Mind Your P’s and Q’s

Welcome to story time here on Planet Pailly!  Today’s story was inspired by a recent conversation I had with a new friend, a conversation which I described in a previous blog post.

Mind Your P’s and Q’s

The whole class was staring at the teleportation chamber, cringing at the wisp of smoke rising from the chamber floor.  Cadet Keefer had just killed a gerbil.  Again.

Keefer’s face blanched as she realized what had happened. Suddenly she was mashing the reset button.  Reset!  Reset!  Reset!  But the whole teleportation system had locked up.  The controls were frozen on their last settings, with all the emergency lights on.

Professor Montgomery was coming over.  “What happened?”

“I… I can’t…” Keefer said, still frantically trying to get the teleporter to reverse.  The machine had disassembled that poor gerbal atom by atom, so Keefer just had to make the stupid contraption put the gerbal back together again.  Right?

“It must’ve been the Heisenberg unit,” Keefer said, or at least that was her best guess.  On the very first day of teleportation training, Professor Montgomery had said 90% of the teleportation accidents he’d seen were caused by Heisenberg commutation units.  They were finicky pieces of hardware.  You had to keep a close eye on them.  The quantum teleportation system needed to track the exact momentum and position of each and every atom in your body (or in this case, in that gerbil’s body), and that was impossible if the Heisenberg unit failed.

On the control board, the momentum and position were represented by the letters p and q.  And sure enough, right there in the middle of the status board, an error message read:

pq ≠ qp

“Looks like you’re right,” Professor Montgomery said, tapping his finger on that message.  “What have I told you about the Heisenberg unit?”

Keefer’s face was turning bright red with embarrassment. “Mind your p’s and q’s,” she recited.

“That’s right,” Montgomery said.  “You can take the test again in a month.  Until then, I don’t want you touching the teleporters.  I don’t want you anywhere near them.  Stick to the simulators until you knowyou can do it right.  Understood, cadet?”

“Understood, sir!”

What Kind of Writer Do I Want to Be?

Today’s post is about a personal revelation I recently had.  You see, I spend a lot of time researching for this blog, making sure I understand what I’m talking about, and doing my best to explain it all clearly and concisely.  And all this work, in theory, is supposed to benefit my science fiction writing.

But I don’t want to write hard Sci-Fi.  I used to think science fiction existed on a spectrum from hard science fiction, where everything is super scientifically accurate (and here’s a full chapter explaining the math to prove it), to soft science fiction, where everything’s basically space wizards and technobabble magic (lol, who cares if unobtainium crystals make sense?).

I’ve since discovered another way to think about science fiction, and I find that to be more useful.  But sometimes I’m still left wondering why am I doing all this extra work?  What’s it all for if I’m not trying to write hard Sci-Fi?

Recently, I was talking with a new friend, and somehow the conversation turned to quantum physics.  I swear I wasn’t the one who brought it up!  My friend had seen a video on YouTube, and I felt the need to disillusion him of the weird quantum mysticism he’d apparently been exposed to.  I was doing my best to explain what the Heisenberg uncertainty principle actually means, and I ended up digging into what I remembered about the math.

Mathematically speaking, the momentum of a quantum particle is represented by the variable p, its position by the variable q, and the relationship between p and q is often expressed as:

pq ≠ qp

I don’t have the math skills to explain how this non-equivalency equation works.  I think it has something to do with matrices.  My high school math teacher skipped that chapter. To this day, I still haven’t got a clue how a matrix works.  I just know it’s an important concept in quantum theory.

But by this point, my friend was staring at me with a sort of dumbstruck awe, and he said: “Wow, you really do understand this stuff!”

That brought me up short.

“No, not really,” I said, feeling slightly embarrassed. I couldn’t help but recollect the famous line attributed to Richard Feynman: If you think you understand quantum theory, you don’t understand quantum theory.

So I told my friend about this blog and about my writing, and how I use the research I do for my blog to flesh out the story worlds in my science fiction.  And then I said something that I don’t remember ever thinking before or being consciously aware of, but as soon as the words were out of my mouth I knew they were true: “I just want to make sure I know enough so that I don’t make a total fool of myself in my stories.”

And that’s it.  That’s the answer I needed.  I’m okay with stretching the truth if it suits my story.  I’m okay with leaving some scientific inaccuracies in there.  I just don’t want to make a mistake so glaringly obvious to my readers (some of whom know way more about science than I do) that it ruins the believability of my story world.

And now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to writing.  The fiction kind of writing, I mean.  And on Wednesday, we’ll have story time here on the blog.

Sciency Words: Oh Be A Fine Girl/Guy, Kiss Me!

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:


Our Sun is a main sequence star, meaning it fuses hydrogen into helium within its core.  The vast majority of stars in the universe are main sequence stars. They’re very important. Unfortunately, the classification system we use for these main sequence stars is a bit odd and not very easy to remember.

The biggest, hottest main sequence stars are called O-type stars.  The smallest and coldest are called M-type stars.  You’d be forgiven for thinking the stars in between are called N-type stars, but no.  Between the letters O and M, we get B, A, F, G, and K-type stars.

Apparently, at least according to Wikipedia, it didn’t start out this way.  Initially, all stars were classified under a different alphabetical system which, I presume, made more alphabetical sense.  But this seems to be yet another case of scientists naming things before those things are properly understood.

In the early 1910’s, Danish astronomer Ejnar Hertzsprung and American astronomer Henry Norris Russell put together what is now known as a Hertzsprung-Russell diagram.  This diagram revealed a close relationship between the color and brightness of most stars.  The color and brightness of these main sequence stars is also closely related to temperature and mass, respectively.

The old system no longer made much sense, but the alphabetical labels had been so widely used in scientific literature that it would have been difficult to get rid of them.  American astronomer Annie Jump Cannon is credited with fixing the problem: she rearranged the old lettering scheme to reflect our new knowledge about stars.  Henry Norris Russell then came up with a handy mnemonic device to help us remember the new system:

I have to admit I’ve always felt like this phrase is a bit pervy.  At least it’s a little more gender inclusive than it used to be (Russell’s original version was “Oh be a fine girl, kiss me,” because obviously astronomers are always male, and obviously males only want females to kiss them—but we’ve moved on from both of those assumptions since Russell’s time).

Still, as a mnemonic device, it works well enough. As I was reading this paper about the search for Earth-like planets, and how various types of main sequence stars might affect those planets, I found myself repeating the “Oh be a fine girl/guy, kiss me!” line quite a lot.  Not out loud, of course.  That would have gotten me slapped by somebody, I’m sure.

Where Are the Earthlings?

Have you ever looked up at the night sky and wondered if maybe, somewhere out there, someone might be looking back at you?  Well, I’m here to tell you the answer to that question is yes.  Or at least there are aliens out there who are trying very hard to find us.  I even have video evidence to prove it!

For us Earthlings, it’s pretty obvious that there’s life on this planet.  How could you possibly miss it?  But for aliens observing Earth from a distance—perhaps a very great distance—the most obvious biosignatures are frustratingly difficult to detect.

In the early 1990’s, Carl Sagan wrote a famous paper about this problem.  One of NASA’s own space probes, which was heading out to Jupiter, briefly turned all its instruments back on Earth.  Based on that data alone, without any prior knowledge about this planet, you could probably figure out there’s life on Earth. Probably.

This more recent paper published in The Astrophysical Journal follows up on Sagan’s work.  Assuming the aliens are smart (a big assumption, based on what the video evidence shows us), they should be looking for a planet with both an oxidizing gas AND a reducing gas in its atmosphere.

Oxidizing and reducing agents should react with each other relatively quickly, removing each other from the planet’s atmosphere.  So in order to have those two things coexisting long term, some exotic process (like biological activity) must be constantly replenishing them.

A spectroscopic analysis of Earth’s atmosphere would reveal a whole lot of the chemicals in our air, but not all of them. Apparently some spectral signatures are so strong they cover up others, which I think is an important thing to know.  But oxygen (an oxidizing gas) should still be detectable in the visible light part of the spectrum, and methane (a reducing gas) should show up in visible and infrared.

But still, it sounds like difficult work, teasing the signatures of oxygen and methane out of all the other spectral signatures you’d get from Earth’s atmosphere.  This could be why the aliens are having such a hard time finding us, and also why we are having such a hard time finding them.

Where Are the Aliens?

I fell way behind on my science and space exploration research last year.  I now have a tall pile of to-be-read books and papers in my reading room.  But I’m now starting to catch up, beginning with this paper on the atmospheres of Earth-like planets.

As explained in this article from the Planetary Society, the goal of this paper is to start creating a guidebook for finding planets that might be home to alien life.  And based on what the paper says early on, it sounds like there are plenty of “habitable Earth-like planets” out there to be found!

If we’re looking only at red dwarf stars, which are the smallest and most common of stars, about 30% of them should have a habitable Earth-like planet orbiting them.  And between 5 and 20% of orange, yellow, and yellow-white dwarf stars should have habitable Earth-like planets too.  Our own Sun, by the way, is a yellow dwarf star.

Statistically speaking, this means we should find another Earth orbiting a red dwarf within only 2 parsecs of us.  And there should be another another Earth orbiting an orange, yellow, or yellow-white dwarf within 6 parsecs.  I feel like that’s surprisingly close, at least in the grand scheme of our universe.

Except when astronomers talk about Earth-like planets, what they’re actually describing does not necessarily sound much like Earth.  Any planet that’s about the same size and mass as Earth can be called Earth-like, and by that standard Venus is about as Earth-like as any planet can be, aside from Earth itself.

And when this paper talks about habitable Earth-like planets, I’m pretty sure all the authors mean are planets within the habitable zones of their parent stars.  But just because a planet orbits within a habitable zone does not mean that planet is truly habitable.  Again, look at Venus.

So when we do find a “habitable Earth-like planet” within 2 or 6 parsecs of us, how will we know we’re looking at another Earth and not another Venus?  That’s a tricky question.  Maybe it would help to think about the problem from a different perspective.  You see, while we humans are having a really difficult time finding alien life, the aliens may also be having a very difficult time finding us.

More on that in the next post!

Sciency Words: Karman Line

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:


If I may begin on a personal note, I spent most of 2018 essentially grounded by real life problems.  So for 2019, I’m dusting off the old imaginary spaceship, and I’m ready to launch myself back into outer space.  It seems I have a whole lot of space research I need to catch up on!  But first, where exactly is space?  How far away is it?

In the early 1960’s, Hungarian-American physicist Theodore von Kármán proposed an idea that has come to be known as the Karman line. Basically, the Karman line can be defined as the altitude where you need to stop thinking in terms of aerodynamics and start thinking in terms of orbital mechanics.

A traditional aircraft flying above the Karman line will no longer get enough lift to stay aloft, and a satellite or other space vehicle that dips below the Karman line will experience too much atmospheric drag to maintain its orbit.  Technically speaking, there are still more layers of Earth’s atmosphere above that line, but still this seems like a sensible enough place to define the beginning of outer space.

So how high up is the Karman line?  According to the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (F.A.I.), which is sort of like the Guinness Book of World Records specifically for air and space flight, the Karman line is 100 km above sea level.  This is the value that seems to be most commonly accepted around the world, but it is not the value accepted by one noteworthy space agency: NASA.

According to NASA, space begins 50 miles above sea level. This 50 miles number is not merely a result of America’s famous disdain for the metric system.  As explained in this paper from Acta Astronautica, calculating the exact altitude where aircraft can no longer fly and satellites can no longer maintain their orbits has been a challenge for many decades; however, an estimate of 80 km (approximately 50 miles) may be closer to the real Karman line than the 100 km estimate set by the F.A.I.

A lot may depend on your spacecraft’s design, the parameters of your orbit, and solar activity, which causes Earth’s atmosphere to puff up slightly at times.  But to quote from that Acta Astronautica paper:

[…] elliptical orbits with perigees at 100 km can survive for long periods. In contrast, Earth satellites with perigees below 80 km are highly unlikely to complete their next orbit.

In other words, a satellite can safely dip below an altitude of 100 km, but if it gets as low as 80 km, that satellite is toast.

So when I climb back into my imaginary spaceship, how far up do I need to go to reach space?  50 miles?  100 km?  Or is there some other number I should be aiming for?

I’m still not sure.  But given the places I’m planning to go with my research in the coming year, maybe it doesn’t really matter.  Me and my imaginary spaceship will be flying well beyond the Karman line, wherever precisely that line is.

#IWSG: Rewriting Writing Rules

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!

Life is complicated.  Writing is even more complicated than that.  Maybe that’s why writing rules are so popular, because they make writing sound so much easier.  Just follow these simple rules and your writing will be good, guaranteed!

When I first started writing, I took these rules very seriously.  I used to agonize over my work.  Did I break a rule here?  What if I broke a rule there?  What should I do if two rules seem to contradict each other?

I actually had a notebook full of all the rules I’d read about or heard about.  There was a lot of stuff in that notebook.  But then my muse came along.  For those of you who haven’t met my muse before, she’s the little fairy person who hovers over my shoulder and nags me whenever I’m not writing.     For a while, my muse liked to tell me that writing rules are made to be broken.  Then she thought of a cleverer way to phrase it:

So it’s with some trepidation that I’ve decided to start the New Year by setting some new writing rules for myself. But really, these “rules” are more like lessons learned from bad writing experiences.  They’re meant to keep me from repeating the same mistakes that I’ve made over and over again in my writing life.

  • When a new idea pops into your head, stop everything and write it down, because good ideas don’t stick around in the brain for long.
  • Don’t talk about currently active writing projects with anyone, at least not until the editing phase, because you never really know what it is you’re writing until it’s finished.
  • Don’t try to fix every flaw you see (or think you see) in your work, because perfect writing is dull and the occasional flaw can provide its own unique charm.

Are these good writing rules?  Maybe.  If not, as my muse likes to say, I can always rewrite them! So what writing rules have you written—or rewritten—for yourself?

Early Holiday Break

On account of me being sick this weekend, I didn’t get much writing done, and I don’t have anything prepared to share with you this week.  Since I was planning to take a little time off for the holidays anyway, I figure I may as well start my break a little early.  So I’ll see you all in January!

Sciency Words: Cyborg

Welcome to another episode of 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 so we can expand our scientific vocabularies together.  Today’s term is:


In 1960, two American researchers named Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline were worried.  How could human beings ever hope to survive in the extreme conditions of outer space?  As they saw it, there were two solutions: we could either create artificial environments for ourselves, or we could alter our bodies to better suit the harsh realities of space.

That first option—creating artificial environments for ourselves in space—seemed utterly impractical to these two men. They equated it to fish inventing mobile fishbowls so they could leave the sea and go explore the land.

No, it would be far safer, easier, and cheaper (they reasoned) to reengineer the human body and mind through the use of technology, pharmaceuticals, and hypnosis.  So, first at a symposium on human space flight and then in this article for the journal Astronautics, Clynes and Kline described a “self-regulating machine-man system,” and they decided to call this hypothetical invention a cyborg.

The word is a portmanteau, combining the first three letters of the word “cybernetic” with the first three letters of the word “organism.” It’s actually Manfred Clynes who’s generally credited with coining the word.  Kline apparently liked the word well enough, but according to this article from The Atlantic, he expressed some concern that it sounded too much like the name of a town in Denmark.

Clynes and Kline seem to have had some rosily optimisitic notions about what our cyborgized future might have been like. Becoming cyborgs would not, in any way, diminish our humanity.  Rather, we would be elevated, both physically and spiritually, by all the new opportunities that would suddenly be available to us to go out and explore the universe.

With the benefit of historical hindsight, I think it’s easy to see at least one flaw in this idea.  The original question was how would human beings be able to survive in space?  Our options were the mobile fishbowl method or the total cybernetic reengineering of our bodies.

Well, since 1960, human beings have been to space quite a few times.  Our mobile fishbowls have their flaws, but they work well enough most of the time.  Replacing the human respiratory and digestive systems with technological alternatives (as Clynes and Kline suggested we’d need to do, among other things) does not sound like a safer, easier, or cheaper solution.  I mean, as difficult and expensive as it was to build the International Space Staion, that’s still probably easier and cheaper than doing the kind of surgery Clynes and Kline were talking about.

Maybe someday, that kind of cybernetic augmentation will become a reality.  But we’ll have to learn a whole lot more about how our bodies work first.  At least that’s how I see it.

P.S.: Clynes and Kline would have argued that cyborgs are still human, but better.  A superior form of human being, perhaps.  That is a position that the titular cyborg in my “Dialogue with a Cyborg” story would not agree with.

Dialogue with a Cyborg, Part 2

After much delay, and an embarrassing amount of procrastination, and one night of anxious editing and reediting, part two of “Dialogue with a Cyborg” is finally here!

For those of you who read my recent IWSG post, you know that I recently had a really exciting shiny new idea, and that this shiny new idea messed up my timetable for a preexisting project.  “Dialogue with a Cyborg” was that project that got messed up.

I still can’t say what this shiny new idea is, but I can tell you that part two of “Dialogue” is the first story to make use of it.  For me, this ended up being an experiment, a first test run to see if the new idea would play well with older material. Hopefully no one will even notice what changed between the first and second installments of this story.

So without further ado, please click here for the continuation of “Dialogue with a Cyborg.”  Or if you haven’t read part one, please click here.