Sciency Words: Abstract

May 19, 2017

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:


Abstract is kind of an abstract word. It can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. Among those many meanings, “to abstract” as a verb can mean to take specific information and turn it into more generalized—or rather, more abstract knowledge.

I believe this specific to generalization idea is behind the usage of abstract in scientific papers (as well as other kinds of academic literature). An abstract is the first section of a scientific paper. It takes all the specific information presented in the paper and generalizes it into a one-paragraph summary.

Icarus, a prestigious journal of planetary science, advises authors to include three things in their abstracts:

  • The purpose of their research
  • The principle results of their research
  • The major (i.e., generalized) conclusions we might draw from the research

Icarus also says: “An abstract is often presented separately from the article, so it must be able to stand alone.”

Some of you may have wondered why I didn’t mention abstracts in my recent post on how to read a scientific paper. That was an oversight on my part, but there’s a reason for that oversight. I think of abstracts as sort of like the back covers of books. By that I mean I read abstracts to figure out which papers might be worth reading in full.

But once I’ve found a paper I want to read, I don’t pay much further attention to the abstract. Why? Because like the back covers of books, abstracts really aren’t part of the “story” scientific papers are trying to tell. Also, I’ve been warned that abstracts can be oversimplified or misleading.

I recently found this article published by the Indian Journal of Psychiatry. It’s titled “How to write a good abstract for a scientific publication or conference presentation.” In the abstract of this article on abstracts, it says:

Well, that’s what it should have said. What it actually says is this:

Abstracts of scientific papers are sometimes poorly written, often lack important information, and occasionally convey a biased picture.

The article goes on to offer guidance, especially for younger researchers, on how to improve their abstracts. “Misleading readers,” the paper warns in its conclusions section, “could harm the cause of science […].”

Personally, I don’t hold it against scientists if their abstracts aren’t the best. Condensing all your research into one paragraph can’t be easy. The lesson here for people like me who are trying to read this stuff is to take abstracts with a grain of salt—just like the back covers of books.

Okay, next week we’ll stop talking about scientific papers and instead go visit a strange planet. Easily the strangest planet in the Solar System, perhaps in the whole universe. I’m not sure if you’ve heard of it. It’s called Earth.

My First Scientific Paper

May 17, 2017

As a follow-up to yesterday’s post on how to read a scientific paper, I wanted to share the story of my first attempt to read such a paper myself. I was doing research in preparation for the 2015 Mission to the Solar System, and I’d found a paper titled “Thermal Stability of Volatiles in the North Polar Region of Mercury.”

I was under the impression this paper was sort of a big deal as far as Mercury exploration is concerned, so I felt I ought to read it. Previously I’d only read the abstracts of papers, and occasionally the conclusions. I’d never before tried to read a scientific paper in full.

It didn’t go well. Not at first. The paper was only four pages long, but it felt like forty and may as well have been four hundred. I was particularly confused by the usage of the word volatile, as in volatile chemicals. I thought I knew what that meant. Turned out I was wrong, and it took awhile for me to figure out what volatiles really are.

I must’ve read the paper straight through three or four times before something in my brain clicked. And then…

I got it! I actually got it! NASA had found water (a volatile) on Mercury! I’d already learned about this from another source, but the fact hit me with a new weight. Suddenly I not only knew about Mercury’s water, but I also knew where the water was located (frozen inside dark polar craters), why it hadn’t melted or sublimated away (at the poles, crater rims shield it from sunlight), and how NASA had found it (by bouncing radio waves off the ice sheets).

Maybe this will sound silly, but reading that “Thermal Stability” paper was a life-altering experience for me. I’ll never forget that moment of revelation when all that sciency stuff started making sense. For the first time, Mercury felt like a real place to me. For the first time, I “got” how NASA does what it does.

And most importantly, I learned that even though I’m just a science fiction writer and don’t have any kind of scientific degrees, I can still read and comprehend scientific publications. Which means I can bypass the unreliable science reporting I saw on T.V. or the Internet and go straight to the source for my scientific knowledge.

How to Read a Scientific Paper

May 16, 2017

You can’t trust science news, especially on the Internet. So a few years back, I started reading actual scientific papers. As a science fiction writer trying his best to do his research, I felt this had to be part of my world-building process.

I won’t lie to you. At first, this was difficult. Very difficult.

But reading scientific papers is a skill, and with patience and practice, it’s a skill anyone can learn. So if you want to go straight to the source for your scientific knowledge, here are a few tips that’ll make the reading process easier.

  • Begin at the End: Start by skipping straight to the conclusion (which is sometimes called the discussion). This may seem counterintuitive, but trust me: the rest of the paper will make a lot more sense if you know what it’s leading to.
  • Make a Vocab List: Next, skim the body of the paper searching for words you don’t understand. Write yourself a vocabulary list and go look up the definitions of your vocab words before trying to read the paper in full. (This, by the way, is where many of my Sciency Words posts come from).
  • Beware of Familiar-Seeming Words: Some words like metal or volatile have weird, alternative definitions in certain scientific fields. If you suspect an ordinary, innocent-looking word might not mean what it normally means, go ahead and add it to your vocab list. To find the definition you need, try googling something like “metal definition astronomy.”
  • Skip the Math: Don’t panic if you’re bad at math. Unless you’re an actual scientist doing actual scientific research, you can usually skip the math parts. For my purposes as a science fiction writer, I feel it’s enough to know something can be modeled with a mathematical formula; it’s typically not essential for me to know what that formula is.
  • Teach a Friend: When you’re done, try to explain what you’ve learned to a friend. You may need a really loyal, really patient friend for this, but trying to explain something in your own words is an effective way to solidify new knowledge in your brain.

Again, it takes practice to get good at reading these kinds of papers. The more you do it, the quicker it becomes and the more you’ll feel you comprehend.

Of course reading and understanding a scientific paper is one thing. Recognizing scientific fraud is another, so click here to check out my previous post on the kinds of red flags to watch out for.

And tune in tomorrow for the story of my first attempt to read a scientific paper and the moment of realization when all that scientific gobbledygook starting making sense.


May 13, 2017

I wrote a flash fiction story, and it went live yesterday over at Fiction Can Be Fun! I hope you’ll go check it out, along with two other cool stories posted with it. They’re all based on the writing prompt “uniform.”

Fiction Can Be Fun

Express Yourself

I’m here today for the second in my series of interviews with the journalist, biographer, pundit and bon vivant, Jocelyn Humpheries.  Today we’re focussing on her writing as a biographer and in particular some of the little snippets that didn’t make the final cut.  Jocelyn: which of your biographical subjects was your favourite?

Oh! That is rather invidious – I do so detest those sorts of questions.  I enjoyed writing all of them, even – perhaps especially! – the scathing ones.  I do have a soft spot for the first one I wrote where the subject was, at the time, still living.  He was such a dear!  I don’t know if people say that about me now, but he would have been about the same age as I am now when I interviewed him.

That would be Colonel Hart-More?

Indeed. Although he didn’t really like to use his…

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Sciency Words: Exoplanet

May 12, 2017

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:


According to the International Astronomy Union (I.A.U.), an astronomical object qualifies as a planet if:

  • It orbits the Sun.
  • It’s round due to the pull of its own gravity.
  • It’s cleared its orbital path of asteroids or other debris (this is the part of the planet test Pluto failed.

The I.A.U.’s planet definition has caused a lot of grumbling and controversy, and not only because of Pluto. Let’s focus today on the first criterion for planethood: in order to be a planet, an object has to orbit the Sun. Not just any sun, but the Sun, as in our Sun. With a capital S.

Which means big, round objects orbiting other stars don’t qualify. The I.A.U. suggests calling them exoplanets or extrasolar planets, but they aren’t, strictly speaking, planets.

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it seems awfully geocentric of us to have one word for objects orbiting our Sun and a different word for the same type of objects orbiting other stars.

However, I have to admit having a special term for “planet orbiting another star” is kind of handy. It saves me time in conversations and cuts down on the word counts of blog posts. So I guess it’s worth knowing the official I.A.U. definition for this handy, time-saving term.

Except the I.A.U. doesn’t have an official definition for exoplanets. Why not? Let’s try adapting the current planet definition to exoplanets and see what happens.

  • An exoplanet has to orbit a star other than our Sun. (Seems okay so far).
  • An exoplanet has to be round due to the pull of its own gravity. (Our telescopes can’t visually confirm that exoplanets are round, but based on estimates of their mass we can safely assume they’re round. We’re probably still okay.)
  • An exoplanet has to have cleared its orbital path of debris. (This is a real problem because in most cases there’s no way to confirm, visually or otherwise, that an exoplanet has done this.)

There is a proposal to change the I.A.U. planet definition again, this time based on quantitative data rather than visual observations. This, by the way, is different than the geophysical everything’s-a-planet definition I wrote about previously. The geophysical definition would make Pluto a planet again; the quantitative definition would not.

Back in 2006, the I.A.U. changed the definition of planet, excluding Pluto from the planet club, because we’d learned new information about our Solar System. More new information about planets, exoplanets, and other planet-like objects has been piling up since then, which is why we keep hearing about these proposals to change the definition again.

Personally, I like the more inclusive geophysical definition, but that’s just my preference. Plenty of intelligent and well-meaning people disagree. But I think sooner or later, the I.A.U. will have to revisit this issue to ensure the definitions of planet and exoplanet match.

Exoplanet Explorer: Poltergeist

May 10, 2017

Today’s post is part of a semi-regular series here on Planet Pailly exploring exoplanets: planets orbiting stars other than our Sun. Today, we’re exploring the exoplanet:


In 2015, our friends at the International Astronomy Union gave in to public pressure and finally started assigning actual names to exoplanets. Thus, the exoplanet designated PSR B1257+12 c is now known as Poltergeist.

Poltergeist is actually the very first exoplanet we humans ever discovered. It’s approximately four times as massive as Earth, has an orbital period of 66 days, and is located in a star system roughly 2,300 light-years away in the constellation Virgo.

It’s hard to say much else about a planet so far away from us, but based on what we do know at this point, I’m willing to bet Poltergeist is a barren rock stripped of any appreciable atmosphere and depleted of all or almost all of its volatiles.

That’s because Poltergeist’s sun is no ordinary star. It’s a pulsar: the tiny, rapidly-spinning, gamma radiation flashing remnants of a star that went supernova. As of 2015, the I.A.U. has named this pulsar Lich, and there are two other planets in the Lich System: Draugr and Phobetar. The official naming scheme for this system is apparently the undead.

  • Lich: an undead thing with magic powers to control other undead things.
  • Draugr: a reanimated corpse from Norse mythology.
  • Poltergeist: a ghost, especially a noisy and troublesome ghost.
  • Phobetor: the ancient Greek god of nightmares.

According to this paper (published in 1993, right after the discovery of Poltergeist and Phobetor but before the discovery of Draugr), there are quite a few scenarios that could explain how a pulsar like Lich ended up with its own planets. We can’t say for sure which scenario is correct, but all the most likely scenarios have one thing in common: the planets formed after the supernova.

Perhaps the planets that existed before the supernova were destroyed, and Poltergeist and company re-coalesced from the rubble (this paper from 2015 seems to rule that possibility out). Or perhaps Lich was once part of a binary system, and the planets formed after Lich ripped its companion star apart. Or maybe Lich is the product of a violent merger of two white dwarf stars, or a white dwarf and a neutron star, with the planets forming from matter the got spewed into space during the merger (this is reportedly the most plausible scenario).

So it would seem Poltergeist and the other planets of the Lich System really are the ghosts left over by some cataclysmic event (even if we’re not certain which specific cataclysm occurred) which is why their creepy, Halloween-style names are so appropriate.

Mystery Blogger Award

May 8, 2017

Oh my gosh, I won an award! Yay me! A very special thanks to Outside Perception for nominating me for this award, and also thank you to Okoto Enigma for creating this award. According to Enigma’s website:

“Mystery Blogger Award” is an award for amazing bloggers with ingenious posts. Their blog not only captivates; it inspires and motivates. They are one of the best out there, and they deserve every recognition they get. This award is also for bloggers who find fun and inspiration in blogging; and they do it with so much love and passion.

Okay, I’m blushing. Look, I know these kinds of awards are a bit silly, but still it’s nice to be recognized.

So as part of accepting this award, I’m supposed to tell you three facts about myself and then answer five questions from Outside Perception. Here goes:

Three Facts About J.S. Pailly

  • For my day job, I work at a local T.V. news station. I can’t say I like my job, but I do pick up a lot of good story ideas for my true passion, which is…
  • Writing! Also illustration, and space stuff, but mostly my true passion is writing.
  • In 2012/2013, I wrote a series of short stories about a journalist who travels through time. I have a top-secret plan to rewrite and revise these stories and publish them as an ebook. Oh shoot! That was supposed to be a secret!

Five Questions from Outside Perception

1. Tell us about something you used to believe only to find out it was incorrect.

All my life, I’d heard the story about how Albert Einstein failed math. Turns out it’s not true. Apparently Einstein’s school switched grading scales during his final year, so his school records make it look like he failed when in fact he got perfect marks every single year.

2. If given the choice between cake or death, what would it be?

Well, the obvious answer would be cake, but I suspect this is a trick question. You see, I’ve played Portal. I know the cake is a lie. Death might be preferable.

3. What was your imaginary friend’s name and what special skills did they have?

Was? Did? My imaginary friend is still around! She’s asked me to never reveal her true name on the Internet; however, she makes semi-regular appearances on my blog. She’s my muse, and her special skill is inspiration, supposedly.

4. What is your all time most watched movie?

Star Wars. The three original Star Wars movies, to be precise. They’re the only movies I watched obsessively as a kid and still watch obsessively today.

5. When you have down time… (laugh… yah, I know). Okay, if you ever had down time, what would you do?

I’ve been slowly amassing a Lego collection. Most Lego enthusiasts end up building Lego cities. I’d like to do that someday, except rather than a traditional city, I want to build a huge Lego Mars colony.

As part of this award, I’m supposed to nominate a bunch of other people for the award and ask them five questions of my own choosing.

And the Nominees Are:

My Questions

  • What do you want to be when you grow up?
  • What book has had the most influence on you?
  • Has a movie ever brought you to tears? If so, what movie was it?
  • If you were a dinosaur, which dinosaur do you think you’d be and why?
  • What will be the title of your autobiography?

Now I don’t want to put any pressure on anybody, because I know not everyone likes these kinds of blogging award things. If I nominated you and you want to accept the award, the rules are listed below. If not, I still got to link to some pretty cool blogs, and that makes me happy.

Award Rules

  • Put the award logo on your blog.
  • List the rules.
  • Thank whoever nominated you and link to their blog.
  • Mention the creator of the award (Okoto Enigma) and provide a link as well.
  • Tell your readers 3 things about yourself.
  • Nominate roughly 10 – 20 people for this award.
  • Notify your nominees by commenting on their blogs.
  • Ask your nominees five questions.
  • Share a link to your best/favorite post that you’ve written.

Right, almost forgot about that last thing. I’m not sure if this is my best or my favorite post, but there is a post that’s been on my mind a lot lately for some reason. It’s an old IWSG post called “Research Rant.”