Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

Website Review:

Science Websites for Writers

By Jennifer Crispin
©2004, Jennifer Crispin


 

While studying for a major science test earlier this year, I found several terrific web sites with information about physics, chemistry, nuclear science, and the galaxy. They must have been accurate, since I was able to test out of college science with no science background other than a ninth-grade Biology class and an active interest.

The information on these sites could come in handy for writers, if only to provide a better grounding in why our world works the way it does.  I will review NASA’s Imagine the Universe, the University of Colorado’s Physics 2000, and Intuitor’s Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics page.  I visited all three sites using a Windows XP computer running Internet Explorer 6 on a dial-up connection varying between 33.6 Kbps and 44.6 Kbps.

http://imagine.gsfc.nasa.gov/index.html

Imagine the Universe

Imagine the Universe is a terrific site that is appropriate for adults since it does not talk down to the audience.  It's like an on-line interactive science library, museum, or display.  It even has special exhibits several times a year that focus on topics of special interest.  The exhibits at the time of this writing were The Laser Interferometer Space Antenna and Gravitational Waves.  The interactive activities include measuring the size of a black hole or a star.

My favorite part is "Ask a High Energy Astronomer." High energy astrophysics deals with topics like black holes, quasars, and dark matter.  You don't have to ask a question to benefit from the site, since they have past questions archived by subject matter.

For a science fiction writer, this site would be especially useful for world-building, especially if astrophysics is a weak point for you.  A deeper understanding of space and the universe will enrich a novel, even if none of the research ends up in the finished novel. Exploring sites like this one will give you more confidence in your world's science.

Imagine the Universe is designed for students age 14 and up, but I believe it's appropriate for non-scientifically-minded adults as well.  The site offers an advanced science page for people who find the basic science to be too easy.

The technical aspects of the site are adequate.  The site offers several options for navigation, including a top menu on all pages, a right-side column on the main page, and bottom text menu on all pages.  Navigation is not clear with images and style-sheets turned off.  The top menu has disappearing graphics when the user clicks on a link.  There are minimal graphics and the ones the site uses are relevant photos of stars or profiled personalities.  The writing and editing on the site is clear and straightforward.

This site has a search engine to make it easier to find specific topics in the pages.

Imagine the Universe is run by NASA, within the Laboratory for High Energy Astrophysics.  It was last updated this year.  I accessed it on April 8, 2004.  The site does not list system requirements.

http://www.colorado.edu/physics/2000/

Physics 2000

Physics 2000 features five or more cartoon characters to explain advanced science concepts at a high school level.  Three of the characters are professors and two are supposed to be high school students (but look much older, so that threw me off.)  The site features fun interactive applets to illustrate various principles of physics.  One stated goal of the site is to make physics more accessible to people of all ages.

Physics 2000 focuses on three sections, atomic science, Einstein's revolution, and theoretical science.  While studying for my test, I focused on the theoretical science section, which is called Science Trek.  The other sections are also interesting. If you like the method of learning that calls for following a dialogue, you will enjoy this site.

Physics 2000 falls a bit short as a reference site, although you can use advanced search in a search engine such as Google to look up terms on the site.  As it was not intended to be a research site but a learning site, this is not a major drawback.

I found the lessons to be clear and easy to understand.  The writing is repetitive in a good way.  My favorite part is Science Trek, with its information about waves.  One applet has the user "drag" a cheerleader in front of a stadium crowd to show "the wave."

This site would be especially useful for non-scientific people who write science fiction, because it could help them build a world with believable science.  Any writer could benefit from a stronger knowledge of physics, even if it's just to expand the mind and look at the world in a new way.

The site is designed for students high school age and older.  I believe it would be interesting and challenging for many non-science majors and people who did not go to college, but who enjoy following science.

The technical aspects are adequate.  The site has hierarchal navigation, with a table of contents and previous and next buttons at the bottom of the page.  It is set up literally like an on-line text book. The writing is clear and concise.  There are some minor grammatical errors, but nothing that would damage the site's credibility in the eyes of a non-scientist.

The graphics are very basic. The site refers to "approaching 2000," and it’s clear the graphics were designed some time in the past millennium.

Several graphics that look like they should be navigation graphics are not, but it doesn't affect the valuable content of the site.  The navigation graphics are missing the alt tags, which would make it difficult to navigate in a text-based browser.  The site is framed, but it has a no frames option.  The javascript applet switching from frames to no frames did not work on my computer.

Physics 2000 is run by Professor Martin Goldman of the University of Colorado in Boulder with grants from the Colorado Commission on Higher Education and the National Science Foundation.  It's not clear when the site was last updated.  They are calling for sponsors now to continue the mission.  I last accessed the site on April 8, 2004.  The site calls for Netscape Navigator 4.7 (or higher) for Windows or Internet Explorer 4.5 (or higher) with Apple's MRJ 2.1 for Macintosh.

This site has Spanish-language and German-language versions available.

http://www.intuitor.com/moviephysics/

Intuitor Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics

The highlight of the Intuitor site is the Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics page.  The writers believe that some insultingly stupid movie physics have become visual clichés and they have taken the responsibility to “protect the minds of children everywhere, so that they may grow up in a world where they know the difference between speed and velocity.”  The authors take apart such common movie effects as flashing bullets, flaming cars, shattering windows, falls, and more, pointing out why these effects could not happen the way they are portrayed.  They discuss the lack of reality with humor, but it is important for writers, especially younger ones who grew up watching a lot of TV, to know how things really work.  We “save” memories from our movie-watching and they end up in our stories, so it’s good to know how things really are.  The authors rate movies using their own scale, which includes the rating of PGP-13: “Children under 13 might be tricked into thinking the physics were pretty good; parental guidance is suggested” and the rating of XP: “Obviously physics from an unknown universe,” along with other rankings.

Insultingly stupid movie physics is fun whether you're scientifically-minded or not.  I first learned about the site from a physics professor, so it seems that it is as appealing to scientists as it is to the rest of us.  The site shows the kind of common mistakes non-scientists make in entertainment. This site would probably be especially helpful for screenwriters.  If you visit only one of the three sites I mention in this review, this should be the one.  It could keep a writer from making an embarrassing mistake.

While you’re there, be sure to explore the rest of the site, which includes chess information, a physics quiz, and a fascinating tutorial on counting to 1,023 in binary using your fingers

The science is not simple, but it is presented in a straight-forward, humorous manner.  The writing on the site is clear and funny.

The navigation is inconsistent across the site as a whole and includes some dead links in the bottom text menu.  The search option on the site returns some dead pages. The graphics are minimal and relevant. There are no graphics just for the sake of graphics on this site.

Intuitor is run by a high school physics teacher and his two sons, who work with computers.  The copyright date on the site is 2001, but the movie physics page has reviews of movies that were released in 2003.  I last accessed this site on April 9, 2004.  I first discovered the site on my old computer, which was Windows 95 running IE5.  It appears to be a basic text-based site that most 4+ browsers can access.

These three sites will help take the intimidation factor out of physics, especially for writers with little aptitude for science.