Sciency Words: Submoon

Sciency Words: (proper noun) a special series here on Planet Pailly focusing on the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  Today on Sciency Words, we’re talking about:


After my recent post about exomoons and trickster moons, a reader commented asking about moons with moons.  Honestly, I couldn’t think of any reason why that wouldn’t be possible, but I felt like it must be an extremely rare thing. Otherwise we probably would’ve found something like that in our own Solar System by now.

And according to this paper entitled “Can Moons Have Moons?” the answer is yes.  Theoretically, under certain circumstances, a moon could have a very, very tiny moon of its own.

It’s important to note, however, that for an object to truly be considered a moon, its orbit must be stable.  For example, there are multiple objects that are in temporary orbit around Jupiter, but since those objects are not expected to stick around for more than a few years, or maybe a few decades at the most, they are not included in the official count of Jupiter’s moons.

In most cases, a small object caught in orbit around a moon will have a very difficult time maintaining that orbit.  The gravitational attraction of the nearby planet will just keep tugging and tugging, stretching the orbital path into a wider and wider ellipse.  It won’t take long before the moon’s gravity can no longer hold the small object it captured.

But according to that “Can Moons Have Moons?” paper, if a moon is relatively large (like our own Moon) and orbits relatively far away from its host planet (also like our own Moon), and if there aren’t a whole lot of other moons around to make gravitational interactions complicated, then yes: that moon could have a moon in a stable orbit.  A very, very tiny moon.  Something asteroid sized.

The research paper I’m citing proposes calling the moon of a moon a submoon, but that’s not an official scientific term.  Not yet.  It probably won’t be until an actual submoon is discovered somewhere out there.  Until then, other terms have been proposed, like meta-moon, nested moon, grandmoon, and moonmoon.  Moonmoon seems to be the most popular choice on the Internet, probably because of the Internet meme.  Which means when the time comes the I.A.U. will almost certainly not pick that one.  More likely, the I.A.U. will go with “dwarf moon” and insist that no further discussion of the matter shall be permitted.

For right now, I think submoon is the term with the most scientific legitimacy.  For the purposes of Sciency Words and other sciency writings, I think that’s the term to go with.  But what do you think?  What would you call the moon of a moon?

Cyber-Attorneys at Law

Today’s story was directly inspired by a bit of research I did for Sciency Words. In 1960, American researchers Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline coined the word cyborg.  There’s just… there’s something about those names—Clynes and Kline—they just sound so right together….

So, cyborgs could cry.  Marcus hadn’t known that, but Neo-Marcus (as he’d been instructed to call himself) was discovering this truth for himself.  He could cry.  Not as humans cried, of course.  His tear ducts had been removed along with his natural eyes, but all the rest—the heart palpitations, the uneven breathing, and all the other quivering spasms of grief—cyborgs could still do those things, it seemed.

Was it Marcus’s fault that he had died?  Was it Marcus’s fault that, upon his death, he’d been in so much debt that the corporate controllers had ordered him to be brought back to life?  The med-techs had done a budget job, as they called it, with only the most basic augmentations; but still, the process had cost another 20K credits. Another 20K added to Marcus’s debt total.  Another 20K that Neo-Marcus would now have to pay back.

And how was he supposed to do that if he couldn’t find work? It had been the same at every employment directory thus far.  The receptionists were always polite, but obviously nervous.  “Sorry, we’re not hiring!” they’d say before quickly ushering Neo-Marcus out the door.

The advertisement feed was still running in the corner of Neo-Marcus’s vision.  He’d muted the sound, but he couldn’t afford the fee to have the feed turned off completely.  But now there was an ad playing that caught Marcus’s attention, and he gave the mental command to turn the audio back on.

“Have you been denied housing, employment, or other standard services due to your cybernetic augmentations?  You do have rights.  Contact Clynes and Kline, cyber-attorneys at law, for a free consultation.  We know what you’re going through.  We’ve been there ourselves, and we can help.”  

Before the advertisement had even ended, Neo-Marcus had pulled up the messenger app on his visual display.  As a human, he’d never taken those sorts of legal ads seriously.  But now, as a cyborg, he needed help.  He needed hope.  He needed anything he could get.

The First Art Museum on Mars

Last week, artist James Gurney posed a question on his blog.  He presented two options and asked which you’d prefer:

  • Spend the rest of your life trapped in a library or art museum, with unrestricted access to all the world’s great works of art, literature, film, etc?  Or…
  • Spend the rest of your life outdoors in nature, but never have access to any form of art again?

Personally, I lean toward the life trapped in a library/art museum option, but still… it’s a tough decision.  But then I started thinking more about this. Or perhaps over-thinking it. Why would I be trapped indoors with all this art?  Why can’t I go outside?  And then the answer occurred to me: Mars.

At some point in the future (perhaps not the near future, but at some point in the future, I’m sure) humanity will establish its first colony on Mars.  As that colony grows, the colonists will develop their own customs, their own culture, and ultimately their own art.

There would be a growing interest in having a venue where artists could showcase their work, and someone would have to curate the collection of original Martian artwork.  I guess this isn’t exactly the scenario James Gurney was envisioning.  You could still go outside, if you wear your E.V.A. suit, and you wouldn’t have unrestricted access to all the great art of the world—just all the art of a world.

But still, the more I’ve pondered Mr. Gurney’s original question, the more I’ve liked the idea.  This sounds like an interesting job, being the curator for the first art museum on Mars.  I’d take that job.  Or at the very least, I might write a story about the person who has that job.

So what about you?  If you had to choose, would you choose a life without nature or a life without art?  And what sort of scenario do you imagine might force you to make that choice?

Sciency Words: Zettatechnology

Sciency Words: (proper noun) a special series here on Planet Pailly focusing on the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  Today on Sciency Words, we’re talking about:


There’s a process in linguistics called semantic generalization, whereby a word that means something specific evolves into a broader, more general meaning.  This seems to be what happened to the word nanotechnology.

American engineer Eric Drexler is often credited for coining the word nanotechnology.  For Drexler, the word referred to nano-scale robots that could grab atoms and assemble them into molecules for us: whatever molecules we wanted, whatever molecules we could imagine!

But this idea soon came under assault from two sides.  On the one side: the public and elected officials who became increasingly nervous about the grey goo scenario, another term Drexler gets credit for.

And on the other side: specialists in Drexler’s own field who liked the idea of nano-scale technologies but didn’t think nano-scale robots could ever really work.

So Drexler’s colleagues took the word he created and started using it to mean other things: things that seemed more feasible to them and that the public would find less scary.  In other words, they semantically generalized nanotechnology.  In this article from, Drexler has this to say about what happened:

I never expected that a bunch of researchers would pick up the label nanotechnology, apply it to themselves, and then try to redefine it.  That’s a shock, and it has led to a tremendous mess for everybody.

So Drexler lost his word, and as a result federal funding for nanotechnology research (as Drexler defined the term) went to other things that now also fell under the (now larger) nanotech umbrella.

Having coined not one but two new science-related terms, Drexler now came up with a third.  What he originally called nanotechnology he now started calling zettatechnology.  As explained in this news stub from AZoNano:

Since a micro-sized product of future molecular manufacturing techniques is likely to have around a sextillion (1021) distinct atomic parts [Drexler] has based the name on the prefix of that number—“zetta”.

I like this word.  Who doesn’t like words that begin with the letter Z? Unfortunately, this one doesn’t seem to have caught on.  This isn’t the first time I’ve profiled a word that didn’t quite make it. After all, the process of linguistic evolution is as much about the words that fail as the words that succeed.

Next time on Sciency Words, what do you call it when a moon has a moon?

#IWSG: Pesky, Unreliable Muses!

Welcome to the Insecure Writer’s Support Group!  If you’re a writer, and if you feel in anyway insecure about your writing life, click here to learn more about this awesome group!

For these Insecure Writer’s Support Group posts, I usually like to turn the floor over to my muse.  You probably know the spiel: she has something to say, maybe it’s something your muse would like to hear, blah blah blah….

But my muse didn’t show up for work today, and I’m not really sure what to do.  I guess… I guess I have to write this post on my own.  So… umm… I’m not really sure how to do that.

You know, this is so typical.  I’ve known my muse for over a decade now.  She first introduced herself by having me write her into a story, and I’ve gotten to know her better through various character development and world building exercises she’s had me do since then.  She seems nice enough for a fairy person. At least she’s not one of those Puc-like prankster fairies.  She’s warned me about them.

But still, she gets on my nerves sometimes.  Our writer/muse relationship has always been super one-sided.  When she has a story idea, I have to drop everything I’m doing and go write it down for her.  It doesn’t matter if I’m in bed trying to sleep, or if I’m at my day job trying to work, or if I’m out with friends trying to have a social life.  I’ve convinced her to wait and be patient if I’m driving, because safety is important; but otherwise if the muse calls, she expects me to answer.  No excuses.

But does my muse pay attention to my needs as a writer? No.  Does she show up when I need to get a blog post done, or when some other writing deadline is looming, or when I just want to finish up my word count quota for the day?  No.  Honestly, I don’t often use this kind of language, but my muse can be an insensitive—

Uh oh, here she comes.

Super Sexy Spacesuits

The spacesuits of today are cumbersome and uncomfortable.  Worst of all, they’re not stylish.  As a science fiction writer/illustrator, I want my characters to look good when they’re blasting through the vacuum of space, fighting bad guys and ridding the galaxy of evil.  Fortunately, NASA researchers have provided me with a realistic (or at least plausible) excuse for dressing my characters the way I want.

It’s something I call the super sexy spacesuit, but the people who are actually developing the technology call it a mechanical counterpressure (M.C.P.) suit.  Spacesuits today are basically body-shaped spaceships, and the whole interior needs to be pumped full of air to replicate atmospheric pressure. The big selling point for M.C.P. suits is that you wear them like regular clothing.

Almost.  They’re a lot tighter than regular clothing.  Not the way Spandex is tight.  No, they’re way tighter than that.  The fibers in the cloth are supposed to constrict on command, squeezing your body—squeezing so hard they end up exerting one atmosphere’s worth of pressure on your skin.

When you’re in space, you won’t notice that pressure. You’ve lived your whole life under one atmosphere’s worth of pressure, so you’re used to that.  The suit should feel like a second skin, providing you all the comfort and flexibility of being naked (and perhaps the body image anxiety as well).

You’ll also be safer, at least in one sense, because minor damage to the suit wouldn’t cause catastrophic depressurization, the way it can with a contemporary spacesuit.  However, there are still a few parts of the body where mechanical counterpressure won’t work so well. Fingers and toes, and all the small bones of the hands and feet, are really, really not meant to be compressed in this way.  The same is true for your face and head, and mechanical counterpressure in the groin area could also be problematic.

But still, in the future some sort of M.C.P. spacesuit might be a plausible option, not just so we can survive in the vacuum of space but so we can look good doing it.

Or you could forego spacesuits all together and do this instead:

Sciency Words: Grey Goo

Sciency Words: (proper noun) a special series here on Planet Pailly focusing on the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  Today on Sciency Words, we’re talking about:


American engineer Eric Drexler is often credited with coining the word nanotechnology, a term which essentially made his career and his reputation.  Ironically, Drexler also created the term that, according to this article from, seems to have destroyed his career.

Nanotechnology, as Drexler envisioned it, involves nano-scale robots swimming around in a sea of atoms, assembling whatever molecules we have programmed them to build for us.  But what if we program our nano-assemblers to build more of themselves?  What if we can’t get them to stop building more of themselves?

Drexler warned of this possibility in 1986, in his book Engines of Creation. He described the growing mass of nano-assemblers as a grey goo, a blobby thing that just keeps growing and growing and growing until it consumes the whole planet.

That article from Wired is kind of dated (it’s from 2004), but the story it tells is fascinating, especially for our purposes here on Sciency Words.  It portrays Drexler as a shy, nerdy kid who grew up to be a shy, nerdy adult.  He had a revolutionary idea (nanotechnology) which propelled him to success and prestige.

But he also planted the seeds of his own downfall.  The grey goo scenario got picked up by science fiction writers and the media.  Fear and anxiety grew among the general public, and ultimately Congress cut off funding for nanotechnology, or at least they cut off funding for the kind of research Drexler wanted to do.  Drexler’s career was ruined as a result.

This sounds so much like a Greek tragedy, or perhaps the origin story of a super villain, that I can’t help but think Wired was embellishing some of the details.  Even so, words have enormous power to shape public discourse about any issue. Drexler seems to have learned that lesson.

Next time on Sciency Words, we’ll look at one more word Eric Drexler invented in an effort to salvage his vision of tiny, molecule-assembling robots.

Exomoons and Trickster Moons

I’ve been looking forward to this for many years now: we’ve discovered thousands of exoplanets out there, and now we may have discovered our very first exomoon!

There are a handful of moons in our own Solar System that may be home to alien life, so if we can start observing and studying exomoons, in addition to exoplanets, that greatly expands the number of places we can search for alien life and greatly increases the chance that we might find something.

However, exomoons may also pose a serious problem for astrobiologists.  You see, one of the things astrobiologists are looking for are planets with atmospheres in a state of “chemical disequilibrium.”  For example, chemicals like oxygen and methane should react with each other and thus remove each other from the atmosphere.  The only way those two chemicals can coexist long term is if some ongoing process (like biological activity) is constantly replenishing them.

But imagine an exoplanet with an oxygen-rich atmosphere and an exomoon with a methane-rich atmosphere.  From here on Earth, that planet-moon system could easily be mistaken for a single exoplanet, with the two separate atmospheres appearing to be one atmosphere in that much coveted state of disequilibrium.

In this paper—a paper which describes its results as “inconvenient, yet unavoidable”—this is referred to as the exomoon false-positive scenario, but I’m calling it the trickster moon problem, because someday some undetected exomoon might trick us into thinking we’ve discovered alien life when we haven’t.

The good news is that we may have already detected one exomoon, so in time we should get better at detecting others.  But as that “inconvenient yet unavoidable” paper warns, it may be decades (at least) before we can reliably tell which exoplanets do or do not have moons.  Until then, fellow space explorers, beware of those trickster moons!

Keeping an Open Mind

I know some people who believe some pretty ridiculous things.  I know people who buy into astrology and tarot cards.  I know people who insist the Earth is only 6,000 years old.  I’m friends with someone who believes the Moon Landing was a hoax, and recently I had a conversation with a 9/11 truther. That conversation got uncomfortable real fast.

The thing is, whenever these people find out I’m a huge science enthusiast, they always end up throwing science back in my face. It’s a basic principle of science, isn’t it?  You have to keep an open mind, don’t you?  Scientific theories have been disproven before, and scientists should be prepared to admit when they’re wrong.

Whenever I get the “keep an open mind” lecture, I respond with a quote that’s often attributed to Carl Sagan: “It pays to keep an open mind, but not so open your brains fall out.”

Because in science, the consensus opinion does change.  Old theories do make way for new ones (though it’s rare for a well established theory to be overturned in its entirety). It does pay to keep an open mind, but that doesn’t mean switching off your critical thinking skills.  And when a hypothesis doesn’t stand up to questioning and scrutiny, when it doesn’t agree with experimental or observational evidence, it’s probably not because my mind isn’t open enough; it’s probably because your hypothesis is wrong.

Just my two cents for today.

Sciency Words: Nanotechnology

Sciency Words: (proper noun) a special series here on Planet Pailly focusing on the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  Today on Sciency Words, we’re talking about:


In 1959, Richard Feynman gave a lecture at Caltech entitled “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom” (here’s a transcript).  In that lecture, Feynman said:

The principles of physics, as far as I can see, do not speak against the possibility of maneuvering things atom by atom.  It is not an attempt to violate any laws; it is something, in principle, that can be done; but in practice, it has not been done because we are too big.

This is often cited as the point at which the science of nanotechnology was born, but it would be a few decades yet before the word nanotechnology came into use.

American engineer Eric Drexler is often credited with coining the term in reference to machines that would operate on a nanometer scale—on the scale of atoms, in other words.  Drexler envisioned what he called nano-assemblers which could maneuver about among atoms, picking individual atoms up and sticking them together like Lego blocks.

There was, and still is, a lot of debate among scientists about whether of not this could really work.  Atoms, in a sense, have minds of their own.  They’re not going to sit passively and let us do whatever we like with them.  You can’t circumvent the usual chemical processes that allow molecules to form.  Rather than sticking Lego bricks together, it might be better to compare a nano-assembler’s job to herding cats.

But for the purposes of this post, I’m going not going to say anything more about the actual science of nanotechnology, because there’s an interesting story to tell about the word itself.  While the word may have been coined by a scientist, it was laypeople (especially the media) that embraced it and turned it into a popular scientific term.  As explained in this paper from Interdisciplinary Science Reviews:

Interestingly, there was no process of consensus in the scientific community that nanotechnology was to be the term to describe the science, but then no one had come up with a competing word and it rather succinctly described what the activity was all about.  Like clothing fashion, however, the term rapidly became the norm without anyone actually stopping to ponder where it came from and why.

The word nanotechnology nicely demonstrates the role that the media can have in spreading a new scientific term and thus, in turn, influencing the parlance of the scientific community who came up with the science in the first place.

So if not for the media and public interest, maybe nanotechnology would not have become as well established a term as it is.  This is important because universities have established departments of nanotechnology, and grant money is allocated specifically for nanotechnology research.  That might not have happened if the word weren’t so well known.

However, the case could also be made that media attention has held nanotechnology research back.  But we’ll talk about that in next week’s episode of Sciency Words.