Sciency Words: Critical Zone

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, in order to expand our scientific vocabularies together.  In today’s post, our Sciency Word is:

CRITICAL ZONE

So I could make this post about climate change, but I won’t.  Certain people would just get angry with me in the comments, and I’m not in the mood for that today.  So instead, I’m going to talk about Earth’s “critical zone” as something that could be relevant to astrobiological research.

Definition of Critical Zone: In Earth sciences, the critical zone is the surface and near surface environment of our planet—in other words, it’s the part of our planet where life lives.  The proper scientific study of Earth’s critical zone will require an interdisciplinary approach, combining geology, biology, hydrology, and other related fields.

Etymology of Critical Zone: The term was first introduced in 1998 by American sedimentary geologist Gail Ashley.  She called it the critical zone because, in her words, “it’s critical for life” and also because it is “critical to know more about it.”  (Source: see the Eos article in the links below.)

Here’s a fun fact that I like to share at parties: there are somewhere between four and five thousand different minerals found here on Earth.  Four to five thousand!  Other planets in our Solar System are known to have only a few hundred, at best.

Why is Earth so mineralogically diverse?  Plate tectonics, for one thing.  Liquid water plays an important role as well.  Some minerals can only form in the presence of liquid water.  But the biggest factor, by far, is life.  Living things do lots of weird chemistry, and all that weird chemistry messed with the planet’s soil and bedrock. Earth’s biosphere affects Earth’s geology.  And Earth’s geology, in turn, affects Earth’s biosphere.  There’s a synergistic relationship between living things and non-living rocks on this planet—and that is what the concept of Earth’s critical zone is all about.

I feel this is a terribly important concept to understand as it relates to Earth.  It’s also something worth bearing in mind as we think about other worlds out there, worlds which may or may not support life of their own.

WANT TO LEARN MORE?

I’m going to recommend this article from Eos, entitled “Critical Zone Science Comes of Age.”  I think that article is a pretty good summary of how critical zone research started and how it’s going, and it includes some quotes from Gail Ashley explaining what she was thinking about when she originally coined this term.

I’m also going to recommend this brief article entitled “‘Critical Zones’ on Mars and Across the Solar System,” which attempts to adapt the concept of the critical zone for other worlds.

And if you want to read more about why Earth is so mineralogically diverse, here’s a piece from EarthDate.org entitled “Minerals Evolve, Too.”

Sciency Words: Orthogenesis

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, in order to expand our scientific vocabularies together.  In today’s post, our Sciency Word is:

ORTHOGENESIS

Please be advised: orthogenesis is a discredited scientific hypothesis.  It has been for almost a century now.  That being said, the term has been coming up a lot in my research lately, and I do think there’s value in examining scientific hypotheses that didn’t make it, so to speak.  I think looking at a rejected scientific hypothesis, like orthogenesis, can give us a better appreciation for how the scientific method works.

Definition of Orthogenesis: In evolutionary biology, orthogenesis was the hypothesis that life evolves in a straight line progression, from simpler organisms to more complex forms.  Orthogenesis rather strongly implied that evolution is working toward some sort of predetermined end goal (i.e., intelligent life).

Etymology of Orthogenesis: The term was coined in 1893 by German zoologist Wilhelm Haacke, who was not convinced that natural selection alone adequately explained the evolution of complex life on Earth.  The word orthogenesis is derived from two Greek words meaning “straight” and “origin.”

When you think about the history of life on this planet, orthogenesis may seem to make sense.  Life started with just these simple microbes.  Then life “leveled up,” and we got more complex multicellular organisms.  And life kept “leveling up” after that to create fish and trees and dinosaurs and a surprising variety of crabs.  And then came humans, the most “leveled up” of all Earth’s creatures.

But as scientists learned more about genetics, and as they pieced together more of Earth’s fossil record, this straight line progression idea made less and less sense.  Evolution is a messy process.  It works in fits and starts.  It finds of-the-moment solutions without any regard for the future, leaving us with vestigial organs and other biologically inefficient stuff.  Increasing complexity is not necessarily advantageous; sometimes the simpler life forms survive while their more complex cousins go extinct.

By the mid-20th Century, orthogenesis had been soundly rejected by the scientific community.  Natural selection just made more sense in light of all the evidence scientists had accumulated since Wilhelm Haacke’s time.  However, while orthogenesis has not been considered good science for many decades now, certain orthogenetic ideas still linger in popular culture.  Whenever the mad scientist in a Sci-Fi movie starts ranting and raving about the “next phase of human evolution,” that’s orthogenetic talk.  Or when you hear dialogue about how one alien species is “more evolved” than another, that too is orthogenetic talk.

A lot of popular misconceptions about science seem to come from science fiction.  As a Sci-Fi writer myself, this is something I worry about.  “Evolutionary paths” and “evolutionary destiny” are such common tropes; it’s easy to write them into a story without realizing you’ve done it.  But I do not want to make these popular misconceptions about science worse, especially when it comes to a topic as controversial as evolution.

WANT TO LEARN MORE?

I’m going to recommend this article from tvtropes.org on “Goal-Oriented Evolution,” which does a good job summing up how Sci-Fi and other popular media keep getting evolution wrong.

I also highly recommend this research paper entitled “Fossil Horses, Orthogenesis, and Communicating Evolution in Museums,” because orthogenetic ideas don’t only linger on in Sci-Fi.  They’re an ongoing problem in museums, school textbooks, and other educational resources as well.

IWSG: Fear of Author Harassment

Hello, friends!  Welcome to this month’s meeting of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group, a blog hop created by Alex J. Cavanaugh and cohosted this month by Tara Tyler, Lisa Buie Collard, Loni Townsend, and Lee Lowery.  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!

Earlier this year, the Bookangel Club conducted a survey on author harassment.  The Insecure Writer’s Support Group posted an article reviewing the results of that survey (click here).  Those results were unsettling.  Depressing.  Given the kind of harassment authors report facing, both online and in real life, you may be left wondering if this whole writing thing is worth the trouble.

Now as a science blogger, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention something: the survey results are almost certainly skewed by selection bias.  This was an opt-in survey.  Authors who experienced harassment were probably more likely to opt-in to taking the survey then authors who’ve never dealt with harassment.  Therefore, we’re not looking at a truly random sampling of authors.

Still, what the Bookangel Club’s survey does show is that you don’t have to be particularly famous as an author before you risk attracting the wrong kind of attention.  As authors, we put our hearts and souls into our creative work, in the hope that others will read and enjoy what we’ve written.  Some people will take that for what it is; others will take it as an open invitation to say or do whatever they like to us.

In my own case, I write a blog about science.  So naturally, I attract the attention of Flat Earthers, Anti-Vaxxers, Moon Landing deniers, the One World Government conspiracy theorists, and so on.  I also get comments from religious zealots fighting against my “atheist lies” (I’m not an atheist, by the way).  These people can be… persistent, and when I don’t bow down to whatever “truth” they’re trying to spread, they can get mad.

These situations, thus far, have stayed on Twitter or in the comment sections of my blog posts.  They have not (yet) affected me beyond those online spaces.  I’m a pretty small-time author/blogger, and so the harassment I’ve faced has been proportionately mild.  But it’s not nothing, and that’s my point.  Even a small-time author/blogger like me has to deal with a surprising amount of unwanted attention.  And if my author platform starts to grow (as I hope it will), I fully expect the nonsense I have to deal with to grow as well.

Despite the selection bias issue I mentioned, I think every writer should read up about that Bookangel Club survey.  I think every writer should be aware of the risks we take when we put our creative work out there.  But I also want to tell you that, despite the risks, writing is still worth it.  Publishing is still worth it.  I have this blog, I’ve written a few articles for other websites, and I have a novella-length story published on Amazon.  Far more good has come from all this than bad.  In my experience, there are far more nice people on the Internet than there are Internet trolls.

Basically what I’m saying is this: you should know what you’re getting yourself into as a writer.  You should know what might happen.  But don’t let fear stop you from writing, publishing your work, and pursuing your dream.

Does Evolution Want You to “Become Crab”?

Hello, friends!

So as far back as the mid-to-late 1800’s, scientists noticed that crab-like animals were oddly commonplace.  It seems that, for one reason or another, evolution favors crab-like body structures over other crustacean body types.  Well, maybe “favors” is the wrong word.  I wouldn’t want to imply that evolution plays favorites or that evolution has any sort of intended outcome.  That would be misleading.

When I read articles in the popular press about carcinization (the surprisingly common process of evolving a crab-like body), I feel like there’s a fundamental misunderstanding at work, not just about carcinization itself but about evolution in general.  Evolution doesn’t “prefer” this and it certainly doesn’t “intend” that.  There is no end-goal to the evolutionary process.

Evolution works by trial and error.  Organisms have problems, problems like “how do I find food?” or “how do I avoid becoming food?”  Some organisms manage to solve these sorts of problems; others do not.  The ones who solve their problems get to live, and they have the opportunity to pass their genes on to the next generation; the others?  They do not get to do that.

There are a surprising number of crab-like animals out there.  That must mean that being a crab helps you solve certain problems.  It does not mean that you’re evolution’s favorite, that evolution “wants” to create more crab-like creatures like you, or that being a crab is some sort of evolutionary end-goal.

All that being said, I have to admit it’s hard to avoid anthropomorphizing the concept of evolution just a little bit.  I mean, look at the stuff I do on this blog.  I anthropomorphize everything from atoms and molecules to planets and stars.  I imbue all sorts of things with wants and needs and strange personality quirks.  It’s only natural for me to say evolution “wants” this or “prefers” that, and I totally understand why so many other science writers fall into a similar trap.

So I guess what I’m saying is this: whenever you hear people talk about evolution’s “preferences” or “intentions,” bear in mind that those words are really just shorthand for something else.

Sciency Words: Carcinization

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

CARCINIZATION

In time, we will all evolve into crabs.  Crabs are the ultimate life form, evolutionarily speaking.  At least that’s what certain Internet memes would have you believe.  But like most Internet memes, this whole “we will all become crabs” idea is an oversimplification of the truth.  Carcinization is a surprisingly common evolutionary process, but it doesn’t happen to all animals in all situations.

Definition of Carcinization: In evolutionary biology, carcinization is the process of evolving a crab-like body structure, especially a crab-like carapace (shell) with the pleon (tail) folded underneath the belly.  A surprising number of animals have evolved to have this body structure independently of one another.

Etymology of Carcinization: The term was coined in 1916 by English zoologist Lancelot Alexander Barradaile.  It uses a Greek root word meaning “crab.”  Although the term carcinization was coined in 1916, scientists had noticed the unusual prevalence of crab-like animals well before that.  Research on this phenomenon can be traced back to the mid-to-late 1800’s.

Carcinization seems to happen a lot in nature, but it does not happen to all animals equally.  It is far, far, far more likely to happen to an animal that already has a few crab-like characteristics.  For example, if you’re a lobster, a shrimp, or a prawn—in other words, if you’ve already got a bunch of legs and a pair of claws, and if you’re already living on the ocean floor—then there may be some real benefits to evolving even more crab-like characteristics.

It’s hypothesized that the compact body shape of a crab (compared to the more elongated shape of a lobster, for example) may make it easier to defend yourself against predators.  A lobster’s pleon (tail) is very exposed; crabs have their pleons neatly tucked beneath their bellies.  The compact body shape of a crab may also make it easier to scuttle about on the ocean floor, which could help crabs evade predators, and crabs may find it easier to fit into tight spaces as a way to hide from predators.

As a science fiction writer, I’ve long wanted to include some crab-like extraterrestrials in my Sci-Fi stories.  All those memes about crabs being the “ultimate life form” led me to believe this would be a good idea.  The actual science behind carcinization makes me think otherwise.  Carcinization certainly happens a lot with certain animals (i.e., crustaceans) living in certain environments (i.e., the ocean floor).  But it’s not a universal principle of evolution.

All that being said, I’m going to put some crab-like extraterrestrials in a story anyway, because I still think it’s still a fun idea.

WANT TO LEARN MORE?

Here are the research papers I have read or am in the process of reading on the topic of carcinization.  I will have more to say about carcinization later this week.

Sciency Words: Spiritual Bypassing

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we talk about the definitions and etymologies of scientific terms, in order to expand our scientific vocabularies together!  In today’s Sciency Words post, we’re talking about:

SPIRITUAL BYPASSING

I am, first and foremost, a science fiction writer.  That’s why most of the research I share on this blog is so heavily focused on outer space: because most of the stories I write are set in outer space.  But I do a fair amount of psychology research, too, because that helps me write more believable characters.

And right now, I am working on a character who has some personal problems.  He’s experiencing a “crisis of faith,” some might say, but in psychology terms, it may be more accurate to say he’s suffering from spiritual bypassing.

Definition of Spiritual Bypassing: Using spirituality to avoid dealing with your problems, rather than using spirituality to help you cope with your problems or overcome them.

Etymology of Spiritual Bypassing: The term was coined in the 1980’s by Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist John Woodward to describe a pattern of behavior he had observed regularly in his line of work.

I’m so spiritual that I don’t have any faults.  I’m so spiritual that I don’t have any weaknesses.  I’m so spiritual that I don’t need to “work on myself.”  I certainly don’t need to see a therapist.  All my pain and all my problems magically go away, by the grace of God or the Buddha or (insert the name of your favorite Higher Power here).  Any trauma in my past?  Through prayer and/or meditation, I’ve transcended that traumatic experience.  It no longer affects me.  I’m too spiritual to have P.T.S.D., depression, anxiety, or anything like that.

That attitude… that is spiritual bypassing.  It’s avoidance behavior.  It’s not about letting religious or spiritual practices help you grow or change; it’s about using religion and spirituality as an excuse to stay the same.  This may be an effective short term coping mechanism for some, but in the long run your problems (whatever they are, wherever they’re coming from) will catch up with you.

In real life, the line between healthy and unhealthy spirituality is not always so clear cut.  I suspect some people may see spiritual exercises and rituals as a quick fix for whatever emotional issues they may be struggling with.  But even people who live happy, long-term spiritual lives may, from time to time, fall into the trap of spiritual bypassing.  As John Woodward (the man who originally coined this term) described it, spiritual bypassing can be an “occupational hazard” for people who follow the spiritual path.

That is certainly the case for a certain character I’m working on—a person who, in the distant future, becomes an accidental and initially reluctant religious leader.

WANT TO LEARN MORE?
These are the articles and papers I read while researching this blog post:

Sciency Words: Volatility

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we talk about the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms and expand our scientific vocabularies together!  In today’s Sciency Words post, we’re talking about:

VOLATILITY

Wow, it’s been a while since I did a Sciency Words post.  I’ve really missed writing these things.  Once I decided I was ready to bring this series back to life, I knew right away that volatility was the first word I wanted to cover.  I cannot think of any scientific term that is more frequently misused and misunderstood.

Definition of Volatility: In chemistry, volatility refers to the tendency of a chemical substance to switch from a liquid or solid state to a gaseous state.  The faster a chemical will evaporate or sublimate under ordinary environmental conditions, the more volatile that chemical is said to be.  As examples, alcohol is a highly volatile liquid, and dry ice is a highly volatile solid.

Etymology of Volatility: Words like volatile, volatility, and volatilize trace back to a Latin word meaning “to fly away.”  So you could think of it this way: the individual atoms or molecules of a volatile chemical substance are prone to “flying away” as gas.

Rather strangely for a scientific term, there is no precise mathematical definition or formula for volatility.  It’s not something you can measure, per se, but vapor pressure and boiling points are closely related concepts.  You can measure those things.  If a chemical has a high vapor pressure and/or a low boiling point, you can safely call it a volatile chemical.

As a science fiction writer who does a lot of research about science, I come across the words volatile and volatility a lot.  Most science articles—even articles written for a general audience—do not spell out what these words mean in the context of chemistry.  This can lead to some confusion.

A volatile chemical is not necessarily a dangerous chemical.  In some cases, a chemical that is volatile might also be toxic, corrosive, flammable, or explosive—or it might not.  To say a chemical substance is “volatile” or “highly volatile” simply means that chemical is prone to evaporating or sublimating under fairly ordinary environmental conditions.  That’s all.

WANT TO LEARN MORE?
Click here for a short article from Chemicool Dictionary titled “Definition of Volatile.”
Or click here for a video from eHow titled “Volatile vs. Non-Volatile in Chemistry.”

#IWSG: Do the Write Thing

Hello, friends!  Welcome to this month’s meeting of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group, a blog hop created by Alex J. Cavanaugh and co-hosted this month by J Lenni Dorner, Janet Alcorn, PJ Colando, Jenni Enzor, and Diane Burton.  To learn more about this amazingly supportive group, click here!

One day, I told my muse what was happening in the news: all the bad stuff that had happened that day, and all the worse stuff that I feared was soon to come.  In response, my muse had only one thing to say: “Do the write thing.”

I tried to make my muse understand how frustrated I felt, how angry I’d become.  I tried explaining how fearful and helpless I was in the face of all these bad things happening in the world out there.  My muse nodded sagely as I talked; then finally, when I ran out of bitter words to say, my muse said again: “Do the write thing.”

She doesn’t understand, I thought, so I started up again.  I told my muse how there’s so much hatred and greed, so much war and disease.  The oppression is relentless, and at some point they (whoever “they” are this week) will even come after me!  How can I protect myself?  How can I protect others when the world is so cruel and heartless?

My muse was patient and kind as she looked me square in the eye, and she said again: “Do the write thing.  A well-told story can do more good than you think.  It can open a mind that was closed.  It can make people think, make them see from a new point of view.  A well-told story can inspire someone to do better, or it can give comfort to someone who needs comfort most.  At the very least, a story may give someone who’s suffering an escape—a brief respite—from all those troublesome things that keep happening in your human world.

“So the best thing you can do, both for yourself and for others, is set your fears and anxieties aside for a while, get your pen ready, and do the write thing.”

#IWSG: The Planets Make Me Write

Hello, friends!  Welcome to another meeting of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group, a monthly blog hop hosted by Alex J. Cavanaugh and co-hosted this month by SE White, Cathrina Constantine, Natalie Aguire, Joylene Nowell Butler, and Jacqui Murray.  To learn more about this amazingly supportive group, click here!

I read somewhere once that every writer has a “thing”—something that they’re desperately trying to say.  It’s something that’s hard to put into words, a feeling or an idea that defies the conventional use of language.  If this “thing” could be said in a simple and straightforward way, we writers would just say it and move on rather than spend the bulk of our lives writing.

What is that “thing” for me?  I wish I could tell you!  It would be so much easier if I could just tell you the “thing” that keeps poking at my mind, but of course I can’t.  All I can say is that my thing has something to do with the stars.  It has something to do with the slow and stately motion of the planets.  It has something to do with that feeling I get whenever I look up at the nighttime sky.

Is it curiosity?  A sense of wonder at the vastness of the cosmos?  I guess that’s part of it, but those words feel wholly inadequate.  Wonder and curiosity are nice, but there’s something more.  There’s so much more!  The planets and stars inspire something in me that simply must be said—something that must be put into words, no matter what—it must be!

But no words ever seem to express this “thing” well enough.  So I keep trying.  I keep writing, in the hope that maybe someday I’ll find a way to say the thing I don’t know how to say, and maybe somebody else will read my words and understand what I’m talking about.

So, friends, do you have a “thing” that you’re trying to say through your writing?  Care to give us a clue (if you can) about what your “thing” might be?

#IWSG: The Spice of Life

Hello, friends!  Welcome to this month’s meeting of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group, a blog hop created by Alex J. Cavanaugh and co-hosted this month by Kim Elliott, Melissa Maygrove, Chemist Ken, Lee Lowery, and Nancy Gideon.  To learn more about this amazingly supportive group, click here!

“Do one thing and do it well.”  I’ve heard this aphorism over and over again throughout my life, and there’s a certain common sense simplicity to it that I find appealing.  Whenever life gets complicated and I feel like I’m being pulled in too many directions at once, I really wish I could pick just one thing to do—I wish I could be permitted to focus all my time and energy on just one thing, without any distractions, so that I could have a chance to do that one thing exceptionally well.

Last month, I participated in the A to Z Challenge.  For anyone who doesn’t know, the A to Z Challenge is a month-long blogging event.  Participants post twenty-six blog posts, one for each successive letter of the alphabet.  All of my posts were about humanity’s future in outer space, or perhaps I should say humanity’s potential future in outer space.  Our species has so much potential!  But I do realize there’s no guarantee that we’ll live up to our potential, though.

In order to ensure my success with the challenge, I canceled any other plans I’d made in the month of April.  I used up a bunch of vacation days at my job.  I made sure I got my taxes done super early this year.  I put a few of my other creative projects on hold, temporarily.  I engineered my whole schedule so that I would able to do just this one thing: blogging.  Did I do it well?  That’s a subjective thing, of course, but I feel that I did the best I possibly could on most of my posts.  And it felt good.

However, there came a point when I started to miss working on my other creative projects.  Being able to “do one thing and do it well” feels nice, but to really thrive, I need variety in my creative life.  My muse was kind enough to hold back on new ideas during the A to Z Challenge.  Now, however, there’s a backlog of ideas that my muse would like me to work on—and I am eager to get to work on those new ideas!

“Do one thing and do it well” can be good advice, for a short time.  When life gets complicated, sometimes we need to stop and have the simplicity of doing one and only one thing for a while.  But when I think about my lifelong goals, when I think about my own future as a writer/artist/blogger, there’s a different aphorism that I’d rather live by: “Variety is the spice of life.”