Eclipse Day 2017 and Hermione Granger

August 23, 2017

One of my favorite fictional characters—one of the characters I most strongly identify with—is Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter series. She’s depicted as extremely bookish, and at one point we’re told she’s nervous about flying because it’s “something you couldn’t learn by heart out of a book.”

Yup, that sounds like me. I’ve spent an enormous amount of time studying science, but almost everything I know comes out of books rather than from hands on experience.

And so as the Great American Eclipse of 2017 approached, I felt increasingly nervous, just like Hermione going out for her first flying lesson. I’d read a lot about the eclipse, done pretty thorough research about the kinds of glasses I’d need to buy, and yet… I still felt horribly unprepared.

To make matters worse, the eclipse glasses I’d ordered online seem to have gotten lost in the mail. On the day of the eclipse, they still hadn’t arrived. I had a backup plan, but I wasn’t sure if it was going to work. I’d read online that you can use a pair of binoculars to project an image of the Sun onto a piece of paper. Again, I’d read about this, but I’d never tried to do it, and I wasn’t 100% convinced this was going to work for me. Some of the instructions I’d read sounded kind of complicated.

And yet to me extraordinary delight, it worked! My hands were a bit shaky, but I was able to project the Sun onto a page of my sketchbook and watch as the Moon slowly moved across the image.

My hastily improvised eclipse observatory.

Watching the eclipse turned out to be a highly emotional experience for me. I’ve been going through some things in my personal life, and this was a powerful reminder that no matter what happens, the universe keeps turning. Also, I realized at one point that the binoculars I was using originally belonged to my Dad, so in a sense it was like I got to share the experience with him.

And lastly, for a Hermione Granger-type person like me, this was one of those rare moments when something I read about became real to me. Maybe it wasn’t as exhilarating as learning to fly on a broomstick, but still… Eclipse Day 2017 was a magical experience for me.

Molecular Monday: The Discovery of Lithium

August 21, 2017

Welcome back to another edition of Molecular Mondays, a special biweekly series here on Planet Pailly combining two of my least favorite things: chemistry and Mondays.

My current Sci-Fi work in progress is starting to turn into a bigger project than I originally anticipated, which means I need to learn more about lithium: the chemical element which I’ve unwisely scattered all over a certain alien moon.

Over the years, I’ve found that one of the best ways to learn about science (at least for me) is to take a historical approach. With that in mind, today I’d like to talk a little about the moment in history when lithium was first discovered.

It was 1817. Sweedish chemist Johan August Arfwedson was working in the laboratory of Jon Jakob Berzelius, on of the great “fathers of modern chemistry.”

Apparently it was common practice for chemists at that time (and also for chemists today) to light things on fire in order to see what color flames they’d get. Because different materials burn in different colors, the colors can tell you a great deal about what material you’re actually working with. Today this is known as a flame test.

Arfwedson was flame testing a kind of rock called petalite. When burned, petalite produced an intense crimson flame, like this:

Now when Arfwedson saw those bright crimson flames, he did not immediately conclude that he’d discovered a new element. Instead, he did what any good scientist would do: he thought up possible explanations for this crimson color and then systematically tested each possibility, ruling them out one by one.

In the end, Arfwedson was left with only one possibility: petalite must contain a previously unknown alkali metal. Arfwedson named this alkali metal lithium, after the Greek word for stone. “This name,” Berzelius, Arfwedson’s mentor, would later write, “recalls that it was discovered in the mineral kingdom, whereas the two others [sodium and potassium were the only other known alkali metals at the time] have their origin in the vegetable kingdom.”

At this point, you might be wondering what any of this has to do with my story. I’m kind of wondering that myself. Umm… I’ll get back to you about that. In the meantime, there are lots of other cool flame test videos to watch on YouTube.


Lithium from the Royal Society of Chemistry

Lithium from Elementymology & Elements Multidict

Alkali Metal from the Encyclopedia Britannica

Sciency Words: Brown Dwarf

August 18, 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:


In 1962, Indian astronomer Shiv S. Kumar theorized that there could be objects out there in space too big to be considered planets but too small to become stars. Since main sequence stars are referred to as dwarfs of various colors (our own Sun is a yellow dwarf), Kumar called his theoretical objects “black dwarfs.”

It turned out that the term “black dwarf” was already taken, so in 1975 American astronomer Jill Tarter (best known for her work with the SETI Institute) suggested the name “brown dwarf” instead. In an article from Universe Today, Tarter is quoted as saying: “it was obvious that we needed a color to describe these dwarfs that was between red and black.”

The term stuck, despite the fact that “brown” is a very misleading description. It’s not clear to us what color these objects are or would appear to be to the human eye. They do radiate light, but it’s mostly infrared light. In the visible spectrum, they might appear to be purple or magenta, or perhaps a rather dull red or orange. In fact they may come in all sorts of colors, depending on their metallicity. But astronomers do seem to agree about one thing: brown dwarfs are definitely not brown.

Today, brown dwarfs are typically described as failed stars.

Stars are defined scientifically as objects massive enough to cause nuclear fusion in their cores—specifically, to be classified as a star an object must be able to fuse hydrogen into helium. Brown dwarfs can’t do that.

But while this distinction between stars and brown dwarfs is fairly straightforward, the distinction between brown dwarfs and planets can get pretty murky. We actually don’t know enough yet about either brown dwarfs or exoplanets to be sure where to draw the line separating one from the other.

One of the leading proposals would define brown dwarfs based on their formation. If an object coalesces from a molecular cloud, as a star would, but fails to initiate hydrogen fusion, that object would be a brown dwarf. If an object forms in the accretion disk surrounding a star, the way planets form, then that object would not be a brown dwarf.

Another leading proposal would define brown dwarfs based on their internal physics. If an object can’t fuse hydrogen but can fuse other elements like lithium or oxygen, then that object would be a brown dwarf. (For more about these two competing proposals, click here.)

Eventually the International Astronomy Union will have to step in and set an official definition. But they’re not ready to do that. Not yet. Not until we’ve learned a lot more. In the meantime, ongoing observational research of objects like Gliese 504b (which I’ve nicknamed “Pinkie Pie”) may help the I.A.U. figure out which definition makes the most sense.

Exoplanet Explorer: Gliese 504b “Pinkie Pie”

August 16, 2017

Continuing our exploration of the exoplanets, today we’re visiting a planet called Gliese 504b.

Gliese 504b isn’t the kind of alphanumeric gobbledygook we usually get for exoplanet designations, but still… I prefer actual names, or at least nicknames. I think it’s easier to write about a planet when it has a name, and names help give us a sense of a planet’s personality.

So as of today, I’m officially renaming Gliese 504b Pinkie Pie.

Wait, I shouldn’t have used the word “officially.” I’m just some guy with a blog. Only the International Astronomy Union has the authority to…

“Pinkie Pie” was discovered in 2013 orbiting a Sun-like star about 57 lightyears away in the constellation Virgo. This was one of those rare cases where astronomers were able to directly image a planet orbiting another star, and they could even identify the planets color. This made headlines, because the planet turned out to be pink. Glorious, fabulous bright hot pink!

The pink color is apparently due to the planet’s age. It’s only a few hundred million years old, which is young for a planet, and it’s still glowing from the heat of its formation. It appears to be a gas giant, several times more massive than Jupiter.

Also, it seems the topmost layers of clouds aren’t there. Perhaps the kinds of swirling, opaque clouds we’re accustomed to seeing on giant planets like Jupiter or Saturn will form later on as Pinkie Pie grows older and cools off. In the meantime, as telescope technology improves, Pinkie Pie may offer us an unprecedented opportunity to see how gas giants are structured on the inside.

Before I end this post, there is one more thing that you should know about Pinkie Pie. It’s rather important. There’s an ongoing mystery as to how a planet so young could be orbiting so far away from its parent star. According to our current understanding of planetary formation, gas giants like Pinkie Pie should be much closer in. Unless maybe Pinkie Pie isn’t a planet after all!

Yes, Pluto isn’t the only one to have its planet status called into question. Except while Pluto is essentially too small for planethood, Pinkie Pie might be too big. Some astronomers suggest that Pinkie Pie should be classified as a brown dwarf.

Of course that depends on how the term brown dwarf is defined. More about that in Friday’s edition of Sciency Words.

Recommended Reading: Earth in Human Hands

August 14, 2017

Welcome to another edition of Recommended Reading here on Planet Pailly, a special series devoted to books that I think you should read. Today I’m recommending Earth in Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet’s Future by David Grinspoon.

If you’re a fan of Star Trek, especially if you’re one of those fans who takes Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a utopian future for our planet seriously, then you really need to read this book. 24th Century Earth, according to Star Trek, will be a paradise; Earth in Human Hands tells the story of how we could make that fictional paradise a reality.

Now I should make it clear that this is not explicitly a book about Star Trek (though as I read it, I couldn’t help but notice the parallel). This is actually a book about the Anthropocene, which is something of a controversial term. I’ve written about it previously here and here. The basic idea is that human activies have already had such a dramatic impact on our planet that we’ve initiated a new epoch of Earth’s geological history. The Holocene is over; the Anthropocene has begun.

Up until now, the changes we’ve caused have been, for the most part, inadvertent. We might even be forgiven for our mistakes, since we didn’t realize for a long time what we were doing. But Grinspoon’s premise is that the time is coming when we will stop making inadvertent changes and start making changes that are deliberate and intentional. First, we’ll want to undo some of the damage we’ve caused, and then we’ll start to reengineer our environment to make our lives more comfortable and secure the planet’s biosphere against natural disasters.

To be clear, Grinspoon is not saying we’re there yet. We do not have the knowledge or technology to reengineer our planet—but we may be heading in that direction. If so, the Anthropocene might not be an age of ecological disaster but rather a golden age for planet Earth, under the wise and benevolent stewardship of the human species.

Admittedly this is a hyper-optimistic vision for our future, but then again so was Star Trek. So if Star Trek’s utopian Earth is something you believe in, something you’d like to see become a reality, then David Grinspoon’s Earth in Human Hands is the book for you.

Sciency Words: Noösphere

August 11, 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:


Earth has a lot of “spheres.” There’s the atmosphere, which is the sphere of air surrounding our planet, and the lithosphere, which is the sphere of rock making up our planet’s crust and upper mantel. Earth has a hydrosphere (all of Earth’s surface water) and a biosphere (all of Earth’s organisms, collectively).

Over time, scientists have come to appreciate how all these “spheres” are interconnected with each other, maintaining conditions on this planet that are just right for life. At the risk of sounding New Agey, it’s almost like Earth is alive, like Earth is a single organism, and we’re just small parts of a greater whole. If so, perhaps we can add one more sphere to the list: the noösphere.

The term noösphere (pronounced either new-o-sphere or know-o-sphere) was coined in the 1920’s by a Jesuit priest named Tielhard de Chardin. The word comes from two Greek words: nous, meaning mind, and sphere, meaning sphere. In other words, the noösphere is the sum total of all the knowledge and intelligence on our planet.

Or going back to the New Agey stuff, the noösphere is Earth’s mind. We humans are like cells in Earth’s body, but we’re not just any old cells: we’re Earth’s brain cells. You might even say Earth has started to develop a new level of intelligence, a noösphere 2.0, as all us brain cells form a new series of neural connections with each other (in other words, the Internet is making Earth smarter).

Of course we could push this analogy too far. Are human beings really worthy of being compared to brain cells? Is the Internet really making our planet smarter?

While I’m not ready to declare humanity to be Earth’s brain, I do think the concept of the noösphere is interesting and warrants some discussion. The various spheres of our planet are interconnected, sometimes in weird and surprising ways; so how does the noösphere—the accumulated knowledge and intelligence of all humanity—contribute to (or detract from) the greater whole?

P.S.: I first learned about the noösphere in David Grinspoon’s recent book Earth in Human Hands, which I’ll be reviewing next week.

What Am I Researching?

August 9, 2017

I have a fun special project in the works for this blog. I don’t want to say too much yet, but some of my research materials arrived last week and I’m getting pretty excited about it.

As you can see, I have some reading to do. Add to that a few other books which were already in my possession…

Also, I picked up something special at the grocery store.

So can you guess where I’m planning to take my imaginary spaceship next?