Moons Gone Wild: Naiad and Thalassa

Naiad is one of the more rambunctious and troublesome moons in our Solar System.  She was first discovered in 1989 when NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft flew by Neptune.  Naiad then spent more than a decade playing hide and seek with us, to the annoyance of many professional astronomers, I’m sure.

In 2004, the Hubble Space Telescope happened to catch Naiad in a few images of Neptune, but no one noticed she was there.  It wasn’t until 2013, thanks to new and improved image processing techniques, that astronomers found Naiad in those pictures.

Articles from the time (like this one or this one) described Naiad’s orbit as “wibbly wobbly” or said Naiad had somehow “drifted off course.”  That’s why we’d had such a hard time finding her.

But new research published this month in the journal Icarus gives us a clearer sense of what Naiad’s been up to all this time.  Naiad’s orbit is just… I don’t know how to describe it.  Just look at this orbit!  It’s bizarre!

According to that paper in Icarus, Naiad is caught in an orbital resonance with the neighboring moon of Thalassa.  That orbital resonance, combined with a high inclination (orbital tilt), causes Naiad to travel in a “sinusoidal pattern,” as the authors of that paper call it.

Naiad and Thalassa orbit dangerously close to each other.  Naiad zips past Thalassa every seven hours, approximately.  But because of that weird sinusoidal thing Naiad’s doing, Naiad always passes safely over Thalassa’s north pole or safely under Thalassa’s south pole.  The two moons are in no danger of getting into any sort of accident with each other, at least not in the near future.

But there are still a lot of uncertainties baked into our models of Neptune and his family of moons.  Even our newest, most up-to-date model—the model that revealed Naiad’s orbital resonance with Thalassa—still depends heavily on data collected by Voyager 2.  And as the authors of that Icarus paper note: “The orbital uncertainties show that the positions of the satellites are known within several hundred kilometers until at least 2030.”

But beyond 2030?  I guess we can’t accurately predict where Naiad, Thalassa, or any of Neptune’s other moons might end up.  If only somebody would send another space probe out to Neptune!  I’m really glad we have Voyager 2’s data, of course, but that data is from 1989.  A follow up mission is long overdue!

Sciency Words: Dial Tone

Sciency Words: (proper noun) a special series here on Planet Pailly focusing on the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  Today’s Sciency Word is:


Some of you may be too young to know what a dial tone is, so here’s an instructional video explaining the concept.

According to this article from Teletech Services, it was German engineer August Kruckow who invented the dial tone back in 1908.  A dial tone is a buzzing or humming sound that landline telephones make to let you know they’re connected and working.

It’s hard to say when “dial tone” became a SETI term, but the earliest usage I was able to find is this 1995 paper by Steven Dick entitled “Consequences of Success in SETI: Lessons from the History of Science.”

In that paper, Dick draws a distinction between extraterrestrial signals that communicate information vs. extraterrestrial signals that serve essentially the same function as a dial tone.  The general public, Dick argues, would react quite differently if we picked up some sort of intergalactic dial tone instead of a “Greetings, Earthlings, would you like to learn more about calculus?” type of message.

Later papers (like this one or this one) continue to use this dial tone metaphor, and in 2018 a special committee on SETI nomenclature adopted the following as the official definition for the term: “A content-free beacon, i.e. one that communicates only the existence of technological life.”

That same committee goes on to note some concern that the conventional meaning of “dial tone” may soon become obsolete; if so, the committee worries, then the continued use of “dial tone” as a SETI term might become problematic.  I’m not sure I agree with that concern, though.  Lots of terms and phrases have stuck around even after their original meanings have faded into history.

In the near future, maybe it won’t be obvious to everyone that “dial tone” originally had something to do with telephones, but if SETI scientists keep using the term, I don’t think it’s that hard for people to understand what the term means… is it?

The Second Law is Safe

There’d been nothing but glowing praise for Dr. Trikowski and his miraculous invention.  The Trikowski generator was 100% efficient.  It produced no waste.  None at all!  It would save the environment, and it would save human civilization.

Some in the scientific community had expressed skepticism, but they were shouted down by Trikowski and his admirers.  “So called scientists!  They’re being paid off by the oil companies!” Trikowski would say.

Carlos seemed like just another reporter, someone with a fancy degree in communications but with absolutely no background in the sciences.  Except Carlos was not just another credulous journalist ready to lap up Trikowski’s sales pitch.  There were two things Carlos understood well:

  • The First Law of Thermodynamics: neither matter nor energy can be created or destroyed.
  • The Second Law of Thermodynamics: but they can be wasted.  In fact, they must be.  No system could be 100% efficient.  Energy must be lost somewhere, somehow.

But Trikowski’s P.R. people obviously didn’t realize how much Carlos knew.  They’d let him into the doctor’s lab for an exclusive interview, and there was the generator.  Carlos approached it in awe.

He could hear a very impressive thrumming sound coming from somewhere inside the machine, and he could see a very pretty blue glow shining through the front panel.  Carlos placed his hand on the generator’s smooth, metal surface.  It felt warm, considerably warmer than the room’s ambient temperature.  Energy lost in the form of heat, Carlos thought.  The blue glow—that’s energy lost in the form of light.  And the thrumming sound is energy lost in the form of vibrations of the air.  However the Trikowski generator worked, however impressive and revolutionary it might be, one thing was certain: it was not 100% efficient.  Nowhere near it.

“So,” Dr. Trikowski said with a used-car-salesman grin, “aren’t you going to ask me any questions?”

“No, I don’t think so,” Carlos said, removing his hand from the machine.  “The empirical evidence speaks for itself.  I can see—and hear—and feel—that the second law of thermodynamics is perfectly safe in this lab.”

At that, Dr. Trikowski’s grin faltered.

Sciency Words: Time

Sciency Words: (proper noun) a special series here on Planet Pailly focusing on the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  Today’s Sciency Word is:


How would you define the word time?

I recently read a book called Time Travel: A History by James Gleick.  This is one of the big questions raised by that book, and it’s a question that’s kept nagging at me.  What is time?  We all know what time is, don’t we?  We use the word all the… well, all the time.

But if you had to write a dictionary definition, what would you say?  Keep in mind the first rule of dictionaries: don’t use the word your defining in the definition of that word.  Gleick offers several interesting suggestions.  Time is the experience of duration.  Time is what keeps everything from happening all at once.  Time is the thing that clocks measure.

These are fun definitions, but I don’t find them fully satisfying.  Maybe we could turn to this classic explanation of time given in Doctor Who:

People assume time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey… stuff.

In my own science fiction writing, time is often described as “a living thing,” something that’s constantly shifting, constantly changing.  History keeps rewriting itself, and time travelers speak of time in almost adversarial terms.  But while that might work for the kinds of Sci-Fi stories I want to tell, I don’t think this “living thing” notion is an actual, practical way to define what time is.

The closest I’ve come to finding a satisfying definition of time is an idea that goes back to Aristotle: time is a measure of change.  The sun changes its position in the sky.  So do the moon and all the stars.  The seasons change, one into the next into the next, until the cycle repeats.  All these cyclical changes set the standard by which we measure non-cyclical changes.  That’s what time is!

Or is it?  I said this is the closest I’ve come to finding a satisfying definition, but it still feels incomplete.  Thanks to Einstein and the theory of general relativity, we now know that time itself changes relative to acceleration and/or gravity.  So how can the measure of change be changeable?  There must be more to it than that, right?

#IWSG: Contract with a Muse

Welcome to 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 awesome group!

Ladies and gentlemen, I have an imaginary friend.  Those of you who regularly read my Insecure Writer’s Support Group posts have already met her.  She’s my muse.  Here’s her picture:

And here’s her picture sitting in my writing zone, next to my coffee mug full of pens.  I always have a picture of my muse with me when I’m writing.

But not all writers believe in muses.  In fact, not all writers even approve of the belief in muses.  I was recently listening to a writing podcast where the host went off on a tirade against the very concept of muses.

You can’t sit around waiting for your muse, this podcast host said.  You’ll never get any writing done that way.  Writing is work.  You have to do it every day, whether you feel inspired or not!

Of course my muse and I have heard all this before.  Perhaps you have too.  But I think all this anti-muse stuff is based on a fundamental misunderstanding about how muses do their jobs.  You see, my muse and I have something like a contractual relationship.

I do have to do my writing every day.  That’s the promise I made to my muse, and in exchange she has promised to keep bringing me the shiniest of shiny new ideas.  If I don’t fulfill my side of the bargain, why should my muse fulfill hers?

So writers, you can’t sit around being lazy and expect your muse to do all the work for you.  Show some initiative.  Go write.  It might feel like a struggle, but the muse will reward you in the end.

P.S.: And muses, remember you have an obligation to your writer too.  If your writer is making a real effort, do not be stingy with the good ideas!

Sciency Words: Facies

Sciency Words: (proper noun) a special series here on Planet Pailly focusing on the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  Today’s Sciency Word is:


So I’m currently reading a paper entitled “A Field Guide to Finding Fossils on Mars.”  Basically, if you’re hoping to dig up some fossils on Mars, you need to know where to look.  This paper is all about which “facies” are the most likely to have well preserved Martian organisms inside them.

I have to admit I’m having a tough time with the paper.  My first question, and perhaps your first question as well: what the heck is a facies?

The word facies comes straight from Latin, where it meant (believe it or not) face.  It could also mean facial expression or the generalized appearance of a thing.  According to this article from the Encyclopedia Britannica, Danish scientist Nicholas Steno was the first to use facies as a geology term in 1669, but it was Swiss geologist Amanz Gressly who reintroduced the term in 1838, leading to its modern usage.

Gressly was conducting geological research in the Jura Mountains, which lie along the border between France and Switzerland.  It was already known that there were different layers of rock stacked on top of each other.  We call these strata, and it’s now widely recognized that different strata correspond to different time periods in Earth’s past.

But Gressly noticed that, in addition to the strata stacked vertically on top of each other, there were also different “stratigraphic units” arranged horizontally beside each other—the facies, as Gressly decided to call them.  Gressly is quoted in this book as having written:

I think that the petrographic or paleontological changes of a stratigraphic unit in the horizontal are caused by the changes in environment and other circumstances, which still so powerfully influence today the different genera and species which inhabit the ocean and the seas.

In other words, if you find different facies within the same strata, then you’re looking at different environments or ecosystems that existed at the same time, side by side: a lakebed next to a forest, for example.

Or at least that’s what Gressly originally intended the word facies to mean.  But according to that same Encyclopedia Brittanica article, the term has since been generalized “[…] to encompass other types of variation that may be encountered as one moves laterally (e.g., along outcroppings of rock strata exposed in stream valleys or mountain ridges) in a given rock succession.”

So if you’re going fossil hunting on Mars, you want to look for rocks formations dating back to Mars’s Noachian Period—that’s when Mars had lakes and rivers and oceans of liquid water on its surface.  Rock formations from the very early Hesperian Period would also be good.  There was still some liquid water sloshing around at that time.

But within Noachian or Hesperian-aged strata, which facies should you look for?  Well, I’ll have to get back to you on that one.  As I said, I’m having a tough time with this paper, but I am determined to get through it!

P.S.: Bonus Sciency Word!  Those same Jura Mountains where Amanz Gressly did his geological research also gave us the name for Earth’s Jurassic Period.

Learning More About NASA’s New Spacesuits

Following my recent Sciency Words post on “bunny hopping,” I got a lot of questions about NASA’s new spacesuit design.  I wasn’t really able to answer those questions, so today I’d like to share a video from someone who’s a little better qualified to talk about this stuff.

Scott Manly is an astrophysicist and YouTuber.  On his channel, he plays a lot of space-themed video games and talks about scientific accuracies (or inaccuracies) in said video games.  I started watching Mr. Manly back when I was obsessed with Kerbal Space Program.

I think the big takeaway from this video is that NASA’s new spacesuit is not quite finished yet.  It’s still a work in progress.  That might explain some of the confusion over what the new spacesuit is supposed to do for astronauts once they’re on the Moon.

One thing I’m still wondering about: the new space boots.  Several articles I looked at (like this one) describe the new boots as “hiking-style boots with flexible soles.”  That doesn’t really satisfy my curiosity about these boots, so I’ll have to do more research on that.

Quick, Name Those Moons!

I haven’t done enough research this week to put together a Sciency Words post.  I’ve been too busy with other writing.  However, I do have some name-related news to share with you today.

As you may have already heard, astronomers recently discovered twenty new moons orbiting the planet Saturn.  This brings Saturn’s total moon count up to 82, surpassing Jupiter’s total of 79.

These newly discovered moons are each about five kilometers in diameter, according to this press release from Carnegie Science.  That’s really small for moons.  These objects are more like asteroids that happen to be caught in Saturn’s gravity.  Or they might be rubble left over from the destruction of older Saturnian moons.  Saturn may (or may not) have a long history of destroying her own moons.

Now astronomers are asking for you (yes, you!) to help name these newly discovered moons.  Due to established naming conventions, these particular Saturnian moons must be named after giants from Inuit, Norse, or Gallic mythology.  Tweet your suggestions to @SaturnLegacy using the hashtag #NameSaturnsMoons.  Name submissions are due by December 6, 2019.

So go crack open some books on Inuit, Norse, and Gallic mythology, and may the best names win!

Sciency Words: Bunny Hopping

Sciency Words: (proper noun) a special series here on Planet Pailly focusing on the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  Today’s Sciency Word is:


So yesterday I was reading up on the latest spacesuit design from NASA, and I came across a term that I don’t remember ever seeing or hearing before.  In this article from Space Daily, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine is quoted as saying: “If we remember the Apollo generation, we remember Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, they bunny hopped on the surface of the Moon.”

This left me wondering: do people really use the term “bunny hopping” to describe how Apollo astronauts moved about on the Moon?  I tried really hard to trace the etymology of this term.  I didn’t find much, but honestly, when you see clips like this one, it’s easy to figure out where the term came from.

In my previous research on this topic, I’ve seen this method of locomotion referred to as “loping-mode” or “skipping-mode.”  But sure, we can call it “bunny hopping” too.  So why did astronauts do this?

Well, there’s something about walking that most of us, in our daily lives, don’t realize: Earth’s gravity does some of the work for us.  When you take a step, first you lift your foot off the ground, then you extend your leg, and then… well, try to stop yourself at this point.  With your leg extended forward like that, you’ll find that your center of gravity has shifted, and you can feel the force of gravity trying to pull you through the remainder of your walk cycle.

So walking feels like a natural and efficient way for us humans to get around because Earth’s gravity helps us.  Take Earth’s gravity away, and walking suddenly feels awkward and cumbersome.  In lunar gravity, which is approximately ⅙ of Earth’s gravity, the Apollo astronauts found other methods of locomotion to be more comfortable, more natural.  In this clip, we hear audio chatter of astronauts disagreeing about whether “hopping” or “loping” is a better way to get around.

Personal preference seems to be important here, both in how astronauts “walked” on the Moon and in how they described the experience of this new kind of “walking.”

Getting back to the new spacesuits from NASA, the new design features a dramatically improved range of motion.  The next astronauts on the Moon will have a much easier time getting around, and according to Administrator Bridenstine there will be no need for bunny hopping.  “Now we’re going to be able to walk on the surface of the Moon, which is very different from the suits of the past.”

And that’s got me confused.  I’m really not sure what Bridenstine means by that statement because, as I just explained, it was the Moon’s gravity—more so than the spacesuits—that made Apollo era astronauts feel the need to “bunny hop” on the Moon.  The new spacesuits, with their improved range of motion, should help astronauts in the new Artemis program avoid gaffs like these…

But without altering the Moon’s gravity, I don’t see any way to avoid “bunny hopping.”

New Pens for My Coffee Mug Full of Pens

A few weeks back, I told you all about my writing zone—that magical place where writing happens.  One of the main fixtures of my writing zone is a coffee mug full of pens, the purpose of which is self-explanatory.

Following that blog post, an anonymous somebody decided to “buy me a coffee” through the website Buy Me a Coffee.  In fact, this unknown benefactor bought me three coffees, equaling a total donation of $9, to help me buy more pens to put in my coffee mug full of pens.

Now I’m rather picky about the pens I use for writing.  I only buy Pilot Precise V5 pens.  They’re self-described as “the ultimate writing machine,” which is marketing hyperbole, of course.  But still, they’re really nice pens.

However, given that that $9 seems so extra special to me, it didn’t feel right to just buy the same old pens I always buy.  So I got these pens instead.

They’re still Pilot Precise V5 pens, but instead of boring old black ink, these pens have an art deco style and come in pretty colors.  My muse (also known as my Best Imaginary Friend Forever or B.I.F.F.) seems to approve.

And the first draft of this blog post was written in a very lovely turquoise ink.

So today I just wanted to say thank you to whoever donated this money.  I really appreciate this, and you’ve helped make the magic of writing just a bit more magical for me!

And if anyone else would like to “buy me a coffee,” please click here.  I don’t actually drink coffee, so the money will be used for writing and art supplies to help keep this blog going, and I promise to keep you all updated on how that coffee money is spent!