Sciency Words: FarFarOut

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we take a closer look at new and interesting scientific terms so we can expand our scientific vocabularies together!  Today’s Sciency Word is:

FARFAROUT

You know, I recently spent a couple days trapped at home due to a snow storm. Don’t worry, I don’t live in Texas—I wasn’t trapped in that snow storm.  Anyway, after reading a little about Dr. Scott Sheppard, I feel as though I seriously misused those snowed-in days.

Dr. Sheppard is one of the key players in the ongoing search for Planet X, also known as Planet Nine or (as I like to call it) New Pluto.  Together with fellow astronomer Chad Trejillo, Sheppard has discovered more than sixty objects of various sizes out beyond the orbits of Neptune and Pluto.

Among those sixty-plus objects Sheppard and Trejillo discovered is a possible dwarf planet nicknamed “FarOut” (official designation 2018 VG18).  FarOut is—or rather was, very briefly—the most distant natural object known to exist in our Solar System.  Hence the nickname.

But in early 2019, Sheppard was reviewing his data and happened to notice another object even farther out than FarOut.  As Scientific American tells the story, this happened while Sheppard was “snowed in during a blizzard.”  (I spent my recent snowed-in days watching cartoons on my phone.)  The new object Sheppard found in his data has the official designation 2018 AG37, but Sheppard nicknamed it “FarFarOut,” for obvious reasons.

According to this article from Carnegie Science, FarFarOut has a highly eccentric (non-circular) orbit, with an orbital period of approximately one thousand years!  Seriously, a thousand years!!!  A portion of that highly eccentric orbit is actually not that far away at all; at its closest approach to the Sun, FarFarOut’s orbital path actually crosses within the orbit of Neptune.

I do have to take issue with some of the news articles and social media posts I’ve seen about FarFarOut.  Strictly speaking, FarFarOut is not the most distant known object in the Solar System.  We should probably call it the most distant natural object, or the most distant non-articifical object, that we currently know about, because there is one known object that’s even fartherer out than FarFarOut.

Blue People Don’t Know That They’re Blue

Hello, friends!

So before anybody asks: no, the Eiffel 65 song “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” was not inspired by the work of Benjamin Lee Whorf.  I checked.  The two things are totally unrelated.

I told you about Benjamin Whorf in last week’s episode of Sciency Words.  Whorf, along with Edward Sapir, was one of the key researchers in the development of the linguistic relativity hypothesis (a.k.a. the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis).  While reading Sapir and Whorf’s original papers on the topic (from 1929 and 1940, respectively), I noticed something.  The two of them seem to spend more time defending linguistics in general as a legitimate science than they do explaining or defending linguistic relativity in particular.

I can imagine the kinds of skepticism early linguists must have faced.  I mean, language is just language, right?  You learn your grammar.  You learn your vocabulary.  And that’s that.  What more is there for this “science” of linguistics to study?

In his 1940 paper, titled “Science and Linguistics,” Whorf uses an analogy.  Imagine a race of people who, for whatever reason, are only capable of seeing the color blue.  They can see light blues and dark blues and medium blues.  The variety of shades of blue they can see must seem very impressive to them.  But in the end, all they see is blue.  If such a race of people existed, Whorf tells us, you can expect that their language would not have a word for blue.  These blue people would have absolutely no concept of blueness.  How could they?  How could anyone have a concept of blueness unless they could compare and contrast blue with other colors?

In a similar way, linguists compare and contrast languages, and by doing this they can learn far more about how language works, beyond the obvious grammar and vocabulary stuff.

Benjamin Whorf seems to have been pretty optimistic about the future of this relatively new science called linguistics.  As someone writing about 80 year later, I can say Whorf’s optimism was well founded.  Linguistics is, in my opinion, one of the coolest sciences we have!

P.S.: And seriously, the Eiffel 65 song was not inspired by Whorf, or intended as a tribute to Whorf, or anything like that.  It seems like it must have been, but apparently it was not.

Happy Valentine’s Day

Hello, friends!

For this Valentine’s Day, I love the planets and the stars, and I love all the galaxies, both near and far.  I love the whole universe and everything in it.  And hey, you’re in the universe, right?  That means I love you too!

Happy Valentine’s Day, friends!

P.S.: In case you’re wondering what sort of research went into this post, I had to double check (and triple check) to make sure I had the correct date for Valentine’s Day.

Sciency Words: Linguistic Relativity

Hello, friends!  Welcome back to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we take a closer look at interesting scientific terms so we can expand our scientific vocabularies together!  Today’s Sciency Word is:

LINGUISTIC RELATIVITY

Okay, I know you’ve seen every single episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, just like I have, so I’m sure you remember the one about Riva.  He was the deaf and mute ambassador who communicated with the help of three telepathic interpreters.

In that episode, we’re told that Riva has quite a reputation for his peacemaking skills.  He’s such a famous peacemaker that, at one point, Lieutenant Worf has this to say about him:

Linguistic relativity (a.k.a. the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) is the idea that the language you speak shapes your thoughts.  Language molds your mind and influences your perception of the world in subtle yet profound ways.

For example, if you’re a Klingon and your language has no word for “peacemaker,” how would you ever talk to your fellow Klingons about making peace?  Could you even conceptualize, in your own mind, what peacemaking would be?  It would be difficult for some, and nearly impossible for others.  Thus we can see how the limitations of a language can limit the thinking both of individuals and of an entire society.

American anthropologist Edward Sapir was not the first person to suggest that language molds our minds in this way, but he was the first to try putting some science behind the idea with this 1929 paper on the Hopi (a Native American tribe) and their language.  Then in 1940, Benjamin Whorf published this paper expanding on Sapir’s work with the Hopi and building on Sapir’s thoughts about language.  Sapir and Whorf never actually worked together, nor did they articulate their ideas as a formal hypothesis; even so, this concept is now commonly known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

But linguistic relativity is, in my opinion, a far more apt term.  It’s obvious, if you read Whorf’s 1940 paper, that he’s borrowing concepts and terminology directly from Einstein and the theory of general relativity.  Just as you must account for your physical frame of reference when observing space-time events, you must also consider your linguistic frame of reference when examining psychological or sociological realities.

Over the years, I’ve seen and heard some pretty extreme claims related to linguistic relativity.  In some cases, these claims have bordered on racism (i.e. for reasons X, Y, and Z, Western European languages are superior, while other language groups are inferior).  So obviously, linguistic relativity can be a controversial subject. As part of my research for today’s post, I read this paper reviewing the origins and history of Sapir-Whorf/linguistic relativity, and I think one of the concluding remarks in that paper sums things up nicely:

Whorf may not have been right on all counts, but he was not wrong either.  The fact that language plays a role in shaping our thoughts, in modifying our perception and creating reality is irrefutable.

Personally, I can tell you that I’ve experienced some of the effects of linguistic relativity myself, many times over.  Every time I learn a new scientific term, I feel like a Klingon who just found out what a peacemaker is.  Sometimes, the change is small; other times, it feels like a major paradigm shift.  My mind seems to open up to new possibilities, and I find that I can conceptualize the world around me in a whole new way.

In my experience, learning new vocabulary (scientific vocabulary or otherwise) is the absolute best kind of learning.  And that, my friends, is why I write this Sciency Words series.

P.S.: If you watch that episode of Star Trek, you’ll note that Mr. Worf puts a lot of stank on the word “peacemaker,” suggesting that while the Klingons do have a word for that now, it’s a pejorative term.  The pejoration or amelioration of a word can also have subtle but profound effects on your thinking as an individual and on the collective thinking of a society.

Do Planets Have Genders?

Hello, friends!

So a while back, I got some unsolicited feedback from a person I know in real life.  This person had seen one of the illustrations I’d drawn for this blog, and she was incensed—absolutely incensed—that I would depict the planet Saturn as female.  You see, Saturn is a very masculine planet.  That’s a fact, apparently.

A lot of my thinking about planets—including my thinking on the gender identities of planets—was shaped by a book called Venus Revealed, by David Grinspoon.  That book was my first serious introduction to planetary science.  In a section titled “Men are from Venus, Women are from Mars,” Grinspoon has this to say:

At first I tried being completely gender-neutral in my writing, but this was unsatisfying because, to me, Venus is not just a “thing.”  Venus is not, in my mind, inanimate, and so “Cousin It” will never do to describe him… or her.

In that same section, Grinspoon does a little cross-cultural analysis and finds that Venus has been “a real gender bender” across human cultures and human history.  Sometimes she’s male; other times he’s female, depending on which mythological tradition you’re looking at.  And some cultures have apparently assigned different genders to the Morning Star and Evening Star, thus effectively making Venus genderfluid.

So do planet’s have genders?  No, of course not.  But much like David Grinspoon, I can’t see the planets as purely inanimate objects.  Planets have too much personality for that.  And since I think of the planets as having personalities, then, for better or worse, I also think of them as having genders.

For purely arbitrary reasons, I tend to think of Saturn as female.  But if you’d prefer to think of Saturn as male, or as something else entirely, that’s okay.  I’m not going to fight you over it.  I can love Saturn (and all the other planets, too) just the same, no matter what gender identities we pretend they have.

P.S.: While doing research for this post, I ended up reading a lot about how astrology assigns genders to planets (and also to numbers, elements, constellations, etc). I don’t want to dive too far down that particular rabbit hole, but I thought I should at least share this article on the subject. I used to think astrology was just silly. Now I think it’s problematic for reasons that go beyond mere pseudoscience.

Research Before Writing

Hello, friends!

So last week, I told you about some of my new writing rules… or maybe I should call them writing promises.  That’s what they really are: promises that I am making to myself (or rather, promises that I’m making to my muse, depending on how you want to think about it).

Anyway, today I want to share another writing promise that I’ve made, a promise specifically related to this blog:

I promise to do my research before attempting to write a blog post, because trying to write a blog post without getting all my facts straight first is a huge waste of time.

You see, I fully intended to have a Sciency Words post for you last Friday.  I picked an easy one—a scientific term that I thought I understood fairly well—to ensure that I would get that blog post written, illustrated, and scheduled on time.  But once I started writing, I soon realized that I did not understand what I was writing about—not nearly as well as I thought I did.  Oops!

I’ve done this to myself many times before.  I try to crank out a quick blog post, then realize I’m a little fuzzy on some details, a little vague about certain facts.  And so a blog post that was supposed to be done in about an hour eats up a whole day’s worth of writing time.  Quick, easy blog posts always end up being the hardest, most time-consuming posts to write.

So going forward, before writing even one single word for a blog post, I’m going to do my research first.  Even if I think I’m already an expert on whatever I’m writing about, I’m going to do my research first.  That’s a promise I’m making to myself, so I can be more efficient with my blog writing time.  And it’s a promise I’m to you too, dear reader, because I really, really, really do not want to spread any sort of misinformation about science on the Internet.  There’s too much of that already.

P.S.: Wait, I didn’t do any research before writing this blog post.  Oh no!  I’ve already broken my promise!!!

#IWSG: Rewriting My Writing Rules… Again!

Hello, friends!  Welcome to this month’s meeting of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group!  If you’re a writer and if you feel insecure about your writing life, click here to learn more about this amazingly supportive group!

So last month, I didn’t get much blogging done.  I was a little busy working on something else.  But I did have time last month to have a long, heartfelt conversation with my muse.  We ended up setting some new rules and renegotiating the terms of our writer/muse relationship.

There are plenty of writing rules out there, of course, but as my muse likes to say:

And that’s exactly what I did.  I took a look at some of the rules I’ve been following—both the rules I’ve adopted from other writers and also the rules I’ve invented for myself.  I cut some, edited others.  I condensed and combined a few things together.  Then, in the end, I presented my muse with the following letter:

Dear Muse,

I promise to write every single day, because writing requires daily practice, and my writing skills and writing stamina atrophy quickly if I skip too many days in a row.

I promise to do warm up exercises on a regular basis, because sometimes my brain needs a little help switching over from real life mode to writing mode.

I promise to work on a wide range of creative projects each week, because focusing on just one project leads to creative stagnation, while jumping between projects can help stir up the creative juices.

And if I break any of these promises, dear muse, I promise to write you a long and sincere apology letter, because that will help me learn from my mistakes and figure out how to do better next time.

Sincerely,

Your Writer.

I’ve written (and rewritten) plenty of writing rules for myself over the years, but I never thought to include those “because” clauses before.  Those because clauses make a real difference, I think.  It’s one thing to make up a bunch of rules and try to follow some sort of routine.  But rules and routines get boring.  Once that happens, it’s easy to forget why those rules were important, and excuses for breaking the rules are not hard to find.

So I’m going to make one last promise.  I promise to post my rules prominently in my writing sanctuary, because sometimes I need a quick reminder not only of what my rules are but why those rules are important to me.  And, as always, if it turns out these new rules don’t work out for me: writing rules are made to be rewritten.

So what do you think of my new writing rules, and what sort of writing rules do you follow?

So I’ve Been Kind of Busy…

Hello, friends!  Sorry for not posting in a while.  I’ve been busy.  Really busy.  Don’t worry, it’s the good kind of busy, the kind of busy where things keep getting better, rather than the kind where you’re just trying to stop things from getting worse.

Today, I’d like to show off some of the work I’ve been doing.  Is that okay with you?  It is?  Cool!  So among other things, I’ve been working on this massive redecorating project, focusing on the three spaces in my house where I do most of my creative work: the art studio, the writing sanctuary, and the library.

I wish I’d thought to take photos of what these spaces looked like before so I could do a before-and-after thing.  Oh well.  Just imagine rooms full of Walmart furniture and junk I found at Goodwill, with piles and piles of paper clutter on top of everything.  Are you picturing that?  Good.  Now, take a look at this:

This is my new art studio.  I wanted this room to be as maximally colorful as possible.  I think I achieved that goal.  All those bright, happy colors are just what I need to get me in the mood for art—much more so than the grey and beige thing that was going on in that room before.  But the biggest improvement is probably this:

I do 95% of my artwork using either Copic brand markers or PrismaColor brand colored pencils.  The Copic markers are now in the rainbow bins on the left, and the PrismaColor pencils are on the right.  Finally, all the art supplies I use on a regular basis are together in the same easy-to-access place!

As for the writing sanctuary, I’ve told you before how I like to do my writing: lying flat on my belly, feet kicked up in the air, like I’m an eight-year-old kid.  (To be clear, I do not advocate that other people should write this way; it’s just the way I like to do it.)  Well, here’s my writing sanctuary now:

Actually, not a whole lot has changed.  That’s the same blanket on the floor that I’ve been writing on for years, and those are the same pillows that I had before, too.  Same dictionary, same coffee mug full of pens, same picture of my muse. But the shelving on the left is new, and I’ve worked out a whole system of file trays and magazine holders to make organizing my various works in progress easier.

Also, I printed and hung these decorative alphabet flags (inspired by Tibetan prayer flags) in the back area of the sanctuary.

And lastly, we come to the library, the room where I keep most of my books and do almost all of my reading and research.  For this room, I went with an enchanted forest theme, because the absolute best place to read a book is in the middle of an enchanted forest.  That’s not an opinion.  That’s a fact.

I have to confess I felt a little guilty spending so much time and energy on this redecorating project when (in my mind, at least) I should have been writing and drawing.  I am, as some of you know, a big believer in setting a routine and sticking to it.  Breaking my routine in order to do all this redecorating was not an easy decision for me.

But now that the work is done, I have to say these new rooms are so much better.  Yes, this project ate up a whole lot of my time (and also my money), but I consider those expenses worthwhile.  Sometimes you have to take a small step backward before you can move forward.  Sometimes you have to be willing to take a risk on yourself, to make an investment in yourself, in order to keep pursuing your dreams.

But wait!  Redecorating was not the only thing I did this past month.  My muse and I also took some time to renegotiate the terms of our relationship.  I’ll tell you all about that in Wednesday’s posting on the Insecure Writer’s Support Group.

#IWSG: When Your Muse Says Goodbye

Hello, friends!  Welcome to this month’s meeting of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group!  If you’re a writer, and if you’re feeling insecure about your writing, click here to learn more about this amazingly supportive group.

So the other day, I woke up and found this mysterious letter on my desk: a letter from my muse.  She had something important to tell me about muse magic, and perhaps it’s something other writers need to understand, too.

Dear Writer,

Ever since we first met, you have constantly worried that you might one day sit down to write and find that I’m no longer there to help.  You’re afraid that I’ll leave you waiting there in front of the blank page, pen in hand, not just for a day or two but for weeks, or months, or years.  Or forever.  I want you to know that, yes, that is possible.  That could happen.

If you ever start to think you have all the answers, I will leave you.  If you ever come to believe that there’s nothing left to learn, that you’ve figured out all of life’s secrets and know everything that’s worth knowing, then I will leave you.  If you ever convince yourself that you’re better than everybody else, or smarter than everybody else, or more talented than everybody else, then I will leave you.

Of course I would never want to leave.  That’s not what I’m saying.  But we muses are simply unable to help close-minded, self-important humans.  Muse magic does not work on people like that.  So keep growing and keep improving, always admit when you’re wrong and try to learn from your mistakes, and then you’ll never need to worry about me going away.

Sincerely,

Your Muse.

Sciency Words: Newtonmas

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we talk about science or science-related terms.  In today’s episode, we’re talking about:

NEWTONMAS

Newtonmas is often described as a secular alternative to Christmas.  Some people see Newtonmas as an affront to Christmas and all things Christian.  Me?  I don’t believe science and religion necessarily need to be adversaries, and I don’t see any reason why we can’t celebrate two things on the same day.

Newtonmas commemorates the fact that Isaac Newton was born on Christmas Day, 1642.  Or at least that’s Newton’s birthday according to the Julian calendar.  According to the Gregorian calendar, Newton was born on January 4, 1643.

If I may wander into the calendar technicality weeds for a moment, the Gregorian calendar was first introduced in 1582, but it was not adopted by all countries right away.  Great Britain didn’t switch over until 1752.  And so at the time of Newton’s birth (1642/1643), in the place where he was born (Lincolnshire, England), the Julian calendar was still in effect, and it remained in effect for Newton’s entire lifetime.  So as far as Newton and his countrymen were concerned, he was born on December 25, 1642.

The first documented celebration of Newtonmas occurred in Japan.  In the late 1800’s, a small group of students at the Imperial University in Tokyo formed an Isaac Newton fan club.  This fan club rapidly grew in popularity and soon included a mix of undergrads, grad students, and professors.

And so on Christmas Day, 1890 (Gregorian calendar), members of this Newton fan club got together for the first ever Netwonmas party.  According to this article from the time, the party included humorous science lectures, a science-themed gift lottery, and plenty of “laughter and good cheer.”  Basically, Newtonmas started out as nerdy fun.  And as far as I’m concerned, that’s what it still is (and I do not want to hear any “war of Christmas” nonsense in the comments, thank you very much).

So merry Newtonmas, friends!  And merry Christmas, too!  There’s no reason you can’t celebrate both, if you want to.

P.S.: This will be my final blog post of 2020.  I’m taking some time off for the holidays.  I’ll see you again, friends, on January 6, 2021 (Gregorian calendar) for the first IWSG post of the New Year.