#IWSG: Confidence

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

I’m feeling a little confused right now, both about my “real” life and my writing life.  A lot of stuff seems to be happening.  Very little of it makes any sense to me.  I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say for this month’s IWSG post, but then I saw the optional IWSG question:

Quote: “Although I have written a short story collection, the form found me and not the other way around. Don’t write short stories, novels or poems. Just write your truth and your stories will mold into the shapes they need to be.” 

Have you ever written a piece that became a form, or even a genre, you hadn’t planned on writing in? Or do you choose a form/genre in advance?

Oh, that’s an easy one!  I always know I’m writing science fiction.  I have never been interested in writing anything else, not even for a moment, not even once!

At various points in my life, writing teachers have tried to convince me to be more flexible.  They’d ask me to try something different.  Sometimes they would insist, as teachers do.  “You never know,” they’d say.  “You might like it!”  But I did know.  I was not going to like it.  Not unless I could sneak a Sci-Fi element into the assignment somehow.

I’ll admit I was surprised to discover how much I enjoy writing short stories and novella length fiction.  When I was young, I assumed I wanted to write Sci-Fi novels.  But by writing in shorter forms, I can tell more Sci-Fi stories.  And that’s the thing I want most.  That’s the thing I’ve always wanted most: to tell more and more and more Sci-Fi stories!

And you know, with all the weird and confusing stuff going on right now, it is nice to feel confident about at least one thing.  I write science fiction.  That’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to write.  That’s the only thing I ever will want to write.  I may be questioning a bunch of other stuff about myself right now, but I can at least feel confident about that one thing.

Sciency Words: Perseverance

Hello, friends!  Welcome back to Sciency Words, an ongoing series here on Planet Pailly where we talk about science or science-related terms.  Today on Sciency Words, we’re talking about:

PERSEVERANCE

Mars rovers are among the most advanced pieces of technology we humans have ever produced.  And by a longstanding tradition dating back to the Sojourner rover in 1997, the official names for NASA’s Mars rovers are chosen by school children.

The Perseverance rover, currently on route to Mars, was named by 7th grader Alex Mather.  He won an essay contest.  Here’s a video of Mather reading his essay, followed by a quick Q and A session with some NASA officials.

You know, after listening to Mather’s essay, I have to agree.  Perseverance is the right name for our newest Mars rover.  It’s even more right of a name now than it was back in March, when the name was announced.

Things are scary here on Earth.  So many people are suffering.  So many people are struggling.  So many lives are being needlessly lost.  But I do believe, as Mather says in his essay, that perseverance is our most important quality as a species.  In the end, humanity will persevere.

Sciency Words: The Milky Way

Hello, friends!  Welcome back to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we talk about the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  Today on Sciency Words, we’re talking about:

THE MILKY WAY

A while back, there was a very famous marketing campaign, coupled with a very famous slogan.  Some of you may remember it.  The purpose of this marketing campaign was, obviously, to encourage tourists to visit our galaxy.

According to ancient Greek mythology, the Milky Way was created as a result of a breastfeeding accident.  You see, the demigod Heracles was absurdly strong, even as a baby.  One day, the goddess Hera was breastfeeding baby Heracles.  Because Heracles was so strong, he started suckling too hard, and Hera had to pull him off her breast.  As a result, Heracles spat up all the milk he’d been drinking.  And, once again because Heracles was so absurdly strong, he ended up spewing milk all the way up into the sky.

Thus, the Greeks called all that “milk” in the sky Galaxias Kyklos, or “the Milky Circle.”  The “Way” part came later, thanks to the Romans, who looked at that same wide band of light cutting across the nighttime sky and thought it looked kind of like a road.  Thus, the Romans named it Via Lactea, which can be translated as “Road of Milk” or “Way of Milk.”  Or “Milky Way.”

So that’s how our galaxy came to be known officially as the Milky Way.  Except… is that really the official name?  I tried really hard, but I couldn’t find any statement or document from the International Astronomy Union (I.A.U.) concerning the official name of our galaxy.  The official names of other galaxies?  Sure, there are rules for that.  But our own galaxy?  Nothing.

I suspect the I.A.U.’s stance on this is similar to their stance on the official names for the Earth and the Moon, or the Sun and the Solar System: just keep using whatever names you already use in your native language.

According to Wikipedia, our galaxy is known as the Silver River (China), the Heavenly River (Japan), and the Ganges of the Sky (India).  In large portions of Africa and Central Asia, our galaxy is called the Straw Way or the Straw Thief’s Way.  Several cultures in and around the Arctic Circle call it the Bird’s Path, because it is said that birds follow that pathway of stars during migratory seasons.

Personally, I don’t think the Milky Way looks much like milk.  It’s too shiny.  Too sparkly.  Thanks to light pollution, I’ve only seen the Milky Way a few times in my life.  The first time was while camping in the backwoods of Indiana.  I thought then, and I still think now, that the Milky Way looks like someone spilled diamonds across the sky.

So if I ever got the chance to rename our galaxy (and as a science fiction writer, perhaps I will have that chance at some point), I’d want to name it something diamond-y.  The Diamond Way, or the Diamond River, or something like that.

So what do you think?  Do you like the name Milky Way, or do you prefer a different name like Silver River or Bird’s Path?  Or would you rather make up your own name, if you had the chance?

P.S.: According to the Mars Wrigley’s website, the Milky Way candy bar was NOT named after the galaxy.  As a space nerd, I was deeply disappointed to learn this.  In the future, I will be spending my candy allowance elsewhere.

Sciency Words: Necroplanetology

Hello, friends!  Welcome back to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we talk about those weird words scientists use.  Today on Sciency Words, we’re talking about:

NECROPLANETOLOGY

I’d like to introduce you to a very special exoplanet, one of the very first exoplanets to be photographed by a telescope (by the Hubble Space Telescope, in fact!).  Its name is Fomalhaut b.  Its also known as Dagon, and here’s what it looks like…

Oh no!  What happened!?!

The prefix “necro-” comes from a Greek word meaning dead.  So necroplanetology refers to the study of planets and planetary bodies that are… dearly departed.  The term was first introduced in this 2020 paper, published in The Astrophysical Journal.

That 2020 paper describes a white dwarf star designated WD 1145+017.  A white dwarf is, as you may already know, the stellar remnant left behind after the death of a sun.  WD 1145+017 appears to have some debris orbiting it: the wreckage of a destroyed planet (or planets).

Finding planetary debris like that is an incredible opportunity for astronomers.  Like forensic scientists studying blood splatters at a crime scene, astronomers can observe this sort of planetary debris to determine how planets die, and they can also learn more about what the interiors of planets must have been like before their deaths.  That’s what the study of necroplanetology is all about!

Potential subjects of necroplanetological research include WD 1145+017, KIC 8462852 (a.k.a. Tabby’s Star), Oumuamua, Alderaan, and Fomalhaut b.  In the case of Fomalhaut b, the planet sure did look like a planet when its discovery was announced in 2008 (though Fomalhaut b appeared to be unusually bright at that time, given its estimated mass and other characteristics).  But since then, Fomalhaut b seemed to fade and disperse, suggesting that rather than observing a planet, we’ve been observing the debris field left behind after a recent planetary collision.

And another possible subject of necroplanetological research may be Proxima Centauri c.  As I told you in Wednesday’s post, Proxima c appears to be a lot brighter than we’d expect, given its estimated mass and other characteristics.  As this paper suggests, that excess brightness could be caused by a “conspicuous ring system” reflecting lots and lots of sunlight.  But that same paper also draws the unavoidable analogy with Fomalhaut b.  We may not be looking at a planet after all.  We may be looking at an expanding debris field left behind by a recent planetary collision.

We’ll have wait and see if Proxima c starts to fade and disperse, like Fomalhaut b did.  Personally, I hope that doesn’t happen.  But if it does, the destruction of a planet in the star system right next door to our own will be an incredible opportunity for necroplanetologists.

The Highly Conspicuous Rings of Proxima c

Hello, friends!  As you know, Saturn is a really pretty planet.  That’s not an opinion.  It’s a scientific fact.  But in the solar system right next door to our own, there is a planet even prettier than Saturn.  As you can see in the highly technical diagram below, the planet Proxima Centauri c may be the brightest, shiniest, prettiest planet known to human science!

The last time I wrote about Proxima Centauri c, the planet was only suspected to exist, based on circumstantial evidence.  But according to this press release, Proxima c’s existence is now confirmed.  Additional data about the planet was found in archived Hubble Space Telescope images dating back to the 1990’s.

However, certain details about Proxima c remain difficult to explain.  Most notably, the planet (as observed in infrared light) appears to be way, waaaay brighter than we would expect, based upon its estimated mass (approximately seven times the mass of Earth).  In my highly technical diagram, I tried to make Proxima c look as bright and shiny as possible, but I’m starting to think I didn’t make the planet bright and shiny enough!

According to this paper on Proxima c’s infrared signature, one possible explanation is a “conspicuous ring system” that’s reflecting a whole lot of extra sunlight.  If that’s the case, Proxima c really would be a stunningly beautiful sight, with wide, glorious rings that would put the rings of Saturn to shame.  However, that same paper offers other possible explanations that sound far more grim.  Something horrible may have happened to Proxima c and/or its moons.  But I’ll save that for Friday’s episode of Sciency Words.

P.S.: If you own a backyard telescope or a pair of binoculars and want to see Proxima c for yourself, well… you can’t.  But if you have access to a high powered astronomical observatory, there’s a really interesting technique that can help you find Proxima c and planets like it.  Science communicator Elizabeth Tasker has written an excellent article about that.  Click here!

Galactic Census Report: How Many Civilizations Are in Our Galaxy?

Hello, friends!  Have you heard the news?  Scientists have determined that there should be at least thirty-six alien civilizations in our galaxy right now.

Here’s the actual research paper from The Astrophysical Journal (warning: paywall).  As you might imagine, this research is based on some key assumptions.  And the authors do make it clear that they are making assumptions.  Reasonable assumptions, they argue, but still… ASSUMPTIONS!!!

The first major assumption is this: any Earth-like planet with an Earth-like chemical composition that happens to have an Earth-like orbit (i.e.: habitable zone) and has been around for an Earth-like period of time (approximately 4.5 billion years) has a reasonably good chance of developing Earth-like intelligent life.

The second major assumption is this: once a civilization advances to the point that it can start broadcasting its presence to the rest of the universe, that civilization will also have advanced to the point of being able to destroy itself.  Earth-like intelligent life has a tendency, the authors argue, for self-destruction.  Maybe it’ll be nuclear weapons, or maybe a climate catastrophe of some kind.  Or, I don’t know, maybe an increasingly globalized society will make itself more vulnerable to some sort of global pandemic.

Obviously the authors make other assumptions as well, but those two are the big ones.  When plugging numbers into a modified version of the Drake Equation, the most pessimistic assumptions yield an estimate of 36 civilizations in our galaxy (with a margin of error that could push that number all the way down to 4).  The most optimistic assumptions yield an estimate of 928 civilizations (with a margin of error that could push the number all the way up to 2908).

As I’ve said before, scientific papers should never be taken as proclamations of absolute fact.  That’s especially true for papers like this one.  Scientific papers are part of an ongoing back-and-forth conversation in the scientific community.  What do we currently know?  How much do we still have to learn, and what should our expectations realistically be?  That’s what this paper from The Astrophysical Journal is really about: setting expectations for SETI research.

So what should our expectations be, based on those two key assumptions the authors made?  Well, even under the most optimistic scenarios, our nearest neighbors are predicted to be hundreds (if not thousands) of lightyears away—far enough away that they’d be very, very, very difficult to find using our current technology, and establishing two way communications would be virtually impossible.

So maybe we’re not alone in the universe, but we may as well be.

Sciency Words: CETI vs. SETI

Hello, friends!  Welcome back to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we take a closer look at the definitions and etymologies of scientific terms.  Today on Sciency Words, we’re talking about:

CETI

On October 10, 1966, scientists from the International Academy of Astronautics met in Madrid, Spain, to discuss CETI: Communications with ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence.  This was surely not the first time the term CETI was ever used, but based on my research, that 1966 meeting seems to be the earliest official usage of the term by the scientific community.

CETI refers to the act of sending signals or messages out into space for the express purpose of making contact with intelligent alien life.  It’s the human race shouting into the void, asking if anybody’s out there.  The most famous example of this is the Arecibo message, which was broadcast from the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico in 1974.

The idea of deliberately trying to attract the attention of extraterrestrials has always been controversial.  What if an alien intelligence does hear us?  What if that alien intelligence is not friendly?  But for the purposes of a Sciency Words post, I’m going to skip over that controversy and focus on the controversy about the word CETI itself.

CETI is far too easily confused with SETI (the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence).  CETI and SETI are closely related fields, but there’s one very important distinction between them.  It’s the difference between talking and listening.  CETI is about trying to talk to the rest of the civilized universe (assuming other civilizations exist, of course).  SETI is about listening patiently to see if anyone out there is trying to talk to us.

According to Google ngrams, the term CETI peaked in the late 1970’s/early 1980’s.  Since then, the term METI (Messaging ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence) has far surpassed CETI.  And in 2018, a special committee on SETI nomenclature recommended that CETI be dropped from scientific discourse in favor of METI.

And yet CETI still appears, from time to time, in scientific research.  For example, this paper from June of 2020 uses the term CETI extensively.  But we’ll talk about that paper more on Monday.  It makes some rather bold predictions about how many CETI-capable civilizations should exist in our galaxy at this very moment.

P.S.: The authors of that 2020 paper offer another solution to the CETI vs. SETI problem.  They suggest CETI should be pronounced as “chetee.”  I’m not sure how I feel about that.

P.P.S.: Actually, I am sure how I feel about that.  I’d rather use the term METI instead.

When Milo Met Talie

Hello, friends!

Back in April, when I was participating in the A to Z Challenge, I wanted to do something extra special for the letter M.  That was the post about Milo Marrero, the protagonist of my new book, The Medusa Effect: A Tomorrow News Network Novella.  I wanted to draw a specific scene—a specific moment—from that book.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to finish my drawing, and I had to settle for a quick little portrait of Milo instead.  Ever since then, though, I kept thinking Milo deserved better.  Well, my friends, I’m now able to show you the drawing that was originally intended to go with that post.  I finally finished it!

For those of you who’ve read The Medusa Effect, I’m sure you know what this scene is and why it’s important.  For the rest of you, you can click here to see the original A to Z post about Milo Marrero.  Or if you’re curious about that blonde lady or her cyborg cameraman, you can click here or here respectively.

Or you can click here to go buy the book on Amazon, or you can read it for free with Kindle Unlimited.  I would really appreciate it if you did!

P.S.: I have more Tomorrow News Network illustrations in progress, so stayed tuned!

A Special Message from the Coronavirus

And now for a special message from the coronavirus…

Sciency Words: Tulpamancy

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we take a closer look at the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  Today on Sciency Words, we’re talking about:

TULPAMANCY

Do you have an imaginary friend?  A “real” imaginary friend whom you can talk to and who can talk back to you in return?  Does your imaginary friend often say things you weren’t expecting him/her/them to say?  If so, you may have been practicing tulpamancy.  You’re a tulpamancer, and your imaginary friend is a tulpa.

When I first heard about tulpamancy, I thought it sounded awesome.  But tulpamancy comes with a lot of talk about mental energies and thought-form meditation and psycho-spiritual awakenings.  It didn’t sound very sciency, but I decided to ask my muse what she thought.

My muse and I have been working together for quite a few years now.  When it comes to what does or does not belong in my writing—and that includes what does or does not belong in a Sciency Words post—I trust my muse’s judgment.  She’s usually right.  Usually.  But after doing more research on tulpamancy, I think this may be a rare instance where my muse is wrong.

The word tulpa comes from Tibetan… sort of.  In 1929, Belgian-French adventurer and spiritualist Alexandra David-Néel published a book called Magic and Mystery in Tibet.  In that book, David-Néel claims that by following certain rights and rituals of Tibetan Buddhism, she was able to conjure a “tulpa” out of the realm of human imagination and into the world of physical reality.

David-Néel’s tulpa took on the form of a jolly monk, a Friar Tuck-like character.  Other people could (allegedly) see and interact with this jolly monk.  Unfortunately, the monk grew “too willful,” according to this article from Nova Religio, and David-Néel was forced to destroy him.

The word tulpa is phonetically similar to a real word used by Tibetan Buddhists.  Beyond that, however, Alexandra David-Néel’s account of creating and destroying her tulpa has little to do with actual Tibetan Buddhism.  This seems to be a case of Western occultism/paranormalism with a bit of “orientalist window dressing,” as that same article from Nova Religio puts it.

Okay, yeah, this still doesn’t sound like a sciency thing, does it?  But in recent years, the practice of creating and communicating with imaginary friends has become the subject of serious psychological research.  The first scientific account of tulpas and tulpamancy appears to be this 2016 paper by Samuel Veissière.  As Veissière describes it, tulpamancy is a little like multiple personality disorder, except it’s non-harmful and non-pathological.  In fact, tulpamancy may even help reverse the symptoms of certain mental illnesses.

To quote this paper from Research in Psychology and Behavioral Science:

In cases of disorders that involve delusion and misperception, the tulpa often becomes the voice of reason during bouts of irrationality.  One respondent diagnosed with Schizophrenia writes how his tulpa can not only identify between hallucinations and actuality, but that they developed a technique that allows the delusions to be “zapped” away.  There are reports of tulpas alleviating the desire to perform irrational routines in individuals diagnosed with OCD, and others claim that their tulpas innovated workarounds for their dyslexia.

Think of it this way: much like your real friends, your imaginary friends are there for you when you need them.  And since tulpas essentially live inside your brain, they understand better than anyone else what’s really going on in there.  And if they see that something’s not right inside your head, they want to help, as any good friend would.

Now I’ve never been diagnosed with a mental illness, but speaking from personal experience, I can say this: my muse really has served as the voice of reason from time to time in my life.  When I’m feeling lazy and unmotivated, she tells me to go write.  She also reminds me to take breaks from writing, eat healthy meals, and get plenty of sleep at night, because: “A healthy writer is a productive writer!”

As I said, I’ve learned to trust my muse.  She’s usually right.  Usually.  But she still insists that tulpamancy shouldn’t count as a Sciency Word.

So dear reader, what do you think?  Do you agree with me that tulpamancy has become a scientific term, thanks to recent psychological research, or do you agree with my muse that this is a bunch of New Agey pseudoscientific nonsense?  Let us (and I do mean us) know in the comments!

P.S.: For anyone who may be curious, my muse made her first appearance on this blog in this 2015 post for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group.