Today’s Blog Post is 100% Chemical Free!

A few years back, I was on a wine tour in New Jersey.  It was a delightful adventure!  At one point, however, a very lovely vineyard owner told our tour group: “We don’t put any chemicals on our plants.”

I had to bite my tongue.  What I really, really, really wanted to say was: “Oh?  Not even H2O?”

Whenever I’m told something is “chemical free,” I am legitimately unsure what that means.  I know chemical free is supposed to mean free of artificial chemicals, or free of dangerous chemicals, or something to that effect.  But which chemicals do you consider dangerous? Which chemicals do you consider artificial?

Let me put it to you this way.  If you’re saying you don’t put any chemicals on your plants, then you obviously don’t consider water to be a chemical.  What about fertilizers?  Fertilizers are packed with sulfates and phosphates and nitrates.  I guess those don’t count as chemicals either.  So just how many chemicals do not count as chemicals?

Labeling a product “chemical free” creates a vague space in which some chemicals are chemicals and some aren’t.  I feel like there’s enough vaguery there that all sorts of things could be called chemical free.  Now I’m sure that that New Jersey vineyard owner had no nefarious intentions; but I’m equally sure that someone, somewhere—perhaps someone on the top floor of a skyscraper—is chuckling over how gullible the consumers of “chemical free” products can be.

Sciency Words: NIAC

Sciency Words: (proper noun) a special series here on Planet Pailly focusing on the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  Today on Sciency Words, we’re talking about:

NIAC

Every once in a while, you’ll hear that NASA is working on some crazy Sci-Fi technology.  Space elevators, warp drive… stuff like that.  How seriously should you take this?  Well, I’m not sure, but NASA does have this special program called NIAC.

When NIAC was first created in 1998, the acronym stood for “NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts.”  The program was canceled for budgetary reasons in 2007, but then it was revived in 2011.  The acronym now stands for “NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts.”

As explained in a recent article from Scientific American, “The program functions as NASA’a venture capital arm, in that it supports technologies that might pan out, big-time.”  Basically, if you have a proposal for some highly speculative new space technology—something that sounds a little bit crazy, but not too crazy—NASA might give you grant money for your research.

NIAC funding has gone toward space elevators and robotic space bees.  A mission to Proxima Centauri using tiny “chip” sized space probes?  That got NIAC funding.  The almost magical sounding Mach effect thruster—a propulsion system that uses zero propellant?  That got NIAC funding.

Some of these ideas have been ridiculed by the scientific community and in the popular press.  And I have to agree: this stuff really does sound crazy.  But remember, The New York Times once ridiculed Robert Goddard for his crazy idea that rockets could get us to the Moon.  The New York Times was really harsh in their criticism.

But as we now know, Goddard was right, and The New York Times famously published an apology in 1969, just days before Apollo 11 landed on the Moon.

Most NIAC-funded projects probably won’t work out; but imagine what would happen if a few of them did!  So the next time you hear that NASA is working on some crazy sounding Sci-Fi tech, that probably just means somebody won a NIAC grant. I’m still not sure how seriously you or I should take these NIAC-funded projects, but maybe it’s okay to take them just a little bit seriously.

Origin Stories: Who Invented Science Fiction?

Welcome to Origin Stories, a new special series here on Planet Pailly where we take a closer look at the origins of popular Sci-Fi concepts.  For this inaugural episode of Origin Stories, we’re going to get kind of meta and look at the origins of:

SCIENCE FICTION

Many people will tell you that Mary Shelley was the first science fiction writer.  When Shelley wrote Frankenstein, she took much of her inspiration from the recent discovery of galvanism: the discovery that electricity can stimulate muscles contractions, even in dead animals.

When people label Shelley as the first science fiction writer, a lot depends on what you mean by science fiction.  If science fiction means fiction inspired by contemporary science, fiction that extrapolates from contemporary science to build its plot, then yes: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (published in 1818) is the earliest clear example of that.

But does that mean Shelley invented the whole science fiction genre?  I’m not so sure.  I don’t feel like Frankenstein is truly a genre-defining work.  I mean, I wouldn’t look at Dune or Star Trek and say, “Oh yes, this is just like Frankenstein!”

In 1926, Hugo Gernsback launched a new magazine called Amazing Stories.  In this editorial from the first issue of Amazing Stories, Gernsback explains that he wanted his new magazine to focus on “the scientific type of story” or “scientifiction,” as Gernsback wanted us to call it (not sure if that’s pronounced scienti-fiction or scientific-tion).

Gernsback defined scientifiction as “a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision,” and he cited Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe as the great luminaries of the genre. To quote from this paper published in Science-Fiction Studies:

While the importance of Hugo Gernsback in SF may be debated, critics of all schools can accept him as the first person to create and announce something resembling a history of SF.  Some critics before Gernsback discussed earlier works now seen as SF, but they did not treat SF as a separate category and did not distinguish its texts from other forms of non-mimetic fiction […]

If someone were to ask who invented science fiction, I don’t think I could give credit to just one person.  Mary Shelley wrote what we now recognize as the first science fiction novel; Hugo Gernsback was the first to identify science fiction as its own distinct genre.  Any origin story for science fiction would be incomplete without mentioning those two names, at least!

But there were many other writers writing science-inspired tales between 1818 and 1926.  Science fiction was not invented all at once; it grew and evolved slowly through the 19th and early 20th Centuries.  Which is a good thing for me!  It means we’ll have plenty more to talk about in future episodes of Origin Stories!

P.S.: Special thanks to @MaxN2100 over on Twitter for suggesting I do a series like Sciency Words, but with Sci-Fi concepts. Now you know the origin story of this Origin Stories series!

Will the Moon Become a Ploonet?

You may have heard that the Moon is slowly moving away from the Earth.  Following up on last week’s episode of Sciency Words, does this mean the Moon will one day become a ploonet: a moon that’s escaped its original orbit and become a planet in its own right?

Currently, the Moon is receding from the Earth at a rate of approximately 4 centimeters per year.  Simultaneously, and not by coincidence, Earth’s rotation rate is slowing down.  The exact reasons for this are, I admit, too math-heavy for my artistic/writerly brain to comprehend, but it has something to do with tidal forces and the exchange of angular momentum.

As explained in this article from Universe Today:

The same tidal forces that cause tides on Earth are slowing down Earth’s rotation bit by bit.  And the Moon is continuing to drift away a few centimeters a year to compensate.

And as further explained in this article from Futurism:

As is true of many rocky relationships, the Earth and Moon only need a bit of time and space to work things out.  Ultimately, we just need to be patient.  In about 50 billion years, the Moon will stop moving away from us and settle into a nice, stable orbit.

So in the very, very, very distant future, assuming the expansion of the Sun doesn’t destroy us first, Earth and the Moon will achieve a new balance.  Earth’s day will be considerably longer, and the Moon will be considerably farther away.  Also, just as the same side of the Moon always faces the Earth, the same side of Earth will always face the Moon.

But the Moon will still be a moon.  It will not become a ploonet.

Sciency Words: Ploonets

Sciency Words: (proper noun) a special series here on Planet Pailly focusing on the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  Today on Sciency Words, we’re talking about:

PLOONETS

If you’ve ever played Super Planet Crash (cool game, highly recommended, click here), then you know how difficult it is to maintain a stable orbit.  The planets just keep pulling each other this way and that.  It’s gravitational chaos!  Fortunately, Super Planet Crasher doesn’t include moons.  I imagine the game would be way harder if it did.

Recent research (click here) gives us a better idea of what happens to moons that get yanked out of their proper, moonly orbits.  According to computer simulations, many destabilized moons will crash into their planets.  A few will crash into the sun or be hurled out of the solar system entirely.  But a surprisingly large number—almost half of them—will settle into new orbits around their suns, becoming planets in their own right.

The scientists behind this research have proposed a new term for these runaway moons.  They want to call them “ploonets.”  And furthermore, they describe four different kinds of ploonet we might find out there.

  • Outer ploonet: a ploonet orbiting beyond the orbit of its original planet.
  • Inner ploonet: a ploonet orbiting inside the orbit of its original planet.
  • Crossing ploonet: a ploonet that crossed the orbit of its original planet.
  • Nearby ploonet: a ploonet that shares almost the same orbital path as its original planet.

We may even be able to confirm the existence of ploonets in the near future.  All we have to do it look toward so-called “hot Juipters”—Jupiter-like planets that have migrated dangerously close to their suns.  If those computer simulations are correct, hot Jupiters should have shed small, icy ploonets all over the place during their migratory journeys.

I think we can all agree ploonet is an adorable word, but is this actually a useful term for astronomers and astrophysicists?  I’m not sure.  I guess it depends.  How important is it, do you think, to make a distinction between planets that were always planets and planets that used to be moons?

#IWSG: A Letter from Future Me

Welcome to the Insecure Writer’s Support Group!  If you’re a writer, and if you feel in anyway insecure about your writing life, click here to learn more about this awesome group!

Last month, I said I needed some time off. I was feeling kind of burned out on writing.  No, it was worse than that.  I was finding all sorts of problems in my manuscript.  Lots of little, annoying problems, and I felt overwhelmed.  I was angry with myself.  I felt deeply disappointed with myself.

So I took a break from my regular writing schedule.  And during that break, I got a surprise in the mail.  It came from… well, I guess you’ll see who it came from:

To J.S. Pailly, my dearest friend,

Hello, past me!  It is I, J.S. Pailly.  I’m you from the future!

I’m writing to let you know that in the future, everything will be okay.  Well, maybe not everything.  You won’t believe who’s President now (oh yes, it can get worse!).  But in your life and in your career, things will work out.

No, you’re not going to be the most famous writer in the world, and you certainly won’t be the wealthiest.  But you’ll do well enough to get by writing full time.  It’s a good life. It’s a good career.  You’ll be happy, which really is the most important thing.

Now I am not going to tell you how, exactly, you made it.  I won’t say what your big break will be.  I won’t tell you which of your books will sell well and which will flop. I don’t want to spoil the surprise!  And honestly, you’ll be better off not knowing in advance.  You’ll learn more that way.

But I do want to let you in on one secret to your future success.  This is perhaps the single most important thing your future self could tell you: stop worrying about the details!!!  You have a tendency to obsess over the little stuff.  Is it okay to end this sentence with an exclamation point?  Should that word be italicized?  Does this line of dialogue really need a dialogue tag?

You agonize over this stuff as if one semicolon will make or break your entire writing career.  It won’t.  Trust me.  I am you from the future, and I’m writing to let you know that none of the stuff you’re worried about right now will matter.  None of it!

Now get back to writing.  Your future depends on it.

Yours truly,
J.S. Pailly
(from the actual future!)

P.S.: Next time you go to that Chinese place (you know the one I mean), get the walnut chicken, not the beef and broccoli.  No, seriously.  This is important!

I’m not sure how seriously I should take this.  Here’s a picture of the actual letter, and, well… that does look like my handwriting.

But this can’t be real, can it?  Someone’s got to be playing a trick on me.  I don’t know. But one thing’s for sure: I will be having the walnut chicken for dinner tonight.

#IWSG: Write Because You Want To

Welcome to the Insecure Writer’s Support Group!  If you’re a writer, and if you feel in anyway insecure about your writing life, click here to learn more about this awesome group!

On this blog, I write about science. I’m a big believer in science and in science’s ability to make our lives better.  But I also believe in fairies.  There is, after all, a magical fairy person who flutters around me all the time.  She’s my muse, and it’s her job to put words into my head.

But recently, my muse put some very strange words in my head, words I would not have expected from her.  What did she say?  She told me I don’t have to keep doing this writing stuff if I don’t want to.

Here’s the thing: I’ve been very, very stressed out about writing these last few weeks.  Those of us who want to write professionally are told over and over again to treat writing like a job.  And that’s good advice.  You should treat writing like a job if you expect to ever make money off it.

But I have treated writing so much like a job that it’s stopped being fun.  It’s just part of my daily grind now.  That’s clearly not what my muse intended for me, nor is it what I intended for myself.

This post makes it sound like I’m about to quit writing. Don’t worry.  That’s not what’s happening.  But I do need to remember that writing is supposed to be fun, and I need to reconnect with the reason why I wanted to start writing in the first place.

To that end, I’ve decided to take a little break from blogging.  I’ve given myself an extra special project to work on this month, something that should get me back into the swing of things.  When we meet again for September’s I.S.W.G. post, I will (hopefully) be able to tell you more!

Sciency Words: Artemis

Sciency Words: (proper noun) a special series here on Planet Pailly focusing on the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  Today on Sciency Words, we’re talking about:

ARTEMIS

By 2024, America will return to the Moon.  That is the promise of NASA’s new Artemis Program. As far as I’m concerned, NASA could not have picked a better name for their next Moon mission.

In ancient mythology, Artemis was Apollo’s twin sister. So as a follow-up to the Apollo Program, Artemis is the logical choice.

And where Apollo (named for a Greek god) put the first man on the Moon, Artemis (named for a Greek goddess) promises to put the first woman on the Moon.  And furthermore, Artemis has a stronger claim to the Moon anyway; she was the goddess of the Moon, after all! Apollo was the god of the Sun.

But will the Artemis mission actually happen? Honestly, I doubt it. Why?  Well, I’m really, really sorry for this, but we’re going to have to talk about American politics.

Artemis is expected to cost $20 billion, minimum.  That’s roughly equivalent to NASA’s entire annual budget.  While that $20 billion price tag is not an immediate deal breaker (like the 90-Day Report was), it’s still an awful lot of money.

It’s up to the current administration to persuade Congress to pay for Artemis.  Why is Artemis a good idea?  Why does it have to happen by 2024?  Based on articles like this one, it sounds like Congress is skeptical yet persuadable.

Unfortunately, the current administration seems to be sending a lot of mixed messages about Artemis.  Most notably, at an event celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the original Moon Landing, the current President very publically chastised his own NASA administrator for wanting to return to the Moon.  It’s enough to make one wonder if Artemis is a real priority for this administration.

So I’m pretty pessimistic about the Artemis Program. I don’t think it will happen, at least not as it’s currently envisioned, and certain not on the current timetable. Don’t agree?  Please tell me why I’m wrong in the comments.  I would love to be wrong about this.

But whenever the United States does get around to returning to the Moon, I hope NASA keeps the Artemis name.  That really is the perfect name for the next Moon mission.

Space Girls

I’ve been feeling a bit discouraged lately.  I’ve gotten a little off track with writing these past few weeks, and I have a lot of catching up to do.  But I recently saw this short film, and it inspires me to keep going.

There are those who would say that science has taken all the magic out of life and all the magic out of the world.  I don’t see things that way, and clearly these intrepid young space adventurers don’t see things that way either.

Sciency Words: The 90-Day Report

Sciency Words: (proper noun) a special series here on Planet Pailly focusing on the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  Today on Sciency Words, we’re talking about:

THE 90-DAY REPORT

We recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Moon Landing. There’s been a lot of talk lately about the old Apollo Program, and also a lot of talk about the new Artemis Program, NASA’s next manned (and womanned) mission to the Moon.

But this is not a Sciency Words post about Artemis (I’m saving that for next week).  Instead, this is a post about the 90-Day Report and how it effectively killed NASA’s plans to return to the Moon in the 1990’s.  I think the story of the 90-Day Report provides some context for what may or may not happen with Artemis.

It was July 20, 1989—the 20th anniversary of the Moon Landing—when President George H.W. Bush announced America’s intention to return to the Moon and establish a permanent presence there.  This would be part of a strategy for America to push onward to Mars.  Following the President’s announcement, a special committee was formed to figure out how to make it all happen.  The committee’s findings were released in a document titled “Report on the 90-Day Study on Human Exploration of the Moon and Mars,” a.k.a. the 90-Day Report.

According to the 90-Day Report, NASA would need to build a huge amount of infrastructure in space.  If you’ve seen Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, that’s basically what the 90-Day Report described: giant space stations, a multitude of space shuttles taxiing equipment and personnel to Earth orbit, and enormous interplanetary space cruisers to transport astronauts to the Moon or Mars.

And how much would this cost?  The 90-Day Report conspicuously didn’t say, but the most commonly cited estimate was $450 billion.  To put that in some context, NASA’s budget at the time was just over $11 billion (according to Wikipedia, numbers not adjusted for inflation).  As Robert Zubrin explains in his book The Case for Mars:

It is doubtful that any kind of program could have survived that price tag. Given its long timelines and limited set of advertised accomplishments on the road to colonizing space, which did little to arouse the enthusiasm of the space-interested public, the 90-Day Report proposal certainly could not.  Unless that $450 billion number could be radically reduced, the [Space Exploration Initiative] was as good as dead, a fact made clear in the ensuing months and years as Congress proceeded to zero out every SEI appropriation bill that crossed its desks.

A lot of people ask why we haven’t returned to the Moon since the days of the Apollo Program.  The 90-Day Report is a prime example of why.  “Too many cooks in the kitchen,” as a dear friend of mine likes to say.  Where President Kennedy set a singular, clearly defined goal for the American space program, President Bush handed the space program over to a committee, which came up with a very complicated, very costly list of ideas, which Congress was unsurprisingly unwilling in paying for.

To be fair, at least one idea from the 90-Day Report did come to fruition.  We did get a giant space station.  But that only happened as a result of an international partnership, which is (in my opinion) a model for how all future space missions should be done.

So with the memory of the 90-Day report in mind, next week we’ll talk about the Artemis Program.