Sciency Words: Hypogravity

August 17, 2018

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:

HYPOGRAVITY

We have a pretty good idea how the human body operates in Earth-normal gravity (1 g).  We also know a lot about how weightlessness (0 g) affects our bodies. But what about values of gravity between 0 and 1 g?  According to this review from the journal Frontiers in Physiology, our knowledge about the human body in so-called hypogravity is shockingly limited.

The word hypogravity combines the word gravity with the prefix hypo-, which comes from a Greek word meaning “under” or “below.”  It’s defined as an actual or perceived gravitational force greater than 0 g but less than 1 g.  The term hypergravity (from a Greek word meaning “over” or “above”) is also used for gravitational forces greater than 1 g.

According to Google ngrams, the term started appearing in print during the 1950’s, which would coincide with the early days of the space program.  My first encounter with this term was in an article titled “Medical Skills for an Interplanetary Trip: The Hostile Environment of Space and the Planet Mars,” which appears in this book about the Mars One program.

I can’t remember ever seeing this term prior to that article, which kind of surprised me at first.  But based on my subsequent research, I think this term is used almost exclusively in the medical field, an area which I’m not well versed in.

According to that paper from Frontiers in Physiology, we know very little about what hypogravity does to us, medically speaking.  Of course we do have the first hand accounts of those few astronauts who’ve walked on the Moon, as well as other records and archival footage from the Apollo program.  Frontiers in Physiology also describes several ingenious ways scientists have learned to simulate hypogravity in the laboratory.  And we have mathematical models to help us predict what hypogravity might do to us long term.

But still, our knowledge and experience with hypogravity “remains fragmentary,” as Frontiers in Physiology puts it.  “Fragmentary” seems like just the right word, because old records, laboratory simulations, and computer models can only tell us so much.  We have very little to go on here.  Just bits and pieces. A few scattered data points.

The human body evolved in a 1 g environment.  Prolonged weightlessness seems to do our bodies a lot of harm, from bone loss and muscle atrophy, to disrupting the balance of our internal fluids, to messing up our equilibrioception (a “sixth sense” most of us don’t realize we have until it’s taken away).  I’d assume hypogravity does less harm than weightlessness.  The question is: how much less?

I guess we won’t really know the answer until we start sending people to live on the Moon or Mars long term, and start finding out which health problems they do or do not develop.


Wisdom of Sci-Fi: Only One of Each of Us

August 15, 2018

In my last Wisdom of Science Fiction post, I wrote about what it feels like to look up at the stars.  It is, for me at least, a humbling experience, a reminder of how small and insignificant I am in this big, wide universe.  I really liked how that post turned out, but I also felt like that post had missed something.  It felt incomplete.

So today I’d like to share a quote from one of my favorite episodes of the original Star Trek, an episode called “Balance of Terror.” The crew of the Enterprise find themselves in a long, drawn-out conflict with a Romulan bird of prey.  While waiting for the Romulans to make their next move, Captain Kirk briefly returns to his quarters and ends up dwelling a little too long on his own fears, self doubts, and insecurities.

Dr. McCoy comes to visit, and he has this to say to the apprehensive captain:

In this galaxy, there’s a mathematical probability of three million Earth-type planets.  And in all the universe, three million million galaxies like this.  And in all of that, and perhaps more, only one of each of us. Don’t destroy the one named Kirk.

This little speech may have been addressed to Captain Kirk, but please go ahead and replace your name for his.

I started writing this post before the traumatic events of a few weeks ago, events that left me dwelling a little too long on my own fears, doubts, and insecurities.  I saw one life lost, and another person will likely spend the rest of his life in prison as a result, all because of a stupid and petty disagreement, as I’ve come to understand it—a lot of posturing and imagined self-importance, to borrow some words from Carl Sagan.

So it seems fitting to me to return to regular blogging by finishing this post.  Looking up at the stars can be a humbling experience, but at the same time, paradoxically, it serves as a reminder of how special we all are. In all the universe, there’s only one of you, only one of me… only one of each of us.  We are unique in the truest sense of that word. Value your life.  Value the lives of others.  Don’t let such a unique gift as human life go to waste.


IWSG: Survivor’s Guilt

August 1, 2018

This is not going to be a happy post. I’m not sure if this is really the kind of thing the Insecure Writer’s Support Group is meant to address. But I feel I need to do this in order for my healing process to begin.

In the stories I write, characters die.  Sometimes people are massacred in great numbers.  Other times, characters get killed off individually for dramatic effect. It’s all done in service to the plot.

I’ve heard writers joke about how often they “murder” characters in their stories.  I’ve joked about it myself.  I don’t think I’ll ever find those kinds of jokes funny again.  Not after the experience I had late last week.

It would be inappropriate to discuss the details of what happened in a blog post, so I’ll only say this much: a gun was involved. At one point, I thought I was going to die.  One person did die. I knew the victim, and I knew the shooter, though I can’t say I knew either of them particularly well.

Friends tell me I’m handling all this remarkably well. But of course I’m not.  Not at all.  I’m never going to forget the things I saw and heard.  I’ll never forget the fear I felt.  My healing process is going to be long and arduous.  I know part of that process will involve returning to my writing routine, because writing is so central to who I am.

Except given the subject matter I tend to write about, how the hell am I supposed to go back to doing that?  Right now, I can’t bring myself to look at my manuscript. I can’t even think about it without reliving what I’ve just been through.  Nor can I work on something new and different—something fun and lighthearted—without constantly reminding myself that there’s this thing I’m trying really hard to avoid thinking about.

But I can write this blog post.  Maybe that’s enough for now.  At the very least, I hope it’s a place for my own healing process to start.


Sciency Words: How to Name Your Dinosaur

July 27, 2018

I got a little bit behind on my research this week, so I don’t have anything prepared for this week’s episode of Sciency Words.  However, I recently stumbled upon this video which seems thematically appropriate in relation to the Sciency Words series.

It’s a TED Talk with Jack Horner, the world famous paleontologist who discovered Maiasaura and demonstrated that some dinosaur species did, in fact, take care for their young.  If you remember Alan Grant from the original Jurassic Park, Jack Horner served as the real life inspiration for that character.

The TED Talk is about how dinosaurs get their names and how that naming process has led to some pretty glaring scientific mistakes.

Sciency Words is mainly a series about science, but it’s also about linguistics and the philosophy of language.  Words have power.  They shape our thoughts, and they can change the way we understand and experience the world.  And as Jack Horner’s TED Talk illustrates, if we’re careless about the words we choose to use, then our words can mislead us, and we can end up blinding ourselves to things that should be obvious.


Things I Don’t Understand: Mercury’s Wandering Sun

July 25, 2018

Okay, this is a thing I’ve read about multiple times, but no matter how many times it’s been explained to me I just don’t get it.  Apparently on Mercury, the sun sometimes appears to change directions in the sky.

Let me explain what I mean.  Imagine you’re standing on the surface of Mercury (and are somehow still alive).  You see the sun rise in the east, just as it does on most planets in the Solar System.  And then over the course of a long (very, very long) Mercurian day, you watch the sun slowly (so very, very slowly) travel from east to west.

But at one point, let’s say around midday, the sun appears to stop its east-to-west motion and then, for a short while (about 4 Earth days), it wanders from west to east instead.  Then the sun stops again and continues on its original westerly path.

Why does this happen?  I know it has something to do with the length of Mercury’s solar day versus its sidereal day.  A solar day on Mercury, the time it takes for Mercury to complete a rotation relative to the Sun, is approximately 176 Earth days long. But Mercury’s sidereal day, the time it takes for Mercury to complete a rotation relative to the ecliptic, equals about 59 Earth days.  Also, Mercury’s year is 88 Earth days long, so Mercury’s solar day is roughly twice as long as its year.

Obviously this all means the sun moves very slowly through Mercury’s sky, but why should it briefly stop, turn around, and go the other way?  I just don’t get it. I guess I just can’t conceptualize why this happens.  Maybe if I were better at math, all those numbers would add up for me, and I’d understand what’s going on.

Anyway, does this make sense to anyone else, or are you just as baffled by this as I am?

Update: Looks like I have a lot of really smart readers! It’s still kind of hard for me to conceptualize why this happens, but it’s starting to make a little more sense to me. The first comment from TureNorthBricks definitely cleared up a lot for me.


The Wisdom of Samwise, Sagan, and Scott Levine

July 23, 2018

I’m categorizing this as part of my Wisdom of Sci-Fi series, even though The Lord of the Rings is definitely not science fiction.  There’s a part in the third book, as Frodo and Sam are nearing the end of their journey and have ventured deep into enemy territory, when we get this description:

The land seemed full of creaking and cracking shadows and sly noises, but there was no sound of voice or of foot.  Far above the Ephel Dúath in the West the night-sky was still dim and pale. There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while.  The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.

I started thinking about this little moment after a recent post by Scott Levine (it’s an inspiring post; please go check it out!).  Scott’s been doing a lot to spread the word about light pollution, and he’s encouraging people in his community to get out, look up, and see the stars.

In his post, Scott alludes to the fact that we live in troubling times.  No, maybe Sauron’s armies aren’t marching against us, pillaging our villages and slaughtering Dwarves, Elves, and Men alike; but still, these are troubling times. But as Scott says, the stars give us a chance to get away from the news and the pessimism and all the other anxieties in our lives, just for a bit.

Personally, I’ve always found stargazing to be a humbling experience.  I have a lot of big dreams, a lot of ambitions, and also a lot of frustrations in my life. And like most people, I feel I have good reason to worry about the current state of the world.  But taking a moment to look up at night helps remind me that I am, ultimately, a very small being, and that this is a very small world.

As Carl Sagan once said in reference to the famous Pale Blue Dot photograph of Earth: “Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged place in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.”

None of this is to say that the problems in our lives or in the world are unimportant.  Samwise Gamgee didn’t suddenly give up on his quest after seeing that one twinkling star, nor did Mr. Frodo.  But there is something about those little, distant points of light that can help us keep things in perspective.

And if I may stay up on this soapbox for just a bit longer, I think if we were all a bit more humble, and if we could all let go of that posturing and imagined self-importance that Sagan was talking about, I suspect our very small world would be a much happier place, and many of the problems and conflicts we worry about so much would start to go away.  Maybe not all of them, but a lot of them.

P.S.: From now on, whenever I get to that scene in The Lord of the Rings, I’m going to imagine that that one star Sam sees is Arcturus.  Seriously, Scott’s post is really inspiring and thought provoking. Please go check it out.


Harry Potter and the Sciency Words of Molecular Dissociation

July 20, 2018

Okay, I’m going to try something a little different for this week’s episode of Sciency Words.

I’ve been a huge fan of the Harry Potter novels for a long time now.  Learning new and interesting scientific terms, as we do here on Sciency Words, can feel a little like learning new magical spells.  Sometimes scientific terms even sound a little like the kinds of spells they might teach at Hogwarts.

So today, we’re going to discuss the magical art of molecular dissociation, and we’re going to learn three spells which can cause the dissociation of molecules to occur.  In other words, we’re going to learn three ways to break molecules apart.  Ready?

Photolysis is one of the very first “magical spells” I leanred, and I think it’s a really good one to know about.  “Photo” comes from the Greek word for light, so photolysis is the breaking of chemical bonds using light.

Typically this is done using higher energy wavelengths of light, like the Sun’s ultraviolet rays.  As an artist, it’s important for me to know how to cast shield charms against photolysis, because photolysis can (and will) destroy the chemical pigments in my art work, causing the colors to fade.

As you might have guessed, electrolysis is when you break chemical bonds with electricity.  You may have assumed astronauts are muggles.  You can be forgiven for that assumption, but astronauts definitely know how to perform at least this much magic.

And in the not-so-distant future, space explorers on the Moon and Mars and out in the asteroid belt will probably use electrolysis to split water molecules into hydrogen (useful as rocket fuel) and oxygen (useful for breathing and also as rocket fuel).

“Pyro” means fire, so pyrolysis is the breaking of chemical bonds using heat.  This is probably the most common and most obvious of these molecular dissociation spells—what do you think Bunsen burners are for?—but for some reason I don’t see this term being used very often.

In fact the first time I ever saw the word in print was in this paper about the Curiosity rover on Mars.  I guess Mars rovers have magical powers too, because Curiosity cast pyrolysis on a weird sample it had collected in order to figure out what the sample was made of.  Turned out it was made of complex organic compounds, the kind of compounds that may (or may not) be associated with Martian life.

* * *

Of course there are still so many more scientific terms… I mean magical spells to learn.  I’m hoping I’ll find another of these molecular dissociation spells that fits the photolysis, electrolysis, pyrolysis pattern.  If I do, I promise to draw someone in Slytherin colors performing the spell.