Oops! I Learned Something Wrong About Io

Hello, friends!

As you may remember from a previous post, Io is my favorite moon in the Solar System.  He may not be the prettiest moon, and he certainly isn’t the most habitable.  I, for one, would never, ever, ever want to live there.  You see, Io is the most volcanically active object in the Solar System.  He is constantly—and I do mean constantly!—spewing up this mixture of molten hot sulfur compounds.  It gets everywhere, and it is totally gross.

But it’s also super fascinating—fascinating enough that Io ended up becoming my #1 favorite moon in the whole Solar System.  I’ve read a lot about Io over the years.  I thought I understood Io pretty well.  But I was wrong.  One of the facts in my personal collection of Io-related facts was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how Io’s volcanism works.  Let me explain:

Io is caught in this gravitational tug of war between his planet (Jupiter) and his fellow Galilean moons (Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto).  Jupiter’s gravity pulls one way; the moons pull another; Io is caught in the middle, feeling understandably queasy.  I always thought this gravitational tug-of-war was directly responsible for Io’s volcanic activity.  But it’s not.  Recently, while reading a book called Alien Oceans: The Search for Life in the Depths of Space, I realized that I had some unlearning to do.

The gravitational tug-of-war has forced Io into a highly elliptical (non-circular) orbit.  This means there are times when Io gets very close to Jupiter, and times when Io is much farther away.  When Io’s orbit brings him close to Jupiter, Jupiter’s gravity compresses Io’s crust.  And when Io moves father away, his crust gets a chance to relax.  This cycle of compressing and relaxing—of squeezing and unsqueezing—causes Io’s interior to get hot, which, in turn, keeps Io’s volcanoes erupting.

This squeezing and unsqueezing action wouldn’t happen if not for Io’s highly elliptical orbit, so the gravitational tug-of-war with Jupiter’s other moons is still partially responsible for Io’s volcanism.  But the tug-of-war is not the direct cause of Io’s volcanism, as I always assumed it to be.

I wanted to share all this with you today because some of you may have had the same misunderstanding about Io that I did.  Hopefully I’ve cleared that up for you!  But also, I think this is a good example of how the process of lifelong learning works.  If you’re a lifelong learner (as I am), you may have favorite topics that you think you know an awful lot about.  But there’s always more to learn, and sometimes learning more means unlearning a few things that you thought you already knew.

WANT TO LEARN MORE?

If you’re an Io fanatic like me, I highly recommend Alien Oceans: The Search for Life in the Depths of Space by Kevin Peter Hand.  The book is mainly about Europa and the other icy/watery moons of the outer Solar System, but there’s a surprising amount of information in there about Io, too.  Apparently, if it turns out that Europa really is home to alien life (as many suspect her to be), then Io may have played a crucial role in making that alien life possible.

Somewhere Over the Rainbow: The Discovery of Infrared Light

Hello, friends!

The way I see it, there are two kinds of people who call themselves skeptics.  There are skeptics who question everything because they genuinely want to learn more, and then there are skeptics who question everything that does not conform to their own particular worldview.

I was once sitting in a bar with a young woman who turned out to be that second type of skeptic.  The conversation turned to outer space (as conversations inevitably do when I’m around), and this young woman kept asking: “How could they possibly know that?”  And when I said I honestly didn’t know, she concluded: “I think scientists just make all this stuff up!”

So today, I’d like to start what I’m hoping will become a series of posts on this blog answering the question: “How could they possibly know that?”  And we’ll begin with the discovery of infrared light.

HOW DO THEY KNOW THAT?
INFRARED LIGHT

You may be surprised to learn that infrared light was discovered in the year 1800.  Sir William Herschel (the same Sir William Herschel who’d previously discovered the planet Uranus) was tinkering with his telescope, trying to find a safer way to observe the Sun.  He thought that, perhaps, different colored filters might do the trick.

So Herschel set up an experiment to measure the temperatures of different colors of light.  It was an elegantly simple experiment.  A ray of sunlight passed through a prism, and the rainbow of light that came out of the prism hit some thermometers.

Herschel found that the blue/violet side of the spectrum was associated with lower temperatures; the red/orange side was associated with higher temperatures.  This was not, actually, what Herschel had expected.  He’d thought temperatures would peak somewhere in the middle: in the yellow/green part of the spectrum.

Curious, Herschel decided to place a thermometer outside the visible spectrum, somewhere beyond red.  The dark area beyond red turned out to be hotter than any of the visible colors.

Herschel called this new, invisible kind of light “calorific rays,” from a Latin word meaning “heat.”  The word calorie comes from the same Latin root.  The term infrared light would not be introduced until many decades after Herschel’s death.

WANT TO LEARN MORE?

Of course you do, because you’re the first kind of skeptic I mentioned, not the second!  Here are some links, organized from “easiest and most accessible” at the top to “most technical” at the bottom.  Enjoy!

P.S.: The word infrared literally means “under red.”  So this blog post really should have been titled “Somewhere Under the Rainbow.”

Little Book of Secrets

Hello, friends!

So I recently saw a writing prompt on Fiction Can Be Fun.  It sounded like fun, so I decided to make some fiction based on it.

The prompt had to do with journals.  Specifically, the scenario involves somebody either losing a journal or finding a journal that belongs to somebody else.  My initial thought was what would happen if somebody found one of my journals, full of my weird Sci-Fi world building notes.  Then I thought of another idea that was even wackier than that.

I want to emphasize a few points: this story is 100% fiction.  Additionally, the fact that this story is set exactly twenty years ago today is pure coincidence, and I do not mean to make light of what happened exactly twenty years ago tomorrow.  And lastly, this story is not to be considered canon for the Tomorrow News Network universe.

LITTLE BOOK OF SECRETS

The Washington Monument stood tall and proud in the distance.  On the opposite end of the National Mall stood the Lincoln Memorial, less tall yet equally proud.  But neither the Washington nor the Lincoln would be included on this field trip.  Nor would the Air and Space Museum, nor the Natural History Museum, nor any of the other fun and exciting museums of the Smithsonian.  There wouldn’t even be a quick stop at Union Station to see all the trains.  The young man wandered away from the group, feeling morose about this trip to D.C.

That was the moment when the young man found, lying abandoned on a park bench, a travel-worn journal with the following words etched in gold on the cover:

Property of Talie Tappler
Reporter Extraordinaire
Tomorrow News Network

The young man picked up the journal, not entirely certain what he was meant to do with it or how he was going to return it to its rightful owner.  He thought perhaps there might be an address or phone number on the first page, but the instant he opened the journal the pages started flapping by impossibly fast—and there seemed to be an impossible number of pages, too—until they settled on a page marked with the current date: September 10, 2001.  There, scribbled in a loose and carefree handwriting, were the words: “interview with President Gore” with Gore’s name crossed out and replaced with “Bush” and a question mark.

Curious, the young man turned to the following day.  It just said “W.T.C., Pentagon” and “get lots of B-roll,” whatever that meant.  When the young man tried to flip forward to the day after, the pages started flipping ahead by themselves once more, as if propelled by a strong wind.  How many pages could there possibly be in this thin, little journal?  How many days—or years, rather—could they cover?  Many strange names and terms were penciled in for future dates: housing bubble, COVID-19, Thwaites Glacier, 99942 Apophis….  And further into the future: Galactic Inquisitor, Othniel’s Object, Reginald Zaphiro, Starship Virago….  The words “attack of the Planet Eaters” were surrounded by stars and hearts.  That was scheduled for a date in the mid-30th Century!

The young man snapped the journal shut, feeling confused and disoriented.

“Pailly?  Quit your lallygagging!  Let’s go!”

“Sorry, Mr. Chester!” the young man said, quickly stuffing the journal into his backpack.  He’d have to figure out what to do with the strange little book later.

Are Scientific Papers Worth Reading?

Hello, friends!

So over the course of the last few months, I’ve been learning about metascience.  I’ve been reading lots of metascientific articles and papers, and I’ve been watching a few metascientific lectures on YouTube.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with the concept, metascience is the scientific study of science itself, for the specific purpose of identifying fraud, correcting errors in the scientific process, and making science overall a more accurate and trustworthy thing.

Before I go any further with this topic, I think it’s extra important for you to understand who I am and what my perspective on science (and metascience) is.  I am not a scientist.  I have no professional or educational background in science.  What I am is a science fiction writer who wants to do his research so that science (as I portray it in my fiction) is accurate.  Well, somewhat accurate, or at least somewhat plausible.  At the very least, I want to make sure the science in my stories is not laughably implausible.

In order to do my research (as a science fiction writer), I have challenged myself to read peer-reviewed scientific papers.  I try to read at least one peer-reviewed paper each week.  As you can imagine, this is not easy.  These papers are packed full of jargon (some papers define their own jargon; most do not) and a whole lot of math (the kind of math where you see more of the Greek alphabet than Arabic numbers).

And now I learn, thanks to metascience, that the peer-review process is deeply flawed, and that science has way more problems than I ever realized.  There’s a lot of fraud going on, and also a lot of laziness and complacency, and scientists are not double checking each other’s work the way that they should.  That last problem—scientists not double checking each other’s work—is commonly known as the replication crisis.  It’s a problem which this article from Vox.com calls “an ongoing rot in the scientific process.”

No branch of science is immune to these problems, but I can take some solace in the fact that some branches of science seem to be more afflicted with problems than others.  Fields like medical science, computer science, and engineering (i.e.: the big money-maker sciences) are far more prone to fraud than fields like cosmology, astrophysics, or planetary science (i.e.: fields that I, as a science fiction writer, take the most interest in).  But still, as I said, no branch of science is immune.  Lazy and/or biased and/or unscrupulous researchers are everywhere.

And yet, despite some very valid concerns, I intend to keep reading these peer reviewed papers.  Why?  Because my alternative would be to get most of my science news and information from the popular press.  When it comes to science, the popular press has an annoying tendency to dumb things down, to gloss over boring (but important) details, and to hype up hypotheses that are the most likely to attract clicks and views but are the least likely to actually be true.  If I wrote my Sci-Fi based solely on what I read in the popular press, the science in my fiction would be laughably implausible.

I’d rather struggle through reading a peer-reviewed paper once a week.  Those papers may not be perfect, but reading them will get me much closer to the truth than relying on any other source of information currently available to me.

WANT TO LEARN MORE?

If you’d like to learn more about metascience and the replication crisis, I suggest checking out some of the links below.  These links are organized from “easiest and most accessible” at the top to “most technical” at the bottom.

#IWSG: No, Writing Cannot Wait, Actually

Hello, friends, and welcome to September’s meeting of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group.  If you’re a writer and if you’re feeling insecure about your writing life, then this is the support group for you!  Click here to learn more!

I keep track of how many words I write each week.  I’ve been doing this for years.  And so I can say, definitively, that in 2021 my writing productivity has been cut in half.

I know, I know.  Word counts are not the only things that matter.  But still, it’s distressing to see those numbers drop.  And I know exactly why it happened: I’ve been too distracted.  I’ve had a tough time staying focused on my creative work.  Certain real life problems keep popping up and demanding my attention.  Can I actually do anything about these problems?  No.  But they keep demanding my attention anyway.

It doesn’t help that certain people keep telling me how important these real life problems are.  It doesn’t help that people keep saying I should make decisions about this or that I should prioritize that.  Sure, my writing is important, these people keep saying, but they also keep saying that my writing can wait.  It doesn’t help that this “writing can wait” logic makes a certain kind of sense, even to me.

But this “writing can wait” mentality is leading me astray.  As I already said, I can’t actually do anything about the problems I currently have.  And even if that weren’t the case, even if I could do something, putting my writing on hold until all the problems in my life are solved will mean that I’ll never get any writing done again.

So my challenge now is to stop stressing over things that are beyond my control and to start listening to my muse again rather than those other people in my life.

A Brave New Blog

Hello, friends, and welcome back to Planet Pailly!  I’ve spent the last two or three weeks redesigning this website, and I’m pretty pleased with the results.  Today, I’d like to give you a brief tour of what’s changed.

Firstly, I’d like to draw your attention to the menu bar at the top of the page.  If you click on “About J.S. Pailly,” you’ll be taken to an article called “Three Things You Might Want to Know About J.S. Pailly.”  In the future, that article may be expanded to cover four things, or five things, or maybe even six things!  But three things seems like enough for now.

You’ll also notice that I’ve added a contact form, which you can also access from the menu bar at the top.  It was recently brought to my attention that I didn’t have any sort of contact form for people who needed to get in touch with me directly.  Now I do.

Over on the right hand side of the screen, you’ll see some new posters promoting my professional writing and illustration work.  Clicking on the Tomorrow News Network poster will currently take you straight to Amazon, where you can buy the first book of the Tomorrow News Network series.  That will eventually change.  The plan is for the T.N.N. poster to take you to the T.N.N. website, but I need to finish redesigning that website first.

Next, you’ll see a poster advertising the Planet Pailly store on RedBubble.  Clicking on that will take you to my store, where you can look at some of my art and buy prints, T-shirts, notebooks, etc.  I’ll be adding more art to my RedBubble store soon.

Oh, and the “Buy Me a Coffee” link is also there, for anybody who’s feeling a little generous.

I think that pretty much sums up the changes to this blog.  I hope you like it.  And now regular blogging shall resume.  I’ll have an Insecure Writer’s Support Group post on Wednesday, and then on Friday we’ll get back to talking about science and outer space.  See you soon, friends!

P.S.: For anybody who might be curious, my new WordPress theme is called “Penscratch 2.”

The Evolution of a Blog

Hello, friends!

Over the last few weeks, a debate has been taking place inside my head.  And the subject of that debate has been: what do I want to do with this blog?

Don’t worry, this blog isn’t going anywhere.  I’ve just felt for a while now that some changes need to be made.  And this weekend, I finally came to a decision about what, specifically, those changes ought to be.

First, I want to thank everybody for the feedback I got on my recent “Looking for Some Feedback” post.  That helped a lot!  The general consensus seems to be that the way I’ve been citing my sources (embedding hyperlinks in the body of my posts) is perfectly fine.  A few people offered suggestions, though, on how to make those hyperlinks stand out a bit better.  I may also start adding a “learn more” section to the bottom of some blog posts, when it feels appropriate.

Secondly, I’ve been a bit frustrated with some of the changes WordPress has made in the last few years.  I’ve had to find awkward workarounds to let me keep doing some of the things I do in my blog posts.  But over the weekend, I found a new theme that will (I hope) be a bit easier for me to work with.  Given past experience, though, I know that switching WordPress themes often involves a period of teething and troubleshooting.  Things might look a little weird for a while.  Sorry in advance.

And lastly… Sciency Words.  This was the hardest decision of all, but I think it’s time for me to discontinue Sciency Words as a regular series.  On the one hand, Sciency Words sort of embodies my whole approach to learning.  If you want to learn about a topic, start with the vocabulary.  Once you know the vocabulary, everything else will be so much easier to understand.

But writing Sciency Words requires a surprisingly hefty research load.  Tracking down the etymologies of scientific terms is hard!  Given the pressures and constraints I’m currently under, both in my creative life and in life more generally, I just can’t keep up with it.  I expect Sciency Words will still exist in some form here on Planet Pailly.  Maybe I’ll have a glossary page, or something like that.  But I can’t commit to doing a regular, weekly series like that anymore.

So my plan now is to take a week or two off from regular blogging.  That way I can switch themes and have time to fix all the problems that switching themes will surely cause.  Then I’ll be back to give you a tour of what’s changed, followed by more posts about science, outer space, and my personal journey as a Sci-Fi writer.

P.S.: I’m also working on a new and improved website for Tomorrow News Network.  Hopefully I’ll be able to tell you more about that when I come back, too.

Looking for Some Feedback…

Hello, friends!

Years back, I got a compliment that was the absolute best compliment I’ve ever received.  A close friend said to me: “You make me want to go learn stuff.”

Obviously I love science and space exploration best, but on a more fundamental level I love learning.  I love opening up my mind to find that the universe is a whole lot bigger and a whole lot more complicated than I could have possibly imagined it to be.

On this blog, I want to share some of the cool space and science stuff that I’ve learned.  I also want to make it easy for you to go learn more on your own, if you want to.  As a corollary to that, I also want to make it easy for you to fact check the things I say on this blog, because there’s way too much misinformation about science out there on the Internet, and I really, really, really don’t want to add to that problem if I can help it.

So it’s a little distressing to me when I get comments asking where I got my information from.  I’ve gotten a few such comments in the last month or so, which makes me think that I need to change up the way I cite my sources.  Currently, when I have a source I want to cite, I usually say something like “According to this paper” and make the words “this paper” a hyperlink to the paper in question.

That feels like a straightforward way to do it to me, but obviously that’s not working for everybody.  Would it be better if I did a sources cited section at the end of my posts?  Or is there something else I could do to make this clearer for readers (both regular readers and new people)?

Like I said before, I do not want to be responsible for spreading misinformation on the Internet.  But also, if you read something here on Planet Pailly and want to learn more, I want to make that as easy for you as possible.  Citing my sources clearly and easily addresses both of those concerns.  So how can I do that better?  Any and all feedback is welcome!

#IWSG: Taking the World Very Seriously

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

Once upon a time, a woman who takes the world very seriously told me that I ought to take the world very seriously too.  If I were to follow the example this woman set, then it seems that “taking the world very seriously” means sitting on the couch all day getting angry about whatever they’re saying on the news.

I’d rather not live like that, so instead I’m going to keep living my life “frivolously.”  For me, that means driving out to weird places in the middle of the night so I can see the stars.  It means reading lots of books about space, and watching lots of movies set in space, and sometimes it means annoying my friends with an endless stream of space facts.

For me, living frivolously also means going out on adventures: seeing strange new sights, eating strange new foods, and talking to strange new people.  Sometimes these strange new experiences turn out to be disasters.  Sometimes they don’t, and even the disasters can turn into fun stories later.

And speaking of stories, that brings me to the most important thing.  My allegedly frivolous lifestyle means that I am going to keep writing, writing, writing.  And I’m going to keep drawing as well.

Because the stuff they say on the news is not totally wrong.  There’s an awful lot of ugliness in the world right now.  But the correct response to all that ugliness is not, in my opinion, to sit there dwelling about it or yelling about it.  The correct response to ugliness is to make something beautiful.

It doesn’t matter what you make, specifically.  A poem or song.  A story.  A drawing or painting or sculpture.  It could even be a blog post.  Like I said, it doesn’t matter what it is, specifically, just so long as it’s beautiful.

Maybe all of that is frivolous.  So be it.  I’ll keep living my life frivolously.  How about you?

Sciency Words: The Replication Crisis

Hello, friends!  Welcome back to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we talk about new and interesting scientific terms so we can expand our scientific vocabularies together!  In this week’s episode of Sciency Words, we’re talking about:

THE REPLICATION CRISIS

There’s a quote that I hate which is frequently misattributed to Albert Einstein: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”  Why do I hate this quote?  First off, as a matter of historical record, Einstein never said this.  But more importantly, doing the same thing over and over again to see if anything different happens is a surprisingly good definition of science.

Or it least it should be, which brings us to this week’s Sciency Word: the replication crisis.  As this brief introductory article retells it, the replication crisis began with “a series of unhappy events” in 2011.  Certain “questionable research practices” were exposed, along with several cases of outright fraud.  I’m going to focus on just one very noteworthy example: the American Psychological Association published a paper titled “Feeling the Future,” which claimed to show statistically significant evidence that human beings have precognitive powers.

When other researchers tried to replicate the “Feeling the Future” experiments, they failed to find this statistically significant evidence.  However, according to this episode of Veritasium, the American Psychological Association had a policy at the time that they would not publish replication studies, and so they would not publish any of the research debunking the original “Feeling the Future” paper (I do not know if they still have that policy—I would hope that they do not).

The act of repeating experiments to see if anything different happens is a crucial part of how science works.  Or rather how it should work.  But this is not being done often enough, it seems.  And on those rare occasions when replication studies are performed (and published), a shocking number of high profile research turns out to be non-replicable.  This article from Vox.com sums up just how bad the replication crisis is:

One 2015 attempt to reproduce 100 psychology studies was able to replicate only 39 of them.  A big international effort in 2018 to reproduce prominent studies found that 14 of the 28 replicated, and an attempt to replicate studies from top journals Nature and Science found that 13 of the 21 results looked at could be reproduced.

That same Vox.com article calls the replication crisis “an ongoing rot in the scientific process.”

But as I’ve been trying to say in several of my recent posts, science is self-correcting.  With the introduction of metascience—the scientific study of science itself—there is some hope that the root causes of the replication crisis can be identified, and perhaps changes can be made to the way the scientific community operates.