guide. The important things, the memorable parts of a vacation, are often what happens between and around the listed vacation spots. In the scientific method, like with the vacation guidebook, the true magic lies between the listings. The observations we make along the way and the way we incorporate them into the big picture are what matters. 

We not only have to do the work; we have to pay attention along the way. Something may be out there we didn’t expect. We have to be smart enough, open-minded enough, and prepared enough to recognize the unexpected and use it to our advantage. Ah, in short, this is what serendipity science truly is. It’s not pure or blind luck. It’s not magic. It’s not even Divine Intervention. It’s paying attention when things don’t go as expected or predicted. 

What does this science rant from a scientist/author have to do with a STEM Tuesday Writing Tips & Resources post about serendipity?

Well, almost all the things I ranted on about STEM and science above can be applied to STEM writing. We’ve all seen this writing advice. Write what you know.

Write what you know? Maybe? Maybe not?

How about “write what you want to know”? 

Serendipity can be a writer’s best friend. Use the power of serendipity to unlock the potential in our storytelling. Nonfiction, informative fiction, and fiction can all benefit from paying attention to the things that happen during the writing process.

Think about mind mapping or outlining or free writing, or the classic crappy first drafting. We use all these to not only come up with ways to effectively express our ideas but as an organizational tool. Where does serendipity fit in here? Serendipity often results in a new idea or direction we never knew existed. New ideas and directions that allow the pieces to click into place or clear a blocked path in the writing process. Serendipity might just be the “muse” creative people often allude to. 

However, we can never forget two very important things. First, in order to mine the power of serendipity, work has to be done. In science or creative work, heck, in just about anything, nothing can happen if you’re not working. Fleming had to design and set up the staphylococcus experiments before discovering the unwanted mold on the agar plates killed the bacteria in close proximity. Hard work is the magic! 

The second thing is maybe even more important. We have to pay attention! We have to observe and think! What if Fleming would have just tossed those Petri plates out the window in a fit of rage over poor technique in making the agar? So long antibiotics! But he didn’t throw a fit when things apparently went south, he paid attention. Bingo!

Do the work, pay attention, and unlock the power of serendipity! 

 

Mike Hays has worked hard from a young age to be a well-rounded individual. A well-rounded, equal opportunity sports enthusiast, that is. If they keep a score, he’ll either watch it, play it, or coach it. A molecular microbiologist by day, middle-grade author, sports coach, and general good citizen by night, he blogs about sports/training-related topics at  www.coachhays.com and writer stuff at www.mikehaysbooks.comTwo of his science essays, The Science of Jurassic Park and Zombie Microbiology 101,  are included in the Putting the Science in Fiction collection from Writer’s Digest Books. He can be found roaming around the Twitter-sphere under the guise of @coachhays64.


The O.O.L.F Files

This month’s Out Of Left Field (O.O.L.F.) Files searches the vast expanses of the digital universe to stumble upon information that can further explain the oft-maligned and ill-defined process of serendipitous science.

File:Slinky.jpg

 


(Note: Besides being absolutely beautiful to look at, the image above has such a cool backstory, I felt it proper to add the Wikimedia description below. I hope you think it’s as cool as I do even though I only understand about 10% of it. You know what this means, right? Time for a visit down the Google rabbit hole of research!

“Description: The purple lines and blotches scattered across this image show something incredible: all of the X-ray sources that were serendipitously detected – that is, not intentionally targeted – by ESA’s XMM-Newton X-ray space observatory from 2000 to 2017.
This image is based on a catalogue named 3XMM-DR8, the latest publicly released catalogue of serendipitous XMM-Newton X-ray sources, created on behalf of ESA by the XMM-Newton Survey Science Centre.
The catalogue, released in May 2018, features sources in the 0.2 to 12 keV energy range drawn from 10 242 observations made by XMM-Newton’s European Photon Imaging Camera (EPIC), an instrument capable of detecting very faint sources and rapid changes in intensity, between 3 February 2000 and 30 November 2017. It contains 532 more observations and 47 363 more detections than the preceding 3XMM-DR7 catalogue, which was made public in June 2017.
While the pattern of sources across the sky may appear random, some structure can be seen here. The oval represents the celestial sphere, an abstract perspective upon which our observations of the Universe are projected. The data are plotted in galactic coordinates, such that the centre of the plot corresponds to the centre of our Milky Way galaxy – and this can be seen in the image. Through the centre of the oval is a horizontal line, where patches of purple appear to draw together. This line is the plane of the Milky Way galaxy, with the large splotch of colour in the centre corresponding to our galaxy’s core, where XMM-Newton made a higher number of serendipitous detections.
XMM-Newton has been orbiting the Earth since 1999, observing the cosmos around us while on the hunt for X-rays coming from high-energy phenomena such as black holes, stellar winds, pulsars, and neutron stars. With every patch of sky that XMM-Newton observes, the telescope detects between 50 and 100 serendipitous sources, such as those shown here, besides the objects that were the original target of the observations. This is due to the large collecting area of the telescope’s mirrors and its wide field of view.
All-sky images and large-scale cosmic data are immensely valuable in our study of the cosmos. Upcoming missions – such as the eROSITA space telescope, a German-led satellite scheduled for launch on 12 July to complete the first all-sky survey in the medium-energy X-ray band, up to 10keV – will add to this wealth of knowledge, and help further our understanding of the X-ray Universe.”)

 

 

Digging Into Journey Beyond the Burrow

Hi Mixed-Up Filers! We dug into all kinds of nature topics with author Rina Heisel, author of the upcoming Journey Beyond the Burrow.

MUF: Welcome Rina. Thanks for joining us today. I’m really excited to be talking to you about this book.

Rina Heisel: Thanks. I’m excited to be here.

MUF: So, tell us about Journey Beyond the Burrow.

Rina Heisel: Journey Beyond the Burrow is an adventure story about a young mouse, Tobin. He’s the top weather scout in his burrow, and he’s an expert in the Rules of Rodentia. He’s very proud of this, and always follows the Rules, until a big storm introduces a new predator that scuttles off with Tobin’s new baby brother. The Rules say to never pursue a predator, but Tobin goes on a rescue mission, along with his best friend and his little sister.

MUF: Speaking of the new predator, they definitely freaked me out, but not as much as the part where Tobin winds up in a nest of snakes. I had to put the book down at that part. Snakes scare me.

Rina Heisel: I’ve actually heard that from a few reviewers. Some people go into Journey Beyond the Burrow expecting a cute animal story, and it is that. But it’s also got some pretty scary, intense parts. Those are some of my favorites because I always loved those types of books when I was a kid.

MUF: Speaking of books that you enjoyed as a child, can you tell us some of the books that influenced you?

Rina Heisel: I read a lot of animal fantasy: Charlotte’s Web, Watership Down, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. I liked horse books and animal rescue books, but I also loved ghost stories, especially books by Mary Downing Hahn, and the Choose Your Own Adventure books.

MUF: Oh! Those were so good. I saw on your website that you worked on nature shows for South Dakota Public Broadcasting, how did your time there influence Journey Beyond the Burrow?

Rina Heisel: The natural science shows were my favorite projects. I spent a lot of time in the Badlands getting prairie dog footage and observing them and their burrows. It got me thinking about the relationship between predator and prey.

MUF: So, you started with prairie dogs, why is the story about mice?

Rina Heisel: Mice are so expressive, and they have fingers. It’s so helpful in writing animals that an animal is able to hold something because it’s such a human quality.

Also, I had a pet mouse in college that I rescued from a tarantula cage. The owner tried to feed the mouse to the tarantula, but the spider was scared of this little baby mouse and just clung to the top of its cage. I had a very understanding roommate who let me take the mouse back to our room. We named it Lucky, and it lived on cafeteria food.

MUF: Oh! That’s awesome. So, are the Arakni in the story based on that tarantula then?

Huntsman Spider

“Hunstman Spider (Heteropoda sp.)” by GeeC is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Rina Heisel: Arakni are based on tarantulas, yes, but also on Hunstman spiders, and A. Eximius spiders, which are spiders that live in colonies. I basically took the most terrifying traits of several spider species and combined them to make the Arakni, much to my agent’s chagrin. She had to go over all of the

different versions of the cover with spiders on them.

MUF: Wait! There’s a spider on the cover? I never noticed.

Rina Heisel: Yes! The mice that Paul Canavan drew are so expressive that they just pull you in, but there’s definitely a spider on the cover if you look for it.

MUF: Oh, I see it now. It’s kind of … menacing. So, tell us about the Rules of Rodentia. How did you come up with them?

Rina Heisel: The Rules come from nature and the relationships that animals have with each other. I got the idea from a biologist who talked about rabbits and the trails that they memorize. I thought about how all animals have these codes that they follow instinctively, and I wondered what that would look like written down.

MUF: Are there more rules that weren’t covered in the book?

Rina Heisel: There’s a little wiggle room in the numbering. So, there may be new rules, but there’s also a gray area. In life, it’s not just black and white. There’s this whole murky gray area.

MUF: That really feels like Tobin’s arc is finding that out. Rules of Rodentia would have made a pretty good title too.

Rina Heisel: It’s funny that you bring that up. Rules of Rodentia was my title, but my editor, Alice Jerman, wanted a title that would convey more of the story. So, my daughter and I brainstormed about 10 titles, and Journey Beyond the Burrow was one of my daughter’s suggestions.

MUF: Ha! That’s awesome. Can you tell us about your writing journey so far?

Rina Heisel: This story has been with me for about 15 years. The idea for the plot came to me in the Black Hills when we were interviewing a biologist about symbiotic relationships between animals, and I wondered “What would make a mouse and a snake team up?” I carried that little kernel of an idea around for a year or so. Then, the spiders came into play, and I wrote a summary. Then, I went to SCBWI classes and conferences to learn about writing for kids. It was around that time that my family moved to Florida, and I met my amazing writing group, The OWLS. I My first meeting with them I brought a 15 page first chapter of this animal fantasy that started out with Tobin just thinking about life. The OWLS were very patient with me, and I learned so much from them.

“Giant Batfish!” by montereydiver is licensed under CC BY 2.0

MUF: So, would that be your advice to new writers? Find a good group?

Rina Heisel: Yes, a supportive group is the biggest blessing, and SCBWI is a good resource. I learned so much by going to conferences, and going to conferences with my writing group was like imagination fuel.

MUF: Speaking of imagination fuel, what are you working on next?

Rina Heisel: I have an idea for a possible sequel to Journey Beyond the Burrow sketched out, but, right now, I’m working on an MG ghost story about siblings who visit a haunted hunting lodge in the North Woods.

MUF: Sounds spooky! Only a few more questions. What is something that readers would be surprised to find out about you?

Rina Heisel: Well, I love nature and being outside, but I’m scared of big fish. I went scuba diving with a friend near the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, and we saw a huge batfish. My poor diving partner, when we surfaced, said, “You kn

ow, for a small person, you have the most vice-like grip.” I was terrified!

MUF: That sounds like nightmare fuel. How can readers find you on social media?

Rina 

Heisel: I’m on Twitter: @rinaheisel. Instagram: rina.heisel and my Facebook page is Author Rina Heisel.

MUF: Thank you so much for talking with us today.

Journey Beyond the Burrow comes out July 13th, but one lucky winner will have a chance to win a sneak peek by entering our giveaway below.

 

Journey Beyond the Burrow Prize Pack
a Rafflecopter giveaway

My Desert Island Top Five

June is finally here. School is out (or almost out), and everyone is ready for a long, relaxing summer.

This past year has got me thinking about summers when I was kid. Back then, summer vacation consisted of baseball games in the pasture, slip and slides, camping out in the back yard, and traveling only as far as your bike could take you in the hours between breakfast and dinner. A slow and easy summer like that meant two things – you hung out with the same small group of people day in and day out and you spent a lot of time making up games to keep you entertained. One of the games we played when the days got too long and we got too bored was Desert Island. Desert Island  consisted of naming your Top Five – the five songs, albums, movies, tv shows, and books (of course) that you’d want to have if you were stranded on a desert island.

Our Top Five lists shifted and changed week to week and year to year. Sometimes we’d steal from each other. Occasionally, an out of town relative would come for a visit and completely upend our idea of what was worthy. But mostly, every time we played, we got to think about what we loved and why we loved it – which isn’t a bad thing to do.

This past year, I’ve spent some time thinking about what I love and why. I reread old books (like Beverly Cleary’s Henry and the Clubhouse which still holds up and has a Ramona and her mom scene that completely cracked me up). I rewatched old movies (like Legally Blonde and Sense and Sensibility – both of which always make me smile), and revisited old tv shows (Parks and Recreation of course). And, I read a lot of books and thought about which ones stuck with me past the last page and why. It was thinking about what stuck that got me to write this post.

Enough talk. Let’s get to it. Here are my Desert Island Top Five Middle Grade reads this past year (in no particular order):

 

The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl by Stacy McAnulty

A lightning strike gave her a super power…but even a super genius can’t solve the problem of middle school. This smart and funny novel is perfect for fans of The Fourteenth Goldfish, Rain Reign, and Counting by Sevens.

Lucy Callahan’s life was changed forever when she was struck by lightning. She doesn’t remember it, but the zap gave her genius-level math skills, and she’s been homeschooled ever since. Now, at 12 years old, she’s technically ready for college. She just has to pass 1 more test–middle school

Lucy’s grandma insists: Go to middle school for 1 year. Make 1 friend. Join 1 activity. And read 1 book (that’s not a math textbook ). Lucy’s not sure what a girl who does calculus homework for fun can possibly learn in 7th grade. She has everything she needs at home, where nobody can make fun of her rigid routines or her superpowered brain. The equation of Lucy’s life has already been solved. Unless there’s been a miscalculation?

A celebration of friendship, Stacy McAnulty’s smart and thoughtful middle-grade debut reminds us all to get out of our comfort zones and embrace what makes us different.

 

 

Clayton Byrd Goes Underground by Rita Williams-Garcia (Author) Frank Morrison (Illustrator)

From beloved Newbery Honor winner and three-time Coretta Scott King Award winner Rita Williams-Garcia comes a powerful and heartfelt novel about loss, family, and love that will appeal to fans of Jason Reynolds and Kwame Alexander.

Clayton feels most alive when he’s with his grandfather, Cool Papa Byrd, and the band of Bluesmen–he can’t wait to join them, just as soon as he has a blues song of his own. But then the unthinkable happens. Cool Papa Byrd dies, and Clayton’s mother forbids Clayton from playing the blues. And Clayton knows that’s no way to live.

Armed with his grandfather’s brown porkpie hat and his harmonica, he runs away from home in search of the Bluesmen, hoping he can join them on the road. But on the journey that takes him through the New York City subways and to Washington Square Park, Clayton learns some things that surprise him.

 

 

The Next Great Paulie Fink by Ali Benjamin

In this acclaimed novel by the author of the award-winning, bestselling The Thing About Jellyfish, being the new kid at school isn’t easy, especially when you have to follow in the footsteps of a legendary classroom prankster.

When Caitlyn Breen begins her disorienting new life at Mitchell School–where the students take care of real live goats and study long-dead philosophers, and where there are only ten other students in the entire seventh grade–it seems like nobody can stop talking about some kid named Paulie Fink.

Depending on whom you ask, Paulie was either a hilarious class clown, a relentless troublemaker, a hapless klutz, or an evil genius. One thing’s for sure, though: The kid was totally legendary. Now he’s disappeared, and Caitlyn finds herself leading a reality-show-style competition to find the school’s next great Paulie Fink. With each challenge, Caitlyn struggles to understand a person she never met…but it’s what she discovers about herself that most surprises her.

Told in multiple voices, interviews, and documents, this funny, thought-provoking novel from the bestselling author of The Thing About Jellyfish is a memorable exploration of what makes a hero–and if anyone, or anything, is truly what it seems.

 

American as Paneer Pie by Supriya Kelkar

An Indian American girl navigates prejudice in her small town and learns the power of her own voice in this brilliant gem of a middle grade novel full of humor and heart, perfect for fans of Front Desk and Amina’s Voice.

As the only Indian American kid in her small town, Lekha Divekar feels like she has two versions of herself: Home Lekha, who loves watching Bollywood movies and eating Indian food, and School Lekha, who pins her hair over her bindi birthmark and avoids confrontation at all costs, especially when someone teases her for being Indian.

When a girl Lekha’s age moves in across the street, Lekha is excited to hear that her name is Avantika and she’s Desi, too! Finally, there will be someone else around who gets it. But as soon as Avantika speaks, Lekha realizes she has an accent. She’s new to this country, and not at all like Lekha.

To Lekha’s surprise, Avantika does not feel the same way as Lekha about having two separate lives or about the bullying at school. Avantika doesn’t take the bullying quietly. And she proudly displays her culture no matter where she is: at home or at school.

When a racist incident rocks Lekha’s community, Lekha realizes she must make a choice: continue to remain silent or find her voice before it’s too late.

 

 

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Joy McCullough

A girl with a passion for science and a boy who dreams of writing fantasy novels must figure out how to get along now that their parents are dating in this lively, endearing novel.

Sutton is having robot problems. Her mini-bot is supposed to be able to get through a maze in under a minute, but she must have gotten something wrong in the coding. Which is frustrating for a science-minded girl like Sutton–almost as frustrating as the fact that her mother probably won’t be home in time for Sutton’s tenth birthday.

Luis spends his days writing thrilling stories about brave kids, but there’s only so much inspiration you can find when you’re stuck inside all day. He’s allergic to bees, afraid of dogs, and has an overprotective mom to boot. So Luis can only dream of daring adventures in the wild.

Sutton and Luis couldn’t be more different from each other. Except now that their parents are dating, these two have to find some common ground. Will they be able to navigate their way down a path they never planned on exploring?

 

So, that’s my Desert Island Top Five (for now). What are your Desert Island Top Five Middle Grade – of all time, of the past year, or even of the last month? I’d love to steal, so please share in the comments below.