Sciency Words: Abstract

May 19, 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:


Abstract is kind of an abstract word. It can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. Among those many meanings, “to abstract” as a verb can mean to take specific information and turn it into more generalized—or rather, more abstract knowledge.

I believe this specific to generalization idea is behind the usage of abstract in scientific papers (as well as other kinds of academic literature). An abstract is the first section of a scientific paper. It takes all the specific information presented in the paper and generalizes it into a one-paragraph summary.

Icarus, a prestigious journal of planetary science, advises authors to include three things in their abstracts:

  • The purpose of their research
  • The principle results of their research
  • The major (i.e., generalized) conclusions we might draw from the research

Icarus also says: “An abstract is often presented separately from the article, so it must be able to stand alone.”

Some of you may have wondered why I didn’t mention abstracts in my recent post on how to read a scientific paper. That was an oversight on my part, but there’s a reason for that oversight. I think of abstracts as sort of like the back covers of books. By that I mean I read abstracts to figure out which papers might be worth reading in full.

But once I’ve found a paper I want to read, I don’t pay much further attention to the abstract. Why? Because like the back covers of books, abstracts really aren’t part of the “story” scientific papers are trying to tell. Also, I’ve been warned that abstracts can be oversimplified or misleading.

I recently found this article published by the Indian Journal of Psychiatry. It’s titled “How to write a good abstract for a scientific publication or conference presentation.” In the abstract of this article on abstracts, it says:

Well, that’s what it should have said. What it actually says is this:

Abstracts of scientific papers are sometimes poorly written, often lack important information, and occasionally convey a biased picture.

The article goes on to offer guidance, especially for younger researchers, on how to improve their abstracts. “Misleading readers,” the paper warns in its conclusions section, “could harm the cause of science […].”

Personally, I don’t hold it against scientists if their abstracts aren’t the best. Condensing all your research into one paragraph can’t be easy. The lesson here for people like me who are trying to read this stuff is to take abstracts with a grain of salt—just like the back covers of books.

Okay, next week we’ll stop talking about scientific papers and instead go visit a strange planet. Easily the strangest planet in the Solar System, perhaps in the whole universe. I’m not sure if you’ve heard of it. It’s called Earth.

My First Scientific Paper

May 17, 2017

As a follow-up to yesterday’s post on how to read a scientific paper, I wanted to share the story of my first attempt to read such a paper myself. I was doing research in preparation for the 2015 Mission to the Solar System, and I’d found a paper titled “Thermal Stability of Volatiles in the North Polar Region of Mercury.”

I was under the impression this paper was sort of a big deal as far as Mercury exploration is concerned, so I felt I ought to read it. Previously I’d only read the abstracts of papers, and occasionally the conclusions. I’d never before tried to read a scientific paper in full.

It didn’t go well. Not at first. The paper was only four pages long, but it felt like forty and may as well have been four hundred. I was particularly confused by the usage of the word volatile, as in volatile chemicals. I thought I knew what that meant. Turned out I was wrong, and it took awhile for me to figure out what volatiles really are.

I must’ve read the paper straight through three or four times before something in my brain clicked. And then…

I got it! I actually got it! NASA had found water (a volatile) on Mercury! I’d already learned about this from another source, but the fact hit me with a new weight. Suddenly I not only knew about Mercury’s water, but I also knew where the water was located (frozen inside dark polar craters), why it hadn’t melted or sublimated away (at the poles, crater rims shield it from sunlight), and how NASA had found it (by bouncing radio waves off the ice sheets).

Maybe this will sound silly, but reading that “Thermal Stability” paper was a life-altering experience for me. I’ll never forget that moment of revelation when all that sciency stuff started making sense. For the first time, Mercury felt like a real place to me. For the first time, I “got” how NASA does what it does.

And most importantly, I learned that even though I’m just a science fiction writer and don’t have any kind of scientific degrees, I can still read and comprehend scientific publications. Which means I can bypass the unreliable science reporting I saw on T.V. or the Internet and go straight to the source for my scientific knowledge.

How to Read a Scientific Paper

May 16, 2017

You can’t trust science news, especially on the Internet. So a few years back, I started reading actual scientific papers. As a science fiction writer trying his best to do his research, I felt this had to be part of my world-building process.

I won’t lie to you. At first, this was difficult. Very difficult.

But reading scientific papers is a skill, and with patience and practice, it’s a skill anyone can learn. So if you want to go straight to the source for your scientific knowledge, here are a few tips that’ll make the reading process easier.

  • Begin at the End: Start by skipping straight to the conclusion (which is sometimes called the discussion). This may seem counterintuitive, but trust me: the rest of the paper will make a lot more sense if you know what it’s leading to.
  • Make a Vocab List: Next, skim the body of the paper searching for words you don’t understand. Write yourself a vocabulary list and go look up the definitions of your vocab words before trying to read the paper in full. (This, by the way, is where many of my Sciency Words posts come from).
  • Beware of Familiar-Seeming Words: Some words like metal or volatile have weird, alternative definitions in certain scientific fields. If you suspect an ordinary, innocent-looking word might not mean what it normally means, go ahead and add it to your vocab list. To find the definition you need, try googling something like “metal definition astronomy.”
  • Skip the Math: Don’t panic if you’re bad at math. Unless you’re an actual scientist doing actual scientific research, you can usually skip the math parts. For my purposes as a science fiction writer, I feel it’s enough to know something can be modeled with a mathematical formula; it’s typically not essential for me to know what that formula is.
  • Teach a Friend: When you’re done, try to explain what you’ve learned to a friend. You may need a really loyal, really patient friend for this, but trying to explain something in your own words is an effective way to solidify new knowledge in your brain.

Again, it takes practice to get good at reading these kinds of papers. The more you do it, the quicker it becomes and the more you’ll feel you comprehend.

Of course reading and understanding a scientific paper is one thing. Recognizing scientific fraud is another, so click here to check out my previous post on the kinds of red flags to watch out for.

And tune in tomorrow for the story of my first attempt to read a scientific paper and the moment of realization when all that scientific gobbledygook starting making sense.

Sciency Words: Kilogram (An A to Z Challenge Post)

April 13, 2017

Today’s post is a special A to Z Challenge edition of Sciency Words, an ongoing series here on Planet Pailly where we take a look at some interesting science or science related term so we can all expand our scientific vocabularies together. In today’s post, K is for:


We’ve already met the International Astronomy Union and the International Commission on Stratigraphy. There are lots of international science organizations like these, and a big part of their job is to set official definitions for scientific terms, so that the use of these terms doesn’t cause confusion in scientific discourse.

Today we’ll get to know the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, which is in charge of defining all the units of measurement for the metric system. Originally, all the metric system units were based on physical prototypes. So for example, there was a prototype meter stick. A meter was equal to however long that meter stick was, and all other meter sticks had to be cut to match the prototype.

And if something happened to the prototype meter stick, if it got shorter or longer somehow, then by definition the meter would get shorter or longer too. As you can imagine, this caused problems.

Over the years, the International Bureau of Weights and Measures has been redefining all the metric system units using universal constants like the speed of light or other fixed values like the triple point of water. They’ve been able to do this for every unit except one: the kilogram.

The kilogram is still based on a protoype: a cylinder of platinum/iridium alloy made in the late 1880’s.

Actually, most people call it Le Grand K because it’s located in France. On very, very rare occasions, Le Grand K is taken out of its high security vault and compared to other weights, which are then used to calibrate measuring instruments all around the world.

Unfortunately, it seems Le Grand K has lost a little weight. A very, very little amount of weight. Its total mass appears to have decreased by 0.05 milligrams. You’d need to be doing some extremely precise measurements before the change in Le Grand K’s mass would matter, but of course there are scientists and engineers out there who are doing those kinds of extremely precise measurements. Or at least they’re trying to.

But a fix for the kilogram may be on its way, using Planck’s constant and Einstein’s famous E = mc2 equation. Assuming the math checks out, the International Bureau of Weights and Measures might be able to retire Le Grand K by the end of 2018.

Next time on Sciency Words: A to Z, let’s get ready to librate!

Molecular Monday: What Color Are Atoms?

December 5, 2016

Molecular Mondays Header

Welcome to Molecular Monday! On the first Monday of the month, we take a closer look at the atoms and molecules that make up our physical universe. Today, we’re looking at:

CPK Coloring

When I first introduced this Molecular Monday series, I knew I’d be drawing a lot of atoms and molecules, but I wasn’t sure if there was a right way or a wrong way to draw them. For starters, I wasn’t even sure what colors I should use.

Atoms and molecules do not really have colors, in the sense that they’re too small for visible light to reflect off them. At one point, I wondered if I should color them based on their spectroscopic signatures, but that line of research got complicated really fast.

Eventually I discovered that chemists have a (mostly) standardized color-coding system for modeling the atoms in a molecule. It’s called CPK coloring, in honor of Robert Corey, Linus Pauling, and Walter Koltun. Apparently Corey and Pauling created this system in the 1950’s, and Koltun improved it by adding more colors in the 1960’s (improving things by adding more colors is basically what the 60’s were all about).

So following the CPK coloring scheme, hydrogen atoms are white, and oxygen atoms are red. (Example: water molecule, H2O.)


Nitrogen atoms are blue. (Example: molecular nitrogen, N2.)


Sulfur atoms are yellow. (Example: hydrogen sulfide molecule, H2S.)


And carbon atoms are either black or grey. I draw them in grey because otherwise you couldn’t see their little smiley faces. (Example: benzene molecule, C6H6.)


Personally, I think it would make more sense to switch the colors of oxygen and nitrogen. That way, water molecules would have blue in them, rather than bright red. But otherwise, CPK coloring is a pretty good system.

Typically green is assigned to either chlorine or fluorine, or sometimes both. Beyond that, modern chemists seem to have strayed from the original psychedelic system Koltun invented. I guess the rarer an element is, the less we worry about sticking to a standardized color code.

For my purposes, that hasn’t been a problem. Almost every molecule I write about on this blog is composed of carbon, hydrogen, and maybe oxygen and/or nitrogen. Occasionally sulfur gets into the mix, but that’s basically it.

For next month’s Molecular Monday post, I think we’ll continue looking at some of the other issues involved with drawing molecules. I settled on ball-and-stick models, but that’s not the only way to do things.

The EM Drive: Is It for Real?

November 29, 2016

This weekend, I read the recently published paper on NASA’s “impossible” EM drive. Or rather, I read about the “closed radio-frequency resonant cavity” designed and tested by Eagleworks Laboratories (which is part of NASA).

Basically, this closed radio-frequency thing is a box with radio waves bouncing around inside it. Because of the box’s unusual shape, the radio waves end up pushing more on one side of the box than the other, which generates thrust. Supposedly. Even though that violates conservation of momentum.

This post is a review of the paper itself, and nothing more, because I’ve found that responsible scientists and quack scientists often reveal themselves in the way they write their papers. And whatever else might be going on with this physics-defying new engine design, the paper does not appear to be quack science.

  • Experimental methods and equipment are documented in meticulous detail, and sections are included describing “force measurements procedures” and “force measurement uncertainty.”
  • The researchers appear to be presenting all of their data, or at least they don’t appear to be deliberately hiding anything. They also make a point of explaining the data analysis techniques they used.
  • There’s a lengthy section on potential sources of experimental error. The paper explains how each possible error was corrected, or it tells us why the researchers believe the error is not statistically significant. The important thing is that these possible experimental errors are acknowledged to the reader.

Now I’m not a scientist or an engineer, so I can’t personally evaluate the data being presented here. But the fact that the Eagleworks team share so much information and go into such extensive technical detail is a good sign (even though it makes for rather dull reading).

It means they’re not asking us to just take their word for it. Anyone with the necessary knowledge, resources, and technical skills could evaluate the data for themselves or attempt to recreate the experiment in order to independently verify the test results. And that’s how science is supposed to be done.

That does not necessarily mean the EM drive works. A paper like this should be seen as the opening of a conversation. The Eagleworks team discovered something. Something that seems to violate conservation of momentum, or perhaps undermines the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics.

Follow up papers will continue the conversation, most likely by investigating those possible sources of error the Eagleworks team mentioned, or by trying to find sources of error the Eagleworks team may have overlooked. And my guess is that the conversation will end at that point.

But if it turns out the EM drive really does work, if the test results can’t be explained away by an experimental error, then the conversation will move on to trying to figure out what’s wrong with our current understanding of the laws of physics.

Regardless of how this plays out, it’s always good to see real scientific discourse in action.

I Think You’ll Find It’s a Bit More Complicated Than That — A Book Review

August 29, 2016

Today I thought I’d try doing a book review. Not really my thing, but since I read a lot of sciency books anyway, why not blog about them? I’m going to start with a book called I Think You’ll Find It’s a Bit More Complicated Than That by Ben Goldacre.

I picked this book up based solely on the title. It expresses bluntly exactly how I feel about the portrayal of science in the popular press and in popular culture in general.

The book is actually a collection of articles, most of which originally appeared in the Guardian. Goldachre tackles news reports, advertisements, and quack scientists in an effort to show how scientific data get oversimplified or misinterpreted by the media and others. As a result, real science morphs into pseudoscience, and pseudoscience masquerades as real science.

A lot of the book seems to confirm a thought that I’ve had before (and written about before): be wary of purported scientists who won’t show their methods or data. Science is about sharing as much as possible, not protecting your secret recipes for cancer “cures” or whatever.

There was one common crime against science that I was not previously aware of: misleading press releases. Even reputable institutions conducting legitimate research have P.R. departments, and these P.R. departments will occasionally (or perhaps not so occasionally) overhype scientific discoveries in their press releases.

I intend to be far more skeptical of press releases in the future. I also intend to pick up more of Goldachre’s books: Bad Science and Bad Pharma. Even though these books are outside my primary field of interest (planetary science), I’ve come to believe that the best way to understand how science does work (or at least should work) is to examine science gone wrong.