Sciency Words: Abyssal Gigantism

Hello, friends!  Welcome back to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we talk about those weird and wacky terms scientists use.  This week’s Sciency Word is:


In the deepest, darkest abyss of the ocean, animals have a tendency to grow to gigantic sizes.  This tendency is known as abyssal gigantism.  It’s also known as deep-sea gigantism.

Based on what Google Ngram Viewer has to show us, it looks like these terms (both abyssal and deep-sea gigantism) first appeared in the 1950’s, but people have obviously known that giant things live in the ocean for far longer than that.  Common examples of abyssal gigantism include the giant squid, the giant oarfish, and the Japanese spider crab.  All of these animals live in the deep, deep, deeeeeep ocean, and they all grow larger—considerably larger—than their shallow-water cousins.

What causes abyssal gigantism?  That’s not entirely clear.  As you might imagine, marine biologists have a tough time studying creatures that live that far down underwater.  But based on what I’ve read about this so far, the two most common explanations seem to be:

  • Keeping warm: Bigger animals can retain more of their own body heat.  That’s important if you live in extremely cold environments, like the deep oceans.  This is related to an ecological principle known as Bergmann’s rule.
  • Being metabolically efficient: Bigger animals tend to be more metabolically efficient, as modeled by something called Kleiber’s law.  In other words, big animals need less food relative to their size than smaller animals do.  That’s important if you live in an environment where food is scarce, like the deep oceans.

I have to admit I still have a lot to learn about this topic, and some of the things I read were a little confusing to me.  For example, I’ve read contradictory things about oxygen levels in the deep ocean and how that might factor into abyssal gigantism.

But that’s not the important thing.  You see, it’s not just that animals can grow to gigantic sizes in the deep ocean; it’s that they must.  For one reason or another, there’s evolutionary pressure on deep sea animals to get bigger and bigger and bigger.  And that’s got me thinking….

Next time on Planet Pailly, let’s revisit that very deep, very dark, very cold subsurface ocean on Europa.

How to Be Smart

Hello, friends!

So there’s this anecdote I heard once, way back when I was a kid, about a math teacher who didn’t know the value of pi.  This teacher had to stop in the middle of class and look the number up in a book.  Naturally, this drew some snarky comments from the students.  The teacher replied, sagely: “Why should I waste valuable brain space on information I can easily look up?”

Why indeed?

I haven’t been doing much research lately.  Right now, I’m trying to pick the habit up again, and I thought I’d start by doing a little research on how to do research.  Specifically, I thought I could use a refresher course on how to tell the difference between facts and fabrications on the Internet.  I wound up reading several papers (this one, this one, and this one), and I still have at least one more paper (this one) that I want to read.  So what have I learned so far?

Well, the main take away from my research on research is that a lot of people implicitly share the philosophy of that math teacher who didn’t know the value of pi.  I may not know the answer, but I know where to find the answer, and in the end that’s good enough.  And maybe it is good enough, so long as you recognize that you’re getting your information from an external source.

Unfortunately, according to this paper from the Journal of Experimental Psychology, the act of using a search engine can trick our brains into thinking we know more than we actually we do.  In a series of memory-related tests, people tended to overestimate their “unplugged knowledge” and underestimate their dependency on Internet search engines.  You don’t even have to have successful search engine results to get this inflated knowledge ego.  As the paper explains:

The illusion of knowledge from Internet use appears to be driven by the act of searching.  The effect does not depend on previous success on a specific search engine, but rather generalizes to less popular search engines as well (Experiment 4a).  It persists when the queries posed to the search engine are not answered (Experiment 4b) and remains even in cases where the search query fails to provide relevant answers or even any results at all (Experiment 4c).

I don’t think the lesson here is that we should stop using the Internet for research.  Rather, I think the lesson is that we need to stay humble.  It’s a little too easy to forget where our information comes from when information comes so easily through the Internet.  Unlike that math teacher who had to spend time flipping through a book to find the value of pi, I can just google it—or, faster yet, I can ask Siri.  But that does not mean I actually know the answer any better than that math teacher did.

P.S.: Yes, I did all my research for today’s post using Google.

#IWSG: A Brave New Muse

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, click here to learn more about this amazingly supportive group!

In the last few weeks, I have not been writing.  Not as much as I want to, nor as much as I believe I need to.  I have my theories about why this is the case.  I could tell you about those theories, but I don’t want to.  At this point, I’m tired of talking about what’s wrong.  I’m tired of examining and reexamining the situation from all these different perspectives.  I just want to get back to writing.

And that’s the whole point of the writing recovery plan, which I introduced in last month’s IWSG post.  Part of that plan involved shopping: stocking up on writing supplies, as well as art supplies and a few other creative necessities.  And part of the plan involved rereading some of my favorite books and rewatching some of my favorite movies: the kinds of books and movies that made me want to be a writer in the first place.

Well, my shopping is done, and I’ve gone through most of my rereading/rewatching list.  But the writing?  The writing still hasn’t come back, not in the way I was hoping.  It seems that there’s still one more thing I need to do.  Something I did not think of in my original recovery plan.

Regular readers of this blog have met my muse before.  She’s sort of a recurring character in my posts, especially in these IWSG posts.  I also keep a picture of her in my personal writing sanctuary, as a reminder.  I’ve been drawing my muse basically the same way for a long time: medium blue wings, a matching blue dress, high-heel boots.  But now I think it’s time to update her look.

So going forward, to the extent that there’s any sort of canon regarding my muse, this will be her canonical look:

Also going forward, this will be the picture sitting in my writing sanctuary, as a reminder.  And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m told that it is time to write.

The #1 Lesson I Learned from COVID

Hello, friends!

So I don’t like to say mean or hurtful things, not about anyone nor anything.  But at this point, after everything we’ve all been through in the past year or so, I can’t help myself.  This message needs to be heard:

It’s been almost a week now that I’ve been fully immunized against COVID-19.  For those of you who may be curious, I got the Modern vaccine.

I’m hesitant to say that the pandemic is winding down or that COVID is going away.  But I do feel like COVID will be less of a threat going forward, and we can safely (or semi-safely) start getting back to our old lives.  With that in mind, I think this is a good time to reflect on some of the lessons learned during the pandemic.

For me personally, the #1 lesson I learned is that I’m not as much of an introvert as I thought.  For most of my life, I’ve felt happiest when I’m alone and loneliest when I’m in a crowd.  Social interactions—even with people I like—tend to leave me feeling drained.  And that’s pretty much the textbook definition of introversion.

So when the pandemic started, I was secretly thrilled.  Social distancing sounded like a dream come true.  I thought I was going to write all the things, and draw all the things, and read all the books, and build all the Lego sets.  But being totally isolated from the rest of humanity—turns out that, for me, was a pretty draining experience, too.  Being alone all the time is almost as draining as being at a crowded and noisy party with a bunch of highly judgmental people.

Now that I’m fully immunized, and as more and more people are joining the fully immunized club, I am just so gosh darn eager to talk to somebody—anybody!  For the first time in my life, I’m acting almost like an extrovert. Yes, I do want to talk about the weather and the local sports team!  Yes, please do tell me how your kids are holding up!  And your opinions about politics?  Actually, no.  I still don’t want to have that conversation, thanks.

Maybe this is a temporary thing.  In fact, I’m sure it’s a temporary thing and that my introverted ways will gradually start to reassert themselves.  But still, a lesson was learned.  I’m not as much of an introvert as I thought, and maybe a little social activity is good for me after all.

What lessons did you learn from the pandemic?

How to Make Me Absolutely, Positively, Unambiguously LOVE Your Story

Hello, friends!

So as part of my writing recovery plan, I’ve been re-reading and re-watching some of my favorite Sci-Fi books and films.  The point of this is to remind myself why I wanted to be a Sci-Fi writer in the first place.

Last weekend, I re-watched 2001: A Space Odyssey.  I like that movie.  I like that movie a lot.  But I don’t love it.  Not in the way that I absolutely, positively, unambiguously LOVE Star Wars, or Alien, or The Martian.  And that’s got me wondering: what differentiates a story that I, personally, love from a story that I merely like?

Obviously this is a subjective thing, but still there must be a pattern to my preferences.  And now I think I’ve finally figured out what that pattern is:

  • First off, a story needs good world building.  There must be enough vivid detail (and also enough internal consistency) that I can picture myself actually living in the story world.
  • Next, I have to feel like I really know the protagonist.  I have to feel like know her or him well enough that we could be best friends.
  • And lastly, there needs to be a serious threat: something big enough and scary enough that I feel genuinely frightened, either because this fictional world I now live in is threatened or because my new best friend is in danger.

Again, obviously, this is a subjective thing.  But if you are telling me, J.S. Pailly, a story and if you want me, J.S. Pailly, to absolutely love your story, then you need to nail all three of those bullet points above.  Witty dialogue, clever plot twists, hyper realistic science, insightful allegories about modern life—I’m happy to see those things in a story, too; but the three bullet points above are what really matter to me, personally.

In the case of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the world building is excellent.  Just change the title to 2061, and I can totally believe this is what the near future will look like.  As for having a serious threat, well… I really, really, really would not want to be trapped alone on a spaceship with HAL.  Would you?  Where 2001 falls short for me is its protagonist.  We never learn much about Dr. David Bowman—certainly not enough to make me feel like I’m B.F.F.s with him.

Looking at other movies that fall just a little bit short for me: the villain in The Fifth Element doesn’t scare me much, and the world building in Gattaca has always felt a bit flat to me.  Each of these films ticks only two out of three of my boxes, and thus I like them—I like them a whole lot, in fact!  But I don’t quite love them.

But of course, different people come to a story wanting and expecting different things.  I’ve told you which buttons a story has to push in order to make me absolutely, positively, unambiguously love it.  What about you?  What differentiates the stories you love from the stories you merely like?

#IWSG: The Writing Recovery Plan

Hello, friends!  Welcome to this month’s meeting of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group.  If you’re an insecure writer in need of some support, then this is the group for you.  Click here to learn more!

In my last post, I told you that I’m too stubborn to quit writing.  Stubbornness is a trait that runs in my family, for better or worse.  Stubbornness can be a virtue or a vice, depending on what you choose to be stubborn about.  So while I may be too stubborn to quit writing, I have realized in the last few weeks that I need to stop being stubborn about the way my writing process works.

You see, I’ve always been obsessed with plans and goals.  I like to plan out my day, my week, my year—my whole life, even—in meticulous detail.  But about eight weeks ago, there was a family emergency, and for the past eight weeks now, all my plans have fallen apart: especially my writing plans.

So if I’m ever going to get back to my old self, I need a new plan.  I call it a Writing Recovery Plan.  Given that it took me eight weeks to get to the point I’m at now, I figure it’ll take about eight weeks to get myself back to the point where I was.  So what will I spend the next eight weeks doing?  Well, I don’t know.  The plan is, essentially, to have no plan.

Maybe I’ll start writing Tomorrow News Network again, or maybe I’ll start something entirely new.  Maybe I’ll write a bunch of sciency stuff for the blog, or maybe I’ll blog about something completely different.  I don’t know.  And for the next eight weeks, I’m not going to worry about it.  I’ll simply let the muse point me in whatever direction she likes and see where that leads me.

At the end of my eight weeks, I’ll have to make some decisions.  I will never quit writing, but there are other aspects of my writing life and writing career that might need to change.  But that is not something I want to talk about or think about today.  Today, I simply want to tell you that I’m back, officially.  I’ll be blogging again on a weekly basis, covering topics that are… to be determined.

So next time on Planet Pailly, I’ll have something to say about something.

#IWSG: Too Stubborn to Quit Writing

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!

Last month, there was a family emergency.  What happened was… well, wait.  How personal do I want to get in this blog post?

Bad stuff happened.  Like, really bad stuff.  And I’ve been dealing with the fallout as best I can ever since.  Finding time to write has been… difficult.  If there was ever going to be a moment when I would give up on my writing dreams, this was the moment.

But there’s one thing that’s true about my whole family: we are stubborn.  That’s not necessarily a good thing.  For example, it is not a good thing to be stubborn about medical stuff.  Seriously, if you’re feeling sick, do not try “toughing it out.”  Go see a doctor before you end up putting yourself in the hecking hospital!

Oh, whoops… (quickly turns the T.M.I. dial back down to zero).

Anyway, at this point the situation with my family is more or less under control.  Important decisions still need to be made, certain things cannot go back to the way they were before, et cetera, et cetera.  But the situation is more or less under control.  My plan now is to ease myself, slowly and gradually, back into my writing routine.  Because while life may have postponed my writing for a month, I am too stubborn to give up on my writing dreams entirely.

P.S.: And if you’re a stubborn person too, good!  I commend you for your stubbornness, just so long as you’re being stubborn about the right things.

A.F.B. (Away From Blog)

Hello, friends!

So I’m going to be away from the blog (a.f.b.) for a little while.  Almost immediately after I wrote my last post, a family emergency came up.  Everything is okay.  There’s nothing to worry about, but the situation will require my undivided attention for the next few weeks.  I will be back as soon as I am able to be back.

#IWSG: Hey, Listen!

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!

I’ve written a lot of these IWSG posts over the years, and many of those posts have featured my muse: the magical fairy person who nags me when I’m not doing my writing.  I tend to describe my muse in a certain way, and I tend to depict her a certain way in my art.  This has led to a few comments comparing my muse to a certain fairy companion from a certain video game.

Today, I’d like to confirm for you all that, yes, the idea for my muse was partially inspired by Navi from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.  Now I realize there are not a lot of Navi fans out there.  A lot of people found her super annoying, and she’s often listed among the most hated video game characters of all time.

But, gosh darn it, I liked her.  When I was a kid playing Ocarina of Time for the first time, I really liked the idea that I had this magical fairy person tagging along with me on my adventures.  Even if Navi didn’t always have the most useful advice to offer, it was comforting to know that I didn’t have to fight all those giant spiders and lizard monsters and creepy plant things alone.  And I guess, in this ongoing adventure of being a writer, the same idea still gives me comfort.

Now if only the act of writing could be as easy in real life as it would have been in the game.

Sciency Words: Heartbeat Tone

Hello, friends!  Welcome back to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we talk about those weird and wonderful terms scientists use.  Today’s Sciency Word is:


Last week, I watched NASA’s live coverage of the Perseverance rover landing on Mars.  Naturally, I had a notepad ready, and I picked up quite a few new scientific terms.  My absolute favorite—the one that brought the biggest smile to my face—was “heartbeat tone.”  I love the idea that Perseverance (a.k.a. Percy, the Mars Rover) has a heartbeat.

As this article from Planetary News describes it, Percy’s heartbeat tone is “similar to a telephone dial tone.”  It’s an ongoing signal just telling us that everything’s okay.  Nothing’s gone wrong, and everything’s still working the way it’s supposed to.

Of course, other NASA spacecraft use heartbeat tones as well.  According to two separate articles from Popular Mechanics, the Curiosity rover on Mars and the Juno space probe orbiting Jupiter also send heartbeat tones back to Earth.  And that article about Juno offers us a little bit of detail about what Juno’s heartbeat actually sounds like: a series of ten-second-long beeps, sort of like very long dashes in Morse code.

Based on my research, it seems like the earliest NASA spacecraft to use heartbeat tones (or rather, the earliest spacecraft to have this heartbeat terminology applied to it) was the New Horizons mission to Pluto, which launched in 2005.  As this article from Spaceflight 101 explains it, New Horizons’ onboard computers monitor for “heartbeat pulses” that are supposed to occur once per second.  If these pulses stop for three minutes or more, backup systems kick in, take over control of the spacecraft, and send an emergency message back to Earth.

So, I could be wrong about this, but I think this “heartbeat pulse” or “heartbeat tone” terminology started with New Horizons.  To be clear: I’m sure spacecraft were sending “all systems normal” signals back to Earth long before the New Horizons mission.  I just think the idea of using “heartbeat” as a conceptual metaphor started with New Horizons.  But again, I could be wrong about that, and if anyone has an example of the term being used prior to New Horizons, I would love to hear about it in the comments below!

P.S.: I recently wrote a post about whether or not planets have genders.  With that in mind, I was amused to note in NASA’s live coverage that everyone kept referring to Perseverance using she/her pronouns.  However, the rover has stated a preference for they/them on Twitter.  So going forward, I will respect the rover’s preferred pronouns.