Sciency Words: Astro-Paleontology

December 8, 2017

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:


This may be a first for Sciency Words. Usually I discover new words to share with you during the normal course of my research, but this time I thought to myself, “astro-paleontology has got to be a thing by now,” and then went and found that it is.

Or at least it almost was. Back in the 1970’s, astronomer John Armitage wrote a paper titled “The Prospect of Astro-Palaeontology,” officially coining the term. And then it seems nobody followed up on the idea.

The word paleontology comes from several Greek roots and means the study (-logy) of that which existed (-onto-) in the past (paleo-). It think we’re all familiar with what this really means: digging up the fossilized remains of dinosaurs and other organisms that died long ago. By adding the Greek word for star into the mix (astro-), Armitage created a term for the search for and study of the fossilized remains of life on other worlds.

The blog Astro-Archeology did several posts about Armitage’s work. I recommend checking out all three of these posts:

To be honest, I don’t have a whole lot to add to what Astro-Archeology already wrote on this subject, except that the search for alien fossils on Mars is about to heat up.

None of our current Mars missions are equipped to search for life on the Red Planet, either living or dead. But NASA’s next rover, the Mars 2020 Rover, will be. Specifically, Mars 2020 will be designed to hunt for fossilized microorganisms.

So maybe the term astro-paleontology is due for a come-back.

P.S.: You may have noticed that John Armitage and Astro-Archeology spelled this term as astro-palaeontology and I’m spelling it as astro-paleontology, without the extra a. This is a British spelling vs. American spelling thing.

Sciency Words: Geologic Periods of Mars

November 3, 2017

One of the reasons I write this Sciency Words series is to introduce you to terms that I know (or at least suspect) we’ll be talking about in upcoming blog posts. Right now, I’m just getting started with my special mission to Mars series, so I think this is a good time to introduce you to not one but four interesting scientific terms.

Today, we’re looking at the four major periods of Mars’s geological history (based primarily on this article from ESA and this article from the Planetary Society).

PRE-NOACHIAN MARS (4.5 to 4.1 billion years ago)

This would have been the period when Mars, along with the rest of the Solar System, was still forming.

NOACHIAN MARS (4.1 to 3.7 billion years ago)

This period was characterized by heavy asteroid/comet bombardment, as well as plenty of volcanic activity. Most of the major surface features we see today formed during this time: the Tharsis Bulge, Valles Marineris, several of the prominent impact basins in the southern hemisphere, and also the vast northern lowlands—or would it have been the northern oceans? Also valley networks that formed during this time look suspiciously like river channels.

HESPERIAN MARS (3.7 to 3.0ish billion years ago)

Around 3.7 billion years ago, it seems asteroid and comet impacts on Mars died down, and volcanic activity kicked it up a notch. We also see a lot of surface features called “outflow channels” corresponding to this time, rather than the river-like valleys that appeared during the Noachian. These outflow channels may have been created by sudden and violent floods, which may have been caused by melting ice dams releasing lake water.

AMAZONIAN MARS (3.0ish billion years ago to today)

The Amazonian Period began when the northern lowlands, specifically a region called Amazonis Planitia, was “resurfaced,” covering up any impact craters or other surface features that may have been there before. Mars experts disagree about when this happened, but most estimates seem to be in the neighborhood of three billion years ago. Any obvious volcanic or geologic activity ceased during the Amazonian, and for the most part all of Mars’s water has either frozen solid or evaporated into space.

On Earth, if you want to talk about the age of the dinosaurs, what you’re really talking about is the Mesozoic Era, which is subdivided into the familiar Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous Periods. And so if you’re looking for dinosaur fossils, you need look for Mesozoic Era rocks.

At this point we only have a rough sketch of the geologic history of Mars. We don’t know enough to make the kinds of divisions and subdivisions that we’ve made for Earth. But if you want to go looking for Martian dinosaurs (by which I mean fossilized Martian life of any kind, even if its only microbial) then I can tell this much: look for Noachian and Hesperian aged rock formations. Those are the rocks that would have formed back when Mars still had oceans and lakes and rivers (or at least random, violent floods).

At least, landing near some Noachian and/or Hesperian rocks seems to be a high priority for NASA’s Mars 2020 rover.

Molecular Monday: Boron Isn’t Boring

October 2, 2017

Welcome back to another edition of Molecular Mondays, a special biweekly series here on Planet Pailly combining two of my least favorite things: chemistry and Mondays.

At some point long, long ago, I read a book about the periodic table of the elements. Chapter five was about boron, and what I remember learning was that boron is kind of useless. Certain boron-containing compounds are used in cleaning detergents, and while boron is not particularly toxic to humans, it’s deadly to insects, so it makes a good insecticide.

And that was basically it. Nothing more to know. Time to move on to chapter six: carbon.

So when the news came out that the Curiosity rover had detected boron on the surface of Mars, my initial reaction was “who cares?” But then I read more, and I soon realized that I’d been grossly under-informed about the fifth element from the periodic table.

First off, finding boron on Mars posed a real challenge. The Curiosity rover used an instrument called ChemCam, which basically zaps rock samples with a laser and performs a spectroscopic analysis on the resulting rock vapor.

According to this paper published in Geophysical Research Letters, scientists were looking for two spectral lines, both in the ultraviolet part of the spectrum, which are characteristic of boron: 249.75 nm and 249.84 nm. Annoyingly, iron also produces a spectral line at 249.96 nm, so ChemCam can only confirm boron’s presence in samples that have low iron content, which are hard to come by on Mars. Iron oxide is basically everywhere.

But despite this difficulty, boron was detected. Why should I or anyone else care? Because it was detected in veins of sedimentary rock, meaning that at some point long ago when Mars still had lakes and rivers and oceans of liquid water, boron must have been mixed into that water (likely in the form of borate, a compound of boron and oxygen).

Again, why should anyone care? Because some of the fragile molecules necessary for life decompose in open water, but borate can help stabilize those molecules, allowing them to combine to form RNA. Boron itself is not incorporated into our modern DNA, but its presence here on Earth may have helped life get started—and if boron was present on Mars, mixed into ancient Martian waters, it could have helped life get started there too.

Could have. We still don’t know for sure, but as I’ve hinted previously I am planning a little trip to Mars aboard my imaginary spaceship. Stay tuned. I’ll be sure to let you know if I find anything.

Sciency Words: Tardigrade

August 4, 2017

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:


Tardigrades, a.k.a. water bears… there’s just something lovable about them. They’re kind of cute for microorganisms (or kind of horrifying, depending on which picture you’re looking at). And they’re absurdly tough. They can survive almost anything. They can even survive in space.

There have been several experiments now where tardigrades were taken to low Earth orbit and exposed to the vacuum of space for prolonged periods of time. Most of them survived the experience. In the absence of food, water, or oxygen, tardigrades can enter a state of suspended animation, and their cells have the ability to repair their D.N.A. if it gets damaged by solar or cosmic radiation.

In fact tardigrades seem to be so well adapted to the hazards of space that it’s sometimes suggested (usually not by serious scientists) that these little guys might come from space.

German pastor and zoologist Johann August Ephraim Goeze is credited with discovering tardigrades in 1773. Goeze called them Kleiner Wasserbär, which is German for “little water bear,” because the way they walk on their eight pudgy, little legs reminded Goeze of the plodding movements of bears.

In 1777, Italian biologist/Catholic priest Lozzaro Spallanzani made further observations of these creatures. Spallanzani called them il Tardigrado, meaning “slow walker,” again because of the slow, plodding manner in which they walk. The English words tardy and tardiness are closely related, etymologically speaking.

Today we’ve retained both tardigrade and water bear as common names for these creatures. Apparently some people also call them moss piglets, which is just adorable. Over a thousand species of tardigrade have been identified, all classified under the phylum Tardigrada.

As for the question about where tardigrades came from—are they native to this planet, or did they immigrate to Earth from someplace else?—I can only say this: if tardigrades do have an extraterrestrial origin, they must have arrived on Earth a very, very long time ago. The oldest known tardigrade fossils date back to over 500 million years ago (meaning they may have been here since the Cambrian explosion).

Sciency Words: Biogenic (Alien Eyes on Earth, Part 5)

June 2, 2017

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:


A passing alien spacecraft has been observing our little, blue planet for two weeks now, and it’s time they reported their findings back to their homeworld. One word—one scientific term—will feature prominently in their report: biogenic.

Actually, it’ll be the word xygjaflubozux, but that roughly translates into English as biogenic. It’s an adjective meaning “generated by biological processes.”

It’s difficult to impossible to directly detect life forms on a distant planet, so instead good astro-scientists go looking for chemicals that may have biogenic origins.

In the case of Earth, the aliens report they’ve detected an alarming amount of oxygen in the atmosphere. Oxygen is such a highly reactive chemical that it’s hard to imagine how it could persist in a planet’s atmosphere over long periods of time, unless….

Then there’s methane (which we never talked about in this series… oops). The presence of methane is even harder to explain, because methane reacts so readily with oxygen. All that methane should oxidize away within fifty years, unless….

Could it be biogenic oxygen? Biogenic methane? What about some of the other strange chemicals in Earth’s atmosphere, like nitrous oxide? Could there be biological processes at work constantly replenishing these chemicals in Earth’s atmosphere? These questions will be debated among the alien scientific community for many standard cycles to come.

The only unambiguous evidence of life on Earth, from the aliens’ perspective, were those radio signals coming from the planet’s surface. In a sense, you might say these signals have a biological origin, though I doubt human astro-scientists would describe them as biogenic radio emissions. But maybe the word xugjaflubozux has a slightly broader flavor of meaning and could still apply (how should I know? I don’t speak alien!).

This is the final post for my “Alien Eyes on Earth” series. The aliens have to move on and explore other star systems, but something tells me they’ll be back.

Today’s post was inspired by a 1993 paper by Carl Sagan and others. Sagan and his colleagues wanted to know which of Earth’s features can be observed by a passing spacecraft and, perhaps more interestingly, which features cannot.

Alien Eyes on Earth, Part 4

June 1, 2017

Right now, as you read this, our world is being watched keenly and closely by a nearby alien spacecraft. So far the aliens have only observed circumstantial evidence of life: water, oxygen, and a mysterious light-absorbing chemical (chlorophyll). But the aliens are about to detect something that will prove conclusively not only that there’s life on Earth but that there is intelligent life.

Okay, the content of Earth’s radio broadcasts might not seem all that intelligent, but the existence of such broadcasts is clear, unambiguous evidence of a technologically advanced civilization of some kind.

First off, these radio signals are being affected by Earth’s ionosphere in a particularly telling way. During the day, the ionosphere becomes energized by solar radiation, effectively blocking the planet’s radio emissions from escaping into space. But at night, the ionosphere calms down and allows more radio signals through. Because the aliens detect most of the radio emissions from the night side rather than the day side, it would seem clear to them that the signals originate on the planet’s surface, rather than sources near or directly behind the planet.

Secondly, the radio emissions remain stable at constant frequencies over the course of many hours. Naturally occurring radio emissions would tend to drift significantly from one frequency to another over that time period. This strongly suggests an artificial source.

And thirdly, these signals exhibit “pulse-like amplitude modulation”—in other words, the signals appear to be modulated in such a way as to contain bits of information. I imagine this would present something of a double challenge for the aliens: first the technical challenge of decoding the signals, and then the linguistic challenge of interpreting our language—or rather, our many languages.

Whether or not the aliens could make any sense out of these radio signals, this sort of pulsed amplitude modulation is never observed with naturally occurring radio sources. The only reasonable hypothesis is that there is intelligent life on the planet’s surface.

Tomorrow, in the final post for this “Alien Eyes on Earth” series, the aliens will report their findings back to their home planet, and there’s one word—one particular scientific term—that will feature prominently in that report.

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Today’s post was inspired by a 1993 paper by Carl Sagan and others. Sagan and his colleagues wanted to know which of Earth’s features can be observed by a passing spacecraft and, perhaps more interestingly, which features cannot.

P.S.: Of course the aliens would pick up more than just pop music. They’d be able to hear our news, educational programming, personal cell phone calls, coded military transmissions, et cetera, et cetera… but something tells me that music in particular would draw their interest. The special combination of mathematics and aesthetics is, in my opinion, one of the strongest indicators of intelligent life.


Sciency Words: Photosynthesis (Alien Eyes on Earth, Part 3)

May 26, 2017

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:


This post is mainly for my extraterrestrial readers, especially you extraterrestrials who are observing Earth from a distance and are a little puzzled by what you’re seeing.

By now, you’re aware of Earth’s active water cycle, and you’ve observed an alarming amount of oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere. You may have also noticed there’s a strange chemical spread across Earth’s landmasses, a chemical that absorbs red light.

This chemical also absorbs blue light, but due to an atmospheric scattering effect, the blue absorption signature might not be easy for you to see. Also, there’s more of this hard-to-identify chemical in Earth’s oceans, but between the atmospheric scattering of blue light and water’s ability to absorb red, you probably can’t detect it.

I realize you aliens must be pretty advanced. I mean, you’ve developed interstellar travel, after all. Even so, I bet you’re struggling to identify this strange chemical substance. Let me help you out: it’s a weird, complicated molecule we humans call chlorophyll, and it’s used in a biochemical process we call photosynthesis.

Photosynthesis comes from two Greek words: photo, meaning light, and synthesis, meaning synthesis.

Here on Earth, photosynthetic life forms like plants, algae, and cyanobacteria use chlorophyll to absorb sunlight (specifically the red and blue wavelengths). This light energy is then used for a sort of carefully controlled photolysis of water and carbon dioxide molecules, which are then recombined to make carbohydrates.

Please note: there are alternative versions of photosynthesis here on Earth that do not require chlorophyll. It’s just that these alternatives aren’t very popular. Haven’t been for over two billion years. This despite the fact that chlorophyll-based photosynthesis produces an extremely hazardous byproduct: oxygen. But hey, at least now you know where Earth’s mysterious oxygen atmosphere comes from!

You probably have something like photosynthesis back on your home planet, but I imagine the details must be different. Some other chemical probably does the job chlorophyll does here on Earth. Whatever your planet’s photosynthetic chemical is, I bet we humans would have a really hard time identifying it… just as you guys were struggling to identify Earth’s chlorophyll.

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Today’s post was inspired by a 1993 paper by Carl Sagan and others. Sagan and his colleagues wanted to know which of Earth’s features can be observed by a passing spacecraft and, perhaps more interestingly, which features cannot.