Monday, August 30, 2010

Ask a Geek - Quantum Mechanics, Part 1

Today, I'm going to talk about quantum mechanics. But first, I'm going to rant a little.

You see, I have a pet peeve about how quantum mechanics is described to laypeople and to undergraduate college and university students. I'll get to that in a moment.

First, some background:

When you're talking about extremely small things, the tiniest bits of matter act in some very odd ways. The most famous of these is that these tiny bits of matter behave like they are both a wave and a particle at the same time.

The following video does a really great job of explaining how scientists know that, but ARGH ARGH ARGH this video is in outrageous violation of my pet peeve.

So first, please watch this. Then, I'll explain why I'm unhappy with part of the video.

There! There at the end--that little eyeball on a stick? When they trotted that creature out, that's when I started getting annoyed.

You see, people who are trying to explain quantum mechanics always seem to want to play up the ooky-spooky aspect that if you observe the particle, it behaves differently. In the above video, they even state that the particle behaves "as if it were aware it is being watched."

Stop! Hammer-time! Reality check! What does it mean when you observe a table?

It means that some light hit the table, bounced off, and then your eye detected the reflected light.

What does it mean when you observe a particle?

The same damned thing. It means you bounced something off that particle.

However, while bouncing a little light off a table doesn't noticeably affect the table, if you take a teeny-tiny particle and then bounce another teeny-tiny particle off it, of course you're going to screw up what the first particle was doing! If you were shooting marbles at the double slit, but whacking each of them with a hammer as they flew past, that would affect the pattern they made, wouldn't it?

"Observing" isn't a benign activity when you're talking about objects this small. Any method you use to measure what a particle is doing will affect what the particle is doing. There is no measuring technique delicate enough to prevent that from happening.

I'm always annoyed when people play up the ooky-spooky stuff to make quantum mechanics sound all weird and cool. It is weird and cool, but there is no place for spin-doctoring in science. That amounts to perpetrating a fraud, in my opinion.

Ahem. Rant over; now I'll get on with the rest of the discussion.

The video introduces a few terms that may not be familiar to you, so I'll sketch out what they were talking about.

There was a moment when the video hurled a bunch of equations up and then blathered about the particle being a "superposition" of states. And you may be thinking, "What the heck?"

Here's what they were trying to convey: when it comes to quantum mechanics, physicists don't necessarily have a grasp on the big, fundamental "What is it?" questions, but we have an absolutely rockin' handle on the math.

Quantum mechanics is essentially a mathematical model for what reality is doing. When I say "model", that means the math is a way for humans to wrap their brains around something they can't personally see--just like a set of blueprints is a model that helps you wrap your brain around how a building was constructed.

Quantum mechanics is a reeeeeeally successful model. It can calculate and predict answers that match reality accurately to a few parts per million. I mean, it's just gorgeous--and that's part of why we believe this stuff; when something works really, really, really well, you generally know you're on the right track.

Now I have to describe what the math does without using math, so bear with me for the next little bit.

Say that you're trying to describe where a particle is going to travel to, and you want to use quantum mechanics to do it.

Your strategy would be to take all the possible paths the particle could travel along and then average them together.

This smeared-together wad of possibilities is called the particle's "waveform" (another term that got used in the video without explanation.)

Until the particle actually bonks into something (like the wall or another particle), it behaves as if it could take any--or all--of the possible paths.

In other words, that one particle acts like it is a zillion different particles all taking their own unique path through space.

And these hypothetical particles affect each other, which is why when you shoot one electron through a double slit (as portrayed in the video), you still end up with an interference pattern. As long as the particle hasn't been jostled on its way to the wall, it acts like a zillion hypothetical particles in motion toward the wall--and all those particles are interfering with each other.

However, as soon as the particle bumps something, then it chooses one path. It starts acting like one particle instead of a zillion mutually-interfering particles.

And so you stop seeing an interference pattern the moment you "observe" the particle because "observing" it means bonking it with another particle. That forces the original particle to act like a single lump of matter instead of a wave of many possibilities.

Pretty freaky stuff, hey?

This is what "collapsing the waveform" means. Before the collision, the particle acts like a composite (a "superposition") of a zillion potential behaviours. After the collision, those myriad possibilities collapse down to just one possible behaviour.

Of course, you don't know which path the particle will decide to take when you bonk it. There is still a random element. Also, if you leave the particle alone for long enough after the collision, it will "de-cohere", or begin to act like a smeared-together average of all possibilities again.


Next, I'll explain the term "quantization". When physicists say something is "quantized", that means it changes in little steps.

I'll use a rainbow as an example--think about how all the colours in a rainbow flow together.

They change from one colour to the next in a continuous way. But now consider the following rainbow:

In this image, the colours change in well-defined steps. You can put your pencil-tip down on any part of the rainbow and there is no ambiguity about what colour your pencil-tip is resting on.

In this second image, the colours are "quantized", which means that when the colour changes, it does so in a single step, not continuously.

A lot of things in quantum mechanics turn out to be quantized, but I'll just discuss one of them because I can sketch out why it's quantized fairly easily.

This is the typical drawing of an atom. In the centre is the nucleus and zipping around the outside are, in this case, three electrons.

Here, for clarity, I show the same thing with only one electron. What I want you to note is I've drawn the electron as a particle moving in an orbit around the nucleus.

But wait! Remember that particles can be thought of as waves too. This is a picture of wave. What would happen if we tried to wrap this wiggly shape around the nucleus?

My schematic below attempts to show you the answer to that question. You can see that for certain lengths of waves, the wave fits nicely around the nucleus and the "peaks" of the wave line up properly when they wrap around back to their starting position.

But it's only some wave-lengths that do this. For in-between values (like the drawing in the middle), the waves don't line up properly when they come back to the start.

And those kinds of orbits around the nucleus are not allowed; only the stable, neat-and-tidy looking orbits are.

Thus, the electron's wavelength when it is orbiting the nucleus is quantized. If you give that travelling electron a little jolt of energy, its wavelength has to change by a jump--a discrete step--in order get up to the next "allowed" configuration.

Now a big fat caveat: These "allowed" configurations are called standing waves, and the cartoon I drew above looks nothing like the three-dimensional "clouds" of probability that electrons actually form around a nucleus. You can see an example of some of the wild shapes they do form by clicking this link.

An electron zipping freely through space, not attached to any nucleus, can have any wavelength it pleases (and in fact, if its waveform hasn't been collapsed yet, it has all wavelengths simultaneously.) It's only when the electron is bound to another body that its wavelength becomes constrained--i.e. quantized.

All sorts of other physical quantities--like angular momentum, energy, and even sound vibrations--become quantized when you have more than one particle interacting with each other.

Physicists also refer to light as being quantized, meaning that there is a smallest-possible chunk of light called a photon. In fact, the term "quantized" is an all-purpose term that means anything that comes in blocks or steps, rather than changing in a smooth, continuous way.

I'll stop here, although there's much more to talk about with regard to quantum mechanics. In my next post, I'll try to discuss more of the "spooky" parts of quantum mechanics.


Have you got questions? Suggestions? Something that didn't make sense or something you'd like me to touch upon next time? Please feel free to drop me a note in the comments, and I'll do my best to either answer your question there or to incorporate it into my next Ask a Geek post.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Friday, August 27, 2010

Li'l Tricks For Daily Life

The following link takes you to this really clever, interesting collection of good ideas. I don't know if all of them work, but some of them are certainly worth trying!
Life Hacks

Link found via Geekologie

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Ask a Geek - Special Relativity, Part 2

Eek! Quick, quick--I must get in another blast of that sweet, sweet special relativity before bed.

I mentioned in my last geek-post that as a body starts moving faster (close to the speed of light), its mass increases. This is part of why humans are unlikely to ever personally experience some of the weirder effects caused by special relativity. To accelerate a body takes energy, and the amount of energy depends on the mass of the body. The larger the mass, the more energy it takes to speed it up.

And therein the problem, because if your mass increases with speed, then it takes ever more disproportionate amounts of energy to speed up even faster.

Theoretically, it would take an infinite amount of energy to speed a body with mass up to the speed of light. It takes obscene amounts of energy even to get close to that speed. With tiny particles, we can do it, but the cost of something like the Large Hadron Collider tells you it isn't easy, even then.

So how does light manage to travel at the speed of light?

First, I'll mention something that I plan to discuss more when I do my post on quantum mechanics: elementary particles can be thought of as either a wave or as a particle. In my discussion of special relativity so far, I've talked about light as a wave. Now I'll talk about it as a particle.

The smallest portion of light is a particle called a photon, and unlike many other particles we know of, the photon has no mass.

But wait--how can something with no mass even exist?

Short answer: because of an amazing loop-hole in the laws of physics.

A body with mass cannot be accelerated to the speed of light because that takes too much energy. The photon, however, has no mass so it can move at the speed of light. But something with no mass shouldn't be able to exist.

However! Remember how in the last geek-post I said that the faster you move, the more time slows down for you? What I didn't mention is that if you move at exactly the speed of light, time stops for you.

The reason the photon doesn't poof out of existence is because it doesn't experience time. It moves at the speed of light, and therefore it never ages. It can't stop existing because it can't undergo any sort of change.

You'll also remember from the last geek-post that I argued light can't appear to slow down or stop, or the changing electric and magnetic fields that create the wave would also stop and then the light would cease to exist.

Now we've got a completely different argument for that same thing. Light can't slow down or stop because if it did, then the photon would start to age and would immediately poof out of existence because it has no mass.

It's like something that isn't real but manages to exist because of a loop-hole. The universe is a strange and beautiful place, eh?
The last thing I'll talk about with regard to special relativity is the symmetry of it.

Say you're sitting on a train moving at close to the speed of light. You zip past someone who is standing still.

How is this different than if your train was standing still and the other person was the one zipping past?

The truth is that it's no different, and that leads to some mind-bending conclusions.

Remember how time slows down for a person who is moving? A person who is standing still will look at the person who is moving and think they are operating in slow motion.

However, the person who is moving will observe the rest of the universe (including the person standing still) to be moving in slow motion! The person in motion can argue that they're the one who is really standing still.

Special relativity is symmetric. If you are in motion, you will observe the world outside to be behaving as if it's in motion, not you.

This gives rise to the famous Twin Paradox. Consider what would happen if you sent one half of a set of twins (let's call her Rupinder) out on a rocket ship travelling close to the speed of light.

Rupinder's twin Mandeep is sitting on Earth. On the flight out, Mandeep will observe Rupinder to be acting and aging in slow motion. He will think he's growing older than his twin.

But Rupinder will also be observing Mandeep to be acting and aging in slow motion! She will think he is the one getting older!

There's no way for these two to tell who is in motion and who is standing still just by looking at the other twin or taking measurements. This leads to the question of who is really going to be older when Rupinder stops travelling and comes back to Earth. Thus, the "Twin Paradox".

There's actually no paradox. Mandeep is going to be older when Rupinder comes back.

You see, I haven't been very precise about stating when these odd predictions of special relativity are valid. It turns out they are only valid for people and objects travelling at constant speeds.

In order to come back to Earth, Rupinder has to decelerate, stop, then turn around and accelerate again. In other words, she has to stop moving at a constant speed.

When she does that, the universe gets a chance to bring her reality and Mandeep's reality back into sync. That happens again when Rupinder slows down and stops upon reaching Earth.

As long as she is travelling at a constant speed, then what she sees and what Mandeep sees are equivalent, and neither one of them can tell which of them is in motion and which is standing still (unless they let what the rest of the universe is doing influence their decision.) Acceleration and decelerate break that symmetry, however.

General relativity was Einstein's attempt to bring acceleration into the picture. Special relativity--which is what I've been talking about here--only applies in the special cases where acceleration doesn't occur or isn't important to the problem. Einstein came up with both theories, but general relativity is where the math really started to get ugly.

And so, that's where I'll stop talking. :-)


Again, have you any questions? Anything you would like clarified? I'd be happy to discuss this more in the comments!

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Heavy Traffic in Tokyo

I do not mean what you think I mean by that title. Watch this:

Gotta love that diagonal crosswalk, eh?

Link found via io9

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Roll Up! Roll Up! Roll Up!

Time to vote in Writtenwyrdd's contest!

The fate of bobble-head Jesus is in your hands!

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Ask a Geek - Special Relativity

Today, I'll talk about special relativity, which is one of the topics of modern physics that I think most people are pretty intrigued by. It's a nice thing to discuss because a lot of its most surprising predictions can be demonstrated without math via "thought experiments".

The cool thing about this topic is everything I'm going to discuss here follows from one simple assumption: The speed of light is constant.

That is to say, everyone in our universe who measures the speed of light in a vacuum will get the same value (although Rigellans probably use different units than we do. Heck, even Americans use different units than most of us do.)

That doesn't sound too outrageous, does it? That the speed of light is constant?

But it is, and here's why: If we believe that the speed of light is the same for everyone, that necessarily means that time doesn't run at a constant rate for everyone, and that two different people can measure the length of the same object and legitimately get different answers. It also means two events that seemed simultaneous to you might have happened at different times according to someone else.

Imagine you're sitting on a train moving 75 km/hr. On the track next to yours, another train is moving at 100 km/hr. How fast does the train beside you appear to be moving relative to you?

The answer (to an excellent approximation) is: It moves at (100 - 75) = 25 km/hr relative to you.

Now imagine you're sitting on a train moving at 75% of the speed of light. You look out the window and see a beam of light travelling parallel to your train at 100% of the speed of light. How fast does the beam of light appear to be moving relative to you?

This is the shocking part: That beam of light will appear to be moving at 100% the speed of light relative to you, NOT 25% of the speed of light.

How is this possible? The answer is that because you are travelling so quickly in space, you are moving less quickly through time. In other words, when you look over at that beam of light, you're moving in slow motion and don't realize it.

Below is a pair of diagrams to help you understand how this works. For this first one, imagine that you and a buddy are drag-racing across the desert. You are both driving cars that travel at exactly 100 km/hr.

If you both cross the start line at the same moment, aim directly at the finish line, and travel at the same speed, then of course this race is going to end in a draw, right? Neither of you will be able to pull ahead of the other.

But wait--what if one of you chooses a different path through space?

As you can see, if you drive away at an angle, you will need to travel a longer distance than your friend does to cross the finish line. That means your friend is going to win the race because he's travelling more quickly forward (in what I've labelled the x-direction) than you are.

But let's re-label the dimensions on the above image and re-imagine what's happening. Now you and your friend are drag-racing through time.

This re-labelling isn't such a weird thing for me to do, because our universe has four dimensions--the three spatial dimensions (up/down, right/left, backward/forward), and time.

In my first image, your friend moved in one dimension (purely forward in the x-direction), and you moved in two dimensions (forward in the x-direction, but also sideways in the y-direction)

In this second image, your friend is still moving in one dimension--except it's time, now--and you are again moving in two dimensions (time, but also space.)

To make it clear, your friend is sitting on his couch, and that means he is only moving through time, not space. You, however, are in a rocket ship moving through space while you also move through time.

Remember how, in the first case, you were going to lose the drag race because you hared off in another direction? The same thing goes here. When you travel through space, that forces you to travel less quickly through time.

In other words, time slows down for you when you move through space.

Another way to think about it is that you are moving at the speed of light all of the time (and so is everyone else), but most of that forward motion is sending you through time rather than space. It's only when you start moving quickly through space that you stop moving quite so fast through time.

I'll pause here with the standard caveat that this time-dilation effect isn't measurable until you're moving at a noticeable percentage of the speed of light. Humans can't manage that (yet.) The speed of light is over 10 billion km/hr and our current speed record for manned flight (by Apollo 11) is just under 40,000 km/hr. Time dilation has been seen in accelerated particles, but we're not likely to ever see it happen to a human being.

Now I'll discuss why, when you're travelling at speeds close to the speed of light, time slows down for you.

First, let me explain what light is.

When you run electricity through a wire, that creates a magnetic field around the wire. Likewise, when you wave a magnet around, the motion of the magnet creates an electric field around it.

That's a pretty stripped-down explanation of what's happening, but the thing for you to take away is the idea that a changing electric field creates a (changing) magnetic field and a changing magnetic field creates an (changing) electric field.

Which, if you think about it, creates a chicken-and-egg scenario. The changing electric field creates a changing magnetic field. So wouldn't that in turn create a changing magnetic field that could create a changing electric field that could create a changing magnetic field, etc. etc. to infinity?

Yep. It does. That is what light is: a chain of electric and magnetic fields that create one another and thus zip away into space. (It's also why light is called an electromagnetic wave.)

Now let's return to one of the prior examples. Imagine sitting on a train travelling at 75% of the speed of light--in fact, let's speed up the train. Let's say it's travelling at 100% of the speed of light.

Now imagine looking out your window at a beam of light travelling alongside you. If time didn't slow down for you, what would you see?

You would see that beam of light appear to just hang there in space beside you, frozen.

And that's not possible, because only changing electric fields create magnetic fields and vice versa. If the beam of light appears to be frozen, then it has to stop existing!

To put that another way, light can't stop, or it doesn't exist. That's why you can't catch a bucket of light. When the light hits the bottom of the bucket, it either has to reflect away or be absorbed as heat energy. Light can't sit still.

Thus, to be internally consistent, our universe doesn't allow light to even appear to stop. If we speed up (trying to see light appear to stop), then time slows down for us in such a way that we only see light moving at the same speed it always appears to.

The obvious question is why? Why does our universe have a speed limit? Why does it enforce it in this way, by not allowing us to even see light appear to slow down or stop?

That's a big hairy question, and right now, science doesn't have an answer for it. All we can say is that it is this way, and that the rules are internally consistent for a wide range of phenomenon.

After all, special relativity doesn't just predict that time slows down when you're travelling quickly. It also predicts that objects get shorter in the direction they're travelling and that the object's mass increases. Those are pretty weird, anti-intuitive facts, but again, all these predictions bloom out of that one very simple statement:

The speed of light is always constant. For everyone--no matter how fast or slow they are travelling relative to light.

Now, I've been trying like a mofo to think of some way to explain how the length of a fast-moving object gets shorter without resorting to mathematics, and I even dragged my husband (the black hole guru) into the discussion, but the short answer is we don't know of a way.

I've got a mathematically simple way to demonstrate that a stationary person will measure the length of a fast-moving object to be shorter than a person riding along with that object will. Unfortunately, it's still math, so I've elected to skip it.

Instead I'll show you something that's arguably weirder: simultaneous events aren't simultaneous for everyone.

Here's what I mean by that. Imagine a train car moving at close to the speed of light. It has a light bulb suspended in its centre. At a certain point in time, a person travelling on the train turns on the light.
According to the person on the train, the light from the bulb spreads out at a constant speed in all directions. The leading edge of that light thus forms an ever-increasing sphere centred on the bulb.

Because the bulb was in the middle of the train car, the light then strikes the front and the rear walls of the train car at the same time. You can see that in the diagram above.

Here's where it gets odd. Imagine someone standing by the side of the train track watching this happen through the window. Because the speed of light is also constant for this stationary person, they too see the light spreading out at a constant speed in all directions from the bulb's initial position. The light still forms a spherical shape.

However, while the light is spreading, the train car is moving forward.
According to the stationary person, the light strikes the rear wall of the train car first and the front wall of the car second. In effect, the rear wall of the train car "caught up" to the light while the front wall is "fleeing" the light and thus takes longer to be struck by it.

This is something only relativity gives us. The moving person saw the light strike both walls simultaneously, but the stationary person saw the same light not striking the walls simultaneously. And both people are correct about what they saw!

I'm going to stop there because this post is already massive, but I'll try to post something tomorrow about the symmetries of special relativity--which includes the famous Twin Paradox.


Questions? Need clarification on anything? Got a suggestion for something else I could talk about with regard to this subject? Please feel free to drop me a line in the comments!

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Ask a Geek?

Sorry! A patch of feeling ill mixed with sketchy internet access resulted in Meaty Monday not happening on time.

Here's my idea for this week, anyway--I was wondering if you writer-buddy types would like any tutorials on physics? Modern physics (general relativity and quantum mechanics in particular) tends to be pretty intriguing to most people, but also hard to follow, so I thought I'd offer my services as a geek.

Have you got any questions you'd like answered? Concepts you'd like explained? Please feel free to post them in the comments and I'll try to get to them this week! My credentials are an M.Sc. in physics.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Friday, August 20, 2010


Fame! Glory! The chance to win a bobble-head Jesus!

Writtenwyrdd's flash fiction contest's deadline is in two days! Click here to learn how to submit your brilliance for her perusal.

And did I mention the Evil Plastic Nun?

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Thursday, August 19, 2010

To Heaven and Back

Okay, more geekiness. This is the footage from a camera attached to the booster rocket for the space shuttle Discovery.

At the start, you (i.e. the camera; we're living vicariously, here, folks) are attached to the ship and can't see much. Feel free to skip ahead to 1:40, when you see the cone beginning to melt from the heat of the exhaust, and then BOOM! The booster disengages and WHEE! You're now tumbling from space back toward Earth.

The video takes you right through to splash-down and you even watch the parachutes deploy. This is really spectacular footage.

Warning: The video gets pretty loud at times.

Link found via io9

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis


Ginormoid bubbles! Hey, baby--check out the interference fringes on that one!

Link via Epic Win, FTW

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


This post has been created as a discussion forum for general relativity. The action's in the comments!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Oh Wow!

Check out these sculptures carved from pencil lead--some of them are amazing!

Gallery of Pencil-Lead Artwork

Link found via PaperBox Books and Perry A. Wilson.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Monday, August 16, 2010

Pickup Lines

Writers often obsess over the perfect opening line. This is probably a side-effect of the query system, where the first five pages are of crucial importance to snagging the interest of an agent or editor. Other elements of the book, including the pacing, the tension level, the closing line of each chapter and the emotional power of the ending are probably more important.

That said, it's worth trying to sort out what makes a strong opening line. In a sense, it's a pick-up line, and you want it to be suave and genuinely intriguing, not cheesy or a turn-off.

1) One of my favourite opening lines, written by Stuart Neville:
"His hands just looked dirty to casual eyes, a slight darkening on the knuckles, a shadow on his palm."
2) Here's (my best stab at remembering) a tweet from Livia Blackburne that I thought would make a good first line for a book:
"That is the LAST time I go to a conference without my wedding ring."
3) From EIGHT BLACK HORSES by Ed McBain:
"The lady was extraordinarily naked."
To me, the one thing that ties all these together is that the line implies a greater story, and an apparently intriguing one.

Mr. Neville's line implies a tension between apparent civility and uncivil violence. His character has obviously been fist-fighting, but the language implies you could be sitting right next to this fellow and not realize he's capable of brutality. It's a creepy thought, and it implies this character has secrets and a dramatic life, and thus might be interesting to know more about.

Ms. Blackburne's line makes you think you might know what sort of occurrences led to her statement, and you sense they might sound pretty funny to someone who didn't have to live through them. That promise of amusement works as a lure to make you want to hear more. The reader senses the emotion the speaker is feeling (exasperation) and assumes dramatic events must have given rise to it. We become hungry to hear about the drama.

Mr. McBain's line implies this character who is seeing the naked woman is pretty shocked by it. After all, she's not just naked; she's a "lady" and "extraordinarily naked". Given nudity is a binary state, and you can't get more naked than naked, the reader ends up curious as to why this observer is reacting so strongly. Again, we sense his emotion and we become curious to know what drama is provoking it.

Moments of struggle, moments of conflict, and moments that provoke high emotion constitute "stories". Nobody wants to hear about how the photocopier worked normally today--they want to hear about your epic battle of wills with a hostile and diabolically cunning photocopier.

First lines have to firmly imply a story. This means they need to imply a conflict on some level. It can be a subtle conflict created mostly in the reader's mind, such as the one formed when Mr. Neville hints at the difference between what you see and what is actually true about this character. It can be an external conflict such as the one we suspect lies behind Ms. Blackburne's statement--we assume she was in an epic battle of wills with someone (or several someones) at the conference. It can also be a internal conflict such as the one between what the character was expecting and what they actually got, as seen in Mr. McBain's line.

A second thing to note, however, is that a reader isn't going to necessarily care just because a conflict clearly exists. You need something more to rope them in, to make them decide to invest their time in the story.

What does the job? Any number of things, and here are a few: Empathy, curiosity, humour.

Mr. Neville's line provokes your curiosity. The author sets the scene in such a way you might be sitting next to this character on a bus. You glance over at his hands and abruptly realize something doesn't add up. You had assumed this person was harmless and boring (like most of us are), but he's been brawling. Suddenly, you're curious. Who exactly am I sitting beside? What mischief has he been up to?

Ms. Blackburne's line implies humour. She might not think what's happened to her was funny, but you know you probably will and she sounds ready to vent and thereby let you have your amusement. Thus, you decide to stick around and hear more of her story. The humour you anticipate is what lures you in.

Mr. McBain's line provokes empathy. You don't know a thing about this situation beyond the fact the observer is seeing a naked lady and feeling very shocked. All that's drawing you in is an emotion, a reaction you can relate to. You are curious about the situation too, but what provoked your curiosity was the fact someone else (a fictional someone) cared about it. In effect, the character's emotion acted as a testimonial saying, "This is worth caring about."

In summary, a first line needs to promise some kind of conflict. You don't need a murder victim or an explosion in that first line (although you can have either), just some tension between two things in opposition. If your sentence implies something interesting or rewarding is about to be presented, the reader will stick around to see what that is.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Tiny Cannon = Cool!

Dangerous toys are always the most fun, eh?

Found via Epic Win, FTW

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Party at Writtenwyrdd's Place!

Writtenwyrdd is having a Koala-approved writing contest for her 4th bloggaversary. You could win a bobble-head Jesus! Or an evil nun! (I'm not even kidding.)

Read the contest rules here and start writing your 200-250 word story based on Writtenwyrdd's prompt. Deadline is August 22, 2010.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Monday, August 09, 2010

Google Will Eat Us All

Click the image to see Geekologie's bigger version!

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

What Works: Small Favor by Jim Butcher

This week I return to my "What Works" blog feature where I discuss what's done well in an excerpt from a book. Today we'll look at a passage from Jim Butcher's Small Favor.

First a bit of set-up: in this scene, the protagonist Harry Dresden is trying to escape from an enormous creature called a gruff. A gruff is a huge, sentient, occasionally-magic-wielding billy goat--as in the three billy goats Gruff.

And hence you know the Harry Dresden series features a lot of humour.
Small Favor by Jim Butcher

Anybody with an ounce of sense knows that fighting someone with a significant advantage in size, weight, and reach is difficult. If your opponent has you by fifty pounds, winning a fight against him is a dubious proposition, at best.

If your opponent has you by eight thousand and fifty pounds, you've left the realm of combat and enrolled yourself in Roadkill 101. Or possibly in a Tom and Jerry cartoon.


My body, meanwhile, had flung itself to one side forcing Tiny to turn as he pursued me, limiting his speed and buying me a precious second or three--time enough for me to sprint toward a section of floor marked off by a pair of yellow caution signs, where Joe the janitor had been waxing the floor. I crossed the wet, slick floor at a sprint and prayed that I wouldn't trip. If I went down it would take only one stomp of one of those enormous hooves to slice me in half.

Footgear like that isn't so hot for slippery terrain, though. As soon as I crossed to the other side of the waxed floor I juked left as sharply as I could, changing direction. Tiny tried to compensate and his legs went out from under him.

That isn't a big deal, by itself. Sometimes when you run something happens and you trip and you fall down. You get a skinned knee or two, maybe scuff up your hands, and very rarely you'll do something worse, like sprain your ankle.

But that's at human mass. Increase the mass to Tiny's size, and a fall becomes another animal entirely, especially if there's a lot of velocity involved. That's one reason why elephants don't ever actually run--they aren't capable of it, of lifting their weight from the ground in a full running stride. If they fell at their size, the damage would be extreme, and evidently nature had selected out all those elephant wind sprinters. That much weight moving at that much speed carries a tremendous amount of energy--enough to easily snap bones, to drive objects into flesh, to scrape the ground hard enough to strip a body to the bone.

Tiny must have weighed twice what an elephant does. Five tons of flesh and bone came down all along one side of his body and landed hard--then slid, carrying so much momentum that Tiny more resembled a freight train than any kind of living being. He slid across the floor and slammed into the wall of a rental car kiosk, shattering it to splinters--and went right on through it, hardly even slowing down.

Tiny dug at the floor with the yellow nails of one huge hand, but they didn't do anything but peel up curls of wax as he went sliding past me.
In this excerpt, Jim Butcher demonstrates how to handle explaining something that is not necessarily intuitive or believable to your reader.

My field of study was physics, so E=½mv² makes perfect sense to me. However, this is a book where magic is real--and where the author doesn't want to count on the reader remembering their high school physics.

If Mr. Butcher had merely shown Tiny being vanquished by falling down, it would have seemed a bit too convenient and thus unbelievable. After all, people and animals fall down all the time, and as Mr. Butcher points out, in our experience that's not a big deal. Furthermore, this book is set in a world where magic exists. Why would a magical creature necessarily be damaged by stumbling?

And so, Mr. Butcher eases you through a dubious plot point that would normally threaten your suspension of disbelief. He starts by acknowledging what your logical reservations to this moment would be--you've fallen down, and you know it's not so bad. Then he explains those reservations away--yeah, it's not bad for you, but for a larger animal, it could be devastating.

Then he gives you a vivid idea of what would happen to a large animal if it fell down while travelling at speed--broken bones, stripped flesh, impaled by foreign objects, oh my.

Then, and only then, he shows the gruff crashing down and sliding past the protagonist like a freight train, helpless to stop itself. And at that point, it's believable to you that this would happen.

If the tumble had occurred without all this explanation, your mind would have slipped out of the story for a moment while it puzzled over whether to actually believe this could happen. By convincing you before showing you, Mr. Butcher keeps your mind firmly planted inside the narrative.

Note Mr. Butcher hasn't actually explained away every reservation you might have. The gruff is a magical creature; why wouldn't it have natural defences against this sort of thing? If the world of the novel is already so divorced from our mundane reality that the gruff exists, why not divorce it a bit further so the gruff can exist? Without needing a LifeCall pendant?

The fact is, as long as your brain believes this event could happen, you'll keep ploughing through the exciting narrative without pausing long enough to realize it doesn't necessarily make sense even now. The author has convinced you this moment is plausible, and that is enough sleight-of-hand to keep your willing suspension of disbelief intact.

It's worth looking back at this excerpt and analyzing how it breaks down in terms of "show" versus "tell". There's a lot of "telling" in this passage, but all of it is necessary so Mr. Butcher can explain away your reservations. He does intersperse the "telling" with "showing" to keep you grounded in the story, but he also holds your interest with a few additional tricks.

Or possibly in a Tom and Jerry cartoon.

...evidently nature had selected out all those elephant wind sprinters.

Humour will keep people reading things that don't necessarily have a strong narrative, and the lines above are pretty funny. They act as a reward that keeps you reading through paragraphs that are otherwise striving to tell you something fairly boring about mass, velocity and energy.

Mr. Butcher also keeps his physics lesson vivid and visceral with plenty of real world examples you can picture in your head.

You get a skinned knee or two, maybe scuff up your hands...

That's one reason why elephants don't ever actually run--they aren't capable of it...

By doing these things, and by returning to the action via "showing" quite often, Mr. Butcher eases you through a problematic moment in the story--a point when you might have gone "hmm..." if he hadn't been using a variety of skills to keep you reading onward.

At a seminar I attended given by Donald Maass, he noted that writers of high-concept thrillers have to be able to do this on a larger scale. They can convince us that Jesus has been cloned, OMG, or some other insane thing--but they have to do it carefully in order to keep the reader's suspension of disbelief intact. He noted these authors start small, and convince us one tiny part of the whole picture is plausible. Then, they convince us that some other part of the mystery is also a possibility.

And so on, and so on, until they have built up the whole picture and have us, the reader, completely buying into a concept that would have made us laugh if we'd heard it cold, i.e. without all the careful build-up.

Mr. Butcher is doing exactly this--and skillfully too--but on a very small scale.

IN SUMMARY: What works about this excerpt is the author eases us through a moment when our suspension of disbelief might have been threatened. He does this by acknowledging our reservations and explaining them away, all the while keeping us engaged with the narrative via humour, vivid examples, and by returning to the action often during an extended period of "telling".


Can you remember a book where the author made you firmly believe something outrageous? How did they do it? What tricks did they use? What pulled you in? And did you enjoy the ride? I'd love to hear about your experiences.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Squee For Awesome People!


I have some darned talented blogging buddies!

In Jason Evans' Clarity of Night competition, I just spied Peter Dudley, McKoala's alter ego, and Precie as honourable mentions! Congratulations, you guys! (Did I miss anyone? I don't think I missed anyone.)

But even more stunningly, for the first time ever, the top three judges' picks matched the top three readers' choice picks, and who should come out on top? Josh Vogt was #1 and AerinRose was #2! DOUBLE SQUEE! Congratulations on a particularly stunning victory, you two!

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Monday, August 02, 2010

Books for Merry

Merry Monteleone

I had been wondering just yesterday why I hadn't heard a peep from one of my blogging buddies, Merry, recently, and today I found out the unfortunate reason why. As Erica Orloff explains here:
Merry Monteleone and her family were in the midst of raging flood waters in Westchester when heavy rains hit Chicago. The contents of the downstairs of her house were lost, and though it's just "stuff" (lives were lost in the flooding), most of us can imagine how it would feel to watch photo albums and meaningful memories wrapped up in the "stuff" of our families . . . be carried off.

While big "stuff" can be replaced with insurance, Merry lost all her books, and a group of us decided to replace them--with Amazon gift cards, with books, with signed copies of books, with ARCs. We want to see the blogosphere flood her mailbox with good wishes and replace her library. If you love books and your TBR pile is as tall as you are, you know what they mean to her.

What can you do? Send books! Send Amazon cards! Reach out to your favorite authors and ask them to send her a signed copy! For her address or more information, contact:

She has three children middle school and younger. Their books were in their bedrooms and most survived, but it would be great to get some books just for them, too!
I'm going to be mailing Merry some books; would you please consider sending her some too? I've been interacting with the lovely and lively Merry for ages, and it really did shock me to learn about this today.

Best wishes to our blogging buddy Merry and her family.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

The Ground is Shifting

This is the post of the parentheses (i.e. I just noticed I have a lot of them today.)

Livia Blackburne wrote on Twitter that:
I wonder if there will ever be a day when aspiring writers are advised to self-publish, get a readership, and then approach traditional publishers?
This is so plausible it's scary. As she notes in a later tweet, authors are already encouraged to start a blog and develop a readership before applying to traditional publishers (although many publishing people say this is unnecessary and possibly a waste of your time.)

In fact, writers are asked to do quite a few things publishers used to do more of--editing and promotion, for example (not that I don't think you have no responsibility to edit! It's just editors used to have more time to develop a writer's skill at crafting a marketable book. Now, you pretty much have to do it yourself, at least for your debut, or you won't get picked up in the first place.)

Publishers have already farmed out their slush piles to literary agents. Would it really be such a leap for the chronically-struggling industry to now farm out the slush pile to the public? To the ones who ultimately determine which books will become bestsellers? To say, "You prove to us this book can sell; then we'll print it"?

It would be a weight off publishers' shoulders to know every book they invest money in is already established as viable. But it would also, as J. A. Konrath points out, relegate print to being a subsidiary right, and I can't imagine publishers wanting to slip in prestige from being trend-setters to trend-chasers. It would also require them to get a good deal less territorial about electronic rights.

Ever since J. A. Konrath announced he was making a very good living self-publishing on the Kindle (albeit with a natural edge; he already had an established print career and thus a lot of exposure to what a professional novel must have going for it), I've been feeling a bit gobsmacked. Electronic self-publishing can be done for free and Mr. Konrath's proving it can be lucrative (although I agree with him you won't get anywhere if you don't have a quality product in the first place.) Those two points weaken a lot of my knee-jerks against self-publishing.

Readers still prefer paper books (but not by much), and ebooks sales are still only a fraction of print books' sales--but ebooks sales are also growing at a ferocious rate. As a writer, I'm feeling a paradigm shift. Should we still be thinking traditional publishers are the first step in a serious writing career?


What do you think?

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

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