Opening of non-fiction book on space

Brian G Turner

Fantasist & Futurist
Staff member
Supporter
Joined
Nov 23, 2002
Messages
26,555
Location
UK
I've recently been able to resume working on a non-fiction book about space that I've attempted to write for a couple of decades, but it seems to be working now and things finally clicking into place.

At the moment it has an opening/introduction before hitting the main content, but I'm beginning to think it may not be necessary and will simply slow down the book. It's one thing to expect a reader to skip this if not interested, but I'm mindful that if someone is simply browsing on Amazon and reading a preview I'll want to hook them as quickly as possible.

Then again, some readers might prefer being prepared for what to expect? I'm not sure if I'm too repetitive, though.

Anyway, I'd like to see what other chronners think in terms of feedback. :)

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -​


Opening​



There is a quiet revolution happening in space science.

Much of what you think you know is fast becoming outdated. Partly it’s because of the huge strides in research over the past couple of decades, made by a combination of planetary exploration and more powerful telescopes. But perhaps more importantly it’s because scientists are finally beginning to recognize and challenge some of the basic assumptions that have underpinned our big questions about life in the universe.

This is more important than you’d think—while science can often appear to be objective, in reality many theories are founded not just on assumptions, but also personal and social biases, which can undermine them. Yet as these theories develop over time, these flaws can get baked into them, until what was nothing more than unfounded opinion ends up masquerading as solid science. Eventually overwhelming data will expose these and demand such theories to be revised or completely overturned. When that happens the reaction from other scientists can be anything from disbelief to dismissal, indifference to outright hostility.

It can take decades to overcome this resistance, until newer theories eventually revise or completely replace the older ones. And yet change is a normal and well-recognized process in the history of science—we only need to look at our technological progress over the past few centuries to see this in action. The constant process of discovery means that science is in a constant process of change, but it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we think we know at any one moment is in any way absolute.

This is especially as there remain profound biases that continue to exist when it comes to answering fundamental questions in science, and are only now being noticed and slowly addressed. This is harder than it sounds. For thousands of years humans have thought themselves somehow special, that life is miraculous, that the sun and our Earth were—if not at the center of the universe, then at least an important part of it. Even though science should be able to distance itself from these biases, we as individuals can still be subject to them, whether consciously or unconsciously. Added to this is the human tendency to presume the world we see around us is unchanging without obvious interference, whether it be ecosystems, physical geography, or even the orbits of the planets.

Some biases have already been noticed, some have still to be recognized, and these continue to define attempts to answer the most basic questions about life, the universe, and existence. Only now is it coming to light how misleading these biases can be. As they are finally being challenged, we can begin to properly answer those questions in a more objective way. The very latest findings in space science already provide the groundwork for major upheavals in thinking—but not all of the pieces have been put together yet. This book aims to do so.

First, we’ll spend time exploring the very latest discoveries covering stars, planets in other star systems, galaxies, and deep space itself. Then we’ll apply what we’ve learned with a journey through our Solar System, starting from the outer edge and moving in to allow for a different perspective. After that, we’ll cover the development of our Earth, the formation and evolution of life, and even look at how consciousness itself has arisen. We’ll then wrap everything up at the end to show how all this cutting edge research fundamentally changes our view on how to answer some of our biggest questions about our place in the universe, how life begins, and whether there is life elsewhere in the universe.

To keep things simple, this book is written in a style that the most general reader should easily understand—there are no equations or formulas, and no charts or diagrams to try and follow. I provide plenty of references, but not directly to scientific papers themselves, which are often hidden behind a paywall, and written in a language only a specialist minority can understand. Instead, I’ve linked to articles in the science press, to press releases sent out by various science institutions, as well as references from reputable sources—all of which are written in a way that the everyday reader can easily follow, while also making it easy for those who wish it to track down the original articles in peer-reviewed journals to do so. I’ve tried to vary these sources as much as possible, and I also highly recommend clicking through these for further information on what is being discussed, as well as to see some of the amazing images that can accompany.

I should also add that I use the general term of “space science” rather than name individual disciplines, and “scientist” to refer to all the people engaged in its research, regardless of their field. This way I can avoid any misunderstanding that there may be a difference in ideas between different specialties. Additionally, a lot of space science research these days overlaps many disciplines, and I know many of the scientists involved do not like the idea of being pegged to a single label.

So, without further ado, let us begin. And we’ll do so by looking up—to the stars.



Chapter 1. Stars​



The sun is a star.

It’s easy to forget that. After all, when we think of stars it’s normal to remember all those tiny little twinkling little points of light that fill the night sky. Sometimes it seems like there’s millions of them, but even with the clearest and widest view, the most stars you can possibly see with the naked eye is just over 4,500[1]. Together these stars give off only a faint light and no obvious heat at all.

But the sun is an immense ball of fire, giving off intense light and fierce heat. The rise and fall of the sun as our Earth orbits it gives us the stark distinctions of day and night, and at its height in the sky it can literally burn. Of all the objects in the sky, it is the most extreme and dominant. Its scientific name, Sol, comes from the Latin root that also gives us words such as solo and sole—meaning “only one”. From our vantage point on earth, the sun appears to be absolutely unique.

It’s only in recent centuries it was realized that the sun is a star. If so, all of those tiny twinkling lights in the night sky must also be other suns. But what is the sun? What makes it a star?

The sun is a nuclear furnace. Conditions inside the sun are so extreme that it’s technically not even a burning ball of gas but instead a plasma—which means a gas heated so much that the electrons have been stripped from its atoms, leaving just nuclei. The sun’s mass is so massive that at its core the pressures are so great as to be able to fuse these nuclei. This process releases vast amounts of energy, not least in terms of heat and light. The ancient Greeks thought the sun burned wood, and scientists in Victorian England calculated how much coal it burned, but now we know the power of the sun comes from an ongoing process of nuclear fusion on an immense scale.

The sun is a million times bigger than our Earth. At the center of the sun is the core where most of the fusion takes place. This core is so dense that light generated by nuclear fusion is constantly absorbed and then emitted in random directions, meaning it can take thousands of years to finally escape into space. The light you see today could have been made during the Roman Empire, or when farming was first practiced, or even during the ice age.

The churning heat from the core also causes superheated plasma to rise up through the sun until it eventually reaches what we think of as the sun’s surface, the photosphere—really it’s no more solid than the edge of a cloud—and there convection cells boil up like fiery scales as big as entire countries. These are routinely swamped by quakes with thousands of times more energy than anything ever seen on our Earth. All this violence creates sound waves which travel at supersonic speeds, making the entire sun vibrate like a drum, resulting in dancing spikes of burning plasma on the surface that are thousands of miles high and sometimes accompanied by fire tornadoes[2].

...



[1] Sky & Telescope (17 Sept 2014), 9,096 stars in the sky-is that all?, 9,096 Stars in the Sky—Is That All?
[2] NASA (11 Feb 2020): Ten Things We’ve Learned About the Sun From NASA’s SDO This Decade, Ten Things We’ve Learned About the Sun From NASA’s SDO This Decade - NASA
 
Last edited:
The chapter itself is fine, but I'm not too sure about certain aspects of the opening.

To me, the first sentence and the first para sound as if they're from a magazine article, as it firmly roots it at the date of publication, with no wiggle room. Perhaps something more of the lines of "In the first quarter of the 21st century, there was..."

What's the target age for the book?
If it's aimed at adults, I might feel a little talked-down-to by a couple of phrases in the rest of the intro "First, we’ll spend time exploring- " and "To keep things simple, this book is written in a style that the most general reader should easily understand" would put me off, I'm afraid.

Reading this again, I realise this might come over as nitpicking - but it's important to get the hook right...
 
At a glance, I don't care for the way you're addressing the reader - using "you" reads like a Wired article rather than a book. Which is why "one would think" has its place because it absolves the reader of being the numbskull that believes whatever and instead they are the beliefs of a hypothetical numbskull.

Along the same lines, saying that "scientists are finally..." doing anything suggests that the narrator is smarter than the scientists - but they simply wouldn't listen.

So I don't know if your intent was a certain hominess, but the overall effect of the introductory section is slightly off putting.


I'll read the rest later. But I think "fire tornado" might miss the mark greatly considering how fire is normally defined.
 
Last edited:
Cheers for the replies - yes, the voice in the opening doesn't fit with the rest of the book, especially the "us vs them" tone. It's beginning to feel too self-conscious, and ultimately redundant - that the book is written for the general reader and will contain the very latest research will be mentioned in the blurb, and challenging assumptions will be evidenced by the research covered anyway. I did initially think I would need to explain why I'm using media references rather than journal articles, but I don't think the "general reader" will care about that anyway. This is whyI've posted it up, especially with the content that follows, to get a second opinion. :)
 
Fair play, this is definitely a book I'll be reading. When it got into the Chapter it was all there in my (general random punter/ non technical) opinion. The intro stuttered a bit though, and I'm not sure it does justice to what it looks to be setting up -or if it is needed at all ...I wonder could it be separate for Amazon and the likes and their previews.

Anyway, I've pasted a couple of early bits that threw me:
Much of what you think you know is fast becoming outdated.
(read like a red flag for internet bumph)
more important than you’d think
(read as a bit condescending)
For thousands of years humans have thought themselves somehow special
(I'm not sure about this, the 'somehow special' bit seems vague and that there could be stuff here that's not based on measured evidence)
Some biases have already been noticed,
(again, felt vague)

'The sun is a star.' ...boom, there ya go 'It's easy to forget that.' ...does the job I reckon. I'm a 'general reader' and you're right, I don't care about sources -I might look up some bits if they read odd but otherwise it's not something I'd consider, to my mind you're the expert and it's your story. Seems like a book the young teenage kids would enjoy too, fair play.
 
The voice of the intro sounds like Brian Cox narrating a tv show. Which can be a good or bad thing, depending on your viewpoint. For anyone with a good understanding of astronomy it may feel 'dumbed down', but if your target audience is the average person who has a passing interest in the subject, it reads fine.

I do think however it could be made a little 'snappier', and also more personable. For example try 'Much of what we think we know' rather than 'you'.
 
I'm not a writer. Bear that in mind when you read the following :).

Jumping ahead to Chapter One, I love the opening sentence. Perhaps a footnote (or comment) in the first paragraph? - Some of those "stars" are actually planets...but I'll get to that later"

Moving on to the Intro. I like the opening sentence. The rest, as an introduction, seems a bit wordy. It's also quite long - especially if it's going to be used as the "blurb" to persuade readers to buy the book. Some of it is repetitive so I think it could be cut and re-reworded.

There is a quiet revolution happening in space science.

Much of what we think we know is out of date or simply wrong. More powerful telescopes are allowing scientists to peer deeper into the universe and our basic assumptions about life in the universe are being challenged.

This is more important than you’d think. Science is not always as objective as it appears - theories can be influenced on personal and social biases. Over time, these opinions can end up masquerading as solid science. Eventually, new data will expose these and some scientists will revise or completely overturn those theories. But in space science change can be as difficult to accept as in other walks of live; the reaction from other scientists can be anything from disbelief to dismissal, indifference to outright hostility. It can take decades to overcome this resistance - until the data becomes too solid to ignore and new theories replace the old.

Some biases have long disappeared - we now know the Earth is not the centre of the universe. Others still exist - are we the only life in the universe? New discoveries are addressing these biases - and some are causing major upheavals in thinking. Not all of the pieces have been put together yet. This book aims to do so.

First, we’ll explore the latest discoveries covering stars, planets, galaxies, and deep space itself. Then we’ll apply what we’ve learned with a journey through our own Solar System. After that, we’ll cover the development of the Earth, the formation and evolution of life, and even look at how consciousness itself has arisen. We’ll then wrap everything up to show how cutting edge research has fundamentally changed our view on our place in the universe - how life begins, and whether there is life elsewhere in the universe.

So, without further ado, let us begin. And we’ll do so by looking up—to the stars.


I would cut the next two paragraphs entirely. The tone of the Intro should indicate the level required to read the book. Otherwise, I would place them separate to the Intro. Also, I think it's a little too on the nose regarding that level. I have seen similar text in popular science books but I would take it out or revise it (maybe make it a little lighter?). It's also rather long.

To avoid any flashbacks to school maths and physics lessons, there are no equations, formulas, charts and diagrams in here. There are plenty of references, but not to incomprehensible scientific papers (which are full of equations and charts!). Instead, I've linked to news articles and press releases by various science institutions. Some of those include links to the original papers if you feel like delving deeper.

Throughout the book I use the general term of “space science” and "scientist" rather than name individual disciplines. This is to avoid any misunderstanding that different specialties disagree with each other. Also, these days "space science" overlaps many disciplines and I know many of the scientists involved dislike being pegged to a single label.
 
I found the numerous negatives at the start to be off putting. Perhaps start with a couple examples of wonder that have recently challenged bias (and how that challenge was dealt with) instead of griping about general bias?
 
In principle I have no problem with the introductory chapter because a lot of non-fiction books have that in case you want to get a feel for what the author will cover in the book. However, the back cover summary and the table of contents should also help with that, so perhaps it's a little redundant.

My concern, though, is with the subject matter: I didn't get what was promised. The introduction ("There is a quiet revolution happening in space science. Much of what you think you know is fast becoming outdated.") promises me that you are going to tell me advanced stuff. For sure I know about stars. Perhaps you will tell me details about stars that I didn't learn in middle school. But the introduction starts with middle school stuff.

If the book is going to be YA or preteen stuff then this is fine, though I wouldn't start with "Much of what you think ..." since the reader hasn't been exposed to it yet formally. If the book is for adults who don't know much about astronomy then, too, we should not be promised advanced stuff.

If indeed this is an advanced book, a book people who know a bit of astronomy and space science will want to read because, say, it gives us the latest juicy gossip about the hubble constant we got from James Webb, then the start should assume some of this knowledge, signalling to all that this is an advanced book.

I get that pitching non-fiction stuff is never easy: I used to give science talks, and I'd have to guess how much my audience knew so as to neither bore them nor confuse them.
 

Similar threads


Back
Top