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.


Alchemy: A Blemish on Isaac Newton’s Reputation

July 18, 2018

I’ve been thinking a lot about Isaac Newton lately. That’s because of this article from the Washington Post, which fellow writer and all around awesome person Jennifer Shelby recently shared on her blog.  The article wasn’t actually about Newton.  It was about alchemy.

The thing is, Newton happened to be a famous and highly accomplished alchemist (no, that’s the wrong way to say it).

The thing is, Newton happened to be a secret but highly skilled alchemist (no, that’s not quite right either).

The thing is, Newton tried really, really hard to be an alchemist.  That’s right. Newton was searching for the magical philosopher’s stone many centuries before Lord Voldemort and Harry Potter came along.  Obviously Newton never found it… unless there are more of Newton’s waste books out there that have yet to be uncovered and decoded (feel free to use that as a writing prompt, if you like).

Newton is famous for many things.  He used prisms to figure out how light works, and he was half right when he asserted that light is composed of tiny particles rather than waves.  Newton applied math to the mysteries of gravitation, and he showed that moons and falling apples have something important in common.  He also invented calculus (unless he stole the idea from someone else).

This alchemy stuff is generally seen as a blemish on Newton’s reputation as a scientist.  But the way I see it, the fact that Newton tried his hand at alchemy—along with many, many other things that never panned out for him—is one of the reasons Newton was such an admirable human being.

He tried stuff.  All sorts of stuff.  Anything and everything that caught his interest.  Most of it turned out to be a waste of his time, but a handful of Newton’s curious ideas led him to the scientific breakthroughs that made his reputation and his career, and ultimately secured his legacy as a great scientist.

So at the risk of repeating myself from Monday’s post, the lesson for today is: go try stuff.  Find out what doesn’t work, and figure out what does, and then… well, see where your discoveries might lead you.

P.S.: And speaking of Harry Potter, stay tuned for a special Harry Potter themed episode of Sciency Words this coming Friday!


Art in the Wild: Mr. Sun

July 16, 2018

Of late, I’ve felt that I need to push myself a little harder with my art.  I’ve been doing lots and lots of drawings, so it’s not that I’ve gotten lazy; rather, I feel like I’ve gotten complacent.  I feel like I keep doing the same kind of drawing over and over again, without really challenging myself or stretching my artistic skills.

So to shake up my routine, I decided to take some of my art supplies “out into the wild,” so to speak.  Or at least I took them out of my art studio and brought them with me to my day job.  My hope was that I could draw something based on first hand observation, rather than from photo references, mannequins and maquettes, or pure imagination.

A year or two ago, a thoughtful friend left this Mr. Sun figurine on my desk.  Given the history of this blog, that seemed like a good place for me to start.

One of the challenges of drawing from first hand observation is that your mind plays tricks on you.  You have to get past what your mind thinks you should see and draw what your eyes actually see. I had a really tough time with this drawing because my mind kept insisting there should not be highlights and cast shadows on the Sun; the Sun is supposed to be a light source!

It’s been a long time since I’ve taken my art out of the studio like this.  I think it was good practice artistically speaking, and a surprisingly difficult mental challenge as well.  I plan to do a whole lot more of this.  Let me know in the comments if you’d like to see more of the results (good, bad, or ugly).

I love drawing almost as much as I love writing.  But when you love something, there’s a real danger of settling into a comfort zone, becoming complacent, and getting bored. And then you may start to fall out of love with that thing (or maybe even that person) that you loved so much.

So whatever it is you love, I hope you’ll keep pushing yourself, take some risks, and challenge yourself to do something more with it.