#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.


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 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.

Evolution Pre-Programmed Your Brain… Really?

Hello, friends!

As humans, we all have brains [citation needed].  One of the coolest things about our brains is, of course, that they let us learn stuff.  But our brains can do something even cooler than that: our brains allow us to unlearn stuff, too!  That way, if we learn something that’s wrong, we’re perfectly capable of unlearning that thing and then learning a new thing that’s right (or at least less wrong).

Personally, I think this ability of ours to learn, unlearn, and relearn has been the key to our evolutionary success as a species.  If we weren’t able to learn from our mistakes, if we couldn’t modify our behavior in an ever-changing world, then we’d probably still be living in caves.  Or, even more likely, we’d be extinct.

But there seems to be this idea out there, propagated mainly by pop-science articles, that evolution has pre-programmed our brains.  There seems to be this notion that our genes pre-determine our personality traits, that our brains are hard-wired to force us to behave the way that we do.  This talk about hard-wired, pre-programmed behavior seems to be extra common as it relates to gender.  Men act like this, women act like that, because our genes say we must.

I don’t believe that.  Whether we’re talking about gender, race, class, or anything else, I don’t believe human beings come pre-programmed, and I don’t think the scientific evidence supports that notion either.  To quote from this article, entitled “Fifty psychological and psychiatric terms to avoid”:

[…] growing data on neural plasticity suggests that, with the possible exception of inborn reflexes, remarkably few psychological capacities in humans are genuinely hard-wired, that is, inflexible in their behavioral expression.  Moreover, virtually all psychological capacities, including emotions and language, are modifiable by environmental experiences.

To be fair, I’m sure genetics, evolution, and so forth do have some influence over us.  I’m sure we’re all born with certain inclinations or predispositions.  But our ability to learn, unlearn, and relearn plays a far bigger role in determining who we are as people and how we behave toward each other.  The idea that we’re born pre-programmed to be like this or like that is, I think, a pop-science myth.

But, of course, I could be totally wrong about everything I just said.  If so, then I guess I have some unlearning to do.

Sciency Words: Chromophore

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we take a closer look at those weird words scientists use.  Today’s Sciency Word is:


Recently, just for fun, I was watching an old interview with Carl Sagan (the same interview I cited in Wednesday’s post, by the way).  Around 25 minutes into that interview, Sagan talks a little about Jupiter, and he mentions that Jupiter’s distinctive coloration is caused by something called “chromophores.”

Sagan then goes on to say, flippantly, that we call it a chromophore because “we don’t know what it is.”  But the word chromophore is not quite a meaningless placeholder term for a thing we don’t understand (like dark matter).

Definition: A chromophore is a group of atoms within a larger molecule that are responsible for giving that molecule its color.  So, for example, chlorophyll molecules have chromophores in them that soak up red and blue light, thus giving chlorophyll its characteristically green appearance.

Etymology: Chromophore comes from two Greek words meaning “color” and “bearing.”  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest recorded usage of the word is in this 1879 dictionary of chemistry.  The word appears in a section about the chemical reactions used to make dyes.

Fun fact: just like the planet Jupiter, the oil pastels I used to draw this picture of Jupiter contain “chromophores.”

To say that Jupiter’s coloration is caused by chromophores is absolutely correct, but somewhat unhelpful.  It’s like asking “what caused that sound?” and being told “vibrations of the air.”  But, at least for now, it seems we don’t have a better answer.  To the best of my knowledge, we still don’t know which chemicals, specifically, are responsible for giving Jupiter his distinctive coloring (though Jupiter researchers have a lot of plausible-sounding guesses).

But whatever those chemicals are, they must contain chromophores.  Almost by definition, that must be true.

Shameless Self Promotion Time: Looking for Jupiter T-shirts, Jupiter notebooks, or other Jupiter-themed stuff?  Click here to check out all the Jupiter-related products available in the Planet Pailly store on Redbubble!

Is There Life on Earth?

Hello, friends!

Let’s imagine some space aliens are cruising by our Solar System.  They turn their scanners on our planet and see… what?

Among other things, they’d notice that Earth’s landmasses are partially covered with a strange, green-colored substance.  Of course, you and I know what that green substance is.  It’s chlorophyll.  But would those extraterrestrial observers, who have no prior knowledge of our planet, be able to figure that out?  Even if they did, would they realize what chlorophyll is used for?  Maybe.  Probably not, though.

Which brings me to my all-time favorite scientific paper: “A search for life on Earth from the Galileo spacecraft,” by Carl Sagan et al.  I love this paper in part because it’s so clearly and concisely written, with jargon kept to a minimum.  Sagan was, after all, a talented science communicator.  But I also love this paper because its conclusions are so shocking, so eye-opening.

In 1990, NASA’s Galileo spacecraft turned all its high-tech instruments toward Earth and detected… not much, actually.  Galileo did pick up radio broadcasts emanating from the planet’s surface.  Aside from that, though, Galileo’s data offered highly suggestive (but also highly circumstantial) evidence on Earthly life.  The lesson: finding life on other planets is hard.  Even using our very best equipment, it was hard for NASA to detect signs of life right here on Earth!

At least that’s what I got out of reading Sagan’s Galileo experiment paper.  And based on various commentaries I’ve read or heard about this paper, that seems to be the lesson other people got out of it too.  So I was surprised to hear Sagan himself, approximately seven-and-a-half minutes into this interview, saying the exact opposite.

We’ve flown by some sixty worlds.  We claim that we haven’t found life anywhere, and that that is a significant result.  That is, that we would have found life had it been there.  But this has never been calibrated.  We’ve never flown by the Earth with a modern interplanetary spacecraft, all instruments on, and detected life here.  And so Galileo, because of this peculiar gravity assist VEEGA trajectory, permits us to do that.  And as I’ll describe tomorrow, we find life five or six different ways, including intelligent life.  And this then means that the negative results that we find elsewhere are, in fact, significant.

I’ve been puzzled by this for a while now, but I think I’ve finally figured out why Sagan would say this.  It’s politics.

On the one hand, scientists need to understand the challenges they’ll face (including the limitations of their own equipment) in searching for life on other worlds.  That really is, I think, the purpose of the Galileo experiment paper.  On the other hand, it would not do to say on public television, to cantankerous taxpayers and the listening ears of Congress, that NASA spends millions of dollars on space probes that are not even capable of detecting life right here on Earth.

Space exploration is expensive.  And like all expensive types of research, sooner or later the researchers involved have to learn how to play politics.

State of the Blog

Hello, friends!

Many years ago, I was a naive young writer with aspirations of creating an epic science fiction universe.  I thought writing Sci-Fi would be easy, because I thought Sci-Fi writers could just make all the sciency stuff up.  My muse quickly disillusioned me of that idea.

That is, essentially, the origin story of this blog.  I started this blog as a way to force myself to do the kind of research that I, as an aspiring Sci-Fi author, knew I ought to be doing.  And it worked.  I’m still no Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clark.  I’m no Andy Weir or Cixin Liu.  But I’ve learned a lot by writing and illustrating this blog, and I think my Sci-Fi storytelling has improved as a result.

However, for the last few months, I haven’t felt too happy with my blogging experience.  This has nothing to do with you, dear readers.  You’re the best, and I appreciate all the feedback and encouragement you’ve given me over the years.  Just wanted to make that 100% clear!

At first, I assumed I was just bored.  I’ve been blogging for a really long time, after all. Then I thought maybe I’d taken on too many writing projects.  Between this blog and Tomorrow News Network, plus two other projects that I’m not at liberty to discuss right now, I wondered if I was pulling myself in too many directions at once.

But then I got sick.  The nice thing about being sick is that it gives you plenty of time to stop and reflect on life—both the good stuff and the bad.  And during my time being sick in quarantine, I had a realization: the problem isn’t my blogging or all my writing projects.  It’s my research agenda.  The research agenda I put together when I started this blog doesn’t really suit the needs of the various writing projects I’m working on now.  As a result, this blog feels disconnected from my other writing, and putting together a blog post feels (to me) like a waste of time—time that could be better spent writing other things.

The solution is not to stop blogging, or scale back blogging, of change my blogging schedule in any way.  No, the solution is to update my research agenda so that the topics I blog about relevant again to my other writing projects.  And so today, I’d like to introduce my newly updated research agenda:

  • Outer Space: Obviously I’ll continue researching space exploration, especially planetary science and astrobiology.
  • Psychology: In my stories, I like digging into the psychology of my characters.  Seems to me like learning more about psychology could help!
  • Journalism: In my day job, I work in the T.V. news business.  Tomorrow News Network draws heavily on my own work experiences, but it couldn’t hurt to do more research on the field so that I can draw inspiration from other people’s perspectives and experiences, too.
  • Greek Mythology: This is mainly for one of those writing projects I can’t talk about, but Greek mythology (and other ancient mythologies) can be a great source of inspiration for science fiction.
  • The History of Science Fiction: And speaking of great sources of inspiration, learning more about the history of my chosen genre can help me become a better Sci-Fi writer, too.

I’m already moving forward with this new research agenda, but that doesn’t mean I’m planning to blog about everything I do research on.  And so now, dear readers, I have a question: which parts of my new research agenda do you actually want to hear more about?  Is there anything on the list above that you’re particularly excited about?  Or is there anything you’re particularly unexcited about?  Let me know in the comments!

I am COVID-Negative!

Hello, friends!

I wanted to give you a quick update: I got the results of my COVID test yesterday.  According to my healthcare providers, I am COVID-negative!!!  So it seems that, shortly after being exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19, I coincidentally caught the flu, or a bad cold, or something like that.

Anyway, I have a lot of catching up to do out in the real world, now that I’m allowed to leave quarantine.  This is going to be a busy week, and I don’t expect to have much time for blogging.  Therefore, my plan is to resume my regular blogging schedule on Monday.  And I really, really hope you will tune in for Monday’s post.

You see, being in quarantine for two weeks, and being sick for most of that time, gave me a lot of time to think about life and about writing—and about blogging, too.  Some new ideas are percolating, and some changes may be coming to this blog.  I’ll explain what I mean on Monday, and I may have some questions for you, dear readers, about what you want to see on this blog going forward.

Sciency Words: Radical Acceptance

Hello, friends!

I’m still recovering from what may or may not be COVID-19, so I don’t have a regular Sciency Words post for you today.  But during the time I’ve been sick, I’ve been watching a lot of YouTube, and I discovered a YouTube channel that I wanted to share.  It’s called Cinema Therapy.

It’s hosted by a professional filmmaker and a behavioral psychologist.  The two of them watch movies together and talk about the psychological truths (and falsehoods) expressed by those movies.  I’ve especially enjoyed their analyses of The Lord of the Rings films, and this episode on Frodo Baggins and radical acceptance was really helpful for me in my current situation.

And hey, psychology is a scientific field.  Radical acceptance is a term used in that scientific field.  So there’s your Sciency Word for the week!

#IWSG: Writing with COVID

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

They say write what you know.  Sometimes writers follow that advice without intending to.  There’s a recurring theme in my writing.  I never noticed it was there until my editor pointed it out.  That theme is illness.

In the epic, sprawling Sci-Fi universe I’m creating for Tomorrow News Network, a lot of people get sick.  There are lots of space viruses and space parasites floating around out there, some of them natural, others manmade (or rather, alien-made).  I also tend to use disease as a metaphor for other things.  When my editor pointed this out to me, my reaction was basically: “Oh, that makes sense.”

It’s become something of a running joke among my circle of friends.  If there’s a big, scary disease in the news, James will probably catch it.  I’ve had tuberculosis.  I’ve had West Nile virus.  I’ve had swine flu.  To be honest, I’m surprised that I managed to dodge COVID-19 for as long as I have.

But last week, I found out that I’d been exposed to somebody who later tested positive for COVID.  Shortly thereafter, I started experiencing COVID-like symptoms.  I’m currently quarantined at home, waiting patiently for the results of my COVID test.

Needless to say: not a lot of writing is happening right now.  Not a lot of anything is happening, except sleeping, chicken soup eating, and binge watching Carl Sagan videos on YouTube.  But my muse assures me she will return as soon as I’m feeling better, and we’ll probably have another scary space plague to add to our epic Sci-Fi universe.

Now Open: The Planet Pailly Store!!!

Hello, friends!

If you’ve ever looked at my artwork and thought it would look good on a T-shirt or a notebook cover or a tote bag, well… I have good news for you!  The Planet Pailly store is now open on Redbubble.com!!!

You can get my artwork printed on shirts or coffee mugs or throw blankets… there’s a shockingly wide selection of stuff you can buy.  You can also get stickers in various sizes, so feel free to slap my artwork on anything and everything you want!

Now I was initially concerned about quality.  Redbubble is a print-on-demand service, and I’ve had some bad experiences with print-on-demand services in the past.  But I can assure you that Redbubble stuff is top quality.  I am really, really happy with the way this T-shirt turned out.

This spiral notebook is also really cool.

My only complaint is that Redbubble doesn’t offer free shipping.  They do, however, offer bundle discounts if you order multiple items at once.  So if you buy a T-shirt from me, and maybe a shower curtain from another artist, and a set of coasters from somebody else, your discounts should start stacking up nicely.

The Planet Pailly store currently has three “highly technical diagrams” that have previously appeared on this blog: the Sun, Jupiter, and Pluto.  More astronomical objects will be added soon (if you have requests, let me know in the comments).  Also coming soon: the cover art from Tomorrow News Network.

So if you’re looking for the perfect gift for your sciency friend, or the perfect gift for your sciency self, please check out my Redbubble store.  And be sure to check out some of the other artist stores on Redbubble too!  There’s cool stuff for everybody, and your money will help independent artists (like me) keep doing what we do.