Starting August 10 (for 9 weeks)

Facts-based Fictional Worldbuilding

with Moiya McTier of Columbia University

From Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass to Star Trek to Legend of Zelda, fictional worlds have entertained, educated, and comforted us for centuries. A fictional world might be a universe that obviously differs from our reality because it has magic or advanced technology. It might also be a world where the differences are more subtle. One way or the other, they all take time and effort to build. This course will teach you make these imaginary worlds feel real using a science-based approach.

Facts-based fictional worldbuilding relies heavily on scientific research to motivate the creation of imaginary worlds. It starts by creating the environment of a world, the physical setting where a story takes place. The next step is to think about biology, which depends on environment and also a lot of randomness, so there’s plenty of room for imagination. The final step is to think about culture, a huge umbrella term that encompasses every aspect of life from what we eat to the stories we tell our children when we tuck them into bed (if we even have children or beds to tuck them into). Culture depends on both biology and environment, so it’s important to decide things in this order, but also recognize that all three can inform each other. For example, humans have grown taller as we develop ways to access nutritional foods year-round, and the pollution we put into the air has influenced which diseases are most common.

Over nine weeks, you’ll learn the steps of this particular approach to worldbuilding while also gaining factual knowledge from subject-matter experts. Through this interdisciplinary course, you’ll not only build your own fictional world, but also gain an appreciation for the inner workings of our reality.

Moiya McTier is an astrophysicist and folklorist who specializes in facts-based fictional worldbuilding. She studied both astrophysics and folklore mythology at Harvard University and is in her last year of a PhD program in astronomy at Columbia University. In her astronomy research, Moiya studies how the motion of the Milky Way affects populations of planets throughout the Galaxy. She recently started a podcast called Exolore, where she invites experts to help her imagine life on alien planets.

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Our educational philosophy

Our research-course based approach comes from the fact that most of our team's best learning experiences have come from being immediately immersed in detailed discussions of work in a field we're interested in, then starting small research projects as a way of engaging more deeply with the field's methods, conventions, and literature.

Somewhat counterintuitively, we've found that this can work well even for students who come in without a lot of background in the field — once intense interest in a particular topic is sparked, or a research project is begun, it is usually possible to work backwards to the necessary fundamentals using online resources such as free textbooks and course videos, as well as by asking questions to slightly more advanced peers.

We think that this kind of learning experience is among the most effective ways to put people on the path to doing substantive new work of their own that advances the frontier of human knowledge, which we see as the ultimate goal of all education.

Unfortunately, these sorts of research courses are not widely available to students outside of research universities, and in many cases are not open to even undergraduate students at such universities. That’s where we come in: the Silver Beach Institute exists to democratize access to learning experiences of this kind. Our courses are centered around semi-structured instructor-led discussions, ambitious student projects, and the forging of intellectual & social bonds across backgrounds and disciplines. We hope that these courses, which are each taught by a researcher or practitioner who is actively doing important and exciting work on the topic they teach, will seed a distributed research community where our heterogenous group of students can learn from each other and collaborate on substantive projects that make significant positive contributions to human society.

Our first course is Facts-based Fictional Worldbuilding, led by Moiya McTier of Columbia University.

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