Sciency Words: Kosmikophobia

December 2, 2016

Sciency Words MATH

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:


I stumbled upon this word while researching last week’s posts on asteroids (click here or here). Kosmikophobia is the fear of cosmic phenomena.

To be fair, there are cosmic phenomena to be genuinely concerned about, such as potential asteroid impacts, gamma ray bursts, or the kinds of solar storms that could trigger another Carrington Event.

But this is a phobia, meaning its an irrational or over-exaggerated fear. It’s one thing to one thing to worry that an asteroid might one day wipe out human civilization; it’s another to live in existential dread that it might happen at any moment.

Kosmikophoba can also cover totally irrational fears of auroras or eclipses or the phases of the Moon. Or if you’re excessively terrified of comets and planetary alignments because you believe they are bad omens… that could also be considered kosmikophobia.

There are just two things I’m not clear on: first, has anyone actually been diagnosed with kosmikophobia and received treatment for it? And second, why is it spelled with k’s rather than c’s.

Regarding the spelling, I’m guessing the k’s are supposed to be a more authentic transliteration of the original Greek spelling of cosmos. I just can’t find any etymology to back me up on that.

As for the first point, I know not all phobia-words are meant to be taken seriously. For example, hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia (the fear of long words) seems to have been made up as a joke.

Since I can’t find any case studies about patients suffering from kosmikophobia, I can’t be sure how seriously to take this condition. The only thing I can say for certain is that this is a real word. I found it in a real dictionary. And as a space enthusiast, I’m really glad I don’t have it.

Sciency Words: Agentic State

March 11, 2016

Sciency Words PHYS copy

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 all expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:


Hey, do you want to write a Sci-Fi/Fantasy story about mind control powers?

Mr05 Autonomous Writer

Yes, you do.

Mr05 Agentic Writer

Well, here’s a term—a real life psychology term—that you might want to incorporate into your story. Though I must warn you: this term has a disturbing history.

The agentic state is a state of mind. A person in the agentic state essentially surrenders their free will and acts as an “agent” of another person who is perceived to be in a position of authority.

A series of experiments in the 1960’s demonstrated how easily we humans will do as we’re told. I won’t describe these experiments in full (you can click here to find out more, if you want). The basic idea can be summed up with these questions:

  • Would you inflict pain on another human being because someone in a position of authority told you to?
  • Would you continue inflicting pain, even as your victim screams for you to stop, because an authority figure insisted it was necessary?
  • Would you torture a person to death because you believed that this authority figure would take responsibility if anything went wrong?

According to the experimental results, the answer to all three questions—for the majority of us, at least—is yes.

Why were these experiments conducted? Because of some very famous words. Words that come to us from a dark period in modern history. Words that I’m sure you’ve heard before: “I was just following orders.” It seems that those words and the mode of thinking they represent are deeply engrained in us all. Telepathic mind control powers hardly seem necessary.

Fortunately, this is not all there is to say concerning this line of psychological research. To quote Frank Herbert, “One cannot have a single thing without its opposite.” The opposite of the agentic state is called the autonomous state. Without delving too deeply into philosophical questions concerning free will, I think we can define the autonomous state as a state of mind where you are making your own decisions rather than allowing authority figures to make them for you. At the very least, you’re not blindly following orders that violate your own conscience.

I don’t know about you, but I find it somewhat reassuring to think that while we may be capable of entering one of these mental states, we are also capable of entering the other—provided we’re aware of what is happening to us.

Sciency Words: Alienist

February 12, 2016

Sciency Words MATH

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 all expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:


Not every word that gets added to the scientific lexicon stays in the scientific lexicon. We’ve previously studied the now defunct terms sciential and jiffy. So now let’s talk about alienist.

This word is not, as you may suppose, related to our modern understanding of extraterrestrial aliens, nor is it related to the “people from foreign countries” definition. At least not directly. Instead, alienist is traced back to a French word, aliéné, which is an adjective meaning insane.

Both English’s alien and French’s aliéné ultimately originate with the Latin word aliēnus, and both share a certain flavor of meaning: that of “otherness.”

In a sense, you could think of insanity as a state of the mind being “alienated” from the body. Or in a more pejorative sense, the mentally ill could be seen as being “alienated” from normal society.

So an alienist (or aliéniste in French) was a physician who treated the mentally ill, and alienism was the study of mental illness. It seems these terms remained in use until the mid-20th Century, by which point this entire field of science had rebranded itself as psychology.

Fb06 The Alien Alienist

At the beginning of today’s post, I said (or rather implied) that the word alienist has become defunct. That’s not entirely true. There’s a process called semantic narrowing whereby a word with a general meaning transforms into a word with a more specific meaning. Examples include:

  • Meat: originally meant food in general but now only means a specific kind of food.
  • Vest: originally meant clothing in general but now only describes one specific type of garment.
  • Wife: originally meant any female person but now refers only to female persons who are married.

The word alienist has undergone this process as well. Today, an alienist is a specific kind of psychologist who works in the criminal justice system. An alienist evaluates the mental competency of a defendant in a trial. (I guess you could say criminals are “alienated” from the law.)

Semantic narrowing is just one mechanism of linguistic change. In a distant Sci-Fi future, it might be interesting to see how a word like alienist continues to change and what new shades of meaning it might take on.