The Walking Lightning Rod Problem

I love imagining new worlds. It is almost like solving a puzzle, trying to figure out how a human would interact with a foreign environment. It is this love for exploring imaginary worlds that has led me to writing.

In reality, even the most earth-like exoplanets we have discovered have far different conditions than our own world. As I read about things we know about each newly discovered exoplanet, the first thing I ask myself is: would a human be able to survive under these conditions? Even though we can tell very little from such a far distances, it is fun to consider the possibility, and even wonder about what it would take to allow us to explore some of these worlds. The challenges include considering extreme pressure or temperature differences, dangerous storm systems, unique atmospheric and surface chemistry, geological threats, and even the possibility of threats from life forms that may already exist on the planet.

When I first started writing, I found it overwhelming to try to take it in all these different factors that humans would need to adapt to. Which factor should I address first, and which would have the greatest affect on my characters? And, with my limited chemistry and physics background, I worried about trying to comprehend the complex interactions of a hypothetical system. There were two thoughts that helped me start to make sense of the world I was creating.

One thought was of how current planetary scientists study far off bodies in the solar system. They rely heavily on satellite readings to tell them as much as possible, but that isn’t their only resource. In school, I found it amazing to learn about other students and planetary scientists that traveled to the most remote and extreme locations on Earth in order to learn more about features on other worlds. They use Earth-analogues to make deductions for places we can’t observe up close. For example, one of my professors journeyed to a dangerous lava lake in Africa (I believe it was Erta Ale in Ethiopia) in order to understand more about the volcanoes of distant Io. I realized that I could use this same concept in my own research. So, if I want to know how an extremely volcanically active world would react with a large global ocean, I can use Earth-analogues  and extrapolate the rest to fit the extremes of my imagined world.

The second thought that helped me tackle the complications of world-building was attacking the list of considerations one step at a time. Instead of trying to figure out how a person would react with a long list of factors, I focused on one thing. I was afraid at first that doing this would cause problems, but it ended up working out after all.

Here is an example of a problem I face recently that actually resolved itself:
I knew one of the differences I had to factor in for my new world was that of resource availability. This world would have different materials to work with than we would be accustomed to on Earth. Changes in fauna and flora alone are enough to cause some issues. I imagined paper and wood to be scarce, but various metals were freely accessible. Records would be kept on thin metal sheets, fabric would not be used as freely, and furniture and design elements would need to be simple. Paper and wood products would be luxuries. Building materials and even clothing would need to make use of the available metals. Once I created a setting that I felt fit the demands, I moved on to my next challenge.

And then I realized there was a problem. I created a people that used metal for everything, even going as far as wearing it, and then I had to address the fact that the extreme night and day cycles created storm systems that dominated the surface most of the time. I panicked for a while, worried about how people would be able to walk about in metal clothing during a thunderstorm (which is something I would need them to do). How could my people survive as walking lightning rods? I decided to search for a way to reconcile the two apparently conflicting ideas. Then one day I watched a beautiful video that reminded me about the magic of faraday cages. (I highly recommend watching this video: to see what I mean, and also this video because it’s awesome:
I admit, I felt like a dummy. Hello, we use metal all the time to protect ourselves from high voltage! After recovering from my idiocy, I went to work using this concept in my story.

I had been so worried about the complexities of scientific concepts causing problems and discrepancies in my story, that I didn’t even consider the fact that the same thing could help me solve problems. And, now I don’t dread thinking about my people as walking lightning rods— it’s exciting instead! I only needed to make minor adjustments in my clothing description to make this new concept work. It may be outrageous, but it is plausible, and that’s all that I needed. Now I have a cool element to include in my story that solves problems I was facing during the writing process.

You often hear the phrase “Write about what you know.” Although I agree with this, sometimes it makes me feel limited because I don’t always feel like I know enough about the things I want to write about. But that’s the beauty of it; we can strive to understand anything, whether it’s a scientific concept or understanding how it feels to be in someone else’s shoes. So, it goes to follow, that we can write about anything— we just have to learn about it first.


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