Sciency Words: Entropy

October 19, 2018

Welcome to another episode of Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we take a closer look at the defintions and etymologies of science or science-related terms so we can expand our scientific vocabularies together.  Today’s term is:

ENTROPY

This is not the first time I’ve written about entropy. In fact, entropy was the subject of my very first (sort of, see footnote) Sciency Words post way back in 2011.  I was still trying to figure out this science stuff back then, and I was also still trying to figure out this whole blogging thing. It’s a little embarrassing to look at that old post now, so I hope none of you will click this link to see it for yourselves.

Back in 2011, I defined entropy as disorder.  Specifically, I said:

Entropy: (noun) A measurement of the amount of disorder in a mechanical system.

This thing about disorder is a very common and rather superficial way of defining entropy.  I’ve since seen and heard the term defined in lots of different ways, some more or less appropriate depending on which scientific field you’re talking about.

My favorite definition today is:

Entropy: (noun) a measure of the amount of energy in a closed thermodynamic system that is no longer available to do work.

And according to the second law of thermodynamics, the total entropy of a closed system will always go up.  This is true whether you’re talking about a steam engine or a living organism or the entire universe.  In any closed system, entropy keeps going up.

When I wrote that original Sciency Words post on entropy back in 2011, it didn’t occur to me to look up the word’s etymology.  That’s a shame, because this turned out to be one of the easier etymologies I’ve researched. I kind of assumed entropy would have some long, convoluted history tracing back to ancient Greece.  I mean, the word looks like an ancient Greek word to me.

But no, the word entropy was coined as recently as 1865 by German physicist Rudolf Clausius, the same person who originally formulated the second law of thermodynamics.  According to Wiktionary.com, the word is formed by analogy with the word energy, which comes from two Greek root words meaning “in work” or “in the process of working.”  So entropy derived from two Greek words meaning “in transformation” or “in the process of transformation” (so at least I was on the right track thinking the word looked like Greek).

This has led me to think up yet another way to define entropy, a definition that I feel stays a little more true to that “in transformation” meaning that I suspect Clausius was going for.  Let me know what you think of it in the comments.

Entropy: (noun) the gradual but inevitable transformation of what is useful into what is useless.

Footnote: I actually wrote several blog posts before that titled Sciency Words, but those really weren’t the same, and I wouldn’t consider them part of the Sciency Words series.


Putting STEM into the Arts

October 17, 2018

I thought I was done talking about the whole STEM vs. STEAM debate, but then it occurred to me that there’s one point that nobody seemed to be talking about.  This debate is often framed in terms of how the arts can benefit STEM.  No one ever seems to mention how STEM can benefit the arts.

About a month ago, SpaceX announced that Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa will be going on a tourist trip around the Moon. Maezawa is an art collector, and he’s decided to take six to eight artists with him on a mission called “Dear Moon.”  According to the Dear Moon website, “A painter, musician, film director, fashion designer… Some of Earth’s greatest talents will board a spacecraft and be inspired in a way they never have been before.”

Art is meant to reflect the world we live in. Therefore artists have a responsibility to understand, as best they can, our increasingly scientific and increasingly technological world.  It sounds to me like Maezawa gets this.  But aside from seeking out new sources of inspiration, there are also craft-related reasons why artists might want to be exposed to sciency stuff.

As an artist, when you’re thinking about how light and shadow play off a three-dimensional form, you’re sort of thinking about physics. When you’re mixing paints, trying to make sure they’ll adhere to your canvass, or trying to make sure the colors won’t fade over time, you’re dabbling in chemistry.  And obviously when you’re drawing a figure study (nude or otherwise), knowing a little about anatomy and biology will help you a lot.

None of the art teachers I had in school, and none of the art tutors my parents hired for me outside of school, really made this clear to me.  As I said in my post on Friday, young me came to understand that the arts and sciences were totally different, unrelated things.  There was a long period of time in my life when I felt artistically stuck. I was unable to improve, and I didn’t understand why.

It wasn’t until I attended a seminar taught by James Gurney, the author and artist behind Dinotopia, that my art began to thrive again.  Why?  Because Mr. Gurney got me to start thinking scientifically about my art. I guess you could say he got me to stop thinking of myself as a left-brain-only kind of guy.

I can’t speak for every artist out there, but I know for me personally a more interdisciplinary approach to education would have done me a world of good.  And with that, I think I’ve said my peace about STEM and STEAM.  In my next post, I’ll move on to some other topic.

P.S.: While drawing that artist in space cartoon for today’s post, I thought of several reasons why painting in space like that would not work.  For one thing, I imagine those paints would do the whole freezing-and-boiling-at-the-same-time thing that other liquids tend to do in space.  If you can think of other challenges my artist/astronaut would have to deal with, please share in the comments!


Sciency Words: STEM vs. STEAM, Part Two

October 12, 2018

In last week’s episode of Sciency Words, I told you about STEAM education, a variation of STEM education, but with an A added to represent the arts.  There’s a passionate and sometimes vitriolic fight happening in the education world about this.  If I had to pick sides, I guess I’d be on team STEAM; but I hate picking sides in something like this because this whole STEM vs. STEAM fight amounts to what I like to call a “failure of language.”

What I mean by that is that the whole STEM vs. STEAM thing is all about words.  Words, words, words.  Nothing more.  Every time we invent a new word, we create a sort of mental box.  To define our new word, we put certain things in the box, and we keep other things out.  To some extent, we have to do this; otherwise, language wouldn’t work.

But when we start sorting concepts into different mental boxes, we may inadvertently start erecting mental barriers as well.  As a child growing up in the 80’s and 90’s, I never heard about STEM or STEAM.  Those terms hadn’t been invented yet.  Even so, young me came to understand that the arts and sciences were absolutely different from each other.  There were hard barriers between them.  I worry that an unintended consequence of STEM has been to make those kinds of barriers harder and taller, and I’d like to believe that STEAM might help break those barriers down.

As a matter of education policy and the allocation of grant money, maybe STEM is the more useful word to be using.  When we can take a bunch of big concepts (like science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, along with all the interdisciplinary challenges that come with those subjects) and put them together in the same mental box, we suddenly have the ability to communicate complex ideas in simple ways.  STEM education is important.  The fact that this term exists and we all more-or-less understand what it means is a huge success of language.

But what I’ve seen of this STEM vs. STEAM debate strikes me as a case study of how a success of language can start to look like a failure.  I can think of other examples as well. Any time we start insisting that things (or worse, people) belong in separate boxes, we’re allowing mere words to create real divisions, and we’re making the communication of ideas between the two sides more difficult.

This may not qualify as a scientific term, or even as a linguistics term, but it’s a term I’m using more and more in all the seemingly pointless arguments our society keeps getting into these days:

FAILURE OF LANGUAGE

Okay, I’m going to get off my philosophy of language soapbox.  Now it’s your turn.  What do you think of STEM, STEAM, and the ways language succeeds and/or fails us?


New Writing Rule: Add More Sci-Fi

October 8, 2018

I have a new writing rule.  This is a just-for-me kind of rule.  I’m not advocating that other people should do this; but in my own writing life, I’ve learned that if I’m working on a story and I’m not loving it, I probably need to add more Sci-Fi.

A while back, I had a story idea.  It started with a writing prompt from Fiction Can Be Fun.  It’s a very old writing prompt, apparently.  When I went looking for that prompt so I could link to it (I did eventually find it: click here), I discovered it was from November of 2017.  This story has been gestating in my brain for almost a full year!

Anyway, in the original story concept I had a brother and sister go out on an aurora chasing tour.  They get into an argument.  The brother sort of makes a fool of himself, and the sister has a dramatic and poignant revelation about the beauty of nature.

But you know what?  I wasn’t loving that story.  I never got very far with it.  So I followed my new writing rule and added more Sci-Fi.

Today I’m pleased to share with you part one of what I intend to be a three part series called “Dialogue with a Cyborg.”  Click here to start reading!

P.S.: A special thank you to David and Andrea for helping me with the final edits.


Sciency Words: STEM vs. STEAM, Part One

October 5, 2018

I don’t think I’ve ever done a two-part episode of Sciency Words before, but this turned out to be a more complicated and controversial topic than I originally expected.  I have some strong feelings about this, but for now I’ll keep those feelings to myself and endeavor to be fair to both sides of the debate over:

STEM vs. STEAM

Our story begins in the early 2000’s.  Studies were being published.  Important meetings were happening at the National Science Foundation.  There was a growing concern about the state of education in the United States.  Children were not learning what they needed to know in certain specific fields.  It seemed that a whole generation of young people would not be prepared for the high-tech job market of the future.

Thus, the concept of STEM education was born.  STEM, of course, is an acronym for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.  There’s been a strong push in recent years to get children excited about these subjects, to get them interested in pursuing STEM careers, and rightfully so.  Our world is changing, and children should be prepared for that.

But has this emphasis on STEM gotten out of hand? Has STEM led to a deemphasizing or even a devaluing of the arts?  Some worry that it has, and this has led to a new push to turn STEM into STEAM, with the A representing art.

The argument goes that the arts, or at least certain key aspects of the arts, are just as important in the high-tech world of tomorrow as the more traditional STEM fields.  As an example, think of a smartphone.  Think of the design team that figured out what the phone should look like, what it should feel like in your hand.  Think of the people who designed the user interface, with all those little icons that show you what your phone can do, and all those musical dings and beeps and whistles that let your phone tell you you got a text message, or that your download in complete, or that your battery is running low.  All those little niceties of design—it takes artists to do that.

But some people really are not happy about getting the arts mixed up with STEM.  Yes, the arts are important for a well-rounded education.  Yes, there’s a place for artists in the jobs market of the future.  But remember how our story began.  There was a growing concern that children were not getting the education they needed in certain specific fields. This was a crisis in the American education system, and the crisis is not over yet.  STEM education is only now starting to get the attention—and also the grant money—it so desperately needs.  We need to stay focused on the biggest problem areas in our education system.

Now I try to keep these blog posts fairly short.  I hope I did an okay job summarizing both sides of this issue, but if you think I left important points out, please feel free to yell at me in the comments below.  I’d especially love to hear from educators who may be on the front lines of this debate.

As for my own opinion… I guess if I had to choose sides, I’d be on team STEAM.  But I hate choosing sides in something like this.  From my perspective, more than anything else, this fight looks like a failure of language.  I’ll explain what I mean by that in part two.


IWSG: My Best Coping Mechanism

October 3, 2018

Today’s post is part of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group, a blog hop where insecure writers like myself can share our worries and offer advice and encouragement.  Click here to find out more about IWSG and see a list of participating blogs.

I don’t usually answer the optional IWSG question each month, but this month’s question sort of relates to what I wanted to write about anyway:

How do major life events affect your writing?  Has writing ever helped you through something?

I can answer these questions fairly easily, or at least I could until recently.

  • In 1993, I lost my father. Books helped me cope with that, especially Frank Herbert’s Dune.  This is the reason why I decided to become a writer.
  • In 2008, I discovered that my girlfriend, the only woman I’ve ever truly loved, was cheating on me. So I wrote a cheesy Sci-Fi love story, and that helped me cope.
  • For well over a decade now, I’ve worked in the news business. It’s a high stress job that often exposes me to some of the worst that humanity has to offer. So I’ve been writing a series of short stories and novellas about a journalist who travels through time. That helps me cope.

Throughout my life, writing has always been my best coping mechanism.  But there have been times when I’ve been too stressed, too traumatized, or too emotionally drained to write.  So what do you do when your best coping mechanism fails?

2018 has been an all-around troublesome year for me. Minor and major life events seem to keep piling up.  Witnessing a murder back in July was obviously the worst, but even before that happened I was struggling.  I spent much of this year dealing with financial problems, health concerns, and a work-related issue that took an agonizingly long time to resolve.

The latest crisis has been family drama.  I have a couple relatives who do not have the foggiest idea what’s wrong with me but who apparently know exactly what I should be doing to fix it.  Admittedly, this is not the worst thing that’s happened to me this year. But still, it is so irritating.

Through this whole pileup of problems, my writing has been inconsistent.  Some days, some weeks, I go into a writing frenzy unlike anything I’ve experienced in the past.  But other times, I feel so worn out that I can’t write anything at all. This is understandable, I think, but it’s also a problem because when I have so much stuff to cope with, I really need my #1 best coping mechanism to work.


Sciency Words: Alien

September 28, 2018

Welcome to another episode of Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we take a closer look at the defintions and etymologies of science or science-related terms so we can expand our scientific vocabularies together.  Today’s term is:

ALIEN

I recently added a new book to my personal reference library. It’s called Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction.  Flipping through this book has been an absolute joy, and I’ve learned that many of the words we commonly see in both science and science fiction have far more complicated origins than you might expect.

The First Planet Had the First Aliens

The notion that life might exist on other worlds has been around for a surprisingly long time.  The ancient Greek philosophers were philosophizing about it as far back as the 7th Century B.C.E.  The idea really came to the forefront, though, thanks to Galileo.

Once Galileo looked through his telescope and found that the Moon was covered in mountains and “seas,” and once he turned his attention to the planets and realized they too were worlds in their own right, it wasn’t such a huge leap of logic to supposed that people might be living on those other worlds.  But if we’re going to talk about these hypothetical people, what should we call them?

According to Brave New Words, the planet Mercury was the first to have its possible inhabitants named.  Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens was writing about the Mercurians as early as 1698.  The term Lunarians, referring to the inhabitants of the Moon, is first noted in 1708.  Other terms like this kept cropping up throughout the 18th and 19th Centuries: Saturnians in 1738, Neptunians in 1870, Martians in 1874….  But what about a generic term for any life-form that’s not from Earth?

An Alien by Any Other Name

The word alien is almost as old as the concept of extraterrestrial life, but that’s not what the word originally meant at all. “Alien” traces back to an ancient Latin word that meant something like “belonging to someone else,” according to Wiktionary.org.

The word came to English by way of French, with its meaning changing and expanding quite a bit along the way.  Alien can mean strange or exotic.  It can mean new and unexpected.  It can mean “from a foreign land.”  It can also mean out of place or unwelcome, and it can have other pejorative connotations as well.

But for our purposes, we’re primarily interested in the “creature from another planet” definition.  The oldest citation given in Brave New Words comes from British essayist Thomas Carlyle, who wrote in 1820: “I am like a being from another planet on this terrestrial ball, an alien, a pilgrim among its possessors.”

But this quotation is marked as being of historical interest, not as a proper example of the word’s sciency/science fictiony usage.  Mr. Carlyle is sort of fumbling for words here, I think, and the word alien still seems to have more to do with being foreign in general rather than extraterrestrial in particular.

Attack of the Bug-Eyed Monsters

So it’s not until the 1930’s, thanks in large part to the pulp Sci-Fi magazines of that era, that the word alien truly comes to mean a creature from some other world.  As Brave New Words shows us, it’s in the 30’s that we start reading about “intelligent aliens” who perform experiments using “many forms of apparatus,” or we hear about how “disgusting” it would be to “traffic with an alien form of life,” or how infuriating it is to think that a human being has become “a captive of the aliens.”

I don’t know about you, but to me that seems like a surprisingly recent development in the language.